Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Osama Saraya
Al Ahram
09 May 2007
(Translated from Arabic)

Al Ahram: The last meeting of the Peace Initiative Committee on April 18 tasked Egypt and Jordan with explaining the Arab Peace Initiative internationally and facilitating direct negotiations with Israel. What is Your Majesty's plan to achieve this objective, and how will you coordinate with the Egyptian leadership in this regard?

King Abdullah: Let me start by pointing out that the Arab Peace Initiative is an opportunity to achieve regional peace and end decades of violence and suffering endured by the people of the Middle East, especially the Palestinians. As I have said several times, everyone should give serious consideration to this initiative, especially the Israelis, because it reflects the fundamental Arab desire to achieve a peace that will restore legitimate Arab rights and guarantee Israel's security and stability. We have been in constant touch with President Hosni Mubarak and the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Ben Abdul Aziz, and other Arab leaders to garner support for the initiative, explain its parameters and promote it within the international community, as well as in Israeli society so that they can influence their leadership and their community.

It is true that there are substantial challenges and many obstacles to achieving a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, at its core the conflict in Palestine. This remains the Arabs' primary concern. Here, I should emphasise the importance of exploiting this moment, because the geographical reality on the ground in Palestine — the expansion of settlements and the construction of the barrier — threaten this opportunity. I fear if we do not move quickly, Israel will complete its plans and we will find nothing left to negotiate over. We will continue to coordinate and consult with the Arabs and concerned regional and international parties to ensure that the momentum of the Arab Peace Initiative becomes progress on the ground.

Al Ahram: One day after the decision of the committee, you received Israeli Knesset President Dalia Itzik and ten other Knesset members. The Israeli media attributed to you statements saying you planned a visit to Israel next month to address the Knesset, and that you spoke of the possibility of financial compensation to Palestinian refugees rather than the right of return. The reports also quoted you as telling the MKs that "We are in the same boat, and we face the same enemies." Despite Jordan's denial of these reports and the angry Palestinian reactions at the time, we would like you to explain the background of these reports and how they were exaggerated, especially that Government Spokesperson Nasser Judeh said that Jordan would take several measures against Haaretz newspaper, which was the first to publish this story.

King Abdullah: These baseless comments were unsurprising. We and the Egyptians are used to such Israeli tactics and I believe effective forces in Israel can pressure the political leaderships and our meetings with Israeli moderates serve that objective. We are also used to occasional statements meant to confuse and undermine our efforts to establish a just solution to the Palestinian issue. This also happened after I addressed the US Congress in March. What surprised me and our people was that some Arab media carried that story without confirming it with Jordanian sources. This will not stop us from playing our role or from continuing our efforts to realise just and comprehensive peace in the region. I would also like to clarify that the refugee issue is an important one for the Palestinian people and for us. Jordan hosts the largest number of Palestinian refugees outside Palestine. Most today have Jordanian citizenship, but this does not negate their right to return and to compensation. Our position on the refugees' right of return is more solid than anyone's. The refugee issue is not mine, nor anyone else's to act on. It is a cause that must be dealt with according to international law. Let me reiterate that the Arab Peace Initiative includes a clause that says that there must be an agreed solution to the refugee issue, according to UN General Assembly Resolution 194. An invitation to visit Israel was extended to me some time ago. If we determine that a visit could achieve progress in the peace process and serve the Palestinian cause, we would consider going.

Al Ahram: Lately the subject of confederation between Jordan and Palestine has re-emerged. Is there any change in the Jordanian position on the issue?

King Abdullah: Our position is unwavering. Any discussion of confederation or federation is premature, and we have no desire to discuss it. The form of the future official Jordanian-Palestinian relationship is something to be decided by both after the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. What is important now is to launch Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations that lead to a two-state solution; an independent viable Palestinian state on Palestinian soil living in security and peace side-by-side with Israel.

Al Ahram: Your Majesty, you stressed to the Knesset president that Israel should not waste the opportunity in the Arab Peace Initiative. You have also emphasised the need for the Palestinians and Israelis to take practical, confidence-building steps. What are the steps that should be taken by each side, in your point of view, and in order of priority? What is your opinion of the view that the Israeli government is too weak to achieve peace with the Arab states, especially since its members are plagued by corruption?

King Abdullah: I am of the conviction that the peace initiative is an historic opportunity that should not be wasted, because everyone will pay the price if it is. The initiative reflects a comprehensive Arab will to end the conflict peacefully and justly. The Israelis and Palestinians should seize this opportunity soon, because the region is in danger. The growing number of players is complicating the situation and threatens to expand the conflict. There is also growing extremism in the region. These developments should spur us towards a comprehensive settlement. Otherwise, the whole region will face a catastrophe that will not be confined to one country. I am afraid we will all regret the lost peace. As for the internal Israeli situation and whether the Israeli government is able to move ahead with the peace process, I strongly believe we cannot afford to dally and wait for the emergence of a stronger or more effective government. Moderates need to raise their voices against isolationism and extremism. It's been 40 years since the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. What has the result been? Israel has been unable to provide security to its people. The will of the Palestinian people to struggle has not been broken, nor has their desire for independence and freedom. Does Israel want to live another decade under these circumstances?

Al Ahram: Your Majesty during your speech to the US Congress in March, you stressed that Washington should throw its weight behind an urgent push to establish peace in the Middle East. You also warned that the crisis was moving faster. What is your evaluation of the US role in the region at this stage, and how can it be more effective in the future?

King Abdullah: Circumstances and events in the region impose on everyone the need to move fast to stop the situation from deteriorating further. If it continues, God forbid, it will lead to dark and painful outcomes. I believe that achieving a comprehensive and lasting resolution of the Palestinian issue is the key to resolving the other issues in the region, which is why in the past few years I focused on encouraging the US administration to revive its role in the peace process and exercise its influence on all sides to encourage them to move ahead with the peace process and achieve practical steps on the ground. The US has stressed several times that it is committed to the peace process, and this US administration in particular has called for the establishment of a Palestinian state. If the US is looking for a victory in this region, then it can help resolve the core conflict in the region, which is the conflict in Palestine. From Iraq and even to Afghanistan, lost opportunities have brought the entire region to this precarious situation. If we do not want to go back to the starting point, we need not lose another opportunity. Here, I would like to emphasise that the US, being the world's superpower, bears a huge moral responsibility to achieve peace in the Middle East, beginning with helping to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This in my opinion is in the interest of global peace and stability. Lack of resolution to the Palestinian issue is the cause for all the problems in the Middle East and we and Egypt are the closest to the Palestinian issue and understand the Palestinians' needs. If there is no progress in the peace process, we warn of war breaking out in the region. So let's push things forward to decrease the pressure and avert this war, because everyone will pay the price. There are some who say leave things as they are in the Middle East, but we warn here, that unless we advance peace the situation in the region will become more and more complicated.

Al Ahram: Since Al Aqsa intifada in September 2000, there has been constant deadlock in the peace process. The Middle East Quartet's efforts have failed. What are the restrictions on the work of the Quartet, and is it feasible for it to continue its work to revive the peace process? What are the chances of coordination with the Arab Quartet?

King Abdullah: The Quartet is an important mechanism because it represents international parties — the US, the UN, Russia and the EU. So it is important for the Quartet to exercise its role in peacemaking by helping revive the peace process and eliminating the obstacles standing in the way of that. More importantly, the Quartet also provides the requisite international momentum to push both the Palestinian and Israeli sides to take practical measures to build confidence and to facilitate the relaunching of the process in accordance with international law. I personally do not like the term Arab Quartet. I prefer to call it a group of Arab states that seeks to revive the peace process. It includes Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and several other Arab countries. What is important is that we have an opportunity to revive coordination between the international Quartet and the Arab group and effectively push the process forward. Coordination between the two groups is necessary if we want to reach tangible and practical results. Through this coordination, we have succeeded in focusing attention on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the core issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Al Ahram: Four years after foreign troops entered Baghdad, the Iraqi crisis worsens by the day. How do you see the developments of this crisis, in light of the increasing number of deaths and the blood flowing in Iraq? What is your evaluation of the Iraq security conference in Sharm El Sheikh earlier this month, and how, in your view, did it achieve the aspired results

King Abdullah: We've constantly warned about the growing crisis in Iraq, where the Iraqi people are paying the price of the fitna being fuelled among them by external parties. These parties are driving Iraq towards the brink of a civil war that will reverberate in all neighbouring countries. It will also impact regional and global security and stability. In all our contacts, we warn about the dangers on the horizon, in terms of killing, violence and destruction. We have supported all previous conferences on Iraq that seek to preserve Iraq's security, stability and unity. We hope that the Sharm El Sheikh conference has achieved results that will help end the violence and direct people towards reconstruction and stability in their country. The adoption of the International Compact with Iraq document is an important step towards supporting Iraq, ending interference in its internal affairs and preventing its fragmentation. We must stress that only the Iraqis themselves are capable of knowing their country's best interests, but they have to unite and challenge the voices that are inciting sectarianism and violence.

Al Ahram: Several international bodies estimate the number of Iraqi refugees in neighbouring countries at around two million. More than 700,000 are here in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. How much of a problem do these refugees cause for Jordan? What are the possible solutions to their situation, whether in Jordan or elsewhere?

King Abdullah: Jordan has always been a refuge for its Arab neighbours. Iraqis in Jordan are among their people and their brothers. They have come to Jordan because of the dire conditions in their own country, and Jordan has provided them with all the facilities they need to have a dignified life. But we fear at this point that we may witness a greater flow of Iraqi people into Jordan. This will be an extra burden on our country, because our resources and capabilities are limited. The international community and concerned international organisations must take the lead in assisting host countries so that they are able to continue to properly care for these people until they are able to return to their own country. Likewise, the coalition forces and the Iraqi government are responsible for securing the peace and protecting civilians in Iraq so that Iraqis do not feel compelled to flee their country. They should protect Iraqi lives and property and end the daily terrorism perpetrated by extremist groups and armed militias. The security and stability of Iraq is as much a Jordanian and Arab interest as it is Iraqi, and we are keen to support our Iraqi brothers build a secure, stable and united Iraq.

Al Ahram: Terrorism is an international phenomenon and continues to spread in the Arab region. We have seen what happened recently in Algeria and Casablanca. Your country has also suffered from this dangerous disease. We cannot forget the November 2005 blasts that targeted three hotels, killing 60 and injuring many others. You have stressed that Jordan will not retreat from its policy to fight terrorism and have called for an international strategy for that. What are the steps taken by the Jordanian government to ensure that these things do not reoccur? And how do we seek a response for President Mubarak's call for an international conference to fight terrorism?

King Abdullah: We support every Arab, regional or international effort to confront terrorism, which threatens everyone. We support President Mubarak's call to convene this international conference and establish effective mechanisms to fight terrorism and to stop its spread, because we are fully aware of the dangers of terrorism and takfiri thought. This has targeted us and our security, and which have killed and injured a large number of innocent civilians. Countering and uprooting this threat is through forging a united policy in the Arab and Islamic world. This unity is the weapon that will enable us to cripple terrorists' plans. Terrorists seek to turn the Arab states into an arena of chaos and foreign interference. That's where the Amman Message, released in 2004, comes in. It stresses Islam's values, based on peace, love, compassion, acceptance of the other, and exposes the false claims of terrorists who hide behind religion to carry out their plans, when in reality; religion is innocent of their acts.

Al Ahram: Relations between Egypt and Jordan are a model, whether at the official or popular level. How do you view bilateral cooperation between the two countries in political, economic and cultural fields, in light of what has been said by Jordan's Labour Ministry concerning the hiring of Egyptian labourers? King: Relations between the two countries are distinguished and strong and I am very pleased with the level of ties. Coordination between the two countries is developing qualitatively, and we enjoy today an advanced stage of bilateral cooperation. There is increased investment and joint projects between the countries' private sectors. My relationship with President Mubarak is strong and dates back to the days of my father, the late King Hussein Ben Talal. Several economic projects between the two countries also reflect the maturity of our relations. These include the electricity grid, the gas line project, which are all indications of maturing economic relations. This shows the possibility of expanding economic ties at higher levels. We share the same challenges politically, and maintain cooperation at all levels, especially since we and our Egyptian brothers are the closest to the Palestinian issue. We have an opportunity to help the Palestinians and Israelis commit to the peace process. Jordan and Egypt also play a key role in that regard in the Arab and Muslim world and we maintain constant coordination and consultation. The question of the Egyptian guest workers in Jordan is an organisational one and is in the interest of Egyptian workers and reflects the requirements of the Jordanian labour market, as well as Jordan's unemployment pressures. All of these require new procedures that would regulate the ratio of guest workers to Jordanian workers. These organisational procedures have not targeted any specific group of Arab workers, but were adopted in the interest of the national labour force. The government and executive authorities have found this to be the best arrangement, and it was a decision coordinated with Egypt.

Al Ahram: Inter-Arab cooperation… Many talk about a new Arab order… Does Your Majesty have any ideas to support this cooperation economically and politically?

King Abdullah: Our ideas on Arab-Arab cooperation are founded on solid Arab work, embodied in existing Arab conventions. But we need a new push towards inter-Arab cooperation that would prove to the Arab people that their leaders are keen to establish a solid, cooperative Arab body. The foundation for such cooperation is the Arab League, which, because of its history and the consensus it enjoys, can be a regulatory umbrella through which several executive and specialised bodies can emerge. These could be in different fields, the energy sector for example, especially that some Arab countries aspire to peaceful nuclear energy. We also need Arab bodies specialised in regulating education, which would require preserving the common factors in our educational curriculum that would inject a sense of Arab unity among Arab youth. We are facing several challenges especially with regards to the Palestinian issue, Iraq, Darfur and Somalia. Hence a strong Arab League would help these Arab states face these challenges and contribute to the building of a promising Arab future. During the summit in Riyadh, Jordan supported a proposal from Kuwait to convene a summit to discuss economic cooperation. We have regularly urged greater Arab cooperation between the private sectors.

Al Ahram: What is the level of Jordan's ties with Syria and Qatar?

King Abdullah: Our relationship with Syria is excellent and there have been numerous visits by officials in both countries. We also assist in developing projects under way in Syria, particularly in the field of education and banking sector. Relations between the two peoples are just fine. There are occasional misunderstandings at the political level which we hope to overcome. As for our ties with Qatar, we are trying to resolve issues between Arab states, and in light of challenges facing us today, we must overcome sensitivities between Arab states. We have major challenges to address as Arabs and Muslims. Ties with Qatar are not at the level we aspire to but we hope they would improve in the future. I believe the level of Arab cooperation is much better now and Arab states are working to overcome sensitivities in order to face the challenges. We hope to intensify our efforts for increased coordination, cooperation and consultation between all Arab states.

Al Ahram: How do you view Jordan's relations with the West?

King Abdullah: We have strong ties with the West, but our focus lately has been on the East. Asia is playing a key role and we must develop economic ties between Arab and Asian regions. Developing ties with Pakistan, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia and China is very important not just for Jordan but for all Arab countries.

Al Ahram: It has been eight years since Your Majesty ascended to the Throne, during difficult circumstances for Jordan and the Arab region?

King Abdullah: My personal motto throughout has been: Build on achievements in development and progress. Due to the dedication of Jordanians, the vision of my father, His Majesty the late King Hussein, we have established several productive and efficient institutions. But the responsibility to lead and the historic duty to which we have devoted ourselves as Hashemites has prompted me to develop what has already been built. Jordan has, with God's blessing and the will of the Jordanian people, realised tangible and impressive development in several economic and political sectors. Economic indicators show positive growth averages, and foreign currency reserves and national exports have increased. The industrial sector has developed. All this indicates a healthy national economy. We have adopted comprehensive plans to revive different geographic areas economically, with the aim of establishing a comprehensive national economy. Our experience in Aqaba, Mafraq, and more recently, Irbid are reasons for optimism. On the political front, we are committed to democracy as a doctrine for our constitutional institutions. We are also committed to conducting parliamentary and municipal elections on the constitutional date. But the real challenge is the regional tensions that threaten Jordan along with other Arab states. Our vigilance is needed in order to stop attempts to threaten our national achievements and our development.

Al Ahram: I asked a Jordanian if he had a question for His Majesty the King and he said he would like to ask about rising prices.

King Abdullah: I am well aware of the price hikes that are caused by the rising cost of oil which is our biggest challenge. God willing, things will improve over the next few years. The oil bill for Jordan has constituted an extra challenge because years ago the annual bill was around JD250 million and currently stands at more than JD1.5 billion. The key issue for us now is to find ways to alleviate the burden on Jordanians. Unemployment has dropped from 17 per cent to around 14 per cent and we hope to bring it even further down soon to 12 per cent and eventually 10 per cent.

Al Ahram: What is the background of the confiscation of the tape of His Royal Highness Prince Hassan's interview with Al Jazeera? Is there any contact with him and do you have any consultations with him concerning domestic or regional issues?

King Abdullah: This issue has been blown out of proportion. Maybe it drew so much attention simply because it is so unusual for Jordanian officials to take such an action against a media organisation. I think there were some parties who have exploited this episode, and perhaps it escaped His Royal Highness Prince Hassan that his remarks could harm Jordan's interests and its relations with some Arab states. Here, let me stress again that some media outlets exploited our openness to the media to create trouble. The entire affair could have been addressed without making such a big fuss. Jordan is committed to press freedoms and facilitating the work of the media. This is reflected in legislation including the new Press and Publications Law and in the Access to Information Law that recently was endorsed by Parliament. We also believe that the media plays an important domestic and regional role. It is a partner in political and economic development, and can help foster Arab cooperation. I believe that the Arab public expects the media to convey news, information and analysis that moves reality in the region towards those objectives.

Al Ahram: Your Majesty, Jordan will host in the next two weeks, the World Economic Forum, the G-11 summit and the Nobel laureates conference. What is the significance of these conferences in advancing economic development, security and stability in the region?

King Abdullah: Actually, we count on these conferences to strengthen cooperation between countries of the region and the rest of the world. We believe that these events, and the numerous issues they address, are important tools to identify practical mechanisms to tackle economic, developmental, political and social challenges. We also seek to exploit the broad international participation of leaders in politics, science, economics and development, to continue our efforts to win support for Arab causes, at the forefront of which is the Palestinian issue, which, now more than ever, needs the support of everyone in the world who believe that peace is the only way to achieve security and stability.