Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Jay Solomon
The Wall Street Journal
20 September 2011

WSJ: I wanted to start just with what's going on at the U.N. this week, because obviously the world is watching. What is Jordan's position on the U.N. vote and what do you hope will happen?

King Abdullah: Well I mean we're all still supportive of whatever the Palestinians want to report, and I think what's happening with the Palestinians is, I think, out of sheer desperation that nothing is moving. We talked to our western counterparts in the early spring. We all knew this deadline of U.N. General Assembly and many of us were saying, well look unless we find an alternative to get the Israelis and Palestinians sitting at the table this is going to happen. That was also expressed in my visit to Washington last May. So we said ok, but we all agree that this creates more pressure from all of us but what is the alternative? And there was a lot of talk by different countries about creating an opportunity to get the Israelis and Palestinians together so that we wouldn't head to the U.N. General Assembly and have the problem that we're facing now today. But nothing credible happened during that period of that time. The European Union and its foreign minister, Cathy Ashton, have been outstanding and looking at creative ways to diffuse the tension and get people back to the negotiating table and that's still ongoing as we speak. There's a lot of last minute negotiations to try and find a mechanism … all three parties have climbed up the tree and don't know how to get down. So, we are negotiating behind the scene to find a way to get people back to the negotiating table now. The flipside of that is if the boat does go through and it creates disunity in a lot of countries throughout the world on who should vote for Palestine and who shouldn't. That would have a very negative impact on the rest of the world. If we can't get the Israelis and Palestinians together in the next couple of days then what signal is that for the future process? In other words, we're normally back to the drawing board, I think we're back beyond that and as a result the end of 2011 to 2012 is very bleak it has a very negative impact on all of us in the region. And I think you've been watching a very serious breakdown in relations between Turkey and Israel as well as what's recently happening in Egypt, thus the failure to move forward past the U.N. General Assembly. I believe the Israelis are going to be more isolated and the pressure on Israel is going to be greater. I know that there are Israelis that are saying that the Arab Spring is a good thing for them and I don't think that is necessarily the case as we've seen by recent examples. Israel has got to decide whether it wants to continue to be a fortress or whether they want to treat us as equals and be part of the neighbourhood. So I am more concerned that if we failed in the United Nations to find somewhere to get out of this, to move people the Israelis and the Palestinians forward. That is going to be very unkindly to all of us.

WSJ: What impact or fallout do you think would be if the U.S. vetoes it?

King Abdullah: Well if the U.S. vetoes, the Middle East will have a very negative view towards the United States; that's part of the problem and again the aspirations of people are being spoken in much louder voices. And so, again, I think Israel is becoming more and more isolated.

WSJ: How would you describe Jordan- Israel relationship right now and the future of it if the peace process stalls?

King Abdullah: The problem with the full peace process is we'll always look towards the light and try to move people forward. There is an unhealthy relationship today; people to people; because although the benefit of peace is always peace, the inability of Israel to address the justice of the Palestinian problem has not come down well with the people and we're just seeing -- from the Jordanian street -- Israel is being more and more difficult in coming to the table and finding an agreement that is acceptable to both sides. This is a cry we have seen in many other countries, ‘what does the peace process or the peace treaty with Israel give us?’ Israel is at a very critical juncture today where denying that they have anything to do with what's going on in the area, denying that the Palestinian issue does not involve them in the region, all this is going to make it much more difficult for them to engage with us in the future. Israel has to decide; does it want to be part of the neighbourhood or does it want to be fortress Israel? And the decisions that we've seen over the past year or so are not encouraging.

WSJ: Have you been disappointed with Prime Minister Netanyahu? Because I know in your book and other areas you said you hoped that when he came back he might have a more constructive approach?

King Abdullah: In discussions I've had with him and his government there have been very positive statements over the past several years. Having said that, everything we see on the ground has been completely the opposite and as a result I think we're all disappointed and I think my best way to describe my view toward Israel is my increasing frustration because they're sticking their head in the sand and pretending that there's not a problem.

WSJ: How else do you see the Arab Spring causing the mood in the region to change? You got a major uprising in Syria now as, I assume, impact your country, you've got, like you said, the shifts with Turkey, with Egypt ... are you getting a better sense of where we're headed?

King Abdullah: I think it's almost impossible for any expert to predict for the rapid changes we see in the Middle East. They are rapid and they will continue for quite a while. I think we will look back at the Arab Spring -- whether it's two years, five years, ten or fifteen -- and say it's a good thing. Having said that, in the meantime there's going to be a lot of blood, sweat and tears and the hope of all of us that are working together is to make sure that there is a lot less blood and ideally a lot less sweat and tears. But definitely the Arab Spring has gone. We're into - for many countries including Jordan - the Arab Summer, which means we need to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work, specifically when it comes to Jordan. We've now benchmarked on political reforms, we've done changes to the Constitution that I'm sure you're aware of, new election law, new political party law independent election commission etc etc. the challenge now is to pass these through Parliament as quickly as possible so that we can have national elections in the second half of 2012. And each country is going on its own pace. I think that we're way ahead of the curve because we have a plan, and the job of the leaders is to make sure that government and Parliament stick to those benchmarks so that we have a new Jordan as quickly as possible. I don't know if that could be said for a lot of countries in the region, some of them maybe going from an Arab Spring to an Arab Summer to an Arab Winter and maybe it takes a while for them to come back to the Arab Spring again.
WSJ: Where do you see Jordan in like two to three years? I read that you'd hope that the Parliament chooses the prime minister but I guess some people wanted the process to go quicker.

King Abdullah: There is what I call a reality check of the situation at this stage. I sat with some reporters recently or members of the press; they said when are national elections? And I said well, I believe them to be in the second half of 2012 maybe beginning 2013. They said, why that long? I said, ok you guys walk me through this. You want municipal elections first, right? They said yes. When do you think we can have municipal elections? December -- and by the way we've announced in the second half of December for municipal elections. Because we need to have municipals before naturally. How much time do we need between municipal election and national elections? After six months. Ok, so that means we're into May/June. How important is the independent commission to oversee elections? Vital. How much time do we need for that? Six to twelve months. I said ok we have to benchmark at the other end of the spectrum so we make sure that we keep the pressure on. So can we agree that no later than November 2012 if that's what we need to aim for? Absolutely. So, in other words we believe that elections would be sometime in June 2012 to November 2012. But the pressure, the reality of it is the work that the government and the Parliament needs to do. The constitutional changes by themselves -- I'm just going to give you background because this issue is complicated -- the constitutional changes that we've done, means that around 14 laws will be either issued or amended plus a review of more than 30 other laws that have links to municipal and national elections, political party laws etc etc ... That's a lot of laws that need to be ratified before we can have national elections. Now, there would be a tendency for government and for Parliament to take their time on this because there is a feeling that the quicker we do this, the quicker we have elections, the quicker that some of us maybe out of a job. So, the challenge, I said to the press and to different interest groups in Jordan, is we need to collectively make sure the pressure is on Parliament and on government to stick to that. Now again and I apologise for taking sometime, we will have national elections in 2012. We've reached out to the Eastern European countries, because they've gone through this much more recently. Elections in 2012 would give you a transparent new polity but it will not give you ... two to five political parties ideally representing left, right and centre. In my discussions -- and I had a couple of meetings on a weekly basis, I get people to see me in the office having this debate; guys we need to move, and I'll take one step back so you can understand the challenge that I have. Every single group I sit with, and I've sat with all walks of the political and social spectrum in Jordan, half-way through the meetings I ask these questions; where do you guys stand on health, education, services, taxes, etc.? And except for a very few exceptions I get a blank look. Culturally, we're not in a position yet to think left of centre or right of centre. You as an American have to wrestle with two major issues. I've been watching your country for the past two years: health care and taxes, and most people because of the political affiliations here in the United States, know whether they are on the left of that law or right of that law. That concept is still new to a lot of people so to develop that concept of left, right and centre, of political parties to establish themselves based on programs, is the challenge, and the best way I can describe that is ‘work in progress.’ There are going to be bumps on the road and I am continuing to fuel the debate to new political parties and to activists that they have to start thinking on political platform lines. Once you understand and you all agree as a nation what centre is, then it's going to be easy to figure out who's left and who's right. For me, I am left leaning when it comes to health and education, on the right when it comes to defence. So I don't know where I come on the political spectrum.

WSJ: How do you see the Muslim Brotherhood fitting into the new political reality?

King Abdullah: My belief is that the more you develop left, right and centre based on political party programs, the more of a challenge it's going to be for the Muslim Brotherhood to integrate into the new system because the way that they look at their desire to govern is inconsistent with left right and centre political parties, equality, transparency and as a result they're having to go through some soul searching I guess that is to say how can they adapt to what I see as the change in the Middle East and will they be able to integrate into the mentality of left right and centre based on political platforms. I think young people are looking for something else.

WSJ: Are you worried that the Egyptian people are moving too fast in the sense that a lot of the people think that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only political party organised for elections?

King Abdullah: Throughout the whole of the Middle East the only organised people, and the fault is because of the way the region was coming up in the Cold War- the only people who are organised are the Muslim Brotherhood. But again I think you see in Egypt where they're saying lets go for elections and there has been a push back saying no lets figure out the Constitution and then go to elections, because what they don't want is go to elections now having the Muslim Brotherhood in a more organised position of power and then they are the ones who would change the constitution to their liking. What we've done in Jordan by national outreach is quite the opposite. We defined the framework of the future, identified where we need to go, and now get people involved in the political process through voting and through creating parties to vote for. And so the pendulum I think is swinging back and forth in countries like Egypt and elsewhere and this is why I think we have the edge because we have been very fortunate that Jordanians have really stuck to common sense, we have had demonstrations every week since January. We had one person who died of a heart attack who was watching the demonstrations. Although there have been injuries, there has been no loss of life. Demonstrations happening every week, they are peaceful but people are now saying well ok let us roll up our sleeves because we all believe in the vision of a government elected from political parties. It is time for us to do the hard work. The challenge as I said is going back to the platform, and I was with a group of people, one of them was an activist -- this was earlier in the summer – we’re about to do the constitutional changes, elections law is going to be ratified, the political parties law, municipal elections that's about to be passed. Ok so you keep saying that, but once you get past October and those were actually passed, what are you going to do then? Are you going to continue to stay on the street, or are you going to create your own political party or join a political party that expresses your positions?

WSJ: How much is the economy playing a role in fuelling the protests in Jordan? How difficult is that and how much of that is contributing to the mood on the street?

King Abdullah: I think throughout the Middle East, and we have had a recent poll in Jordan, there is a clear majority that are interested mainly in economic reform and economic prosperity as opposed to political reform. I think that goes not only in the Middle East but throughout Europe and other places; Israel is having demonstrations too, there is a major economic problem throughout the world. The Middle East has the highest unemployment percentage of any region in the world, we have the largest youth cohort of history coming into the market place. That frustration does translate into the political sphere, when people are hungry and without jobs. On the issues of corruption, we have a very good person who's running the anti-corruption department. But again, we need to fight corruption. And there is distrust, which I think influences how a lot of people perceive corruption. For example, privatisation is perceived corrupt, but wherever we go in the world there are groups who feel that way. One reason why we are such a strong IT base is because of what we've done in liberalizing telecom and IT industry , and if we didn't privatise the telecom we would've never gone there.

WSJ: Would you say you feel better about things now than you did four to five months ago?

King Abdullah: On the issue of political reform, yes. And again four months from now, God willing, I want to feel much better. And you'd understand that the way my life was six months ago, to four months ago to two months ago, I'm learning and we're all maturing as the process goes forward. So my view of, and I think as a head of state, my job is to layout the landscape and get the debate going. You know now the constitutional amendments are in Parliament, the municipal elections have been ratified and we've announced them on the second half of December. So, on the political aspect, it's now being finalised and put into place at least in the short-medium term. But I am always the type of person who takes a couple of steps ahead, what is the next stage and then we have to create debate on that.

WSJ: Were you surprised by the speed of the Arab Spring? I know those are things you've thought about.

King Abdullah: Honestly we all thought about it and part of the problem when you're in a monarchy and one of my main things I said when I first came to this position was my responsibility is to put food on the table for Jordanians. And what I meant by that is creating a middle class. And my belief -- and I have mentioned it I think many times -- once you create a middle class, the stronger the middle class is, the smoother the political reform goes through. And it's a two-edged sword because the stronger we create the middle class the quicker they're going to say we want more authority in our lives so the role of the monarch changes politically. But I knew this coming into it I didn't understand to be quite honest how complicated it is and I pushed for this, once the box is opened I was surprised of how quickly it's moving and how quickly decisions need to be made.

WSJ: I'm curious from your perspective why you think this happened now just recently. Was it the demographics, the fallout from wars, was it technology?

King Abdullah: A lot of young people coming into the market place. You look at Jordan, you look at 70-75% of the population that are 35 to 40 and again its young educated youth cohorts especially in Jordan for the first time in establishing a middle class with tremendous economic frustrations. You've got to remember that Tunis started not because of politics but because of unemployment and that just opened a floodgate. So in hindsight whether we look back and say it's a good thing but this country is going to have its pace and its share of problems. Each country is going to be unique in how it deals with [inaudible].

WSJ: How much was the GCC membership helping you?

King Abdullah: Economically, GCC will be a tremendous help, but again we bring a lot to the GCC table. But it definitely positions Jordan in a much stronger position economically in the region. And I see that Jordan, specially with the instability that's happening in the area, we are much stronger as an IT, services and transportation centre for the Middle East because of all these that are coming in. So I think you'll see a lot of people looking to Jordan because you know, historically, if you look at every problem they've had in the Middle East, they'd say: ahhh Jordan is going to crumble. Nobody has learned that lesson yet, that Jordan has always been able to sustain the shocks of the region and has always come out historically very stable and I'm actually very optimistic for the future.

WSJ: I know you and Syria's leader came into power at very similar times, have you talked to President Assad?

King Abdullah: I've talked to him twice in the first part of the year to discuss about the challenges we're facing and how we could be supportive in lessons learned, but at that point the Syrians weren't really interested in what we had to say.

WSJ: I don't know if you're going to see President Obama, but when he came I think there was a lot of optimism. Is there disappointment with him in the region or is it just seen as something that is out of his control?

King Abdullah: America has had major challenges internally. And you've been faced with the a challenging economy, the issues of healthcare and taxes, two wars, there's a lot on the plate, but my stroke of lessons learned is you can never ignore the Israeli-Palestinian problem because if you want to ignore it will later come back and bite you in the backside. So you can keep it at arms length but whether you like it or not the bottom fact that you will have to deal with it. And I think that again what happens in the U.N. this week is going to resound positively or negatively for quite a while depending on what the outcome is. If the outcome is positive it's going to be hard work for all of us to try and move to the end game, and if it doesn't succeed then I think we all need to be very concerned.

WSJ: And is there anything specifically you're hoping the U.S. does/do this week or the next week?

King Abdullah: Well like I said, we're working and again my tremendous appreciation to the role of the Europeans and Kathy Ashton and Tony Blair in looking at mechanisms to be able to get the Israelis and Palestinians together. And I just hope that the Americans work closely with Kathy and with Tony Blair specially the next 24/48 hours because they're going to be critical [inaudible] for 2012.