Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Peter Jennings
18 May 1999

King Abdullah of Jordan visited President Clinton, US lawmakers and other experts and officials shortly after Ehud Barak was elected as prime minister of Israel, representing a sea change in that country's direction. While in Washington, the King granted an exclusive interview to ABC News' Peter Jennings. Parts of the interview were aired on World News Tonight and Good Morning America.

ABC: Let me start with something simple. What difference will the Israeli election make?

King Abdullah: Oh, I think there will be a great difference. I think the prime minister-elect's landslide victory means that there is a commitment by the people of Israel to move forward in the peace process.

ABC: And what does that mean?

King Abdullah: It means that I hope that the Palestinians and the Israelis will sit together. I hope that they will start from where they left off, which is the Wye Accord, and see if they can continue with the agreements to push the peace process forward.

ABC: It was no secret that Jordan would have preferred to have Mr. Barak rather than Mr. Netanyahu. Have you met him?

King Abdullah: I have met him.

ABC: Barak?

King Abdullah: All the three main candidates that were running. Mordechai, Barak, and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

ABC: What do you think of Barak?

King Abdullah: Barak is a soldier, and I had the honour of knowing many people in the Israeli Defence Forces before the passing of His Majesty. So I have a lot of friends there, and Barak himself impressed me a lot.

ABC: And why does he impress you and what is it about the fact that he was a soldier, in your view, that will make him a good Prime Minister?

King Abdullah:I liked him because he is somebody I felt I could trust. I think he spoke from his heart. The government of Israel, the upcoming government of Israel is a government of soldiers and is a people that I can talk to. We speak the same language. I think that the new political face of Israel will be up to the challenge and willing to "fight the good fight," the fight for peace, and both Prime Minister Ehud Barak and myself have some great legacies to live up to: His Late Majesty King Hussein and Prime Minister Rabin.

ABC: Is the relationship between Jordan and Israel such, now, that it would be important for you to go there and congratulate him?

King Abdullah: I think that we have a good relationship with Israel. I have a good relationship with the prime minister-elect. I don't think there is a necessity for me to go there to reaffirm our friendship but I am sure in the near future, when things settle down and the new government takes its place, that we will have many exchanges between both of our countries.

ABC: So the idea in 1999 or at the end of the century, of Jordanian and Israeli leaders going back and forth between one another's countries is now a commonplace affair?

King Abdullah: Well, I hope it is Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli leaders going back and forth. That's what we want.

ABC: Is there a danger the Palestinians will be disappointed if things don't move quickly?

King Abdullah: I think that we have to be aware that there is such euphoria going on in our part of the world due to a new face in Israel, that…if nothing happens in the next five or six months, there will be an extreme backlash of frustration. So I hope that everybody focuses on what needs to be done and moves ahead.

ABC: You actually said, once, that everything could be settled inside a month. You didn't really mean that, did you?

King Abdullah: They asked me, and I said if people sat around a table and talked to each other, and put their differences aside, there was no time limit, I mean, things could be done within a month.

ABC: It's not possible in the Middle East today, is it?

King Abdullah:Well, if you can get people to sit together and I think realise the importance of what we need to do to insure stability and a bright future for our children, I think it can be done. So it is just the commitment, the [Interruption for noise.]

ABC: There is a lot of attention being paid to the fact that you and others, other leaders, are now part of a new generation of leaders in the Middle East. How significant a difference do you think that your age makes or are you invariably, to some extent, prisoners of your histories?

King Abdullah: Well, I'm 37 years old and 70 per cent of my country is younger than I, so I think that we are maybe more reflective of the attitudes of the younger generation and I think that it is going to be very, very important to take our countries into the next century.

ABC: What does that mean? That's, forgive me saying so, something of a generality.

King Abdullah: It means that our outlooks, our ideals, what we wish for a brighter future, might be a lot different than maybe the older generation, that are bound, as you said, by history.

ABC: So do you…does that imply that an older generation of Arab leadership might be weighed down by its enmity for Israel, by its antagonism for Israel?

King Abdullah: I think there is a lot of history, unfortunately, in the Arab-Israeli crisis, but, again, you know, there are a lot of very seasoned leaders out there that bring a lot of experience, and I think we, as the younger generation, should also give a lot of credit where credit is due.

ABC: Before I talk about Jordan, one other contemporary question. What is your thought about sending ground troops to Kosovo?

King Abdullah: I believe to see the situation in Kosovo through to the end is extremely important. It is important to NATO and it's important to the United States. This is a fight, the way we see it, between good and evil, and I think the whole of the international community is going to be watching to see how this thing unfolds. Are we going to allow the bad to overcome the good? And that is why we are committed, and although we are there now in a humanitarian presence ourselves, with the United Arab Emirates, I think that ground troops will probably have to be the final solution, unless, hopefully, there's a breakthrough miracle and the Serbs pull back out of Kosovo.

ABC: Now you watch the campaign as a political leader but you also watch it as a military man. Why do you think ground troops will ultimately be necessary?

King Abdullah: If the Serbs are going to continue in their doctrine and tactics, if you want to secure the area you are going to have to put an infantryman down on the ground at the final point.

ABC: Did Bill Clinton give you any indication that that's the direction the United States or the NATO alliance was going to go?

King Abdullah: The President said that he was fully committed to seeing the situation resolved, and I believe that he is very determined and very committed, but we didn't speak about any specifics.

ABC: Your Majesty, I spent part of the weekend in what is described as Middle America, or Heartland America, and a woman asked me a question about your country, that I'd like to ask you. She said, "Why does Jordan count?" What is the answer to that?

King Abdullah: Somebody said to me, several days ago, a very prominent American, that if there wasn't a Jordan we'd have to invent a Jordan. Jordan is a linchpin. Jordan is a fulcrum of stability, especially when we go into the future. If we are to be there to stand behind our Palestinian brothers, to reassure our friends in Israel that the peace process needs to be moved forward, if we are to be there to reassure the Syrians, again, that peace is the only option, Jordan has to be stable and has to be strong, because we are, I think, the impartial balance that supports the three countries.

ABC: Would this be the case were you not where you are, geographically?

King Abdullah: Probably, yes, if we had different neighbours.

ABC: So, so where Jordan sits, close by Syria, close by Israel, close by the Palestinians, close by Iraq, close by the Gulf, in your view makes you essential?

King Abdullah:It makes us essential but I think one must not forget that 50 years of His Late Majesty's rule had created a sense that Jordan is an essential part of stability in the area, and he brought common sense and hope, and I think that is what Jordan reflects to people around us.

ABC: Which poses an enormous challenge, of course, for you. If so much of past history hinges upon your late father's character, your own character has to be critical to Jordan's future development.

King Abdullah: Definitely….as I have said before, I am not His Majesty, but we know His Majesty's morals, his virtues, his outlook, what he wanted for his part of the world, and I hope that I have a bit of my father inside of me, but I think together, as a family, as a country, as I've already said, I think we can live up to his expectations and continue his message.

ABC: Would you venture a guess as to how much a role you and your character plays in Jordan's future development?

King Abdullah: I think if we are looking at the development of Jordan and the economy, I hope that whatever energies I show, is to try and encourage the people of Jordan, that we need to move forward, and we need to move forward with energy and with commitment and courage. I am a type of person that has very little patience. It may take me a while to decide on what to do, but once I've decided I want to move ahead, and on the economy, we need to move ahead and I want to move it as quickly as possible.

ABC: What do you think is the key to stability? It is sometimes argued that from your particular point of view, the army is the key to stability.

King Abdullah: I think the key to stability is a good, vibrant economy. I think when there is food on the table for Jordanians, that is the key to stability. When the Jordanian knows that he can bring up his family in an atmosphere of stability, love, calm, that is what keeps a country together.

ABC: And, and again, may I suggest, this is an eloquent way of putting it …the current situation, in terms of economic stability, is not terribly thrilling, is it?

King Abdullah: It's not, unfortunately.

ABC: So what do you do about that?

King Abdullah: Well, the government has to take a long hard look at itself and that's what it's been doing in the past month or two. We have to have some very vibrant, energetic programmes for government reforms, restructuring the economy, and we have some ideas on how to go about that. Obviously, we hope that the position of debt forgiveness for Jordan is taken very seriously because that gives us, really, a fighting chance to put our house in order.

ABC: And if there is no debt forgiveness or not enough?

King Abdullah: Well, I've been taught by my father, many, many years ago, if you get knocked down, get yourself back up again. So no matter what the challenges are, we need to keep moving forward.

ABC: How encouraged are you by what President Clinton said on the subject of debt forgiveness today?

King Abdullah: President Clinton has been outstanding, as has the administration and the American government. They've always been very supportive of Jordan, and we've seen in the past several years, again and again, the American people coming to our assistance, especially recently, with the loss of His Majesty. The support of the 300 million that we expect in the next several years is a commitment that we've gotten used to from our friends here in America.

ABC: It's an interesting phrase, "We've become accustomed to the generosity of Americans."

King Abdullah:Well, Americans, I think, traditionally, all over the world, are perceived as very generous, but I believe that the Americans realise the importance of Jordan. As we just said, stability is very important. There are many countries that may be in a slightly worse position, economically, than Jordan, but Jordan needs to be strong politically, if we are going to be able to stand by our neighbours and see them through this difficult process of the peace.

ABC: In the case of your debt forgiveness, you also have to depend on the Europeans. Do you think they are as generous as Americans?

King Abdullah: I think that the Europeans are very concerned with the way Jordan is, economically, and I think they will be doing the best they can to assist us in getting over this hurdle.

ABC: And do I assume correctly, you don't want to define "as best they can" at the moment?

King Abdullah: Well, no, we have some very strong commitments from the countries we already visited, which are Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada. We're still to see France and Italy, later on this month.

ABC: Your Majesty, your childhood was spent in democratic nations - Britain and the United States - and you live in a country which is not a pure democracy. How much democracy do you want for Jordan?

King Abdullah: Well, I think His Late Majesty started the procedure of democratic reforms, and we will continue to move in that direction. There's a lot that needs to be done. There's a lot of maturing that we have to go through but it's a process that His Late Majesty started, and we will continue to see it through.

ABC: Now tell me what you mean by all that.

King Abdullah: Well, I think as time goes on, there'll be…more freedoms on election process, the way the government does business, the relationship between the people and the government. Your country has been doing it for 200 years, and I think, every now and then, you are still adjusting. We've been at it for close to 15 years and I think we've covered a lot of ground in a very short period of time.

ABC: If I understand it correctly, you have just recently lifted the ban on censorship of the foreign press?

King Abdullah: Yes, sir.

ABC: Lift the ban on censorship in the local press?

King Abdullah: Yes. We are working with the government to try and do that as soon as we can. I think, really, to be quite honest, there are some technical issues that we need to work out. But I don't see any difficulties.

ABC: So you can imagine, within a year or so, that Jordan would have a completely free press?

King Abdullah: Well, with freedom, I believe an important integral part of freedom is responsibility and I want to make sure that if we have press freedoms, that also the press is responsible in the way that they report, and report about life, in general.

ABC: Isn't that slightly patronising?

King Abdullah: We have had some experiences in our country where certain departments of the press have been very, very negative in creating animosities between countries and I don't think that's positive. I think we have to bring ourselves above that. And I hope that by relaxing on freedoms that the press will have a more mature attitude in how it deals with its neighbours.

ABC: Can you imagine a time when Jordan is a completely and functioning democracy?

King Abdullah: I don't see why not. We've started a process, and I think that once you start the process it's difficult to turn back the clock.

ABC: And how long might that process take, just in your own mind?

King Abdullah: It depends on many factors. The most important is the peace with Israel, if there is a peace between Israel and the Palestinians. If the Syrians come on track and the rest of the Arab world, then there will be a sense of stability and freedom, and a new chance for our part of the world, and I think that it will be…I mean, the sky is the limit for what can be done on, on democracy and democratic reforms.

ABC: How do you stay in touch with the common man?

King Abdullah: It was a lot easier when I was a soldier. Three months ago, I spent most of my time with regular Jordanians, with my troops. I try as much as I can to get out of the office and if I can't spend time with the army, one of the ways of tackling some of the economic issues is tackling the government, as opposed to speaking down at the people from the capital, going out to the different governorates and sitting down with the people and seeing what the issues are and trying to solve them on the sport.

ABC: Even the army in Jordan is a reasonably protected environment. If you drove from the palace to downtown Amman, and you stopped at some of those small shopkeepers in Jebel Amman and you talked to the taxi drivers, do you think at this point in your life you would completely understand their economic challenges?

King Abdullah: Well, the army, I don't think is a protected society because it's a reflection or a mirror of its society. We have people in the army from all walks of life, and I think that was the secret of being in the army. I rubbed shoulders with everybody, and therefore I had maybe a more profound understanding of what the issues were to the common man than most people in government. And I think that Jordanian society, as you remember, Jordanians are very straightforward and will want to tell you exactly what they think.

ABC: At the same time, there are a lot of Jordanians who think that the royal environment on occasion is easily out of touch with the commons and with the problems of the common man.

King Abdullah: It's easy to get yourself into that cycle but my life wasn't spent like that. I do hope and pray that I never end up being out of touch.

ABC: On the subject of your life changing, you described your father, on more than one occasion, as first and foremost a teacher. What did he teach you that's most important to you now?

King Abdullah: He showed me his heart. Most people try to complicate their analysis of His Majesty and I think the important thing about my late father is that he didn't realise he was a king. And I think his humanity, his caring about people, that was the secret to my father. He didn't put himself above the law. He didn't put himself above other people, and that was a great example for us to be brought up with.

ABC: You had no training as a crown prince. What's the good thing about that and what's the bad thing?

King Abdullah: Well, I had no training as a crown prince but I don't think anybody has training as a king until they are standing in those shoes.

ABC: And is it at times a little intimidating?

King Abdullah: The burden can be very heavy at times but I need to stay focused on what needs to be done for the country. Looking at your life and saying that this is unfair or that this is too difficult was not the way that I was brought up. You have to square your shoulders and take life as it comes.

ABC: One of the reporters you've already met in Jordan said you were older, wiser, and perhaps a little wearier.

King Abdullah: You learn a lot. I see things …I see life a lot differently being in the position that I am in now. I am the father now of a nation,and that makes life appear a lot different than it did three or four months ago when I didn't have anywhere near that responsibility.

ABC: Give me one example.

King Abdullah: I think caring about doing the right thing, the desire to succeed and not to fail, not only yourself or my father, to an extent, but not failing your people. I think that is a great driving force that keeps me focused.

ABC: Do you have to be particularly ambitious now? Your history is that you were never ambitious to be king. The stories are that you and your wife and your queen never thought about this, never campaigned for this, never wanted this. Now do you have to be particularly ambitious to be successful?

King Abdullah: I think my destiny was God's will. I don't think anybody wants to be ambitious to be king. It's not a job that one reaches out for. God controls your lives and controlled mine, and this is the destiny that I have inherited. So I think that I have to look into my soul and listen to my heart, and that is what's going to guide me, I believe, in the future.

ABC: Your father always took a certain measure of pride in the fact that his soldiers treated him, at least on occasion, as another soldier, sometimes with great love, sometimes insulted him. But he took great pride in the fact that they treated him like a man. Are people treating you differently now?

King Abdullah: My soldiers are treating me as they've always treated me, and that's something I am very proud of. I have a very close connection to the soldiers of the Jordan Armed Forces, and now I think maybe for the first time the rest of Jordan is beginning to get to know me, and I hope that the same connection that I have with my men I will have with the rest of my country.

ABC: Is this tough on Her Majesty?

King Abdullah: It is because obviously our life has been turned upside down. But she has been unbelievably supportive of me. Obviously there have been many challenges in the past two or three months, and she's been nothing but great support for me and encouragement.

ABC: I want to come back to politics. In the 1989 elections, Jordan took quite a conservative turn. What is your model of a good relationship between the King of Jordan and the Islamic community in the country?

King Abdullah: Well, Islam is the foundation of our existence and of our family, and I think that moderate Islam, true Islam, is what we need to take the country forward in. It's an Islam that is forgiving, that is caring, and that wants an atmosphere of betterment for its people.

ABC: But you know infinitely better than I do that there are people in Jordan, not to mention elsewhere in the region, who believe in what one might even call a militant political Islam. How do you deal with that in Jordan?

King Abdullah: I think we try and deal with it through transparency. We have nothing to hide. I believe that everybody has a right to voice their opinion. But I think the essence of Jordan is a peaceful, stable country, and we need to move the country forward. And I think the consensus is that moderation is the name of the game.

ABC: Can you imagine Jordan moving in the direction of Saudi Arabia in terms of its official relationship with Islam?

King Abdullah: We were not created like that, and I believe that we have enough of our own identity that Jordan will remain as Jordan.

ABC: Iraq. You say that you see the suffering of the Iraqi people every day. What's to be done about Iraq?

King Abdullah: Well, I think that's the million-dollar question. We are extremely concerned on the humanitarian angle. As I heard you say, we've seen the suffering of the Iraqi people. I believe, as Jordanians do, that I think lifting of the sanctions to try and support a better life for the Iraqi man on the street is what we need to concentrate on.

ABC: So you would have the United States and the United Nations lift all the economic sanctions against Iraq?

King Abdullah: Well, I would like sanctions lifted in a way that it alleviates the plight of the Iraqi people, yes.

ABC: Millions of Americans and the administration would like Saddam Hussein to go, think it's essential to move the relationship forward. Do you agree with that? The United States would like to see Saddam Hussein go. Do you think it's important for Saddam Hussein to leave office before Iraq can have a new relationship with the rest of the world?

King Abdullah: I think you have this awkward situation that there is such overwhelming international position against Saddam that any move forward in Iraqi relationships with the international community is very difficult. I mean, you have this huge obstacle. But we, in Jordan, believe that you need to concentrate on the plight of the Iraqi people first.

ABC: But does that mean you do think he should go or shouldn't?

King Abdullah: That, I believe, is something that is left up to Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi people. I don't think that we are in a position to make a decision or pass judgment one way or another.

ABC: But you described your country earlier as a linchpin in the region, as an essential part and you are Iraq's nearest neighbour to the West. What can you do to make the relationship between the United States and Iraq a better one?

King Abdullah: Well, we have not been asked to…by either side to be a conduit for communications but I think that His Late Majesty believed that the essence of getting through to each other is talking, and if everything else fails, then maybe communication might be a way to go.

ABC: Do you talk to Saddam Hussein now?

King Abdullah: No, sir.

ABC: When you and the other young leaders of the Gulf sit around, guys your age--forgive me for being or seeming to be impertinent--what do you talk about?

King Abdullah: We talk about life. We talk about what we want for our families, our children. We talk about the hopes that our part of the world will finally see stability and peace. We talk of hopes and aspirations that we'll have the type of life that we've seen in other parts of the world.

ABC: You speak quite easily about the notion that being King has to do with destiny. Is it also exciting to know that maybe you can make a difference that you might not have been able to make had you not become King?

King Abdullah: I believe that whoever you are, you can make a difference. I have been given an opportunity to make what might be a great difference in my country. But all my life, when I had been in the armed forces, I felt that I could do good, that I could make a difference, that I could make a change in my country. So I don't think it's really the position. I believe it's what you believe in your heart.

ABC: I guess I want to know what you think is the most exciting thing in your life at the moment.

King Abdullah: The most exciting thing in my life is succeeding in this position, as we just said, to make a difference.

ABC: Now, talk to me a little bit about the Palestinians. Your father had both wonderful and horrible relations with the Palestinians. A very large portion of the Jordanian population is Palestinian. There have always been Palestinians who thought they could run the show in Jordan. Tell me as clearly as you can what you think your relationship is going to be like with them.

King Abdullah: Looking at my life, I've had nothing but a wonderful relationship with Palestinians, whether in Jordan or outside. My wife is Palestinian. Since I assumed this position after the passing away of my late father, I've had the opportunity to interact with President Arafat and his men, and I see nothing but optimistic signs. We've had a very good rapport. So I am very pleased about the relationship I have with them.

ABC: Can you imagine a confederation between Jordan and a Palestinian entity?

King Abdullah: Well, sir, I think the problem…confederation adds confusion at this particular stage. The core issue now is settling a peace between Israelis and Palestinians. And then whatever Palestinians and Jordanians want to do together for a new future is up to them. But I think we can't be distracted from being focused on the issues at hand, which is a final peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

ABC: And there is, always has been, and always will be Jerusalem. Your great-grandfather was assassinated in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was lost, or part of it, to the Israelis under your father's rule. What's your own view on the future of Jerusalem?

King Abdullah: Well, Jordan…Jerusalem is extremely important to me as a Hashemite, as a Muslim, as a Jordanian. And I believe that when we reach final-status discussions, then I hope that Jordan will have a voice on the future of Jerusalem.

ABC: Do you believe that Jerusalem should be, at least in part, the Palestinian capital as well as the capital of Israel?

King Abdullah:I think Jerusalem should be an open city, and I believe that Palestinians, Israelis, and Jordanians, together. Should have a voice in the future of that city.

ABC: And what do you mean by an open city in terms of precise rule?

King Abdullah: Well, open city for Christians, Jews, and Muslims to be able to live in harmony, and, again, a role, I believe, for the Palestinians to have a significant presence in the city of Jerusalem.

ABC: Are you - again, it's not a question I mean in any way to question your character at all. Are you in any way nervous that what you say and do now will alienate an incoming Israeli prime minister who may turn out to be different than you'd like him to be?

King Abdullah: My instincts tell me that I like the man, and we had a very good exchange. I hope and pray that I won't be surprised. I think that here are two soldiers that can communicate with each other, that know what is needed for the future, and I hope that the both of us with the Palestinians will be able to do the right thing.

ABC: Thank you, sir.

King Abdullah: Thank you.