Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Lyse Doucet
02 February 2016

مقابلة جلالة الملك عبدالله الثاني مع محطة (BBC) البريطانية | RHCJO

BBC: You’ve been saying for years that Jordan simply cannot take any more Syrian refugees. What do you say to Europe?

King Abdullah: The psyche of the Jordanian people, I think, it has gotten to a boiling point. Jordanians are suffering from trying to find jobs; the pressure on the infrastructure for the government; it has hurt us when it comes to the educational system, our healthcare; people, just Jordanians trying to get along with their lives. Sooner or later, I think the dam is going to burst; and I think this week is going to be very important for Jordanians to see is there going to be help, not only for Syrian refugees, but for their own future as well.

BBC: Is your message to Europe, enough? Jordan has taken in enough.

King Abdullah: The message that I have been giving our friends is that this is a donors conference for Syrian refugees, from our point of view, this is also, I hope, a conference on how do we make lives better for Jordanians because if that is not achieved, then we will all fail Jordan.

BBC: But the pressures have been on you for years. It has taken the arrival of more than a million refugees on Europe’s doorstep to make them look at what pressures you’ve been under.

King Abdullah: Unfortunately, for the past several years, many of the western countries used to say we are so grateful for the role Jordan has taken. We can’t believe how you have been able to take refugees into your country and what you have been able to do; and if we keep saying to ourselves, if we were in your position, could we do what you have been able to do. Those words were all wonderful, but it wasn’t until a trickle hit European shores that then, I think, eyebrows were raised and they began to realise the reality of the challenges that Jordanians have faced.

BBC: Did the international community let you down?

King Abdullah: Well, when you look that 25% of our budget over the past several years goes straight into dealing with the challenges of refugees. We’ve had donor support from the international community; some countries have been outstanding in their support, but the best year we ever had was last year, and the donor support reached 35%; but on average, 25% of our budget is trying to cover the difference. So, as grateful as we are, 25% of our budget being spent on covering the difference means that there is a tremendous short fall.

BBC: So, is this the week of the red line? Jordan is saying if you don’t give us significant long-term support to develop our economy, if you don’t give us access to European markets, we can’t take in more Syrian refugees.

King Abdullah: Well, it is not only taking in more.

BBC: But that’s what your Prime Minister is saying. This is it. This is the moment. We’re not, we’re telling you we’re laying down our conditions, no more Syrian refugees, unless there is significant long-term aid.

King Abdullah:This is a red line, but also how can Jordan sustain itself and continue; and the importance of Jordan as being a country of stability for the whole region, and also a contributor to stability beyond the borders of Jordan. The international community always asked us to do more than the size of our country. We are part of a coalition against extremism, not only in Syria and Iraq, but throughout the world. Whenever the international community has asked for Jordan to fight the good fight, alongside of our colleagues all over the international community, we have never said no. What we are asking now for the first time is, the international community, we have always stood shoulder-to-shoulder by your side; we are now asking for your help, you can’t say no this time around to us.

BBC: What if they say no, in the sense they don’t give you enough support.

King Abdullah: Well, then we are going to have to look at things in a different way, but how can we be a contributor to regional stability if we are let down by the international community. And, by the way, they realise that if they don’t help Jordan it is going to make it more difficult for them to be able to deal with the refugee crisis. And, to be honest, all the leaders that we talk to know that by helping Jordan, they are actually helping themselves more. So it is in their vested interests.

The problem comes down, like any conference, it comes down to the technical levels. I think the leaders of the international community have the spirit to help us. When we look at the major countries at the donor conference, the will is there. It is now getting past the technical details to make sure that we get the right type of assistance to our country.  But the problem is that the Jordanian people have to feel that 2016 is the beginning of the taking that corner; that life is going to start to improve. Otherwise, this is going to be very difficult. For me to be able to look into the eyes of my people, and to say that tomorrow is going to be a better day, that’s where we’re at today.

BBC: We met a crowd of angry Jordanians in your second city of Irbid, and every one of them had a complaint about jobs because they said there were too many Syrians. And I said, what would you say to your King? And basically, they said, we feel very sorry about the Syrians, but we ask our King to get us jobs.

King Abdullah: The hospitality of our country has been known for decades. We have looked after waves and waves of refugees. And again what you have to understand, and what is not being spoken about, is not just the 20% of our population, which is Syrian refugees. And, again, reminding everyone in the international community that 90% are outside of the refugee camps. They are in our infrastructure; they are in our schools; they are in our hospitals. Rent in many areas has gone up by 300%. In the Northern provinces that you have been, in the northern governorates, in a lot of areas, the Jordanians are in the minority. Rent is up 300%, as I said. Jordanians trying to find jobs is extremely difficult. So that’s why we’re going to London: we understand this is a Syrian refugee issue, but if you don’t mention the future of the Jordanians, then we are failing ourselves at the London conference.

BBC: The international community is saying they will do more, but they say Jordan has to do more. Look at the plight of the Syrian refugees here, only 1% have been given work permits.

King Abdullah: Well, actually going to the London conference, we are working…

BBC: That’s what they are asking: the demand at the London conference would be for Jordan to give more work permits to give a future to Syrian refugees, the vast majority of them are living under the poverty line.

King Abdullah: As are more and more Jordanians. But, again, we are looking at this as a sensible approach. There is a teamwork approach on doing three elements of this. One is creating more opportunities to create work for Syrians and Jordanians, but here we have to be very careful. If we are going to create jobs for Syrians, and bring them as part of our labour force, I know it is sometimes considered, has been considered over the years, as unpopular. Refugees, when they come to a country will stay for a long period of time, UN figures say at least 17 years, so whether we like it or not Syrian refugees are going to be part of our country for some period of time to come. So they have to be integrated into the labour force, everybody knows that. But as we go to this conference, if you are going to create a job for Syrians, you have got to create more jobs for Jordanians. So we are going to this conference in that respect. You can’t just do it for Syrians and ignore the Jordanians. That’s part of the process.

We need aid to be able to build the infrastructure to be able to take care of the future of Jordan. Just on education alone, we need 300 more schools because the majority of the schools in the north are running on double shifts. We have 130,000 Syrian students that are in our school systems. We’ve got I think roughly 90,000that are never making it into the school system. We’ve got about 30,000 that are standing by to try to make it into the school system. So we need infrastructure support for our healthcare system, for our educational system. We have now become the second poorest country when it comes to water because of the consumption of water that the refugees have done. So that’s part of it. And the third part is, obviously, grants because we have got to cover that 25% gap that we have in our budget.

BBC: Even with all this, you are still under pressure to take in more Syrian refugees. There’s some 16,000 who are stranded in no-man’s land on the border with Syria. Are you going to let them in?

King Abdullah: Well, we are taking roughly 50-100 a day, which is from a security aspect the normal amount that we can take from a security aspect point-of-view. That happens normally on a given day.

BBC: What’s the security aspect there?

King Abdullah: The security aspect is to make sure that decent people come across the border, and not Daesh, or ISIS or terrorists come across the border.

BBC: Do you have evidence that it is? That they are linked to Daesh or the so-called Islamic State?

King Abdullah: This is our normal regular procedure.

BBC: But, now, as we speak, are some of them trying to come in that are linked to…

King Abdullah: They have been trying to come in since the crisis started. So that’s usual refugee procedures.

Now, what you are talking about is a completely separate group out in the eastern desert that come from Raqqa up in the north of Syria and Hasaka and to an extent slightly southeast.

BBC: Territory controlled by the so-called Islamic State.

King Abdullah: What we call Daesh, which are actually very close to the Turkish border; and so why don’t they go across the Turkish border? Why did they all come down to Jordan? We know that inside that camp are Daesh elements; and so they are going through a very strong vetting system. We do process dozens of them every single day. The priority is given to the children, the women and the elderly. All top medical cases do come over. We are treating them, and actually quite a few of them do end up staying in Jordan. It is in a military zone, but having said that our government, our military, UN and NGOs are actually across the border, in those camps. We have a clinic set up, and we are trying to look after them.

BBC: So you are going to let them in.

King Abdullah: At this stage, we let them in as they are being vetted. There is pressure from the international community to let them in, but we’re saying to everybody, this is a major national security problem for all of us. Some people are saying, so why don’t you let the women in? But as we have seen in Paris and as we have seen in California, women are also part of terrorist strikes around the world. So, this is for us a red line. We are trying to process them as quickly as possible; but again we throw back to the international community, and to those countries that have been very difficult to us; saying that at the end of the day, you’re saying there are only 16,000, we’ve already taken 1.4 million people. If you are going to take the higher moral ground on this issue, we’ll get them all to an airbase and we’re more than happy to relocate them to your country, if what you are saying is there are only 16,000. Considering the amount of people we have taken into our country; if you want to help the refugee problem, 16,000 refugees to your country, I don’t think is that much of a problem.

BBC: Has anyone taken up your offer?

King Abdullah: Of course not.

BBC: Europe is saying to you we don’t want any more refugees; you’re saying you don’t want any more refugees. Where will they go?

King Abdullah: We will continue to bring them across in limited numbers. We will continue to look after them on the other side and we will continue to vet them. So it is going to take time because we cannot afford a terrorist incident to be in our country. So they are not being left alone; they are being looked after by us, the international community. We are doing the best that we can in their camps, but there is a major danger to our national security. But for those that are sort of sitting there trying to take the high moral ground, if you want to take them, we will help you take them. But I can’t see why they complain, don’t do as we do, do as we say.

BBC: How big is the danger in Jordan? Your Prime Minister warned about sleeper cells of this Daesh.

King Abdullah: A prime example is this refugee camp; and we have picked-up a lot of people that have crossed the border over the past four-five years that are linked to ISIS and other organisations. It is an on-going problem, as you faced in Europe and in the other parts of the world. That’s the reality of the world that we are living in; so to have pressure by certain groups, of just looking the other way, and letting refugees in just because they say we have to, and then open our society to a potential terrorist strike, somewhere along the line, we have to put our foot down. Especially when we have brought in 20% of our population are refugees. We have done more than anyone else has done. For people then to hold us accountable for that, I think is very unfair.

BBC: And you worry that if they don’t create jobs for Jordanians, the link between disgruntled, disaffected youth and radicalisation?

King Abdullah: Well, again I think what keeps me up at night, and I have said this on so many occasions, is not the political situation, it is not the military security, because we are all strong and united, we know where the enemy is. But young Jordanians looking for jobs are so frustrated that if we can’t give them an opportunity, that’s the problem. And so going to the UK for this conference, it is Syrian refugees/opportunities for the future of young Jordanians.

BBC: And yet you know the real solution to this is an end to the war in Syria – a political solution. It is nowhere in sight.

King Abdullah: Well, for the first time with all difficult odds stacked up against the process is what we are seeing in Geneva and the Vienna talks. Because the alternative is, as you say, no hope; and the only thing that is going for Syria at the moment is that there are state institutions still functioning. For how long? Once those state institutions crumble, then there will be no capability to govern Syria, from an ability to reach out to the people, the people will suffer more, there will be more refugee problems for all of us, in Europe, including the region. And the only people who win will be the terrorist organisations. So, the only thing that we have − the only light at the end of the tunnel − are these talks.

BBC: Is the Russian intervention a game-changer? It is clear that the pattern of their bombing, their diplomacy is aimed at strengthening President Assad.

King Abdullah: Well, it shook up the tree because before that really we have had six years of pretty much the same thing. So what I would say...

BBC: But what fell from the tree? People are saying the bombing is not primarily against Daesh, the so-called Islamic State, it is against the opposition forces, some of whom are backed by your government and by the West.

King Abdullah: Well, I won’t get into the details of who said what and who did what because that doesn’t help at this stage, but what it has done...

BBC: But that is reality. They are bombing in southern Syria, close to your border.

King Abdullah: We did have an initial ceasefire, that ceasefire has broken. We hope that ceasefire will come back into effect. But having said that, it has galvanised everybody to get to the peace talks because if we don’t, it is going to unravel into a very messy, a messier situation in Syria.

So, we have had the talks that started in Geneva, and I think at the end of the day, between you and I, is can we get from the western-eastern perspective, based on sort of old Cold War mentality, can Washington and Moscow look to the future and understand that we are actually dealing with something worse than the Cold War. Moscow and Washington are no longer each other’s enemies. We are dealing with the khawarej, the outlaws of Islam. That is the global threat. And I am hoping that Vienna will dawn on all the players that that’s where the common ground is. And if that can happen, then Syria could have a political solution. That is the only thing we got going for us at this point of time. If not, then the state’s infrastructure will fall apart. It will be a disaster for the Syrian people and the bad people will win.

BBC: And finally Sir, it’s a year since Jordanians, since you found out that one of you pilots, captured by Islamic State, was savagely burned to death. It caused shock and anger. It was said you were so angry, you were ready to go and pilot a warplane yourself over Syria. It’s a year: Do you feel the international community has failed in its targeting the Islamic State?

King Abdullah: I think it was a year where we could have done a lot more; and I think, speaking for myself and many in the Jordanian Armed Forces, we wanted to do more.

BBC: What would you have wanted to be done? What missed opportunities have there been?

King Abdullah: I think closing with the enemy.

BBC: Meaning to say…

King Abdullah: Daesh. The reality on the ground is that I think for good or for bad having the Russians in Syria, when I say shaking the tree, it has galvanised all the partners to try and solve the problem. So I’m not getting into the nuances of Geneva or Vienna. The understanding has to be made of the priorities – is the regime the problem or is it ISIS/Daesh?

BBC: What’s the answer?

King Abdullah: For me, and for Muslims, the khawarej, the outlaws of Islam, is the global threat.

BBC: That’s what you call the Islamic State and the 1st century extremist group.

King Abdullah: Absolutely. So, hopefully these discussions will allow us to find a political process in Syria so that we Muslims, Christians, Jews and other religions can bind together, united on a common cause against the khawarej because that is where the enemy is, whether it’s in Syria or Iraq or East or West Africa, in Libya and elsewhere in the world. And the sooner the international community figures that one out, the better the world would be.