Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Lyse Doucet
22 April 2003

Welcome to this BBC News Special. I am Lyse Doucet in the Jordanian capital, Amman. The war in Iraq is over, but the massive task of rebuilding Iraq still remains. There is urgent talk of forming an Iraqi government but for now it is the American military and a retired American general who is in charge but the Iraqis are watching this process carefully so is the entire ME. What happens in Iraq could have profound consequences for the entire region to discuss these issues and what's at stake. We are joined now by Jordan's King Abdullah II. Welcome to the BBC.

BBC: Your Majesty, the Americans and the British now say that Iraq has been liberated how do you describe it?

King Abdullah: Well, I think we have still a long distance to travel. There are roughly three elements of the problem the way I see it. Obviously I think the British and the Americans have been very strong in their position of the Iraq is for the Iraqis and would like to see the coalition to move to some sort of coordination with the International Community or the United Nations but realistically on the ground as you have seen for yourself that it is going to take longer than we had all hoped. And General Garner has a very difficult task ahead of him because he has to give an Iraqi face to his particular administration. And its not just the north, central or south he has to give a unified Iraqi face otherwise we run the risk of cantonising Iraq which everybody has been fearing from the start of the conflict with Iraq. And I think really that the problem on the ground is really how quickly do you establish credibility for Iraqis to come up with a national charter for example which then would then allow them to move into a constitution for the Iraqi's.

BBC: How rigid is the timing. The Iraqi's themselves speak of weeks if not immediately. Whereas the Americans are talking about months some even years?

King Abdullah: Well, from what little I know of the coordination of the coalition forces they are trying to do with the UN to try and bring the UN in it or the International Community. The UN and international community can't start tomorrow. And so, as much as I think the Iraqis would wish it to be done in the next couple of weeks. I think logistically on the ground it is going to take unfortunately months.

BBC: The Americans are saying that in fact the UN will not have a role in the choosing of an Iraqi government. They will not have the lead role in rebuilding the country. But, what we hear on the streets of many Iraqi cities now is that, this is an American occupation. Would you call it an American occupation?

King Abdullah: Well, we would have to see how well they spin it and unfortunately the Americans will only have one chance to get it right, PR-wise with the people of Iraq. And when I mention the UN and the iInternational community is for them to have a role with coalition so that it spread further afield but Iraqis sitting here now are extremely doubtful and how quickly and how well can the Americans convince the Iraqis that their future is their own.

BBC: But did they already get the first step wrong, the UN says the Americans have violated the Geneva Conventions for failing to protect important public buildings like hospitals?

King Abdullah: Well, obviously we don't know what was planned on the outset from the coalition forces. I mean it was going in there to fight a war and how quickly they were well prepared. There was a lot of criticism at the moment that they were not prepared or not capable of bringing civil order back into practice in all the cities of Iraq.

BBC: You are a military man, you know what the importance of planning is, some say they should have known that there would have been this kind of chaos. Do you accept that criticism?

King Abdullah: We can all make that criticism although we don't really know exactly what the problems or the obstacles facing coalition commanders are on the ground. I would be very surprised that they did not go to this conflict thinking that they did not have to think the day after and again all the International community have been talking to the coalition forces leading up to the war how is the day after going to be. How is the government going to be and how are we going to bring Iraq back onto its feet.

BBC: Even if they do not find them, can you say now in retrospect that it was a just war that it got rid of Saddam Hussein and the Arab leaders did not want to say that publicly before but it was no secret?

King Abdullah: At the end of the day, I think it is not the opinion of Arabs or Arab leaders, but the opinion of Iraqis. It seems from what we all see that the Iraqis are very pleased that the Iraqi regime is over but at the same time that is only half the battle. Now you have won the war you have to win the peace now. And Iraqis now looking with great anxiety and suspicion as to their future. I think looking back they will say that they are glad that the regime is gone.

BBC: Iraqis say to me in Baghdad ‘why didn't Jordan help us more, why did not Jordan and other Arab states criticise Saddam Hussein, why did they support him'. They expected more from you?

King Abdullah: Well, again it is the reflection of what the Iraqi people ... And I think we had a policy in Jordan going as far back as the policy of His Majesty the late King Hussein not to get involved in the internal affairs of other countries. And again in the same parallel of Afghanistan there was a lot of public sentiment towards the Taliban right after 11th of September. It wasn't until coalition forces were liberating parts of Afghanistan and they saw the reaction of the people, that people here in the Middle East and Islamic world would have had to think twice about their position.

BBC: You mentioned that the Arab states did not want to intervene in the internal affairs of Iraq. That is precisely what the Americans are doing now. Just how dangerous is it, if the Americans military stays there for months possibly for years?

King Abdullah: I think the attitude of a lot of people in the Arab world coming out of their own shock and awe of the collapse of the regime is the attitude on the street is that you have supposedly come in to liberate the Iraqi's from an oppressive regime. If you can assure us that you are fair in the ME go and liberate the Palestinians from an oppressive regime.

BBC: what about the American military bases? Because there is this criticism not just in Iraq but across this region about an American occupation. They have apprehension about American intentions. How dangerous is it if the bases stay, some people are even talking of permanent bases now.

King Abdullah: Well I guess then the impression would be to the majority of the region, what are the Americans after? Why do they need those bases? Who's next? And so we have to be very careful if I was in the coalition's suit on how to describe what it is that you want from Iraq.

BBC: How do you answer those questions? Because you of all Arab leaders have ear in Washington. What do the Americans want in this region and in particular of Iraq?

King Abdullah: Again, the last time I saw the President was in July of last year and his intention was to take the regime to task on WMD. He obviously had his own views on the regime and its capabilities and wanted to remove the regime as a threat to some people in the region. Now that's supposedly done he has still a lot of work I believe to do too. To bring the Middle East back into the right direction because I think you have seen it. Ever since the last two years ever since the eleventh of September the Middle East is extremely unsettled because it doesn't know what the future is.

BBC: But will it be more unsettled by the presence of the American military bases?

King Abdullah: It would make the impression on Arab minds that they are there because they have somebody else on the list. And we saw that with maybe the confrontation between Syria and the coalition forces where the feeling here. Although I would be greatly surprised if there is any military action taken against Syria. But the perception in the Arab street is that today's Iraq is tomorrow's Syria. Who's next? The best thing is basically in Iraq to give people the ambition to take their stand.

BBC: But it does suppress it does it, that now the main architect for change seems to be the US, with its overwhelming military force and the fact that they can give these strong warnings to Syria shows that they did it in Iraq, that they can do it elsewhere. Right next to you if not here as well?

King Abdullah: Or further afield, I think North Korea is still an issue.

BBC: What about in the Arab region? Do you also feel that it is on their agenda to say, to keep saying, what's next in the Middle East?

King Abdullah: I'm sure that there are those in Washington that do feel that way but I strongly believe, and I think PM Blair is of the same thinking that this particular President has done Iraq for the reasons that he felt he had to do them. But his commitment now is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in other words we have had to deal with Iraq as a step back now we have to look to the future and once and for all get the ME sorted out in the right direction. So I would be very surprised if the attitude of the President would be to continue this theme. I think now he wants to take another role, a role that we all need in the ME and that is the future of peace and stability in the area.

BBC: What kind of a roadmap is it? Are you convinced in your conversations with the Americans or with the British that the roadmap we are talking about is one that would be satisfactory to the Palestinians and indeed to yourself? A roadmap that would to a Palestinian state on 90-some per cent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip? Because it is certainly not the area Sharon is talking about.

King Abdullah: Well if the Americans are committed to launching the roadmap, which I believe, they are, and I know that the British government is very keen and it does go through. It is the right step that needs to be taken at this particular time. For the first time in American history an American President has said that there should be a viable, independent Palestinian state in three years. And so for the first time we have the light at the end of the tunnel in the old days we had the tunnel. Most people didn't understand that what [UN Resolutions] 242 and 338 were. The roadmap I think spells out specifically to the Palestinians, the Arabs and the Israelis what is needed from them. So now we have the framework to go forward and I think an American President that's willing to make a deal.

BBC: We have gone this road, gone weary of in the past four, five times from Tony Blair over the last few months but “the roadmap will be published then, the roadmap will be published then.” How can you be convinced that they will do it?

King Abdullah: Because in my discussions with PM Blair I know where his heart is and he is…

BBC: But where is his heart?

King Abdullah: He is firmly committed to solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem because he understands probably more than most that if we don't then the West will continue to be dragged into regional instability in the ME. So we understand in the future you need to address the Israeli-Palestinian issue if we're going to have a hope that we want.

BBC: With the victory of the neo-conservatives, the hawks in Washington, some would say that Israel's bargaining power has now increased. And in their view, on what size the Palestinian state and the way forward is one that will always sway.

King Abdullah: I think again the coalition with both Britain and the US, lost a lot of its standing in the international community when it went to war with Iraq. And there was a lot of criticism as we see as a sort of the disorder in Iraq at the moment that a lot of people are asking questions.

BBC: Well, they had a victory though. Rumsfeld believes he's won and all his critics are now having to make way. They believe that they are the ones now who will then call the shots, the next phase and it is then perhaps it is going to be that axis the Sharon-Bush team axis which will weaken the bargaining power of the Palestinians and the entire Arab world.

King Abdullah: I think the President is intelligent enough to realise that he has victory now in Iraq. And that with the strong position that he has now he can be [inaudible] of looking at the region and from day one when I first met the President. He has always been dedicated to giving the Israeli-Palestinian issue … and he had never came across to me as a man who will say something and do another. When he genuinely believes in something I believe he will stick to his guns. Again as for my discussions with PM Blair, his feeling of Washington is that the President is very committed to the roadmap and solving the problem.

BBC: Do you believe of the understanding of the political process that is necessary in Iraq. There has been criticism that not enough planning has been done for the day after. We're still not clear what the plans are.

King Abdullah: I think that European countries, having had more of a strong experience in our area, understand…

BBC: The Americans are in charge though…

King Abdullah: Yes. And again there is a cultural divide where they don't understand some [inaudible]. This is a concern and therefore friends of the US whether they are close to this area or in this case [inaudible] need to advise our friends on the best course of action.

BBC: But as America tries to make steps forward, there is a political battle in Iraq that we see particularly in the Shiite city. The voice in Baghdad is the clerics that are moving in to build the [inaudible], the mosques are becoming the source of authority, does this carry some dangers?

King Abdullah: It carries some dangers because of the inter-perceives of the make up of the Iraqi society, especially in the south, and I have been told that the Americans and the British are aware of the different groups that are all fighting for a strong position. Again, the fear that all we have is the break-up of Iraq …

BBC: Is that a real fear?

King Abdullah: I think it is, just saying what you have mentioned. There are circles of power.

BBC: Supported perhaps by Iran or by outside powers?

King Abdullah: That is something that has to be taken into account.

BBC: What is happening you think?

King Abdullah: I think that in the south there is a an issue between the two sides in the Shiite community which could be of tremendous consequences to not only the south but the whole make-up of Iraq which I think concerns all of us.

BBC: One of the Iraqi leaders who is trying to position himself for a future role is Ahmad Chalabi who is well known to Jordan. There is a black cloud over his head. He was convicted in abstentia 31 accounts of corruption 22 years in jail. He says that the conviction was as a result of a plot between your father, the late King Hussein and Saddam Hussein.

King Abdullah: And Saddam Hussein? Alright, that's a new one! He is convicted not just in Jordan but also in Lebanon. That is two separate countries who have had an issue with Chalabi. Don't ask Jordan. I mean I prefer that you look at reports of the British Banking System and the British government. Clearly they point out that there is a big question mark over Chalabi's head on his dealings, not only in what he did in Jordan and Lebanon, but also elsewhere. So, I would go back to your government.

BBC: Isn't he leadership material then in your mind?

King Abdullah: Well, I have my views on the opposition. I think that they can play a role in Iraq but I really don't think that they can play a major role in Iraq. Because I think the average Iraqi would want to put an Iraqi face of people who suffered with them as opposed to people who lived outside the country and this particular gentleman has been out of Iraq for thirty years. So, there will be more affinity for normal Iraqis to feel somebody who would be a leading figure of their own society that was inside Iraq under their regime.

BBC: The first government would be more than hand-picked by Washington because of the interim government and the situation of some law and order problems. Would you recognise that government? Or would it be entailed as Washington's government?

King Abdullah: I think that most of the countries in the ME now are asking that question and I believe that they can cooperate and coordinate with General Garner and whatever interim government there is. But I don't think there would be any formal recognition of a new Iraq until a final Iraqi government is put into place.

BBC: How crucial is it that America gets it right if they mess up?

King Abdullah: If they mess up then we have got another 15 years of trying to fix the state … and unfortunately…

BBC: The state is not there but also across the region. Will it be catastrophic?

King Abdullah: No. What I am saying through the whole ME it will have a very negative repercussion. And unfortunately, Americans on the PR side only have one chance to get it right. If they got it wrong, it would take years to try to convince people that their intentions are good.

BBC: And the clock is ticking?

King Abdullah: The clock is ticking once the war started …

BBC: How much time do they have?

King Abdullah: Well, you can never put an exact figure on that. I think they are running out of time. The quicker that they can make that transition. But unfortunately as we said there are some realitieson the ground that would make us feel that this will take us longer than we all wished.

BBC: Because if they pull out, you could also have a security vacuum. That could also be chaotic?

King Abdullah: Exactly. And countries who are interested in taking a nibble at Iraq. It's not Iraq in isolation. I mean, there are countries around it or have their agendas too. Well, we are always worried about the effect between the Kurds and Turks and the Shiite problem in the south vis-a-vis Iran. Now I have to say I think Iranians have been very neutral through out the crisis in Iraq. And I do believe there is [inaudible] between the West and Iran. So, I do think those are good signs but matters on the ground in Iraq, may grow up to create a reversal of that situation.

BBC: But if a democracy does emerge in Iraq, could that put pressure on leaders like yourself to push forward with the reforms you promised Jordanians feel you haven't yet fulfilled?

King Abdullah: I think that if we have a democratic process in Iraq, it helps all of us being able to move our systems much quicker and I am looking forward to the success of Iraq to get back on its feet because it would set a standard for the rest of the ME and I think it gives us more power to be able to bring about changes in our society.

BBC: Is there pressure now on Arab leaders to start taking care to putting in place the changes that been promised, political reform, economic reform? Is Iraq and what happened in Iraq is a decisive turning point for the region?

King Abdullah: It is one. The most important one is still the Israeli-Palestinian one because that is the one that gives the government the argument to give more emphasis to security as opposed to political reform. Because all of the Arabs are coming. There was a poll that was taken between European and Arab audiences in Davos and the question was: what was the most important thing that you think you need for the ME? The Europeans said democracy, the Arabs said Palestine.

BBC: What about democracy? Because sometimes the Palestinian issue has been a way of not looking at things in your own country? What about the reforms here? What about democracy? Elections, which have been postponed so many times?

King Abdullah: Well, this is it I mean I think …

BBC: Do you feel the pressure now that it just can't be the Americans who are the engines of change? The Arab leaders themselves have to start doing ... fulfilling promises?

King Abdullah: We have to ... and again what makes…

BBC: You will?

King Abdullah: We will.

BBC: Reform in Jordan? Democratisation?

King Abdullah: What we have been doing, funny enough from the position of a monarch. -- I have been trying to encourage debate in our society. We have thirty political parties in Jordan and I think you find yourself in a unique position where the monarchy is trying to encourage the strengthening of democratic parties. I would like to see three or four to be able to have a much stronger Parliament, that in the future a democratic process that most [inaudible]. I am the engine that's pushing that debate as opposed to the people. We hope that elections will be done in June.

BBC: Will be? Definitely?

King Abdullah: We have to stick to our guns on this. I think there is the confidence of people to be able to move forward on that. And to get us back on our own two feet. The first delay was technical as we needed six months to get proper voting cards that could not be tampered with. I felt that since the opposition had always accused that there was tampering of elections and [inaudible] of selections, then perhaps this should be straight forward. Now that we have this system in place. The second one was actually because of the incursion of the Israeli forces into the West Bank. So the atmosphere here was not very good and it has been one of the worst things that I have had to deal with, delaying what I wanted to do to, moving the democratic process forward. Iraq now alleviates the strain but again …

BBC: Does it create the strain though? Because this Iraq continues to be chaotic. Angry voices coming from Iraq? Angry voices coming from the streets? Could you then say it is dangerous if I have a new parliament it is likely to be dominated by the voices?

King Abdullah: I think a stronger Parliament. And I mean if we move the democratic process we are actually in the long term making Jordan stronger we can deal with issues that surround us. The old joke used to be that Jordan was between Iraq and a hard place. Now we have to deal with just a hard place. So, whatever happens in Iraq I don't think it will have a negative effect on the future of Jordan. I think the opposite; it will be positive change to Jordan. But the overwhelming sort of dark cloud in the system is the problem with Palestinians. And not let's just talk Jordan because solving that problem would allow other counties to let steam off and be able to move forward in democratic reforms. We will always have the fear of what instability will happen between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Looking over our shoulders if we don't sort out that problem. And that democratic and social reforms will never go the way they want until we solve that problem.

BBC: But are you still caught between, as you put it, Iraq and a hard place? What happens in Iraq would have a profound impact on the political feeling here. And on the other side you would want to maintain your most important strategic relationship and that is your relationship with the US?

King Abdullah: I think with Iraq I am optimistic about the future of Jordan. I think again most Jordanians although they care deeply about the suffering of the Iraqi people. And the future of Iraqis are in their hearts more concerned about the Palestinian issue and so that one less problem that I think [inaudible] Jordanians dealing with Israeli-Palestinian one is to [inaudible] foremost in people's minds. And being able to get that moving I think, will create much …balanced society that could [inaudible] Jordan in the right way.

BBC: As we speak in April 2003 has the map of the ME been redrawn, the process been redrawn that the US now may not have to look at SA as its main source of oil. It may not look at Egypt as one of its main political voices in the Arab world. And it may be able to get all of that from Iraq?. The whole balance of the relationships of the region could change with unknown consequences?

King Abdullah: I think those changes have started.

BBC: Is it worrisome? Does it carry a danger?

King Abdullah: It worries a lot of countries in the ME. Because they don't know what tomorrow is going to bring. I think in Jordan we have a clearer outlook about the future. And I see the future as being promising. And again a small country like Jordan has already started with political reforms. And I think it is quicker for us to adapt. There are concerns that there are a lot that haven't figured it out the latest changes. And no longer just in the ME but all over; especially after the 11th of September that would make life more difficult. There is more fear because there is more of the unknown. In Jordan, I don't think that is the case. I think that we are now over the worst hurdle.

BBC: So, the liberation of Iraq translates into apprehension across the region?

King Abdullah: Apprehension of the leadership, yes. And apprehension at the people level because again there is a perception that who's next. As quickly as the coalition can confirms that this is not the case. The quicker that we can get the Israeli-Palestinian peace process back on track. I think the better the atmosphere will be on the streets. Leaders are going to have to take a signal from the streets and start to make democratic and reforms in the economy and the social level of the Arab world as quickly as possible.

Thank you.