Question and answer session with students and faculty
Boston, Massachusetts, US
15 October 1999
Question: Your Majesty, you once described yourself as having a family of four people, but you are now head of a family of four million people: what are your visions for this family, considering the wide promises that were given but were not delivered, after the passing of His Majesty King Hussein, may God rest his soul, what is Jordan going to do in that sector?
Abdullah: I am not the sort of person to cry over spilled milk. We obviously wanted the international community to understand the problem that we are facing and many countries are willing to helping us out in solving the debt problem that Jordan is facing. But we need to do a lot of the work ourselves.
Over the past six months we have changed a lot of the laws and created an atmosphere to bring investment to bring jobs back into Jordan and also open the doors to many Arab countries to take our highly educated workforce to work in those countries.
The future of Jordan is the economy, the ability to give a chance to the younger generation to find jobs. The number one export that our country has is human talent. I've been trying to spend as much time away from the government, actually meeting the people in the private sector and with the youth of the country, to see what their aspirations are. I'm 37 years old and 70 percent of the country is younger than me. That means that we need to change the way we do business, we have to listen to the younger generation and see what their hopes and aspirations are, and give them as much stability and the best chance they can have to grow and fulfil their ambitions. And we are working with the government to create a better atmosphere, but more importantly we need to be able to put food on the tables of the majority of Jordanians, who are below the poverty line and seeking jobs. We have some plans, obviously, between the private sector and government to achieve those things.
It's a long road, but there are improvements in Jordan's economy, and we are moving in the right direction. I am very hopeful that we can achieve the goals that we want.
Question: Your Majesty, I know of your interest in the information and technological revolution that is taking place and your desire to see that Jordan would be part of this movement forward. I have also noticed that you have met many businessmen in this country on this trip. Could you please tell us what went on with these people and what was their attitude to helping Jordan and coming in and investing?
Abdullah: With the amount of talent that we have in Jordan, the future of Jordan is actually in certain industries, mining, tourism and services. One of the main things that we have managed to identify as a new national sector is actually the computer industries. We graduate every year more computer graduates than Ireland does. We have such a raw talent, I think, that we are considered number 14 or 15 in the number of foreign students that come to the United States. For a country of 4 million people this is a huge number. We have such a wealth of young talent that we want to utilize, so I have been going to American computer companies to say that Jordan has a golden opportunity to have a win-win situation between the talented workforce that we have and the companies here in the United States. A young student having graduated from the Untied States coming back to Jordan to work in a computer company for the first five years, his salary will not amount to more than 200 to 250 dollars a month. So you have got this great talent but a competitive cost. So I think there is a great opportunity to bring American companies in.
Talking about the development of the area for example, there is a desire by Israel to take a lot of that talent to Israel. We think this is a very interesting proposal, but I presume that once the peace is complete it will be much easier for people to be able to interact. We have this huge reserve of resources that we need to utilize in this young talent that is coming back to our country.
Question: I have two questions if you would permit me, Your Majesty. First is what is Jordan's official position to the question of Jerusalem? And what Jerusalem will be as in terms of status? And the second question is concerning Iraq, what is Jordan's official position concerning sanctions on Iraq? Is it lobbying against these sanctions? If so, how is it doing so?
Abdullah: Thank you. Jerusalem is obviously the most complicated of the final status issues. And as we move towards final status I think it is smart for a lot of people to shy away from making too many statements, people like to make too many positions right off the bat, which creates confusion when you try to negotiate. All the parties in the area are aware of Jordan's historical ties to Jerusalem, but we feel that we need to work together to solve the problem. It is the most complicated issue no doubt, and if people start to plant flags all of a sudden I think that we just create more of a headache. Let's put it this way, the Palestinian Authority and the Israelis know our interest and our desires and we hope that the peace process will move quickly enough so that we will sit down and discuss Jerusalem, but any positions or any statements I think at this point just confuse the issue, and I prefer not to let that happen.
As for Iraq, the sanctions have been in place for many years. We see on a daily basis the suffering of the Iraqi people because a lot of them for a better life come into Jordan, I think we have close to 300 to 400 thousand Iraqis trying to find a better life in our country; on top of the economy problem, it is a great burden on Jordan. So we feel first-hand the effect that it is having on the people. Sanctions are not really solving the problem, we believe that dialogue is a way of getting past the difficulties that Iraq has with the international community. If there have not been any changes then maybe dialogue is the way to improve things, so we believe always in a peaceful outcome and peaceful dialogue as a solution, as opposed to hostility and confrontation. And we hope that the Iraqis and the international community can sit down and resolve their problems, and they can change, because we have been suffering from this position for the past ten years. For how long will our part of the world have to suffer with the instability that this particular situation is putting on all of us?
Question: I'd like to know what steps Jordan can take to facilitate a peace agreement between Syria and Israel, considering your excellent relations with both countries and with both leaders?
Abdullah: What we did from day one, we went to Syria to re-open relations. Just to give you a bit of history, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Sharon were in Jordan about a month before we went to Syria, and there was concern from the Israelis that obviously we would be going to Syria, which they saw as a direct threat to themselves, and we said no and that we felt that Jordan's position is to be friendly to everyone. We can have good relations with everybody and anybody that wants to have good relations with Jordan. And there was no way that one relationship would be started at the expense of the other. Well, we went to Syria and were surprised to find that what the Syrians were talking about and what the Israelis were talking about was actually in the same ballpark. I don't believe in being a middleman, I don't believe in getting involved between two people's problems. But I realized that both parties are saying pretty much the same thing. So all we did was pass the message that "hey, do you realize that you're talking pretty much in the same ballpark with the problems between your two countries." And we have been able to create an atmosphere where both countries felt that they could move forward. That is what we did in Jordan, and obviously if any side feels that we again can help it will be a great honor and privilege for us. But there is nothing better than two people sitting around a table solving their own problems, rather than having someone watching over their shoulder.
Question: Your Majesty, my question is regarding American foreign policy towards Jordan and Middle East. I think the problem of American foreign policy is that it does not take in the input, as much as it should, of leaders of various nations. And since there is a presidential election going on right now, and all the candidates for president are formulating their foreign policy, I wanted to know what is your advice to the potential next president of the United States as to what foreign policy should be towards Jordan and/or the Middle East?
Abdullah: I don't know if I should say thank you for that question. Let me throw it back to you in a different way (because there are cameras here). Madeleine Albright had said several months ago, what do you expect of the younger generation that is coming up in our part of the world? Well, most have not only been educated in our part of the world, but have also been educated in the West. We have our aspirations and hopes for the future. We understand the West very well. One of us is saying, what can we expect from the West? The problem, I think, is with the way sometimes the American foreign policy is not a long term approach. And we feel we are at a crossroad, where the ideology between the younger generation in the Middle East and those in Europe and the West is pretty much the same. We have some of the same fallbacks in what we aspire as a new Middle East. The problem is how do we achieve a long-term approach by the American government or Europe in general to take a look at our part of the world.
Jordan is trying to be a symbol of what we think is the future of the Middle East. We want to bring in freedoms, we want to bring in a democratic process, we want to really bring the level of standard in the country to be a symbol that everybody else in our part of the world will say, I want to be like that.
The problem obviously with administrations is you do have the campaigns, you do have a limited term for a leader in the United States. Even if it comes to the State Department or other agencies, there's usually a finite period of time. So, it can sometimes be extremely frustrating for us to get a long-term policy. What do you expect from us and what can we expect from you when every four, six, or eight years there is a change? And I don't know what the solution is, but one of the things that we did this week was we spoke to officials in Washington to say: Let us look at a long-term approach. How did America deal with Europe after 1945? Maybe that's an example. How did you deal with countries and have a long-term approach?
So, unfortunately, with politics people want to make great slogans to endear themselves to certain sectors. I think the Third World has gotten used to this, and what we tend to do is sit back and wait until the dust settles and then we start again.
Question: Your Majesty, I would like to ask you a question that is neither high politics, security, or economics. What is the role of women in Jordanian society in your grand political-economic vision for Jordan? Can they have a share, can they aspire to positions of leadership? And before you answer, I would like to say that your views on everything are so refreshing, I hope they continue in the same way.
Abdullah: Thank you. I hope so too. His late Majesty King Hussein was always a defender of women's rights and the rights of children, if we talk about other social aspects. In our country, we have women in the Senate. We used to have women in the Parliament. We had one woman that I think had done a very good job but at the next elections she did not make it. We have women mayors. We have women flying airplanes of our airline. We have the first female deputy prime minister in the Middle East. Women are playing a more and more important role in Jordanian society, and I think that was started by His late Majesty King Hussein and we are committed to making that process move as quickly as possible. My wife Rania is an advocate of pushing women's rights and women's issues, and we are working together to see what we can do to really bring women to the forefront. I mean, at the end of the day, they can make up 50 percent of the national workforce. We have a small country with a lot of talent and actually when it comes to university graduates, the highest grades are always the women, because the boys are having too much fun.
Question: Please allow me to read out my question, it's not that long. Your Majesty: Jordan is working towards entry into the World Trade Organization, which promotes free trade and removal of trade barriers. This will help foreign firms to penetrate the Jordanian market more easily. In light of this consequence, how does Your Majesty foresee the future of the Jordanian firms in terms of survival and competition? Thank you, Your Majesty.
Abdullah: Well, obviously, the only way to go is to become part of the World Trade Organization to bring ourselves up to the international level. In a certain sector for example, the pharmaceutical industry, which is very strong in Jordan and has done an amazing job in the Middle East, there are some concerns in sectors of what the World Trade Organization agreement will have. I believe that there is a golden opportunity because we have very good quality industry and we have a very good private sector. And this is one of the things that I will do in this visit; is try to get joint ventures with big American companies. If the company is going to feel that it is under threat because it has to work by international regulations, then why not marry that up with a big international company so that they can use the structure that is in Jordan and the talent for its survivability. What I have been doing is not only working with the government, but the different sectors of our society that I have been able to meet, mostly sitting with young businessmen that represent all the different companies and listening to what their concerns are. And our job is to try to see how, if companies are too small, how to merge them together so that they become stronger, or how we can generate PR on their behalf to get them in contact with international firms so that some sort of joint ventures can be done. And that is the framework we are working at. The problem is, we need to get a fluid language between the private sector and the government. Coming into office ؟ and I found out that this is not just Jordan just to reassure you ؟ but the government and the private sector sort of regard each other as mortal enemies and that was a bit of a shock for me. And what we are trying to do now is actually break down those barriers so that we can work as a team. And so far, the response has been very, very good. There will obviously be one or two companies that will be threatened. It is the responsibility of the leadership in Jordan to see what we can do to solve that. But there must be different mechanisms to ensure the survivability of Jordanian industry.
Question: Your Majesty, I would like to ask about efforts that the present government is making on the issues of Jordanian citizens that were kidnapped or missing in Kuwait after the operation of Kuwait and during the Gulf war.
Abdullah: Obviously, we in Jordan have been discussing with all governments the issue of missing peoples or of POW's. This is something that is of concern to us. While we were in Kuwait, we did discuss these issues with the Kuwaiti government. And for many years these problems have been discussed with other countries that might have an answer to where some of the missing Jordanians might be. Sometimes it is just difficult to get the raw information to be able to find them and we do ask the international community or the region's community to try and help us on missing persons.
Question: Your Majesty, my name is Ram Shmoili. I am a colonel in the Israeli Air Force and a PhD student. I read a lot about you in the past through military publication. So it is an honor for me to meet you and to ask you a question directly. I think that all of us ؟ the Israelis, the Egyptians, the Syrians, the Lebanese, and the Jordanians ؟ made a lot of mistakes in the past. And the question that I want to ask you is about the refugee problem. Fifty years later, there are people that are in refugee camps in Egypt, in Lebanon, in Syria, in Israel, and in Jordan. I want to ask you, what are you going to do with the refugees that are in refugee camps in Jordan? And what do you think Israel should do about this refugee problem, because it is stable for the last 50 years? Thank you.
Abdullah: Obviously, we regard the refugees in Jordan as Jordanian citizens and we believe that this is their home and they are welcome to the country that has been their home for many years. One of the final-status problems that we have when Jerusalem is mentioned, water and refugees are the main concerns of Jordan. We host about 33 percent of our population as refugees. We, the Jordanian position is: The right of return. We believe that this very, very important. And that is the case that Jordan will stand by. However, whatever the agreement is, it is up to the refugees ؟ the Palestinians that have been in our country as part of our country and part of our society for so many years ؟ to choose what they want to do. I would imagine that probably the majority would like to choose to stay in Jordan, but that is up to them, that is their choice. As a position, we have to fight for their rights and stand behind them and allow them the right of return. The difficulty, obviously as you said, is that there are other countries involved. There is Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria. And maybe the situation there is slightly different. I think that what we need to do is spend more time internationally, or at least with other countries in the area that suffer from the same problem, so that we identify the difficulties and get on the same page, so to speak.
The question is obviously, the role also of the international community. It is difficult for refugees to return after so many years. I think the international community has to support the Israelis, the Palestinians, and all the countries involved in supporting the refugee issue and seeing what we can do to either compensate or allow the right to return. But I think I can reassure you that there are some good discussions going on between other countries and between ourselves and Israel to try and find a solution that will make everybody happy.
Question: Your Majesty, I know you want to advance democracy in Jordan. How do you see your role in bringing this about in your traditional society? Is there a struggle between the two sides? And how does it feel to be a king in a world where monarchy is no longer a dominant way of ruling for people?
Abdullah: I think, having learnt from my father, if I start to think that I am a king then I have got a problem. I think I have been fortunate that I have had the best of both worlds and the best of both cultures. I grew up as a high school student here in the United States and got to have a very good understanding of the West. I went straight back to Jordan after the British Army into the regular army and I didn't, I was not given a cushy job in headquarters. I was sent to the middle of nowhere, where I served for many years, and so I was deeply immersed back into the Jordanian culture and I think that that has made me the way I am. I have an advantage that most people do not have. I had the chance to grow up as a normal person in the States with an education where people really did not care where you came from and what your title was. And I think that was an invaluable lesson that I have been able to keep all my life. And being able to go back to Jordan where I was sent out in the middle of nowhere commanding troops. And those who have been anywhere near the army soldiers will tell you exactly what is on their minds, and your titles and heirs do not work very well in the middle of nowhere. So I had the opportunity in both societies to interact with people. And when we had the terrible loss of His late Majesty, I think the number one thing that I have had to my advantage is I still know what the problems are. I had to suffer with my soldiers through what they had to go through, the poverty that they were going through, the difficulties that they had to bring up their families, how far the paycheck will take them in a month, and I know it was not very far. So those insights of having a normal life and being able to be brought up as a Jordanian citizen, as a Jordanian soldier, or in other travels as a regular human being everywhere else in the world, gives me a different perspective from this point of view. Therefore, I think I have more in common with people than a lot of the people that are around me and I think that makes a big difference. I, what fear I have, is ؟ as time progresses ؟ will I lose touch? And that sort of inspires me to come up with innovative ways to keep in touch with the people and keep in touch with the country to get the more common view, which used to help me for so many years.
Moderator: We have time for just two more questions.
Question: Your Majesty, my name is Muhammad al-Haj Hasan, a Jordanian student at MIT. And I would like to ask you: In light of the going anti-normalization movement in Jordan, what is Your Majesty's policy towards maximizing the fruits of peace and promoting trade between Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian National Authority?
Abdullah: I have a slight problem when a small minority of people bully the vast majority into a certain stand. I think that the practice of anti-normalization is an issue that I would like to address when I have a chance to back home in Jordan. What I say to my friends is let the peace process move as quickly as possible because we really need to have a type of world that we all believe in. And I think the majority of Jordanians believe in peace and stability. We have had wars in our region for 30, 40 years. The people, I think, in our part of the world have just had enough. And in the hearts of Jordanians I believe that they want to let us have peace. We have not seen the fruits of peace because there are still people out there that create instability, create fear, create paranoia. I hope that we can encourage our Israeli friends and our Palestinian brothers and the Syrians and Lebanese to move as quickly as possible. Once the Palestinian-Israeli problem is solved, then we all have a chance to have a type of life that we have all wanted. I mentioned this yesterday, but we keep talking about peace and the slogan that we keep saying is, you know, we want to have peace for our children and for their generation. But I think we have got this wrong. We should have peace for us now so that our children and their generations can benefit from it.
Question: Salam alaykum [peace be upon you], Your Majesty. My name is Zayd Yasin. I am an undergraduate student here at the college. You spoke of the necessity of peace in the Middle East. I was wondering, what do you see ؟ or who do you see ؟ as the biggest obstacles to that peace progress and how do you see your ؟ Jordan's ؟ role in overcoming these obstacles?
Abdullah: Well, the biggest problem is those that use the power of the pen or the strength of a word to create paranoia and insecurities to allow the rest of the people to move forward to peace. I think that the players that we have all understand what is at stake in Israel, with the Palestinians, the Syrians, and the Lebanese. There is no major obstacle. And what it comes down to is getting people to sit down and focus on what is at hand. And I think as I remember the courageous move of His late Majesty at the Wye accords to come from hospital basically to tell people off, to say: Look, you are all arguing about such petty things, you have forgotten what you're actually here to do. You are here to try and create a life, a future for your people and their children. So put away your differences and focus on the problem. And I think it woke everybody up and the peace process was allowed to move. I think that people have that focus now. Prime Minister Barak and President Arafat know what needs to be done. I think the Syrians are committed to having peace with Israel and so are the Lebanese. So the atmosphere is there, and the will is there. We, all of us in Jordan and in the international community, have to stand by our Israeli friends and our Palestinian brothers and the Syrians and Lebanese to encourage them to move forward that we will be there to support them. And that is the best thing that we can do.
Moderator: Because of the efficiency of the questions and the answers, we'll have time for just one more.
Question: Thank you. My name is Tha'ir al-Khayri, I am a graduate student, Harvard University. I am from Amman, Jordan. Your Majesty, I would like to ask you a question. What is your plan to resolve the water problem in Jordan?
Abdullah: Well, the water problem is not just in Jordan. It involves all the countries in the region. Obviously, we have a lot of fossil water and brackish water underground in large quantities. These are quick fixes that, if we have the financial support, can solve the water problem in Jordan. But all of us in the area have got to start talking about water. The water that is affecting Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq to that extent, comes from the north. So, where do we come up with water? I think that there needs to be a move by the international community to allow freedom of water, the right of water to everybody. If everybody starts to become selfish and cut off their own pieces of water, today I may be in Jordan, I might cut off the water to my neighbor. Well, then somebody a few years later might do that to the both of us. I hope that, and I think President Clinton had it in his mind to discuss regional water issues when he comes out to the Middle East. And water is like air, I think it belongs to everybody and I think that if we can put our minds together, those who have an abundance of water cannot charge people that do not. If we start putting a price on water, do we start putting a price on oxygen? It seems to be crazy. So there needs to be, I think, for the international community, the United Nations, or whoever, to come up with an agreement that water is allowed for everybody. Obviously technology will help a lot and desalination and other projects in the area will support it. But the future, potential conflicts in our area is not over land, it's over water, because you can't live without it.
Moderator: As I said in my introduction, King Abdullah, like his father, is no ordinary monarch. I believe he has demonstrated that well for us this afternoon. Please joint me in expressing our gratitude for his presence among us and welcome him back any time he wants to return. Thank you.