Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Ghassan Sharbel
Al Hayat
10 November 2009
(Translated from Arabic)

Al Hayat: Is Al Qaeda still a source of concern to Jordan?

King Abdullah: No, not to Jordan particularly. But, like all Arabs we are concerned about takfiris, and we are part of the team that fights this deviant group. We also fight them ideologically and culturally, and the Amman Message is part of this effort. There is also coordination in security among Arab and Islamic states to confront them.

Al Hayat: Terrorism struck Jordan, particularly hotels in Amman, in November 2005. Is it true that Jordanian security contributed to the fall of Zarqawi and the capture of his assistant Karbouli in Beirut?

King Abdullah: The terror attack against Jordan was a heinous crime that clearly reflected the absurdity of terrorism, the deviance of Al Qaeda and Zarqawi and what they represent. For, how can killing innocent children and women and families celebrating their children's wedding be jihad for the sake of Islam and Muslims' issues? All of Jordan stood against this crime and against the terror of Al Qaeda and Zarqawi.

Al Qaeda carried out this operation through non-Jordanian terrorists and weapons that were smuggled into Jordan after our security services, of which I'm proud, had aborted several other plots to kill Jordanians and undermine the country's stability and its people's security. Our security services carried out their duty by pursuing Zarqawi. Without getting into details, yes, our security services had a role in pursuing Zarqawi and also succeeded in bringing Karbouli, who killed a Jordanian citizen in cold blood, from abroad to stand trial for his crime. Our country's security and its citizens' safety are a red line that we won't allow anyone to cross.

Al Hayat: the past 10 years were ripe with Arab and international events and developments. How would you describe this era?

King Abdullah: Absolutely, especially on the regional level. It was a tremendously difficult period, with major transformations and momentous events in Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and other countries. But it also required deep and serious thinking about how to deal with these events in a way that preserves Arab interests and achieves security, stability and the development that the Arab people and their countries deserve. We have worked and continue to work to address the consequences of these events. The challenge lies in maintaining coordination and consultation among us as Arabs, not just to overcome the repercussions of these difficult transformations, but to draw lessons from the past and to be better prepared to protect our interests in the future.

On the domestic front, Jordan has witnessed many drastic transformations in terms of development, modernisation, reform, economic development, infrastructure development, improvements in the education and health sectors, citizens' empowerment in terms of the skills and abilities necessary for the future in addition to preserving the security and stability of the country and building on what has been achieved.

Al Hayat: When did you find out that the Bush administration was seeking the fall of the Iraqi regime, and what did you do, especially since the war was going to be near your borders? And did you make any contact with Iraq?

King Abdullah: We were extremely concerned about tensions and were watching events closely. We were afraid that the existing tensions would escalate into a military operation against Iraq. War was not an acceptable option, and we were tremendously concerned about the Iraqi people and the threat that war posed to them. We tried our best to convince all concerned parties that dialogue was the best option and to avert war and resort to UN institutions in order to resolve conflicts. We also urged the Iraqi government to avoid aggravating the situation and to protect Iraqis from the scourge of war. But, unfortunately, what's done is done.

Al Hayat: Were you disturbed by the scene of a US army tank removing the statue of Saddam Hussein and driving victoriously through the streets of Baghdad? Did you fear disturbances in Jordan?

King Abdullah: It was not easy for any Arab to see foreign troops in Baghdad. Indeed, it was bitter to see the Iraqi people suffering from war and destruction. Our main concern was to help the Iraqis overcome this ordeal, and we did everything in our power to achieve that. Iraq is a major Arab state, and the Iraq people are our kin. Their security and the stability of their country and building a secure future for them is necessary for the region's stability. We hope that the Iraqis will be able to achieve security and stability and rebuild their country.

Al Hayat: There are those who believe that the Bush Administration's invasion of Iraq was a gift to Iran which has expanded its role in the region. Do you think that what has happened was a result of miscalculation or more than that?

King Abdullah: There is no doubt that many mistakes have been made. Everyone knows that the results of the war shifted the balance of power in favour of Iran. But, it is in Iran's interest and that of the region that cooperation is increased. No party should try to expand its influence at the expense of others. Now, we are concerned about helping Iraq overcome its ordeal and restore its security and stability. We also oppose any interference in the internal affairs of any state, and the relationship we want with Iran is good neighbourly ties based on mutual respect.

Al Hayat: How would you describe your relationship with Saudi Arabia during the past 10 years and with the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz?

King Abdullah: Excellent. Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is stable and solid and constantly expanding. My relationship with the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques is truly brotherly and deep. We constantly coordinate and consult with each other, and we regularly have candid discussions about issues that are of mutual interest and that concern our bilateral ties and regional and international issues. We also highly appreciate the unwavering support Jordan receives from Saudi Arabia under the leadership of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.

Al Hayat: Did you seek to reduce tensions between Washington and Damascus after the invasion of Iraq?

King Abdullah: I had travelled to Syria to visit the late President Hafez Assad years before the war, and he handed me a message about Israel-Syrian peace negotiations. I believe that every country has a responsibility to reduce tensions among its neighbours and between Arab states in general. At that time, the Syrians felt that Jordan could play a role and help reduce tensions, not just with the United States but with other countries, and we took on that role.

Al Hayat: And your relationship with Bashar Assad that has, at times, been turbulent?

King Abdullah: Our relationship with Syria is strong and warm and based on cooperation. My relationship with President Bashar is very strong, and we're both keen to develop it. The warmth of people-to-people relationship has exceeded that in the political realm, and visits between citizens take place in huge numbers. There have been some political differences; we've agreed and we've differed in politics; friends and brothers can differ. But the ties at all levels - public and official - have remained strong, and there's constant cooperation in the fields of trade, economy, education, training, banks and financial systems and others.

Al Hayat: There was a family iftar in Damascus between you and President Assad. Does that mean warm ties?

King Abdullah: Yes, we sat as friends. My wife was with me, as were my children Salma and Hashem. And his wife and children were there too. We had iftar, and stayed longer than was scheduled before we returned to Amman late in the evening.

Al Hayat: Do you feel that Syria is heading towards more moderation with its developed ties with Turkey?

King Abdullah: I think President Bashar knows what's required for the future of his people, and as you just said, there are developments in its ties with Turkey. Ties with Saudi Arabia have regained strength, and our ties are always strong. There is obviously a new page of ties with America and dialogue with Europe, and it is our duty to stand by Syria. I remember during a meeting last year with Jordanian ambassadors abroad, I had just returned from a visit to Syria, and I told the ambassadors to strengthen the bridges between the countries they serve in and Syria.

Al Hayat: Is it true that Jordan contributed to the idea of the Awakenings in Iraq?

King Abdullah: Our relationship with Iraq is a relationship between two states and their institutions. We are extremely keen on Iraq's security and its stability, and we communicate with the Iraqi government and leadership in order to do whatever we can to serve the interests of Iraq. Let me remind you that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis came to Jordan, where they are welcomed guests. I have personally instructed that they be given all possible facilities and assistance until they're able to return home. We want Iraq to regain its stability and prestige in order for its people to live in their own country where security, peace and equality prevail. For that reason, we have supported the political process in Iraq and have stressed the need for Iraqis to overcome their differences and build their nation in a way that includes all segments of Iraqi society.

Al Hayat: In February 2005 Lebanon witnessed the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. What can you tell us about your relationship with him?

King Abdullah: Prime Minister Hariri was a dear friend and a great leader. With his departure, Lebanon and the region lost an enlightened political leader determined to secure peace, development and security for Lebanon. This was obvious during our conversations. His assassination was a huge crime, and we were extremely pained by his passing. We hope that Lebanon will achieve what the prime minister strived for in terms of building an independent state that is able to secure the best future for its people.

Al Hayat: How would you describe your relationship with President Michel Suleiman? And do you have a relationship with the Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri?

King Abdullah: We are friends. President Suleiman visited me when he was army chief, and we developed a good relationship, possibly because of our military backgrounds. We also met more than once after he became president on the sidelines of conferences, and he also made a very successful visit to Jordan. I have great appreciation and respect for him. The Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri is an old friend, and his father was a like a brother to me. We have a family relationship, and always stay in touch.

Al Hayat: Is it correct to say that the Israeli aggression on Lebanon in July 2006 and the aggression on Gaza two years later are the heart of an Israeli-Iranian confrontation about realigning positions in the region?

King Abdullah: There is no doubt that regional issues are interrelated and connected, but I strongly believe that the Palestinian issue is the core conflict in the region and the cause of tension. Its settlement will be key to the resolution of all other regional issues. Regardless of any analyses, we totally condemned and opposed Israel's aggression on Lebanon and Gaza, which increased tensions and human suffering. The victims were innocent and helpless children and women and civilians. I have always said is that Israel will not achieve security through war, occupation, military force or barriers and walls, because there can be no real security without comprehensive and lasting peace. Israel will not have peace unless the Palestinians achieve their security and their right to live in freedom and dignity in their own state, free of occupation, check points, siege and suffering.

Al Hayat: Are you concerned about the possibility of a new Middle East where the Iranian, Turkish and Israeli roles advance at the expense of the Arab side?

King Abdullah: We don't want hostilities with Iran or others. We want the Middle East to enjoy the security and stability it has been deprived of for many decades. What we want are good neighbourly ties and proper friendship based on mutual respect. We as Arabs have a serious responsibility to protect our interests and coordinate our positions in order to preserve our role, status and rights in the region and the world. This will prevent any party from having the opportunity to expand its influence at the expense of Arab interests. In the end, I don't think the region will enjoy real stability and security unless Israel ends its occupation and comprehensive peace is achieved or if one party tries to dominate another or transgresses the rights of others. Therefore, there must be a balance in regional relationships within the framework of mutual respect and cooperation.

Al Hayat: Are you concerned about an Iranian-American deal that gives Tehran a primary role in the region?

King Abdullah: Once again, and as I said before, the more Arab states coordinate and cooperate, the more we're able to protect our interests. It is in no one's interest to have tense regional ties or to allow rights to be overridden by others.

Al Hayat: Will we wake up one day to find that Israel has attacked Iranian military installations and shuffled the cards in the region?

King Abdullah: This should not happen because the consequences will be catastrophic for the entire region. War is neither a solution nor an alternative to dialogue as a way to resolve differences. I always say that there should not be a military strike on Iran because any military operation will have a devastating effect on the region. I told the Bush Administration and Obama that resolving the Palestinian issue is key to reducing all regional tensions. I tried to explain to the West that if Israel opens a war front with Iran, we will all pay the price. It is the West's duty to pressure Israel so it does not lead us into such a trap. We do not need surprises like those in Iraq.

Al Hayat: At the beginning of your reign, you went into the street wearing a disguise in order to find out what people felt and wanted. Can a leader stay close to the pulse of his people despite security measures and busy schedules?

King Abdullah: Yes, a leader who is concerned about his people can remain close to them and aware of the pulse of the people as you call it. My happiest moments are the ones I spend with citizens, listening to them discuss their troubles and ambitions. I am always in touch with large numbers of citizens, receiving and visiting them in their towns, villages, the badia and the refugee camps. You may recall that I spent more than twenty years of my life in the military, where I was in direct contact with my comrades in arms. We used to speak frankly, comfortably and amicably about all issues. We were brothers in arms, and there were no barriers between us.

As for the disguise, let me explain: first Jordan is a state of institutions and I receive information through our institutions, but the objective of the incognito visits is to get a first hand look and motivate people to work and to prompt officials to better serve the people. Actually, the visits that were not discovered exceed the number of the ones that were exposed.

Al Hayat: Do you sometimes have the feeling that Jordan is still threatened as an entity?

King Abdullah: No. Jordan is a secure and stable country. Our institutions are capable and well developed. They're almost 100 years old and have accumulated enough institutionalism, confidence and ability to enable us to overcome any dilemma. What is more important is that Jordanians are devoted to their country and able to protect it and ensure its continued progress.

The fear is not for Jordan. The concern is about the region's future in general if the Palestinian-Israeli conflict continues and tensions continue and the Palestinian people do not gain their rights to liberty and independent state, and if a comprehensive peace isn't realised. Because the continuation of the conflict will mean conditions can explode at any time. And this threatens the security and stability of the entire region of which Jordan is part.

Al Hayat: Do you fear a reawakening of the alternative homeland?

King Abdullah: No, the alternative homeland is not part of our dictionary. We do not fear this idea, which unfortunately is raised by sceptics inside Jordan more than others. This issue is non-negotiable. Jordan is able to protect itself and its interests, and we have no fear of the so-called Jordan option or any talk about the alternative homeland. The sole option is the two-state solution which guarantees the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on national Palestinian soil. In addition to that, and in order to respond to other questionable ideas raised by certain circles from time to time, Jordan won't have any role in the West Bank. We believe that establishing a Palestinian state is not only a Palestinian right but a Jordanian strategic interest and a condition for regional stability. The only role we have had and will continue to have is to help the Palestinians achieve their rights and build their state and institutions.

Al Hayat: What is the most important battle for Your Majesty: stability, reform or improving the economic situation, and did you find that obstacles were greater than you expected?

King Abdullah: Reform and improving the economic situation are linked to stability. Therefore, it is not an issue of prioritising one over the other; stability is a priority, reform is a priority and improving economic conditions is a priority. We are working on establishing mechanisms that allow us to develop our country and improve Jordanians' standard of living and provide our citizens with best opportunities for achievement and creativity. I said several years ago that there's no economic reform without political reform. We are committed to reform in all its aspects out of our conviction of its necessity and the need for development and modernisation that stimulate the energies of Jordanians.

We constantly evaluate performance, and take the necessary steps and measures to address errors. Sure there have been obstacles but our determination and will were stronger. We have achieved much. If you look at economic and non-economic indicators, economic growth rate has exceeded 6% during the last ten years. Exports rose 100%. We have achieved 95% of the privatisation program and external investments reached $2b a year. We have signed free trade agreements with the United States, Canada and the European Union; this has opened new horizons for Jordanian exports. In addition, there are more than 23 universities in Jordan and illiteracy rate is less than 8%. The educational development programme has achieved excellent results and has been adopted as a model by several Arab states. You know Jordan well and you know its infrastructure and human resources, as well as the security and stability it enjoys.

We are working now on several mega projects, like the water conveyance project between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, the Disi water conveyance project, water desalination projects, the peaceful nuclear programme and a railway, in addition to other projects that will cost more than $15b over the next years. These projects will revive the economy and will meet Jordan's essential needs in the energy field and other areas.

At the same time, we have updated economic, political and social laws and legislation, and are working on amending other laws to ensure that Jordan is able to cope with world developments and change at all levels.

Naturally, we are still working on overcoming obstacles, and they do exist. Most are related to slowness in execution, or resistance to change or limited resources. In some cases, they are related to regional conditions. But we are determined to move forward; there is a lot of work to do in the future. We operate according to a clear vision, based on specific programmes to reach our main goal which is to achieve the best for our country and people. I am confident of my people's abilities and their strong will power.