Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Isabelle Kumar
The Global Conversation
11 November 2015

مقابلة جلالة الملك عبدالله الثاني مع قناة يورو نيوز 11 تشرين الثاني 2015 | RHCJO

Euronews (introduction): Jordan is home to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees – and buckling under the pressure as international aid falls short. In the meantime, the Kingdom is facing encroaching Islamist terrorism.  I am in Amman to speak exclusively to King Abdullah II.

Euronews: Your Majesty, many thanks for joining us on “The Global Conversation”. Jordan is a small country, but you have a history of providing asylum to refugees. There are so many Syrians fleeing the war now just across the border that is putting your economy and your resources under great strain. How much longer can you cope with this?

King Abdullah: Well, we have been coping for several years now. We are pretty much maxed-out: 1.4, roughly, million Syrian refugees, that is about 20 per cent of our population. That is probably as much as we can take.

Obviously, with the presence of the Russians now in Syria, depending on how that turns out on ground fighting, there is a concern that there may be more refugees being pushed down towards the south.

So, it is a day-to-day issue that we are struggling with, especially with the fact that only 10 per cent of the refugees are actually in the refugee camps.  The rest of them are across our country, in all the villages and all the cities.

Euronews: You asked for $3 billion in aid at the beginning of this year. How much of that has been fulfilled?

King Abdullah: Well, to actually take care of the problem, it is roughly about $3 billion a year; and, unfortunately, last year we got about 28 per cent of that. This year it is about 35 per cent. The rest of it has to come from the Jordanian government. So, every year roughly it costs us a quarter of the budget to cover not just looking after the refugees, but infrastructural support. As I said, when you have 90 per cent of the refugees outside of the refugee camps that affect our school systems, our infrastructure, our health care system, Syrians competing for jobs with Jordanians. So, there is tremendous support from the international community, but when, as this year, it is only 35 per cent, a small country like ours that is trying to work with the IMF, it really is a tremendous challenge. And we are being let down by the international community.

Euronews: So, you say that you are feeling let down by the international community, but also you are moving now beyond from an emergency response to a long-term, sustainable approach to deal with these people, who may well be in your country for many more years.

King Abdullah: Well, there is really no choice. I mean on average, I think, most reports from the international community show that refugees on average stay for 17 years. So, we have to look long-term.

How do we look at accepting many of these refugees to be part of our society for a long-term? How do we sustain that in our economy? What we are now trying to do is to reach out to our European friends to say, how can you look at this as a sustainable package for the economy for a long-term? How do we create jobs for Syrian labour, but also for Jordanians?

The challenge is that unemployment for Jordanian citizens is on the rise. Jordan is a very stable country when it comes to the region. Our military is very strong. The weakness is our economy; and we have taken a tremendous burden off Europe by being able to host these Syrians.

Europeans are beginning to taste just a little bit of the challenge that we have had over these past few years and we see the reaction in Europe because a small percentage of these refugees have hit your shores.

Well, this is something that we have been living with for five or six years, and quite honestly, people have taken us for granted to a certain extent.

Euronews: And if we continue with this idea of being taken for granted, Europe is in chaos, really, to all intents and purposes, with this refugee crisis. We see EU countries that can’t help, or possibly don’t want to help these refugees. So, what makes you think the EU and EU leaders will help you now further to combat this?

King Abdullah: There are a lot of countries that want to help because as we have always taken the challenge as the right thing to do. Other countries are going to help us because it is actually easier for them to invest in countries such as Jordan because it takes the burden off Europe.

We are seeing some numbers of refugees leaving Jordan eventually to get to Europe because they are beginning to realise that Jordan can only sustain itself for so long.

What we are trying to do with our European friends is how do we work together to invest in factories, creating jobs, investments into Jordan. But at the same time, we are classified as a middle-income country. As a result, we have difficulties getting loans from the international community; so we are in debt, and we are being asked to take loans at very high percentages, when there is this mental split that we are actually suffering on something that is actually completely out of our control.

So, we are working with some of the European countries, but we will see how it goes to hopefully a donor’s conference in the UK in February.

Euronews: You mentioned that Syrians are leaving, going over to Europe as conditions deteriorate here. We are also hearing that some Syrians are choosing to return to Syria because they are losing hope. Do you get concerned sometimes that despite everything you have done, you might end up on the wrong side of history when it comes to this crisis?

King Abdullah: I’m always somebody who looks at a glass half full. And if we will talk about the challenges we have now, I think the issue of refugees arriving on the shores of Europe has been a wake-up call for all of us that we have to have better coordination.

If we take one step back, what we have been talking about up until this point is, obviously, about the global war against terror. Europe is suffering from foreign fighters. This is an issue that we have been calling for, for the past two years.

This is, in my view, a global war; a third world war by other means. Getting our act together in Syria, allows us a building block to be able to deal with this from a holistic approach. So we have to come together and help each other on this issue. And I think there is a wake-up call now that there has to be synchronisation.

And as we talk about the Russian involvement in this, there is an opportunity.

Euronews: Previously, the US has held a lot of weight in this region; you have just mentioned Russia, do you see Russia as a bigger key player now in this region?

King Abdullah: I have always said for the past five or six years that for a political solution in Syria, Moscow is key. They are the ones that can give the guarantees to the regime that they have a stake in the future. And I still believe that the fact that the Russians are on the ground in Syria today, is a reality that we all have to deal with.

As I said, if the Europeans are dealing with a major concern of foreign fighters, that is doubly so for Russia. And so, they have a major problem with foreign fighters also; so they need to deal with the threat of ISIS or Daesh themselves.

So, for me, I see this as an opportunity for all of us to come together on Syria; and again, then being able to pan back on this global threat.

There is a lot of mistrust between East and West. There is still unfortunately this mentality of living in the cold war era. And we have to get beyond this to this new challenge of this global third world war.

So, as we start building confidence steps, I think here is for us the opportunity to put our differences aside and bring this new collective relationship together.

Euronews: So, would you place the priority in terms of defeat on beating or defeating Syrian President Bashar Al Assad or on ISIL/Daesh?

King Abdullah: The understanding that is coming across now after the Vienna meetings: we have to defeat Daesh/ISIS, but at the same time lead to a political process that brings a new page to Syria.

So, how the wording of that happens is where the different countries are jockeying at the moment. But there is, I think, a collective understanding that Daesh is a problem and that has to be dealt with; then how do you deal with the politics of things? So, different countries have different positions, but the end game, at the end of the day, is how do you defeat Daesh and the franchises around the world and we have to keep reminding the players − look at the bigger picture.

Euronews: Because this is an inspirational group, they have inspired attacks all around the world. What is your take on it? You are a keen viewer of geopolitical affairs. How do you see a group like this being defeated?

King Abdullah: It is a franchise, it is a global franchise. There is no difference between any of these groups, they are all the same. They all have the same thinking. And so we have to understand that and we have to be able to think the same way.

So that is why I am trying to explain that if we can come together on Syria, the other elephant in the room − unfortunately for the Europeans and sometimes, maybe, the Americans don’t understand, when I keep saying the elephant in the room − is Libya.

You know, it is not just Syria that we have to deal with, as quickly as we can get our minds around that, what about Libya, what about Boko Haram, what about Al Shabab? We still have issues in Asia.

So, an opportunity now presents itself, I think, with the Russian involvement in Syria, is to get past previous problems of history and create this global relationship to be able to tackle what I am calling this allies of this new third world war conflict that we have to face.

Euronews: Bashar Al Assad is an essential part of this. You talk about a political solution, transition period, that’s obviously the big stumbling block here, but who could step in to President Bashar Al Assad’s place to stop ISIL moving in?

King Abdullah: We have to be very careful because different countries that are involved in this Syria puzzle have their different views; and I think the problem is standing on a soapbox and taking strong positions at this stage is not helpful.

We understand that we need to have a political process in Syria.

I think the idea is how do we move the political process forward. I think the Russians understand that; the regime understands this; and those that are involved on the coalition-side, with different views, understand that.

So, let the haggling happen in a way that it can actually get a moderate opposition to be able to get to the table at a certain date with the regime to be able to move forward. There is no real quick fix because the aim is to get, hopefully, a new process going in Syria, politically, but we still have a fight against Daesh.

There is an inter-link between Syria and Iraq because Daesh is a cross border. It has got a large piece of real estate in eastern Syria and a large piece of real estate in western Iraq.

Euronews: And what about Jordan? Because you are surrounded by this instability, encroaching ISIL terrorism; but also your young men, possibly women, have joined those foreign fighters too. How long can you fend off this extremism? Because, as you said, Jordan is one of the stable countries in this region.

King Abdullah: There is an understanding inside of Islam that these are what we call the khawarej – the outlaws of Islam. We are having a better understanding in this dialogue inside of Islam that this is a threat to the very core of our religion. And this is the challenge that I think we have had with the West, when many at times were asked: Are you a moderate Muslim or an extremist Muslim? No, I am a Muslim, these people are khawarej. And I think this is a debate that has taken a while to happen inside of Islam.

And I think the problem is the interpretations you get from the West is sort of the horror that they may do to the West, is what they are inflicting on fellow Muslims, which is what is shocking to all of us. So, again, if you look at Islamic history, khawarej in a way have never lasted. Once people understand who they are, it is a blink of an eye.

The problem is we have to put the global differences aside. We need the rest of the world to work with us in this direction. This is why I say it is Muslims, Christians, Jews, other religions, all of us fighting this global fight together. It is a war inside of Islam. It is our civil war, but we cannot do it by ourselves.

Euronews: If we change tack slightly, and we look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on another of your borders, the western border, where peace there seems pretty much impossible at the moment. Do you think that a change of leadership is required to re-start, to kick-start that peace process, and what role can Jordan play?

King Abdullah: Well, it is not for me to say about leaders. The leaders represent their own people. But what I will say is that we have to have an ability to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem, especially with what I have been talking about.

So, to see an extremist trying to create a problem in the Holy City of Jerusalem, when we are dealing with this global war on extremism, makes no sense at all. We are dealing with this international problem and we are leaving it to certain extremists that want to create a religious conflict in Jerusalem, is to me asinine.

And every single time there is no negotiation violence flares.

Israelis hate it when we say that the Palestinian issue is part of the problem, the extremists use the plight of the Palestinians and Jerusalem as their rallying cry. So, that is part of the problem. We have to take the future of the Palestinians and Jerusalem as something that we have to solve, otherwise, how are we going to win this global problem if there is denial on the Israeli side that it has got nothing to do with them.

Euronews: And we see so much, so many crises on different fronts. We see the refugee crisis, we see ISIL/Daesh, we see economic crises and we also see proxy wars taking place on so many different fronts. Do you get the impression that things are beginning to spiral out of control?

King Abdullah: Well, somebody said once to me it is just a Wednesday. I mean, it is a normal day’s work, I think, in this part of the world these days.

It is tough times, there is no doubt about that, but what I have seen recently is more of an awareness of the larger picture, more of an awareness of how to look at this strategically as opposed to tactically because quite honestly we have been tactical for the past several years.

There are a lot of things that I cannot really say in this interview, but there are meetings of minds around the world where there is a more strategic approach to these issues.

So, again, for example, the presence of the Russians in Syria has an opportunity to move this in the right direction. If we’re mature about it, if we all reach out to each other and try and find a solution for the Syrian people to try and finally bring this horrible conflict to an end for the betterment of the Syrian people, to try and bridge the gap between the Russians and the west, which will lead us to being able to have alliances elsewhere.

There are opportunities here. So, it all comes down to us. Are we going to grab those opportunities or are we going to stick our heads in the sand and let these opportunities take us past?  It is up to us.

Euronews: Your Majesty, many thanks for joining us on “The Global Conversation.”

King Abdullah: Thank you very much.