Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Steve Inskeep
National Public Radio (NPR)
22 September 2011

NPR: You have already said something needs to happen on the Israeli-Palestinian question the next couple of days. You are speaking at the United Nations of justice now, but given the state of negotiations, is it acceptable to you to walk away from this U.N. meeting this week with something less than recognition of Palestinian statehood?

King Abdullah: Well, the idea, again, the bid by the Palestinians for statehood came out of desperation and frustration because nothing was happening on the negotiating table. We could see this coming from several months ago, and obviously certain countries had raised their concerns about the Palestinian bid. Our response has been, "Well, let's then make an effort to get the Israelis and the Palestinians to sit around the table." That hasn't happened. So we only have ourselves to blame for this crisis. Having said that, again, I have to commend the role of the European Union. Lady Cathy Ashton of the EU, foreign minister, has been outstanding, with the support of Tony Blair, of trying to find a mechanism that pleases everybody. We've had — every six hours it seems to change. Until the last minute, which is Friday, when the Palestinians make the decision, there's a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiations to find something that's acceptable for everybody.

NPR: Meaning something short of statehood that pushes a vote on statehood down the road but gets negotiations started.

King Abdullah: Well, I think what the Europeans are looking at is looking at asking for statehood in a way that then there is technical process that gives some time to allow Israelis and Palestinians to sit at the table and relaunch negotiations on final status issues.

NPR: In your view, have President Obama and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu been constructive in these talks?

King Abdullah: The American president and administration have been — I saw the president in the spring of this year, and we had discussed this issue. We've all been working together. I'm not convinced that the Israelis have been as flexible as they should have been. As a result, we're dealing with this crisis today. Because if we could have gotten the Palestinians and Israelis at the table, before the U.N., then we wouldn't be dealing with this crisis at this stage.

NPR: Although, the Israelis can ask what can they do, because this needs to be resolved through negotiations, they would say, and not through a United Nations vote.

King Abdullah: Exactly. It needs to be resolved through negotiations, but they're not allowing the right atmosphere to get Israelis and Palestinians to sit around the table.

NPR: As you know, King Abdullah, Turkey has downgraded the state of its relations with Israel. Your country, we'll remind people, has relations with Israel. Have you considered downgrading your relations with Israel?

King Abdullah: No. But it's funny that you should mention this issue because, again, if we have a very negative impact coming out of the United Nations — in other words that the Palestinians are really short-handed on this issue — you saw recently what happened in Egypt with the attack on the Israeli Embassy; Turkey downgrading its relationship, Egypt having problem with Israel. We have, as you mentioned, peace with Israel. We're actually the last man standing. So there is going to be immense pressure and people asking, 'Why are we having this relationship when it's not benefiting anybody?' Obviously, my answer is you always benefit from peace. But practical steps on the ground — we have seen no intention from the other side to try to move the process forward.

NPR: You're saying you could be forced to take steps against Israel?

King Abdullah: I'm not the type of person that is forced. But having said that, there are going to be a lot of questions, not just in my country, but across the Middle East. Is Israel going to continue to be "Fortress Israel"? Or, as we all hope, become accepted into the neighbourhood, which I believe is the only way we can move forward in harmony. No matter what's happening in the Middle East — the Arab Spring, et cetera, the economic challenges, high rates of unemployment — the emotional, critical issue is always the Israeli-Palestinian one.

NPR: I'm glad you mentioned the Arab Spring. What is it like to be a king of an Arab state at a time of revolution like this?

King Abdullah: Well, actually quite exciting. I think that we have been trying to push reform, there has been a lot of pushback by more conservative elements, old-guard elements in the country. And what the Arab Spring or the Arab Awakening did was bring in the subject front and centre. As a result, in Jordan, if you compare to a lot of other countries, we created a national dialogue committee. We went on outreach with everybody, came to a consensus. We changed a lot of laws. At the moment, the Constitution is being amended, right now as we speak, by both chambers. We're announcing municipal elections at the end of the year and national elections beginning of next year. The challenge that we have — and, again, this brings concerns but also excitement — is trying to get a democratic mentality. For all the town-hall meetings that I have, and I have them sort of every two weeks, and I bring people to the office of all different sectors. And as we discuss what people want in political reform moving forward, there's one question I now ask on purpose because the first couple times I asked it the answer surprised me. I say, "Where do you stand on health, education, taxes, services, et cetera?" — and 99 percent, I get blank looks. You as an American understand, whether you're a Republican or Democrat, where you stand on social issues, health care, taxes. Recently, we've been watching your news — this is something that has impassioned Americans. But to see that an audience that you talk to don't understand that means it's going to take awhile for them to look at parties, political parties, based on political party platforms — left, right or centre. And as an American colleague said to me several months ago, he said, "I think the challenge in Jordan — and, again, this is for the rest of the Middle East — we need to define what centre is. And once we can define what centre is to a Jordanian, then we can decide what's left and what's right of that. So that's the exciting part of this democratic evolution that we are having in Jordan. But again, you can imagine the challenge of trying to — you know, that takes time for people to look along those lines.

NPR: I want to ask about time. You mentioned elections beginning of next year. Is that the time frame, or is it more likely to be later than that?

King Abdullah: Well, it's going to be in 2012. I was sitting with a group of journalists in Jordan, not all of them very positive, and they asked me, "When do you think national elections are going to be?" And I said, "Well, I'm hoping by the second half of 2012, God forbid maybe the beginning of 2013." There was this collective gasp by all of them. I said, "OK, guys, help me do the math. Do you want municipal elections before national elections?" "Absolutely." Well, that means, "When can we have municipal elections?" They said, "By December." Which is what we've done. Dec. 20 now is going to be municipal elections. "How much time, technically, do we need between municipal elections and national elections?" "We need at least six months." "OK, so now we're talking — you guys give me a date." They said, "OK, the earliest is June." "All right." We also have introduced an independent commission for elections to show transparency, which I think is very important. I said, "Is this something important to all of you?" "Absolutely." "How much time do we need for that to happen?" "Six months to a year." I said, "OK, let's all agree that we can't move earlier than June, but let's also put a block at the end of that to make sure we keep pressure on everybody not to go beyond that. So, God willing, June to November. Does that make sense?" Everybody says, "Yes." Now the challenge today is all the laws that need to be ratified. Constitutional amendments themselves need 14 new laws. And a total of 30 laws and amendments to get ourselves to that election date. So the challenge today is the pressure on the government and on the parliament to ratify all those laws so that we could launch elections in June or November. So, I can't give you the exact date, but it's just because there's just a reality issue there in the meantime.

NPR: Given the realities in other countries, how do you keep a lid on, if that's the way to put it? How do you avoid an explosion for a year here?

King Abdullah: Again, what's happening today now, as long as people benchmark understand what needs to be done, I think the challenge that I have is managing people's expectations. Not only over the year as you've mentioned, but more importantly, even if we have parliamentary elections in 2012, you're not going to have those new political parties. Because, you know, we've been working with Republican and Democratic institutions here that are helping us. The British are helping us. Recently we've reached out to Eastern European countries that have gone through this much more recently than others. They — as well as the new political parties that are being formed based on programs, i.e. left, right and centre — are saying to us, "We need another two years." So we can have a new parliament next year, but until we get right, left and centre, there's going to be a delay for that. That's the challenge.

NPR: When you talk about "left, right and centre" you're basically talking about laying out a democratic political landscape in your country. What do people stand for and what do they believe?

King Abdullah: Exactly. In short terms, I've announced last year, I mean, at the beginning of this year, and I've been speaking to everybody saying, "Look, my vision for Jordan is two to five political parties representing left, right and centre as quickly as possible." But we have to understand, "as quickly as possible" means we really need to roll up our sleeves. You know, we're going from the Arab Spring now to Arab Summer. The hard work is now. And managing people's expectations. Obviously, if people prepare for municipal elections, people are going to be busy. And then when you look at it six months later there are going to be national elections, again people will be busy. The challenge, and my worry is, does parliament try to delay passing the laws? Because, obviously, as a parliamentarian, if elections happen earlier, then they may be out of a job. So as I ask journalists and many people, we need to have collective pressure on our parliament to make sure that those laws are ratified on time. So, God willing, we'll be ready in June. Worst comes to worst, i hope no later than November.

NPR: Does it bother you that one of the implied and often explicit messages of these protests across the Arab world is that, if I may say, people like you should have less power or perhaps no power?

King Abdullah: No. You know, it depends if you have an ego issue, which particularly it's not a problem of mine. And since I've been pushing this from the start — I mean, the first interview I ever had after my father passed away, I said, "My job is to put food on the table for people." And what I meant by that is basically creating a middle class, knowing full well — and looking again at the European model, the United States in particular, also — the stronger you have a middle class, the easier I think political transformation happens. So it's a two-way sword. The more I support with my economic plans the building of a middle class, the quicker they're going to turn around and say, "Hey, we want a bigger say in things." So, I knew what I was getting into right at the beginning. It's the right thing to do. And again, this is bigger than Jordan. We want to be, I think, an example for the rest of the Arab world, because there are a lot of people who say that the only democracy you can have in the Middle East is the Muslim Brotherhood. I don't think that's the case. I think if a monarchy, as you said, can show a new democratic platform, then I think we'll be a symbol for other countries.

NPR: Do you expect there to be a monarchy that you would pass on to your heir, and if so, what power would remain to the king?

King Abdullah: We're obviously going through some tremendous changes today. I think we've said this in interviews before in the past 10 years — that the monarchy that I hand over to my son is not going to be the same one that I've inherited. You know, you don't know too much about Jordan, but there is a tendency for a lot of officials to hide behind the king, and it's about time that officials take their responsibility and are responsible in front of the people. Because today, if you're appointed by the king, they don't feel that they're responsible for the people. If you have a government that is elected, they need to do the hard work — because if they don't, they won't be around next time the ballot box is open.

NPR: What troubles you most about the protests of this year?

King Abdullah: The challenge that we have -– well, what bothers me in a lot of countries is sometimes society is being led by the street as opposed to the light at the end of the tunnel. But we've got to remember that the Arab Spring began — and there's challenges all over the world, including your country — because of economic difficulties: unemployment, poverty. We have the largest youth cohort in history coming into the workforce in the Middle East. That is how the Arab Spring started. I mean, Tunis started because of economy, not because of politics. What keeps me up at night is poverty and unemployment. We have in the past 10 years managed to establish a credible middle class, but any shifts in oil prices, economic challenges, that middle class becomes very fragile. And so, again, going back to political reform, you really need a strong, stable middle class. So my major challenge today is deficit that our country can run up because of oil prices, creating enough jobs to keep unemployment as low as possible. Again, I think I'm saying something as a Jordanian that you as an American can quite appreciate. That's I think our major challenge.

NPR: Are you also worried about who ends up ruling Arab countries?

King Abdullah: We have to always hope in humanity that people will make the right choices. I think that when your stomach is full and you're secure, you can make better choices, and I think that's what we're trying to do in Jordan. But we are looking around our part of the world, there's a lot of instability, and we are concerned of what the outcomes will be. Again, I think in certain countries you're going to see revolution after revolution until it calms down. What we're trying to do in Jordan is do evolution. And may that be an example for other countries that are faced with these challenges. We miss sorely the strong role that Egypt played regionally. It's a regional powerhouse. Today, with all the internal problems, unfortunately, they're not going to be on the scene for several years until this all settles. I'm sad to see that because we desperately need a strong, stable Egypt.

NPR: And then there's Syria, your neighbour. What worries you most about protests against Bashar Assad, the leader there?

King Abdullah: From what I can see, I don't see much changes in the immediate future, which means demonstrations will continue for quite a while. No expert in the world now can predict what's happening in the Middle East. Things are happening too quickly, and the area is changing so rapidly that we really don't know.

NPR: Do you think, do you sense that the United States has a good feel for what's going on? When you've talked to American diplomats, when you've talked to President Obama, do you feel like you're dealing with people who fully understand the situation as you see it?

King Abdullah: Yes. I think in the beginning it took people by surprise, and there may have been some decisions that had not been — you know, hindsight is always 20/20. But there is, I think, a maturity in the West of what we're going through. A very senior European politician said that when they saw the Israeli Embassy in Cairo being attacked, that was like taking a bucket of cold water and pouring it over a lot of heads of states' heads in the West. So there is concern of where is this Arab Spring leading to in many countries. But the only way we can help is all of us pitch in and try to support those countries go through these tough times.

NPR: King Abdullah, thanks very much.

King Abdullah: Thank you, sir.