Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Christiane Amanpour
02 May 1999

CNN: Nearly three months ago, Jordan's King Hussein died after a long battle with cancer. He had spent nearly half a century on the throne.

Amidst a lot of speculation, and some say palace intrigue, he had deposed his long-time crown prince, his brother Prince Hassan, and named his eldest son as successor and heir.

And now, in his first formal interview, King Abdullah of Jordan joins us. Thank you very much, Your Majesty, for joining us. What was the first moment that you realised that your destiny was going to be changed forever? That you were going to be the crown prince?

King Abdullah: I think it was when His Majesty arrived back to Jordan for that terrific welcome that he got. He stepped off the airplane. Obviously, I'd had the opportunity to see him beforehand, and he wanted to get me alone in London the week before to talk about some very important things. And we'd heard a lot of gossip, had a lot of people that had come to me to say that we heard great things from His Majesty and he was going to talk to you about some very serious issues.

But I felt that if His Majesty wanted to say something, it should come from him. So I tended to keep a low -- at arm's length. And when he stepped off the aircraft, walking down the receiving line, he pretty much ignored me. And that was my first sign. I knew my father and I knew that he was diverting the attention away from me. And that's when I think it struck me.

CNN: So you knew, by him ignoring you, that you were probably going to be named as crown prince, and then it took a full week until you actually were named.

King Abdullah: It took, I think, about another four or five days. My father finally invited me over to the house and sat down with me. And he said that, you know there's something very serious and I've been trying to talk to you for a while now, but this is history rewriting itself. This is something that's your right. This is something that you deserve. You've worked very hard. I've known you, I've watched you grow, and I want you to be crown prince. And I know that you'll live up to my expectations and that you will make the family and the country very proud.

CNN: Give us a sense of what was happening at that moment. Your father, King Hussein's health was deteriorating. That he wanted to what? Get his house in order? Tell us what happened then.

King Abdullah: Well, I was shocked to see how physically he had deteriorated in the three or four days since I'd seen him last. And even though I'd known that this request was coming from my father, it still took me by surprise for him to turn around and say, "I want you to be crown prince." I'd expected my life to be in the army to support my father, to be his right arm and shield. And for him to finally turn around and say, no, I want you to become prince, was still a shock.

But what was even more of a shock, I think, that day was to see that his health had declined so much. And -- but obviously, he said to me, you know, I'm not feeling very well and things do not look very bright for me. And so it was not only the responsibility of being crown prince, but down the line, the horrible thought in my mind that His Majesty would no longer be with us.

CNN: Did he stay an extra day? I mean, did the doctors tell him to go back immediately? Did he stay to make you Crown Prince?

King Abdullah: Well, we were all concerned about his health. And I said, please, you know if things are not looking good, get back to the States. And he said, no, I will not leave the country until I do what I need to do. I want to put my house in order. And even if I don't have the opportunity of going back to the States -- in other words, if I pass away doing this -- this is what I must do.

And obviously, you know he was my father at the end of the day, and I think he was a father to all of us. But none of us cared about what he wanted to do. We just wanted him to get back in the States and hopefully get cured. But he was very insistent, and I think it took another 48 hours for him to do what he wanted to do. And then eventually he left the country. But all the pleading from us and from his doctors, he wouldn't -- he stuck to his guns and wouldn't leave until he felt that he had cleared his conscience.

CNN: And by clearing his conscience, what happened? Why did he name you? There's so much speculation about palace intrigue, the letter that was made public basically accusing then Crown Prince Hassan of power grabbing and all of that. What happened?

King Abdullah: I think His Majesty just -- the most important thing to him was his legacy and that he is a descendant of a very prominent Hashemite family. And I think in his heart, the future of his family and the future of his country was paramount in his life. And what he said to me, he said that you know, I've come to this very difficult crossroad, but I think if there's going to be a future for the country, the future of that country will be in you.

CNN: But was it as simple as just wanting his son to continue the line? Or was there a reason he didn't want his brother?

King Abdullah: I believe that His Majesty had always said that the future of Jordan is in the hands of who he felt was the most capable at that given time. And when he gave me this awesome responsibility, basically he said that you are the man to be able to carry on my name and my legacy and all the dreams that I have for my family and my people.

CNN: What did you think of that letter being made public? I mean, you were close to your uncle. Did you think that was maybe hard for him?

King Abdullah: I'm very close to my uncle, and he was not only my uncle but he was like a big brother to me. And obviously, it must have been very, very difficult, but Prince Hassan is a proud man, a strong member of this family. And I know that he's been very supportive of me and His Late Majesty's decisions.

CNN: What has prepared you for what became a very sudden decision to make you king? What has prepared you to deal with all of these leaders and all of these wily old men that rule this part of the world?

King Abdullah: Well, firstly, I think my father prepared me. He -- my father was probably the best teacher I ever had. And I had the honour for many years, as far back as a teenager, to have travelled with him all over the world, to meet interesting leaders and see different countries. And I saw him at work. And over the years, he started sending me more and more on my own missions to either deliver a message or to improve relations with a certain country.

In the recent past, I've had the great pleasure of getting to know many of the younger generation of the leaders here in the Middle East, and we became very, very close friends. And in a way, it was easier for me to move around because I didn't have the title that would make official visits more in the spotlight.

I had an opportunity to go on holidays and spend time with my friends all over the Middle East and get to know them. And I think this has translated in the past couple of months into the support that we've gotten for Jordan.

When I go to these countries now, if not the leaders, their sons are my best friends. And I think that has been the secret of improved relationships with Jordan.

CNN: Your father's funeral was a one-of-a-kind, a historic gathering of world leaders who came not just to pay their respects but I think, to size you up as well.

CNN: Let's talk a little bit about politics. And I'm going to start first with Kosovo, because that's the big story worldwide right now. Do you -- does Jordan support the US and NATO's intervention against the Serbs in Yugoslavia?

King Abdullah: Yes, we do. The situation in Kosovo is of great concern to I think all Jordanians. Being Hashemite and a Muslim, obviously, it particularly affects us here in Jordan. We have been very supportive of the United Nations and NATO in their procedures over the past several weeks. And on the humanitarian level, we're doing as much as we can to help the plight of refugees. Obviously, refugees are something very close to the hearts of Jordanians, because we have had to go through this many times before, in '48, '67, 1990. And we see this happening again. So I think there's a lot of sympathy here in Jordan, and I wish that we could do a lot more to help the refugees and the plight that they're in.

CNN: Do you think that the Muslim world, the Arab world, feels that the US and NATO are finally going to bat for Muslims in distress? Do you think that they appreciate that?

King Abdullah: I think they do. You just have to look at the television and see the awful pictures that we're seeing, and obviously my wife and members of my family have recently been into Albania to take a look at the refugees, and the stories that they come back with, they've touched all of us. So just, I think, out of good heart and good will, a lot of people in this part of the world, in the Islamic world, are very keen to be able to do what they can to support the issue.

CNN: Let's talk about your particular region right now. I've read and I've heard that in the nearly three months that you've been on the throne, your popularity has shot up, in no small part because you have literally opened your arms to your Arab neighbours and you've made a lot of visits. And in public at least, you have not embraced the Israeli position right now. Do you think that strikes a chord in your people? Do you think that they wanted to see their king go out and restore relations with the Arab neighbours?

King Abdullah: Well I think that I'm my father's son, and my father had always had a very strong relationship with the leaders of the Arab world. Obviously, we could do with improving those relations.

CNN: Many are saying that your ascension to the throne represents a new chapter. It's no secret that many Arab states were angry with your father because of the political positions he had staked out.

Syria was angry about the peace with Israel, others were angry that the peace process wasn't going right, others in the Gulf -- Kuwait, Saudi Arabia -- were very angry with economic consequences because of King Hussein's pro-Iraq stance during the Gulf War. Is there a sense that you are mending fences? I mean, when you went to Syria, I understand you were extremely warmly welcomed.

King Abdullah: I was extremely warmly welcomed, as you said, but again I think every leader that I have seen has continued to say how much they feel the loss of His Majesty and what sort of sense of stability and common sense he brought to the region. And therefore, I don't feel that it's me. I just feel that I bring my father's spirit with me.

CNN: But you need help, don't you, from neighbouring countries? You need economic help -- things that were cut off during many years, particularly the last years of your father's life. Have they promised you more aid? Has Saudi Arabia promised aid? Has Syria, for instance, promised to give water to Jordan? The Gulf States -- have they promised to do things that they didn't do because they were angry with King Hussein?

King Abdullah: Well, I think they've been outstanding in the past couple of months in their support for Jordan, and obviously it takes a bit of time to try to get a lot of their goodwill into things on the ground that we can see tangible improvements to our economy. We're looking at a lot of issues, as much as to unemployment, but trade is obviously of great importance to us. And Syria, being a neighbour with historical ties with Jordan, we were, I think, all happy here to see a sort of rapprochement with Syria.

CNN: I understand that the Israelis were somewhat alarmed when you embarked on your multi-state visit in the Arab world. Why?

King Abdullah: Them -- I'm sure they're worried in certain circles that a relationship with somebody might be at the expense of others, and I don't see why that has to be. My father had always said, ‘why can't we have relationships with everybody’? And that's what I'm trying to do.

CNN: Your father made no secret of the fact that he was very disappointed in the current Israeli government. He felt that peace had stalled, that Jordanians were not seeing the benefit of any peace dividend. Indeed, Jordan has a budget deficit in terms of trade with the West Bank.

All of these things which were mentioned haven’t gotten better under a peace situation. Do you think that your people are angry? Do you think something needs to be done to redress that situation?

King Abdullah: I think people all over the world, in this region in particular -- and in Israel, not only in Jordan -- are frustrated that the peace process is not going in the way it should be.

We had such great hopes for this part of the world, and I know that it was my father's dying wish, I think, to see this long struggle put behind and a future for generations to come. I mean, he was working for his children and their children -- for his country and the countries of this region. So I think when you see this anger, I would translate it to frustration. And I would hope that when we get past the elections that whoever the Israeli people choose will have the courage and determination to continue on with the peace process.

CNN: Who do you think will be better for peace in terms of the elections: a Barak or a Mordakhai or a Netanyahu?

King Abdullah: I think that all Israelis, like all Jordanians, believe that peace is the only solution. And it's up to the Israeli people to decide who is the best man to represent their future. But I believe that Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians believe that peace is the only solution.

CNN: Well, let's talk about the Palestinians. They've had to delay their declaration of statehood, delay a lot of their dreams and aspirations under this peace accord. I mean, is it right and fair that they've had to delay the May 4th decision, for instance, on declaring statehood?

King Abdullah: Again, I think the Palestinians are extremely frustrated. There was so much hope at the Wye [River] agreement. And again, I remember seeing my father come out from the hospital, as ill as he was, to sit down with both sides -- and both sides have told me the story where he said, don't do it for me, I mean, do this for your children. This is why we're here. And there was so much optimism after the Wye agreement, to see it stall, I think, has been frustrating and must have really been a great blow to the morale for those who wanted peace.

CNN: How long can Yasser Arafat continue delaying, continue not being able to deliver? I mean, how long before his credibility plummets to zero?

King Abdullah: I think his credibility is very high. I think it took very strong moral courage for him to be able make this decision, delaying the declaration. And I think we should take our hats off to him, for taking what was obviously a very difficult position in front of his people.

I hope that once the elections have passed and the Israeli government can focus again on the peace process, we will be able to get over the next hurdle. And I hope in the very near future that the situation is solved, once and for all.

CNN: This is of particular relevance to you, with so many Palestinians in Jordan. Do you think inevitably there will be a Jordan-Palestinian confederation in the end?

King Abdullah: I believe that there is always a bright future for Jordanians and Palestinians together, but at the moment we must concentrate on the issues at hand. Confederation is something that can be discussed after Palestinians and Israelis have sorted out their differences and agreed to the peace. And then, whatever Palestinians and Jordanians wish to do together for the future, I'm sure we're very open to any suggestions.

CNN: And what about Iraq? Jordan was a base, sort of, for Iraqi opposition activities. Certainly there are many, the US and the West, who would like to see the regime of Saddam Hussein overthrown. Will Jordan remain a base for political and media activities for the Iraqi opposition?

King Abdullah: Ma'am, the way I look at things at the moment is, as His Majesty said, he had to get his house in order. And I have to get my house in order. Our biggest problem now is the economy. We want good relationships with everybody, as I've said. I want to concentrate on getting food on the table to the people of Jordan, and I believe that as His Majesty has always said, that Jordan does not get itself involved in the internal politics of other countries. And that is the line that I would like to adhere to.

CNN: But your late father was quite open about saying that things needed to change in Iraq. Obviously, the Iraqi people needed to do it. And there were opposition groups here actively and openly operating. Will that continue?

King Abdullah: I would hope that we as Jordan are not used as a pawn for situations that might affect other countries.

CNN: Do you think that Iraq can experience peace and stability and its people can experience any kind of improvement in their situation as long as Saddam Hussein remains the head of that country?

King Abdullah: Well, unfortunately, I believe that the presence of Saddam has such an overwhelming international reaction that it is putting the Iraqi people under severe difficulties of getting through the day, basically: trying to find food, trying to survive. I just hope and pray that there will be some sort of solution, that Iraq will see a brighter future.

CNN: Your Majesty, you have talked about the dire necessity to get your economic house in order. If I can quote some statistics. Unemployment here is at least 27 per cent; 30 per cent of your people live below the poverty line. That means a third of Jordan essentially is dispossessed. How bad is it and what are you going to do?

King Abdullah: I think it's very serious, and this is why I think, as a priority, I've told the government that we need to concentrate on economic reforms. And that'll take several venues. Obviously we as a government have to restructure, we have to streamline. We have to make investment much more lucrative to people coming to Jordan to seeing what they can do here.

Unemployment, I think, we addressed that issue. We are working very strongly with our countries in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf to see if they can take as much of our work force as they can. I think a combination of objectives that we have outlined should see a dramatic improvement in our economy.

More importantly, now that we're going through a difficult economic crisis -- and one of the reasons why poverty and unemployment feature so high, I think, on my agenda -- is that I know how far that pay check takes the soldier at the end of the month. His worries about, God forsake, there is a medical problem in his family. Could he afford that? Getting his kids through school.

Many of my soldiers would not go home on the weekends to save an extra mouth being fed back home. The number one stumbling block that we have is obviously the huge debt burden on Jordan's economy. And we are looking forward in June for the G-7 countries to seriously look at forgiveness for Jordan, which would really save us.

CNN: Are you going to the United States at mid-month? Is that what you're going to ask President Clinton?

King Abdullah: Probably I should say that's what President Clinton is going to ask me. He has been very, very supportive of Jordan. His Majesty and the president were very, very close friends. And I can't thank, I think, the president enough for his strong position and support of Jordan and trying to improve the situation with our economy. He will, I'm sure, ask me to see what he can do to help, and we have some ideas on how we can go about that.

CNN: Debt forgiveness being the top of your agenda?

King Abdullah: Yes, yes.

CNN: Now you also were Special Forces. I believe you parachute. I heard that you were trying to go parachuting in the United States with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, no less.

King Abdullah: I've got to find out where this leak is coming from. General Shelton is an old friend of mine. Also he was ex-Special Forces, and I had hoped that, you know, with the way life has changed, that I could get a jump in. And my argument to people here was how much safer could it be than jumping with the chief of staff of the American armed forces.

But I gather from what I hear that both the American government and our government have taken a very dim view of this. So I think they're trying to scratch that off the list. But I'm keeping my fingers crossed. I hope we get the chance to do that.

CNN: So how has life changed for you? I mean, has it turned you completely upside down?

King Abdullah: It has. I think just such a traumatic change in Jordan, let alone my life. I had my career set out for me in the army. As I said, I was going to be by my father's side. I have a beautiful wife and two lovely children. I have a boy, four, and a girl of two. But since my father's passing I now have a family of 4 million. And the same dedication and love that I give to my family I have to give to those 4 million. And it is a dramatic change of lifestyle.

CNN: Will it be hard?

King Abdullah: I don't think it'll be hard. Jordan for it's population is actually a very close country, and I think that together -- I always believe that none of us can live up to compete with His Majesty -- but all of us together, I think, can live up to his expectations. And I've seen a rallying around of the family and the country behind my father's banner, and I think together, we know that His Majesty -- what His Majesty wanted for this country and for this region, and we will take the steps forward. I know that we will succeed, and Jordan will not stumble on my watch.

CNN: Those are fighting words. Do you want to be king? Do you like the idea of being king?

King Abdullah: I don't think anybody chooses to be king. I don't think that's -- I always grew up wanting to serve my father, and as long as I can remember I just wanted to make him proud. And I think he had that effect on everybody in his family and in this country. With the tragic loss now, maybe I've gotten the best chance of all, to still serve him and make him proud.

CNN: Your Majesty, your father, by the force of his personality and the moral authority that came with nearly half a century on the throne, was able to navigate very treacherous waters, keeping the faith here in the Middle East, pleasing the West, making peace with Israel -- many, many unpopular decisions. Can you do that? Can you navigate those same treacherous waters?

King Abdullah:I'm not my father, and I think the secret is that maybe a lot of other people did not realise that those that wanted to compete with His Majesty -- I know I'm not my father, but as I said, I think the family, Jordan, together as a team -- and he left us, you know, institutions and pillars of wisdom and pillars of strength in our society. I think together as a team we can navigate those difficult roads.

CNN: Your Majesty, thank you very much indeed for joining us.

King Abdullah: Thank you.

CNN: And that ends our special report. I'm Christiane Amanpour saying goodbye from Jordan.