Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Michael Binyon
The Times
14 November 2011

Q. Has the Arab Spring been a disaster for some Arab countries:
A. Whether it’s a year from now, five years or ten years, all of us will say it was a good thing because it is a defining moment in Arab history. Each country will move at its own pace. I describe it as blood, sweat and tears. We in Jordan have got to do a lot of sweating. Maybe there will be some tears but luckily so far no blood. When you look at other countries, you go from Arab spring into Arab summer, which is where I think we are now. Today is rolling up our sleeves and doing the hard work to achieve the reforms. In other countries I think it is cyclical. You’re going to go from Arab spring to Arab winter to spring again. But at the end of the day when we all look back at some point in the future, this is a defining moment for the Middle East.
Q. What about Syria?
A. The foreign minister has been looking very hard with his Arab colleagues. There have been several meetings of the Arab Foreign Ministers over the past several monthsn to address the Syrians and what is going on in Syria. Twice the Arab League secretary went to Damascus and also a ministerial went from the foreign ministers too to bring to Syria’s attention our complete frustration and dismay with what is going on and what they’re doing to the people. The last meeting looked like it was going to be positive. They met on the 2nd November when they accepted the Arab initiative, but then it seemed that nothing has happened. This is the same experience that the Turks have had. So last Saturday the Arab foreign ministers called for the suspension of Syria on the 16th till we see they adopt the initiative. If anything, I think things have got worse internally. My own feeling is that you’re going to see more of the same for the foreseeable future.
Q Can the regime survive? Can Bashar survive as president?
a. It depends how you look at it. In relative terms they’re in quite a strong position internally. But having said that, they cannot continue with this pace. For anyone to predict how long, when, how is the ten million dollar question. Discussing with our Arab colleagues and the international community what is the magic answer for Syria, that is part of the problem. From the Jordanian point of view we are looking at it from the humanitarian side. We are getting refugees across the borders. How do we deal with that as numbers increase? They’re in the thousands, but not anywhere near the numbers you see moving in the north into Turkey. But that could change. Again there’s other things happening in the Middle East. There’s the issue of Iran’s position on the nuclear file; Israel has its concerns with Lebanon/Syria; we have the Arab spring. So it’s a very volatile time in the Middle East. I think anybody who can try to predict what was going to happen, what 2012 was going to look like, that is impossible.
Q. If Syria pursues this course using repressive measures rather than dialogue, is there really a future for them?
A. You also say that because of the regime, can the regime change? And if the regime changes, it falls apart. That’s part of the challenge with the Syrians. In my dealings with Bashar - and I’ve got to know him fairly well - I believe that there is reform in his blood. I sit with him and listen to his vision for Syria. I think he gets it, but does the system allow somebody with reform in his blood to do that? I don’t think the system allows for that. That’s the challenge. It is not like other countries. It’s a unique situation. I think the Pandora’s box that has everybody worried is that there’s frustration with the regime and the regime should change its way of doing things. I think the alternative at this stage confuses, frustrates and scares people more. It is crisis management for us for a while. I was in discussion with Bashar at the beginning of the year, saying by no means we are a successful model, but we are holding dialogue and reaching out to people, and we’re more than happy to share our mistakes and view on what’s been happening for the last couple of months. But they weren’t really interested. I sent the chief of our court to see Bashar but they it just became obvious to be that we’re speaking over each other. So I stopped. Somebody asked me a while ago: ‘Would you be prepared to call Bashar?’ But I really wouldn’t know what to say.
Q Would you be prepared to mediate?
A. I don’t know. I don’t believe in middlemen unless there is actually something substantive which could help. I don’t see there’s anything I could say or do at this stage that would make an impact.
Q. Should he step down or go into exile?
A. Let’s say you do that, who do you bring in? If Bashar leaves the scene for whatever reason, his replacement as an Alawi leader, will he get it? That the world has changed? Will the system allow for that? So you’ll probably get the same again. It’s the system, not the individual.
Q. Will you get sectarian polarisation in Syria that could spread across the borders?
A. I’m not so worried about spreading across the borders, but at the fabric of Syrian society, if you look at Kurds, Druze, Sunni, Alawi, Christians and Sunni elite, there’s different minority groups that put together become a majority. What you don’t want to see is a fragmentation of Syrian society, especially with neighbours who all have ethnic contacts. Iraq had three distinct groups, and was large enough - so that was a national ability to come back together. Syria is a far more complicated puzzle and that is what worries everybody. We don’t want a bloodbath in Syria. We’re reaching out on a humanitarian basis. We are prepared on the border for an influx of more refugees to come over. We’re got plan A-Z and we’re keeping our fingers crossed and reaching out to Arab colleagues, and discussing with the international community, but nobody has got an answer.
Q. How is it that the moderate kingdoms in the Arab world have done better in the Arab spring than the more oppressive regimes?
A. It you take two countries or Morocco and Jordan, if you look at the Middle East republics rather than the monarchies, the social contract, the relationship is different. The monarchies have been around and have gained a legitimacy; the republics came in during the Cold War on the back of tanks. We in Jordan instinctively took the decision (King Hussein would have done the same thing) is that at every single demonstration — ongoing until today in much smaller numbers, but every Friday we’ve had people out there for the past eight months — we decided on day one to completely disarm the police. No batons, no pistols, we’ve only had one death, a bystander who died of a heart attack. We’ve been very fortunate, and I have to say that my appreciation to demonstrators, there have been elements among the demonstrators who wanted to bring violence and bloodshed on to the streets, but the majority wanted to work within the law. And the police forces have shown tremendous restraint. What happened in Tunis started economically, so that then gave political reform a push. But political reform is economic reform as far as I’m concerned. It’s been very hard work to make sure that citizens are being protected through the rule of law and the ability to express themselves. Morocco and Jordan have been fairly successful, whereas the other regimes have not.
Q. Is Jordan moving towards a constitutional monarchy?
A. Constitutional are different wherever you go, but we are heading in that direction. Going back to the early spring when Muslim Brotherhood and the communist parties of Jordan were looking at constitutional amendments, and were asking to go back to the 1952 constitution, it’s always going to be how sincere is the leadership in Jordan to reform. So let’s not look at the 1952 constitution, let’s look at the whole constitution. There were 42 amendments done, 14 new laws, a constitutional court, independent commission for elections etc. I’m on record from day one saying this is just the start. In the clearest terms as a leader you have to think of the map forward. What we want to see in Jordan is two to five polical parties representing Left, Right and Centre as quickly as possible to lead to a government elected by the people. The challenge from that is defining Left, Right and Centre. In all the townhall meetings I have — I sit down every 10 days with people or different elements. I’ve seen everyone from opposition to labour to women’s rights. I ask this question halfway through: where do you guys stand on taxes, health, education and you get a complete blank look. That’s the challenge to our whole Middle East. Europeans and Englishmen will understand what left or right-wing would mean. I’m trying to encourage the formation of new political parties. When you have 70 per cent of the country under the age of 30 they are looking for something new. So I keep challenging them, please create your political parties based on a political manifesto or economic programmes that allows me then to vote for what you stand for and not because you’re my tribal leader. To create Left, Right and Centre, all of you are saying minimum of two years. So that’s the challenge I have. We have elections in 2012, but we won’t have Left, Right and Centre by then. So do I try to push for coalitions to come together and create coalition governments? I’m not one for 30 or 40 party government system. I believe in two to five. This is something the people will have to make that decision on. The outreach is trying to figure out where they want to go and how do you push the envelope of conversation with them.
The safest way of doing it is to say that we have elections in 2012 for parliament and then you have four years to encourage the formation of Left, Right and Centre. That’s too long. I think expectations of people are that they want elections today. It would be wiser to bring together coalitions that would form blocs on the left and blocs on the right. That is what I am leaning to. I don’t think we can afford five years.
The work ahead of us now, and we are in the Arab summer, is to get to elections. We’re down now to the technical details... I’m encouraging the government to sit down and put a road map in front of everybody so that people realise what needs to move forward.... One of the priorities for the next two weeks is to pass that law to form an independent elections commission...The devil is in the detail of getting all these things moved out as quickly as possible. People don’t understand that. They say, when are elections? I have got to keep putting the pressure on but actually the work is now on.
Q. What about Iran’s nuclear programme?
A. Iran’s nuclear ambitions could very easily set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, which would be disastrous for all of us. The IAEA reports were very damaging to Iran. I’m sure Israel and the United States always have a military plan, but I haven’t heard anything in the last couple of days which suggests to me that people are seriously considering military options. There are elections going on in the United States and you might get a spike in the volume.
The train wreck that is waiting to happen is the Israeli-Palestinian problem. As we talk about the Arab spring and Iran, we keep forgetting the core issue. We’ve seen the problems at the United Nations in the General Assembly. This is something that we addressed with the Americans as early as May. The international community was very concerned about the Palestinians. The only alternative was to work together and get both sides to the table. And nobody really did anything here. Any issues started by any country were really frowned upon. It wasn’t until six weeks before that everyone started to scramble. The position of Britain has been outstanding. I have been so impressed in the past couple of years with how Britain has handled the Israeli-Palestinian file. My tremendous appreciation towards Cathy Ashton who has done a tremendous job. The European Union has really put pressure on the Israelis and Palestinians to get to the table. This thing is now at the General Assembly but it could have been dealt with before October.
Q Dealing with this Israeli government is tough?
A. We have been in contact. I haven’t seen or spoken to the Prime Minister in quite some time because I got a point where I didn’t see anything to me that justified seriousness on behalf of the Israeli government. Having said that, we are in contact with them. They’re beginning to realise how serious the problem is. Can we collectively put something together from now to the end of the year. We are frankly out of ideas. The continuation of a lack of a peace process limits Israel’s options. Before the Arab spring happened, this year was going be about is Israel interested in a two-state solution. What’s the alternative? A one-state solution? Is that going to be apartheid or not? The Arab spring overshadowed the strong discussions that Israel was going to be addressed with by the international community. Unless Israel is really committed to a two-state solution, one Western diplomat said to me recently, if Israel continues with its policy, they will find that the only allies that they have in the world is the US Congress. And that’s quite a fascinating statement. Because their options become less and less as time goes on.