Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Tony Jones
Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)
23 November 2016

RHCJO | مقابلة جلالة الملك عبدالله الثاني مع محطة إيه بي سي التلفزيونية الأسترالية

ABC: Your Majesty, thanks for joining us.

King Abdullah: Glad to be here, thank you, Tony.

ABC: Can I start with the big question on everyone’s minds: Could Donald Trump’s presidency be a game-changer in the Middle East?

King Abdullah: It will definitely I think change the status quo of a lot of issues that I think we’ve been dealing with. We’ll have to see how the transition team comes along and what their view of our part of the world, but also the rest of the world, so it’s not just I think people in our region that are sort of waiting with bated breath; I think everybody is.

ABC: Yes. Do you think the world’s leaders are waiting with their fingers crossed quietly behind their backs after such a divisive campaign?

King Abdullah: Well, I mean, it’s something that, I think, kept all of us busy for the past two years. I have had the opportunity to speak to President-elect Donald Trump last week. The synergy was very good in the phone call conversation. I know many members of the transitional team, and, obviously, America is also built on institutions, so there will be some changes in policy, but I don’t think to the extent that everybody’s panicking about, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt at this stage.

ABC: One of the, I guess, one of the things that people are looking very closely at—the biggest conflict in the region in Syria. Are you at all concerned that President Trump will adopt what is essentially the Russian position of keeping President Assad and his regime in power indefinitely?

King Abdullah: Well, I think all options are on the table at this stage, but again I think I have to be very clear that, I think, most of us that understand Syria realise that there cannot be a solution without the Russians, and this has been something that all of us have been discussing for the past year or two. So at this stage, we have to wait to see what is the US strategy, how they’re going to deal with the Russians; I think this is what is on everybody’s mind, but at the same time, I think—you and I just briefly discussed before this interview—the concerns on the ground, so what happens in Aleppo, for example, which is a tremendous humanitarian disaster taking place. I don’t think there’s much we can do until the new administration is in place and a strategy is formulated, and there is contact with the Russians. So, on that level, on the ground level —

ABC: Is that what’s happened do you think? Because the Russians pretty much walked away from the peace process. They gave the excuse that the allies are supporting Al Sham, which is an offshoot of the Al Nusra, the Al Qaeda-backed rebels in eastern Aleppo. But of course, it does seem to everybody that they’re just really waiting until the inauguration of a new president.

King Abdullah: I think from the Russian point of view, we get the sense there is a wait-and-see, who was going to win the elections, and the new administration to be in place. So I think that they felt somewhat emboldened to do whatever they felt they needed to do in Syria, but at the same time, it’s difficult to put blames—when it comes to negotiations—on who walks away from whom. What we all hope is, as the new administration comes in and it sets itself and its strategy, that there is some synergy. At the end of the day, we’re dealing with a global terror problem—a new Third World War by other means as I said—not post-Cold War, where I had a feeling that there was more hatred between Moscow and Washington than there was against the extremists that we’re dealing with globally. I hope that changes, because the priority is, actually, against this global threat.

ABC: So, do you think that Trump-Putin, some form of agreement between the two could be an opportunity in Syria, and would you be prepared—do you think the broader alliance—be prepared to see Assad remain in place if that was the Russians’ will?

King Abdullah: Well, we definitely need an opportunity because things have not been going extremely well from the political prospect over the past six months, if not slightly longer. So unless there’s an understanding by the Russians and the Americans to begin with as the major players, and by the rest of us, we’re going to be here a year from now just looking at the tragedy on the ground. But I have to remind people also that even if you do have a political process going, whether that involves Assad or not, what people tend to forget, they think: oh, there’ll be a political process, and then we don’t have to worry about anything else. The second part of that is there is a war against terror inside of Syria; that’s going to take some time, so politicians think: oh, we’ve solved the politics. But the reality on the ground is going to be with us for much longer, and not just in Syria.

ABC: Just on that, you talked about synergies, and of course, the Americans and the Russians have been talking about, even prior to this, setting up a joint operations base command to coordinate airstrikes. Do you think that’s possible, and particularly, would it be threatened if the Russians simply level eastern Aleppo with their aircraft in the meantime until January?

King Abdullah: Well, so do people—as happens in many parts of our part of the world—try to create realities on the ground before people can sit around a table, so again if we have now to wait until February-March, I think a lot of innocent people are going to suffer in the meantime. Having said that, on coordination, I know from first hand that there has been some very successful coordination from the military aspect between Russians and the United States on Syria, and operations there. When the politics got worse or better, that obviously fluctuated. We hope that maybe now, there’s a new focus, but them sitting down around a table and agreeing is something that can be done, and we did see it on the military level in many parts of Syria.

ABC: Well, Trump has made it absolutely clear that his priority will be to destroy ISIS. If he needs the Russians’ help to do it, he’ll, obviously, seek whatever help he can get. Is it possible to actually do that?

King Abdullah: But I think the destruction of ISIS should be everybody’s priority, and I keep saying this is where the global war is today. We look at it as a war, a civil war inside of Islam, but we can’t do it without the help of Christians and Jews, and other religions and other nations, because this thing is not just located in Syria or Iraq, it’s in Libya—we’re dealing with Boko Haram and Shabab, you have the Al Taliban, and actually, in this neck of the woods, you also have your challenges. So unless we look at this in a global, holistic approach, we’re never going to win, and so we’ve got to be—using an American vernacular—chew gum and walk at the same time, and that’s been, I think, the frustration in the past, where it’s Syria today, Iraq tomorrow. But even if you see now pressures on Syria and on Iraq for ISIS, we have seen, for the past year, commanders going to Libya. So if we’re going to wait a year or two until we deal with Libya, and if you’re successful in Libya, it’s going to put pressure down on the Boko Haram and the Shabab aspects in East and West Africa, and then we’ll think: oh well, we’ll talk to the Africans two years from now; we’re never going to get this right.

ABC: So you have to do it all at the same time, and—since you’ve gone down that path—do you seek, or are you in the process of creating cooperation with Australia, sitting in the middle of this region, with the largest Muslim country, Indonesia, just to our north?

King Abdullah: Well, absolutely, I mean, Australia plays such a pivotal role in international affairs; you have a very capable special forces. We’ve seen them in our neighbourhood over the past several years. So whether they work in our part of the world, or whether we need to be able to nip it in the bud, so to speak, in certain regions here in the Far East, this is something that we have to do. I think your government understands that. We’ve had discussions along those lines, so have other responsible governments in the area.

ABC: Indonesia. Have you been talking to the Indonesian government?

King Abdullah: Yes—

ABC: And do you see Indonesia as being a critical part of this puzzle that you’re trying to put together—a global war on jihadism?

King Abdullah: Absolutely. I mean, if you look at Indonesia as being the largest Muslim country in the world, there is great synergy between the populations there; you have a Muslim-majority country, but you’ve also got Catholics, the relationship has always been a comfortable one. What we don’t want is to lose the opportunity of making sure that everybody shares and works together, and have to come back and visit—I’m not saying Indonesia—but other countries in the region, you know, solve a problem from a military point of view three or four years from now. So I think coordination with Indonesia, supporting Indonesia in making sure that the extremist threat is limited and then eradicated in Indonesia, is something that we need to think about.

ABC: Just looking at this incredibly complex equation, and particularly within Islam itself, we’ve got this schism between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, and on the Shiite side, you’ve got this power emerging of Iran, and the big question mark that a lot of people have now—since we have a nuclear peace deal, the United States, Obama, struck with Iran—is whether Trump will be persuaded by Israel to drop that deal. What do you think? Do you think he would?

King Abdullah: I wouldn’t want to speculate on that. I’m sure there are concerns in our part of the world, and, as you said, you know, we do have some countries that have this Shiite-Sunni tension. That’s—the least thing that we want now is an inter-religious war. We have our problems inside of Sunni Islam, which is what we call the khawarej, the outlaws of Islam. These are the perpetrators that have done criminal acts in my country, in Europe, in yours. This is the franchise that we’re dealing with. A Shiite-Sunni conflict inside of the Middle East is opening Pandora’s box, I mean, the fault line between Shiites and Sunnis goes from, you know, Beirut to Bombay, so that’s one last thing that we need. At this point, we need to concentrate against what we call khawarej, the outlaws of Islam.

ABC: Do you think it’s important that the United States—and it’ll be in the hands of Congress as well as the president—keep a hold of that nuclear deal with Iran? Would it upset the balance of power if the Americans decided—urged by the Israelis—to drop it?

King Abdullah: Well, you know, Iran has been responsible in inciting sectarian conflict in our area, and, again, when you look at the Iranians, they have several cards that they play, so one of them is the nuclear card, one of them is the card that I just mentioned, they do support organisations that sometimes are considered terrorist in nature. So I think when you look at Iran, you have to look at it in its totality; and, again, it’s too early for us to understand where the new American policy is going to be on that. Everybody’s going to have their opinion, but I think we’ve got to keep it in the bigger picture aspect of things.

ABC: I’m thinking how that might impact on Syria, with Iran, Russia, the United States, and other Arab countries with really serious interest in Syria; whether that balance can be upset by something like that?

King Abdullah: So exactly, there are so many different flavours out there; if you’re going to, sort of, focus on one issue and make that the standard strategy for your administration, it’s going to impact a lot of other things in the Middle East—all the way from Morocco to Yemen. So, again, I can’t put words into the new administration’s mouth, but I think they’re looking at it, and the way the team is being put together, is how do we look at it from a really strategic point of view; so if you’re going to look at Iran, you have to understand that Iran does impact, well, Afghanistan on one side, but Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, to an extent. And we have issues in Yemen, and we have some problems in Africa. So how do we balance the new strategy of the administration with all those things integrated.

ABC: Now, you said you have good relations with people in the transitional team, and there’s at least one member of the transitional team, General Michael Flynn, who’s been pegged to become the national security adviser, and, just in terms of this global war on jihadism that you’re talking about, I’m wondering, could it upset that, with someone like Flynn describing Islam as a cancer, a political ideology that hides behind the notion of a religion, as a national security adviser, could that damage relations? Could it damage the very thing you’re talking about, which is trying to create a kind of global consensus to defeat jihadism?

King Abdullah: Well, whatever comments are made on the campaign trail I tend to put aside and give people the benefit of the doubt, and I think we should give the new administration the benefit of the doubt on this issue. And part of the problem, I think, that’s been a major challenge and frustration from my point of view is, if you take some people at their word, is the complete lack of understanding of Islam and the challenges that we have. So when we say that this is our civil war, the one that we’re fighting, and I think most non-Muslims don’t understand our religion, you know, do they know that we believe Jesus Christ to be the Messiah? Virgin Mary is mentioned, I think, about 35 times in our Qur’an; only 25 times in the Bible, but the Bible is a lot bigger. Moses is mentioned 130 times in the Qur’an. So you have to understand that, a true Muslim would believe in the Bible and the Torah, as well as the Qur’an; we have to have a belief in Judaism and Christianity as the other two monotheistic religions. It’s those that don’t understand, and it’s the enemy that want to create this atmosphere that is actually us against them, and this is where, I think, we’re going to fall into major trouble over the next couple of years if it’s ‘us-against-them’ mentality. We’re actually all in the same trench—Muslims, Christians, and Jews against what I keep calling the outlaws of our religion.

ABC: I suppose I can speak on behalf of many people in the world when I say one hopes that you might one day get in a room with Donald Trump to explain that, I mean, will you have that opportunity?

King Abdullah: I’m hoping that we will have an opportunity. As I said, I had a very good conversation with him on the phone. I’ve met him a couple of times before, many years ago, and we have good contact with many people in his team, and I think there’s an understanding, and I think that others—especially in Europe who understand the threat from the government point of view—speak the same language that I do. Understanding where the threat is inside of Islam is a spectrum that there’s probably not enough time in the interview to go through it, but if you understand that it’s actually in the last ten per cent of Sunni Islam where the problem is, and even in that ten per cent, so probably one or two per cent —

ABC: Those people you described as the outlaws.

King Abdullah: The outlaws of Islam. Once they understand where it is in Islam the threat is, and understand that spectrum, then we’ll be able to deal with the horror and the challenge much easier, even, I think, inside of your own societies—understanding where the problem springs from, and how to identify the threat, and that’s the problem with most people, they don’t understand.

ABC: But I think we’ll actually go back in history a little bit, because there is a long history of the emergence of this kind of outlaw groups within Islam going almost back to the first century of its existence.

King Abdullah: Absolutely. And they were so atrocious when they first appeared on the scene that Islam stood up against them and they were eradicated.

ABC: Do you think that will happen now?

King Abdullah: More and more. This is where the alliance is coming from. And I think this is probably the challenge that you are having, sometimes we have with the West is where a lot of us in the region are now into the battle of this, and when we hear of peace initiatives or discussions for promoting governments – Libya is a prime example – where a lot of us see certain individuals on the ground that are actually taking the fight to the extremists at this stage, you know, people want to come in and look at the democratic process of Libya and we are saying: Guys, we are in the middle of a war. And the war for us is very clear – it’s them against us. And I think that is the problem. And as I said, that is a small percentage that we’re up against – that cherry-pick the Qur’an to sort of say it’s okay to blow yourself up and kill innocent people, to subjugate women. That has got nothing to do with our religion. So, we Muslims are the first people that need to stand up and say that this is our fight, but we can’t do it by ourselves.

ABC: Yes. And on the other side of the equation, we see the emergence of right-wing groups through Europe, a right-wing splinter group taking a section or cross-section of power in Australia even, and of course, the big question marks over the new administration and the way they will feel about Muslims. Donald Trump for example talking about banning all Muslims coming to his country during the campaign. How dangerous is it, if you want to fight a global war against jihadism to allow these voices to become prominent?

King Abdullah: As I said before, whatever is said on campaigns, I take with a pinch of salt and, I think, give the administration the benefit of the doubt. The problem with that type of rhetoric, it flows right into the lap of what the extremists, the khawarej – the outlaws of Islam – want because they feel that the only way that they can get global supremacy is to take the ninety per cent of moderate Sunnis, make them feel isolated, picked on and marginalised so that they are shifted over to the radical camp. So the more that you get these extremist statements said all over the world, we’re actually doing exactly what the khawarej want.

ABC: Does that make you despair when you see that happening?

King Abdullah: Every day.

ABC: And it’s all fed in by the Syrian conflict, the flow of refugees, the massive flow into Europe and then emergence within those groups, of what some refer to as Trojan Horse individuals or small groups of radicals.

King Abdullah: It also has, I think, most of us Muslims equally despairing when we see a small element of Islam, in the name of Islam, saying things and doing things that have got nothing to do with our religion. From the traditional schools of Islam it is almost impossible for any of us to put a bomb on ourselves and think it’s a good thing to blow yourself up in a market place and kill innocent people. I mean, when we say strong Christian moral values, we look at each other and say we have strong Muslim values also. Those are the people that understand humanity and mercy. These people that we are dealing with are just the enemy of all of us because they have no concept of what religion is all about.

ABC: Now again, because you mentioned the danger of this, these emerging voices from the right who are basically saying stop all refugees, stop all migration and so on without naming any particular individuals making those statements. Would it worry you if in Europe a situation emerged where the European governments decided to do what Australia did, turn back the boats, turn back the boatloads of Syrian refugees heading for Europe?

King Abdullah: Well look, I mean, we all have to understand people’s insecurities because it has been a very rough couple of years and it is not something that is going to be fixed in a day or two. We are hoping that in the short term the military aspect of this thing is done, but then the longer term aspect is the ideological warfare; that is going to take at least a good decade. You can understand countries that feel their sense of insecurity because of terrorism and because certain people could be labelled coming from that sector. You know we accepted— twenty per cent of our population now is Syrian refugees.

ABC: 1.3 million people in your country.

King Abdullah: You know, 2.5 million who have been through Jordan at one time or another of Syrian refugees. It doesn’t count the Libyans, the Yemenis and some of the Iraqis that we already have in our country but out of the Syrians, exactly. And I was asked many questions by Jordanians that were getting just as frustrated seeing that twenty per cent of their country are now Syrian refugees, the impact it has on jobs, on property, on unemployment. And they ask me: stop the Syrians coming into the country. And I say: how? You know, when you have a pregnant mother with a child in her hand trying to cross the border, how are we going to stop her? I mean do we sort of point bayonets at these people that are running away from horrible and threatening lives? There is a level of humanity that we have to reach out to each other. So it’s very easy to say, you know, let’s not do that, but we do also have a moral responsibility.

ABC: Your Majesty, that does seem quite a good place for us to leave the interview. I know you’re on a tight schedule here. We thank you very much and appreciate the time you have given us.

King Abdullah: Thank you very much, Sir, great pleasure.