Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Fareed Zakaria
25 January 2018
(At a session held at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos)

CNN: Thank you so much for doing this, Your Majesty.

King Abdullah: Morning, Fareed. Good to see you.

CNN: You spoke many years ago about the dangers of a Shiite Crescent in the Middle East. It seems that that prediction has come true. How do you see what is happening in the Middle East, where the central dynamic now seems to be this cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, stretching from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Qatar, everywhere.

King Abdullah: Well, I think, maybe just to quantify what I said a while ago, the term that I use now is Iranian Crescent because I think the challenge that we've had is seeing religion used as a tool through politics. And as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, what we cannot afford is an inter-religious conflict that, you know, the fault lines run from Beirut to Bombay. So, there are issues that we're having in our part of the world with Iranian foreign policy that is affecting our region. As Jordanians, we believe that dialogue is the way to solve issues, and not to exacerbate the situations that lead to armed conflict. But, obviously, we do see Iraq. We have our challenges in Syria and Lebanon, and Yemen is another example of where priorities from the Arab point of view of how to deal with Iran.

CNN: Do you think that Iran is, right now, more aggressive? Is it in a period of pullback because it has certain internal difficulties? How should we read the current Iranian government and its policies?

King Abdullah: Well, I don't think there's been a major change in policies because, I think, they are long-term, strategic thinkers. So I think the foreign policy has been ongoing for a while. And as you've seen, the internal challenges are, I think, two separate stories and two separate narratives from their point of view. Again, I caution the drums of war because that's not going to be good for any of us. And I hope that through dialogue, that we can come to an understanding, but there are major issues. For example, Jordan on the borders of Syria dealing with groups that are supported by Iran. That is a problem for us, actually right up to the borders. And again, you know, we're concerned on the future of Lebanon. Lebanon has had tremendous suffering, historically, over the last several decades. And we don't want those dynamics to create more problems inside of Lebanon. So, I am hoping that common sense, you know, is the name of the day.

CNN: President Trump has said that he has made the last waiver on the Iran sanctions that he will make, which means there is a very distinct possibility that the United States will somehow withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. He says that he wants the Europeans to toughen it up. The Europeans have already said publicly they have no intention of doing so. They think the deal is a good deal, and they believe Iran has abided by it. What happens if the United States unilaterally pulls out of the Iran nuclear deal?

King Abdullah: Well, I think, maybe ask the President tomorrow.  The Jordanian position is: We are fully supportive, and have been, since our existence of a nuclear-free zone for the Middle East, but for everybody. And the potential of nuclear weapons in our region is a pretty scary thing. We understand the American position and that of the Europeans. And I know that the Europeans and the United States are still talking about this issue, and I hope that they come to some sort of common understanding.

CNN: President Trump did something else that affects you. He announced that the United States would move its embassy to Jerusalem. How much does that complicate your life?

King Abdullah: It is a complication for Jordan, and we've had some very good exchanges with the President and with the Administration over the past year. And our position was that, look, we understand that this is something that is important to the President. It was a campaign promise. But the subject of Jerusalem has to be part of a comprehensive solution for Israelis and for Palestinians. The decision was taken, as you all know. It has created a backlash because it has frustrated the Palestinians where they feel that there isn't an honest broker. I like to reserve judgment because we're still waiting for the Americans to come out with their plan, but tremendous sympathy to where the Palestinians are feeling. And Jerusalem is such an emotional subject for everybody. And, I think, we have to look to the future of what we want for Jerusalem. Is Jerusalem a city that ends up dividing us, which I think would be catastrophic for mankind, or is it a city of hope that brings us together? It is eternal to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. And if you remember His Holiness Pope Francis' message in Christmas, hoping that Jerusalem would be dealt with as part of a negotiated settlement, that the status quo is represented. So it is as important to Muslims as it is to Christians. And all the Christian church leaders in Jerusalem have asked Jordan to plea on their behalf to the United Nations and international community.

So this is not just a one-off for Jews and Muslims. This is a city that could either create tremendous problems for us in the future or it is an umbrella that gives us hope on how we propel. And I've said this before, strategic is a Greek word. You won't find it in the Hebrew or Arabic dictionary. And I think that's one of the problems that we're facing. So these decisions are made. What are we thinking of Jerusalem looking like down the road? And it could be a tremendous city that brings us together or it could create aggression and violence that we've never seen before.

CNN: There was some hope that, among, certainly, Palestinians and Arabs that while President Trump announced this move, the embassy wouldn't actually move. Vice President Pence now says the embassy will move next year. Would you urge delaying that actual move?

King Abdullah: Well, again, it comes back to, how do we look at this? So one part of the offers of peace has been Jerusalem to the Israelis. What is the incentive to the Palestinians? We are all, and I'm not going to say just people in the Middle East, but our European and Western colleagues, are waiting for the peace proposal to be provided. The hiccup at the moment is, out of tremendous frustration, the Palestinians don't feel that the United States is an honest broker, but in the same time, they are reaching out to the Europeans. And I think, to me, that is a signal that they do want peace. How do we build the confidence and trust between the Palestinian leadership and the American leadership so that we can get Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians at the table?

And, again, we all know—and the Europeans I think are looking at this in a very positive light—that we cannot have a peace process or a peace solution without the role of the United States. So we have the next month or two. How do we bring everybody together? And what is the plan? None of us have ideas of what the plan is. Some people say it's a tough plan, which we have to be concerned about. But is it a good plan? And if the Palestinians, because the plan is not good, walk away, where do we go from there? And I think that's the problem.

CNN: And where do we go? Because there are many Palestinians who now say Bibi Netanyahu's government and many of the policies they have essentially make clear that the two-state solution is dead and that they should, maybe, start pursuing a one-state solution and simply asking for political rights within Israel.

King Abdullah: So going back to the strategic challenges—and this is a question that we have debated with our Israeli colleagues for a while—where do you see your future? So if it's a one-state solution, is it a one-state solution with equal rights? As we look at the Arab-Israeli demographics, we look at Palestinians under occupation, we're basically discussing, and have for a while, is an apartheid system. Now can we deal with this apartheid system and make it fair for everybody? And it's not just the Arab Israelis and the Palestinians under  occupation. The second-class citizens are also the Muslims and Christians, Israelis, all those in the West Bank. So, in my view, with the demographics, with the population changes, that's more challenging from the Israeli perspective than the two-state solution.

CNN: Do you believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu still believes in the two-state solution? Or did he ever believe in one?

King Abdullah: What we're seeing today, we have to reserve judgment. I have my scepticism, but until the Americans show us the other part of the plan, and I would imagine that the challenge that the Americans have with the Israelis is that if this is to make any sense, is to give something pretty good to the Palestinians. And I think that's the point where we will see whether the Israelis will accept. But I have a feeling that the two-state solution the way that we envisage is not the same two-state solution that they are looking at.

CNN: You're placing a lot of hope in this American plan. Do you have any realistic prospect that it would be ambitious and comprehensive?

King Abdullah: Well, listen, you know, we've been at this for a while and looking always at the glass half full. I think we have to give the Americans the benefit of the doubt and all work together to make sure that we help the Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians come together. However, in the very near future, if it is not a good plan, so the discussions all of us are having, what is plan B? I don't think we've got a plan B at this stage. Or is that a one-state solution? And how do we do that in a positive way where Israel is integrated in part of the future of the neighbourhood?

CNN: You could imagine a one-state solution where—as long as—the Palestinians had equal rights?

King Abdullah: I don't see that happening. I just think the complication is to the character of Israel and I think what the leadership want, in my mind, I can't envisage a one-state solution that would be acceptable.

CNN: Has Russia won in Syria—Russia and Iran? The Assad government seems pretty firmly in place, but it doesn't control half the country. So what is the future of Syria?

King Abdullah: I think you've just said it. I don't think anybody wins in Syria. The Russians are major players. We are moving from Astana, which was a military disengagement platform, to—heading for Geneva. As a result of Astana, but not part of Astana, in the south, and I can speak on behalf of Jordan, we, the Russians, and the Americans came together to figure out how do we create stabilised zones in the south. And that's one of the good stories that we can say about Syria. So starting of the spring of last year and to this day, American and Russian military, under our umbrella, run a 24/7 centre of deconfliction and stabilising the south. Where we want to go from there is can we replicate that in the centre and the north—north becoming a bit more complicated because of the recent Turkish challenges. But we have to understand that at the end of the day, we've got to get to Geneva for the political aspect of this issue.

CNN: Will Assad go to Geneva? Just to be clear, Geneva is the political solution, which envisages elections and things like that. Every time Assad has done well militarily, he has shown less and less inclination to go to Geneva and negotiate, in a sense, a political transition away from his regime.

King Abdullah: Well, as I think you alluded to, the situation in Syria is not over by a long shot. And when you see that there's a lot of international players there with their own agendas. You know, I think he needs to get to Geneva. Geneva is not a one-stop shop. I mean, there is a Sochi meeting coming up very soon. And Sochi is a one-off that gets us in a better light, hopefully, to Geneva. Geneva is going to be an ongoing process because we're dealing with elections and the constitution. And then, what is the next step out of there? So it’s reviving Geneva, understanding, and I think all the players, all the sensible players, understand that Syria is not going to get any better. It is complicated; it is challenging. And we're all paying the price. And I think from the Russian point of view, they need to find a solution, and Geneva is the way to go.  

CNN: What is the strategy behind Saudi Arabia's seemingly aggressive new foreign policy? It is challenging Iran in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq, in Qatar, and, of course, in Yemen. In all these places, it seems to have taken the most, kind of, aggressive stance it could. In all these cases, so far, it has not met with much success. Why is this happening and do you expect it to continue?

King Abdullah: I think His Majesty King Salman is going in a proactive Saudi role that we haven't seen for a while. And as I said earlier, we do see the interference of Iranian policies in a lot of the Arab states, and, again, the danger of using groups and issues in our part of the world from a religious context. And I think I've covered that. So I think, not only Saudi Arabia, but some of the Gulf countries have their concerns, having seen what they saw in, as you mentioned, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and the other parts of the world. So there is this tension between us, that there is politics being played in our region, which we’d like the Iranians to stop. And so, I think the Saudi policy is to say the red lines are here.

CNN: You know, you are a military man, you understand war very well. In Yemen, it seems that the Saudis have created a bigger problem than they are solving. This poorest part of the Middle East is devastated—famine, cholera, typhoid. And, of course, this is Saudi Arabia's next-door neighbour. Aren't they creating a generation-long problem?

King Abdullah: Well, Yemen has historically been a challenge for any military campaigners. And you know, there are challenges, obviously, in Yemen. The concern, I think, that we all have—and there was a meeting in Saudi Arabia two days ago on how do we deal with the humanitarian crisis, which is something that needs to be moved on as aggressively and as quickly as possible because, as you say, if we don't get that right, it's going to be something that's going to haunt us for a while. I know that two days ago, the decision was taken in Riyadh, with the coalition, to get at least USD1.5 billion worth of aid to Yemen. But I think that's just the start. And again, the GCC are working on a political solution to this, and I think we need to support the GCC in this endeavour, but the quicker we can move from combat to talking politics and trying to solve the problem, I think, it would be better for all of us.

CNN: During the campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump said something, on CNN actually, he said I think Islam hates us. By us, I think he meant America. In your conversations with President Trump, have you tried to persuade him that that was not the case?

King Abdullah: Absolutely, to all Americans, and whether I am in Washington in the Congress or with the Administration, I think, maybe there is a lack of understanding of Islam. Islam is built on moral virtues that you see in Christianity and Judaism and other religions. You know, it is not a religion of hate. We, as Muslims, believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah. We believe in the Holy Virgin Mother. We believe in the Bible and the Torah. And I think this is the way that all of us were brought up, and I've said it before, when we all greet each other as Arabs and Muslims, we say assalamu alaikum, peace be unto you. That is probably the most said sentence that anybody says from the minute he gets up in the morning till he goes to sleep in the night. And I think that is the basis of Islam.

We have challenges because there are fringe groups that have created problems. As I've said before, we have a fight inside of Islam. This is a civil war between all of us and those that not only consider us heretics, but consider Christians, Jews, and other religions all heretics and should be put to the sword. The problem that we have now, and maybe the lack of understanding, is that it is us, Muslims, working side by side with Christians, Jews, and other religions to fight this scourge, which is still going to be a long-term problem. This is not going to be something to be resolved. In other words, you know, as I've said, Third World War by other means.

So in the United States, the challenge has to be—I am not so worried about the United States being affected by terrorists getting in. You know, the secure programme on protecting the United States is quite robust. What you don't want—and not just in the United States, in my country, or in Europe—is to have the Muslim population feeling victimised and isolated. And that creates the breeding ground of contempt because everybody hates us. I am more worried that the narrative creates more internal challenges of security if Muslims—at the end of the day, we all want a better life. We want a better future for our children and their children. For them to feel isolated, that’s the danger. And the rhetoric that moves in that direction is not a good story for anybody.

CNN: But part of that rhetoric does still emanate from Donald Trump. Every time there is a terror attack in Europe, he tweets about it. Do you sense in your meetings with him that you have been able to persuade him? Has this topic come up?

King Abdullah: We have discussed this. And, again, don't forget that in our global fight against international terrorism, the United States is the most active partner in the world, not just with Jordan, but with Europe, countries in Africa, in the Far East. So they are our allies, and, you know, our relationship with the United States is institutional. I think that, you know, we are all partners in this global challenge. And I think the challenge to look at is: How do we do it, what I call the holistic approach. It is not just Syria or Iraq or Libya. We have challenges with East Africa when it comes to Al Shabab, Boko Haram. The Balkans could be a potential blow-up unless the Europeans, if I am allowed to say this, really concentrate on the South because the Balkans have historically not been very kind to Europe and to world history. That could be a potential problem because of extremism. We have the problems in the Philippines and Indonesia, and that is something we also want to nip in the bud. So part of this global coalition is to be able to chew gum and walk at the same time and deal with this in a holistic approach, but then not isolating Muslim societies to feel that they are victimised.

CNN: Finally, let me ask you, Your Majesty, at Davos this year, there is a reasonable amount of optimism around the world. The United States is growing economically. Europe is growing. Japan is growing. China, India, Latin America. The Middle East has always been this one area where there isn't that much optimism. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the Middle East?

King Abdullah: Again, I think that the Middle East went through a very important crossroads several years ago—Arab Spring. This was started by young people who wanted dynamic change in our region, hijacked unfortunately by organised—religious organisations with an extremist agenda. But it is a crossroads that we're, I think, still getting through. I've said to my Arab colleagues for many years; I said, you know, a lot of the Middle East always looked down on Africa. And I used to say, listen, you know, the Africans are talking to each other. They have proper trade with each other. Their military alliances are working together. They are combating terrorism together. And, as I see today, Africa has moved beyond where we are in the Middle East. Now, is it that we are still overcoming the Arab Spring? But we need to get our act together and start to talk to each other. And I think when you look at Africa, where a lot of Arab countries were looking down on, they are showing us an example how to move in the right direction.

CNN: And the Arab Spring seems to have turned into the Arab winter very quickly. We have returned to strongmen and authoritarianism. It doesn't seem like that promise worked out.

King Abdullah: Well, if you would allow me, I think the Arab Spring, as I said, was started by young people who wanted change—and change that they deserve. It was then hijacked by religious entities that, in my view, were supported by the West, were supported by Western media, when all of us that were living there were going: Oh my goodness! We know exactly how this story is going to end. And that created the instabilities that you see in a lot of the countries that we talked about. We have to overcome that. And, again, our region is going through a major change—historical change—and some of it is still some battles that we have to win.

Having said that, I think there are other countries that are coming to each other inside the Middle East on bilateral, and growing together, saying, OK, you and I think the same, so let's come together and try, build more cohesion in Arab strategic policy. Arab nationalism, I think, ended in the Arab Spring. And where as countries, we started saying, OK, I do have Arab concerns, but actually I am a Jordanian; I care about Jordanian issues. I am a Lebanese; I care about Lebanese issues. I am a Moroccan. And so, it's going to take some time until everybody then gets past their nationalist feelings and get back to looking, as Europe, to the bigger picture.

CNN: Fascinating…Your Majesty, thank you so much.

King Abdullah: Always a pleasure.