World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2010
Conversation with the King of Jordan
Davos-Klosters, Switzerland 29 January 2010
Fareed Zakaria, Editor, Newsweek International, India:
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for coming to this. As you know, this is going to be recorded so it’s particularly important that you turn your cell phones, BlackBerrys, any iPad if anyone bought one yesterday, any of that off. And the format for this is a 30-minute conversation with His Majesty. There are no questions from the floor.
The Indonesians had a phrase called guided democracy, so this is guided democracy. I am your guide; I will try to intuit the questions you would ask His Majesty and ask them. The
Arabic translation, for those of you who would wish it, is on Channel 2 on your headsets. I doubt very much very many of you are going to need it, but in case you do. It is a great pleasure and honor to welcome His Majesty, the King of Jordan, King Abdullah.
H.M. King Abdullah II Ibn Al Hussein, King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan:
Thank you very much. Very pleased to be here.
Zakaria: Your Majesty, you live in one of the most consequential parts of the world, one of the most dangerous parts of the world, and a place that has caused great frustration for the rest of the world. I mean, there’s a saying in New York, ‘Nobody has ever lost money betting against the Israeli-Palestinian peace process’. And there’s a sense, I think, that it’s almost like a bad joke; we just keep discussing it and yet nothing seems to change.
Is there anything now that makes you either particularly pessimistic or particularly optimistic that we are at a moment where something could change?
H.M. King Abdullah: Actually, this is probably the first time where I am somewhat pessimistic, as we all know that the core issue in the region is the Israeli-Palestinian issue. And as you said, it’s been going on for so many decades, so much suffering, so much frustration. And it can only get worse if we don’t solve the problem. And you’ve said, you know, all of us in the international community are frustrated. You have to understand the connectivity: all of us in the international community also pay the price for not solving this problem. The process is at the moment we are working to try and get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the tables. Their proximity talks hopefully will come underway. We are waiting for the United States to hopefully give us their undivided attention on this issue. So if we don’t get a clear mandate over the next month or so, then I’m not convinced that we’re going to move the process forward. What we have to keep in mind is –
Zakaria: Let’s stay on that, though. You’re saying if in the next month you don’t get a clear sense from the United States that it is pushing hard on this, you feel like things are going to stall.
H.M. King Abdullah: We have the Arab Summit meeting in Libya in the end of March. This opens for people to maybe voice their views that they’re not convinced that anything is going to move forward. I mean, at the moment we have the 57-state solution, which is the Arab-Islamic peace proposal for Israel. There have been attempts in the past by certain countries to try and pull that off the table. People are disheartened; people are not convinced. I think the credibility of the US is under question now, so we really have to be able to move the process forward in the next month or so, especially leading into the Arab Summit, so that we don’t have any confusion coming out of there.
Zakaria: But the Obama administration has tried to appoint a special envoy. It has called on the Israelis to freeze settlements. Do you feel that the Obama administration –I mean, what you’re saying is pretty significant. You’re saying there’s a loss of credibility, a potential loss of America’s image if it doesn’t do something. What can the Obama administration do?
H.M. King Abdullah: Well, I personally believe that the President is extremely committed to it, but we also know that America is dealing with many other issues: internally, health plans, other issues, Massachusetts was I think something that hit the news. Do we have the undivided attention of the United States, which is something that we desperately need in the next month or so, to set the right tone for negotiations with the Israelis and Palestinians? And the only other thing I just want to clarify is, sooner or later there is an invisible line in the sand that we will cross that will be clear to everybody, whether or not the viability of a two-state solution is there. And I hope we haven’t crossed that yet but when –or God forbid –we do cross that line, then I think we doom the Middle East and the region to many decades of instability. So the more time we spend talking, as you say, and not solving this problem, we all pay the price.
Zakaria: And there are already voices in Israel saying that the two-state solution is the wrong way to think about this, we need to go back to thinking that Jordan is the Palestine state, because of course a majority of Jordanians are Palestinians.
H.M. King Abdullah: What sense does that make? I mean, the two-state solution is the only solution that’s out there. There are voices that every now and then say that there’s going to be a Jordan option. A Jordanian option on what? There are pushes by certain elements of the Israeli government to say Jordan takes a role in the West Bank. That is never going to work and we have to be very clear that Jordan absolutely does not want to have anything to do with the West Bank.
All we will be doing is replacing Israeli military with Jordanian military. The Palestinians do not want that. They want to have their own statehood.
And again, what type of West Bank are we talking about? We are talking about a viable entity. What I think these people are offering to try and pull Jordan in is really nothing that would create enough statehood or make the Palestinians feel that they have something that’s called their home. So Jordan –I’m on the record; we’ve said this so many times –we will not have any role in the West Bank.
By trying to make Jordan Palestine, it doesn’t make any sense to me. That’s not going to happen. There are other certain people in Israel that are saying, ‘Well, if there’s not going to be a Jordan option, the only other option out there is the one-state solution’, which terrifies more Israelis than the two-state solution. So I think that the only credible, viable way of solving this problem is the two-state solution, giving the Israelis and the Palestinians the ability to live together, more importantly allowing Arabs and Muslims to then have a peace treaty with Israel. 57 nations –a third of the United Nations –do not recognize Israel today, so they are isolated in the neighborhood and further afield.
Zakaria: But you have some contacts with Israel. What is your sense of what is going on in Israel? What is the mood in Israel? Are they in the mood to negotiate? Because my own sense is the building of the wall has ended the problem of terrorism to a large extent in Israel and it has made a lot of Israelis think, ‘We can live with this. You know, what’s the problem with just continuing as things are?’
H.M. King Abdullah: Well, this is the challenge. I met with President Shimon Peres yesterday, who has always believed in a two-state solution and the importance of it because he is looking at the future of his country. There are those –I still think that the overwhelming percentage of Israelis and Palestinians do want a two-state solution and as quickly as possible. The challenge that we have in Israel in particular is to get beyond the politicians to the Israeli people themselves. Because they are so disheartened that they don’t believe it’s ever going to happen. And trying to wrap our minds around how to deal with the Israeli mentality – many occasions I have sat down with Israelis to say, ‘Look, where do you see your country in 10 years’ time?
And work me back so we can figure out the synergies and the connections between Israel and the rest of the Arab world’. No Israeli has ever been able to answer that question. Because of the security threat, they think in the here and now; they can only think of today. When is the next attack? When is the next bomb? And so this is the challenge that Jordan has and the international community has, reaching out to the Israeli public and saying ‘Do you want to continue to be Fortress Israel? What a dismal place that would be and how it continues to affect the whole region’. The challenge is to reach the Israeli people and say, ‘We basically want the two-state solution to happen so that you can be integrated into the neighborhood’. And that’s actually a lot harder than people might imagine.
Zakaria: You said the core issue is the Israel-Palestinian issue in the region. I am hearing people in the region, particularly in Saudi Arabia, say to me quietly, ‘The core issue in the region is now the rise of Iran and what to do about an Iran that is interfering in Lebanon, interfering in the Palestinian territories, challenging us at every corner’. How do you see the rise of Iran?
H.M. King Abdullah: I still go back to saying the core issue is the Israel-Palestinian problem, because all roads in our part of the world –all the conflicts –lead to Jerusalem. Today, Iran is putting itself as the defenders of the Palestinian cause. Several days ago, Osama bin Laden in his tape message to the United States again underlined the suffering of the Palestinians. It is the injustice felt towards the Palestinian people that allows other state actors or non-state actors to take the role of being the defender of the Palestinians. If we solve this problem, then I believe we start to unwind all the other pressure points inside of the Middle East. So if there are those that are being threatening towards Israel from the Iranian regime, I keep telling the Israelis that if we solve the Israeli-Palestinian people, the first people that will stand behind the Israelis and say ‘Thank you very much for those in the Iranian government, we have our statehood, we have our future. We don’t need missiles pointed in this direction’. So I think that the simple, easiest solution is to get the Israelis and Palestinians together that allows Arabs, Muslims and Israelis to be able to integrate once and for all.
Zakaria: That said; tell me what you think about the rise of Iran. How big a problem is it?
H.M. King Abdullah: Well, they have their internal difficulties at this stage. Iran is a very important and significant country in our part of the world. They’re an ancient, historic land. They’re a very important player. I’m just always nervous about discussions that come up with state actors around our region that push people to say that the only alternative is a military solution. I hope that we can have a peaceful solution to the conflicts that some countries have with Iran. I think that the majority of the Iranian people would like to see a peaceful resolution to these issues.
Zakaria: But could you and Jordan live with an Iran with a nuclear weapon?
H.M. King Abdullah: Well, again, if you solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem, the question should be slightly different. I mean, I think there needs to be transparency on nuclear programs throughout the region, including Israel. And I think every country has a right to pursue peaceful nuclear energy. Now, again, the argument that I sometimes hear in circles is the Iranians are pursuing a military program and therefore this is a threat to Israel. But if we solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem, why would Iranians want to spend so much money on a military program? It makes no sense. I mean, the country has social challenges, it has economic challenges. Why push the envelope in getting to a military program for what cause? If you solve the problem, you don’t need to pursue that path.
Zakaria: People in Washington who are going to listen to this are going to say, ‘He’s soft on Iran’.
H.M. King Abdullah: I’m trying to say that we should all talk and solve the problem. I mean, what we’re doing is, you know, there’s always going to be an enemy to Israel if we don’t solve the issue. In the 60s, Egypt was the main sort of country that created concerns to the Israeli government. There’s a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt today. It was then in the past decade Iraq was a threat. That has been solved, but has created a lot of problems as we are looking at it today. And now the new bogey monster is Iran. I think we have to get away from the perception of instilling fear and uncertainty. It all comes down to the Israelis and Palestinians solving their problem, which releases the tensions across the world. President Obama said something that was very, very critical about the future of the Middle East. He said that for the first time –and I think it should have happened many, many decades ago –America wants to see a resolution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict because it is in the vital national-security interest of the United States. Because he understands that as long as this conflict continues, as you said, if we keep just pushing this wall down the road for the next couple of years, we are all affected by that instability. We’re all going to pay that price, and how often can we continue?
Instability in our region will affect the economy; it will affect trade, energy. How long do we want to continue living under that atmosphere?
Zakaria: You spoke a couple of years ago about the danger of a Shia crescent, meaning the Shias in Iran, a Shia-dominated government in Iraq, presumably Shias in the Gulf. Do you regret having made that comment?
H.M. King Abdullah: No, well, that’s not what I said. What I said is I was worried about members –certain members –of the Iranian government using an agenda to create the perception of a Shia crescent, because the last thing that we need in this part of the world is a conflict between Sunnis and Shias. And so when I raise the alarm bell, I saw a political strategy that would as an endgame have the Sunnis and Shias at each other’s throats. If you look back at the Iraq-Iran war, the war first started as a war of territory. It then became an issue of race –Persians against Arabs –which I think was wrong. Never did they ever come close to touching the religious aspect, because the fault line between Shias and Sunnis goes from Beirut all the way to Bombay and it’s a catastrophic subject to play with. In my view, I felt that there was an agenda out there that was going to try and push it in that respect, and also raising the alarm bell that that cannot happen.
Zakaria: And do you look at what is happening in Iraq and does that give you some reassurance, because it does seem to me at least that the government in Iraq –though Shia dominated and though often somewhat tough in dealing with the Sunnis of Iraq –has not aligned itself with Iran?
H.M. King Abdullah: Iraq has tremendous challenges and again the stability of Iraq is extremely important for all of us. And I think that we as Arab countries have let down the Iraqis; we need to be doing more to outreach and be there for the Iraqis, which we haven’t really done. The way I describe Iraq is, you know, a slow movement towards the light. They have many challenges. I hope that the evolution of the next elections will bring more stability to Iraq. At the end, Iraqis believe in their nation, believe in themselves, and want to move their nation forward. And I believe in the strength and, you know, the solid mentality of Iraqis that will take their country forward. They need all our help and Iraq will make it.
Zakaria: Do you worry that the current Iraqi government is not including Sunnis enough, has raised again the spectre of a kind of de-Baathification?
H.M. King Abdullah: Well, I was always against the de-Baathification process because –and I said it when it first came out –that it would create tremendous instability inside the country. But anyway, that’s behind us now. I think that the government, I hope, will be far more flexible in allowing as many groups to involve themselves at the voting booth. Jordan in particular now is allowing Iraqis in our country to make it to the voting booth on behalf of the Iraqi government. And the more participation of Iraqis in this next election can only be a good thing for the future.
Zakaria: How many Iraqis are in Jordan? Because when I was last in Amman, I was struck. Here was this country, Iraq, in civil war and the effect in Jordan was just that it was raising real-estate prices because you had so many hundreds of thousands of refugees coming and buying real estate in Amman, but it was not affecting the political stability or economic climate in Jordan.
H.M. King Abdullah: Well, you know, we have basically taken the Iraqis in as our fellow citizens, so they have free access to our educational system and health system. The figure that was being thrown out there was about 750,000 Iraqis. For a population of six million, that is pretty dramatic. I think the fairer number is about half a million, give or take a hundred thousand. But it is a stress on Jordan, but again I think there is a responsibility to be there for the Iraqis and to create the atmosphere inside of Iraq so that hopefully most of the Iraqis can go back to their own country.
Zakaria: A Jordanian man blew himself up in Afghanistan, killing CIA officers, and it led to a great deal of speculation about Jordan’s role in trying to take on Al Qaeda. Do you have an active role in combating Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan?
H.M. King Abdullah: Well, you have to understand that not only were Americans killed; there was a Jordanian officer that was killed in that particular attack. What people fail to remember is that we have been battling Al Qaeda way before America had its 9/11 and this has been an ongoing conflict. I have always been very, very proud of our armed forces, our security services in being about to combat a group that I don’t believe has anything to do with our religion. Our role is to protect our citizens, to protect our country but equally important is to protect our faith. And I am not just talking about Jordan; inside the Arabic and Islamic world, there is a major threat by a group of extremists that are trying to, pretending as far as I see to be Muslims, and desecrating the name of Islam. West and for tolerance, acceptance, humanity. And these people, who call themselves Muslims, are trying to hijack our religion. And this is not just a Jordanian problem; it is a problem throughout the Arab and Islamic world. And we will continue to fight. We had our own 9/11, the 9thof November 2005, where three bombs were set off in hotels. We lost 60 people and over 100 wounded. If you compare that to the figures of America’s 9/11, it was almost double the casualties for a country of our size. And you know, I made my mind up then that we were not going to be defensive. If we felt that people were going to target Jordan, we would target them. And my message is clear: as long as you continue to try and hurt the citizens of my country, we have the right to protect ourselves.
Zakaria: How do you read the strength of Al Qaeda right now? Because what’s striking is that they have not been able to plan or execute any spectacular attacks in the West, in Jordan, in Egypt, in Saudi and in fact Osama bin Laden in that tape message you referred to tried to take credit for what was after all a failed attack by the Christmas bomber.
H.M. King Abdullah: Well, again, I think we have to be very careful on how we look at the future. Again, people like to perceive that Al Qaeda is just a threat to the West. I want to underline this threat to all Muslims.
I think that we all dodged a very difficult bullet when the hijacking or the attempt to blow up the aircraft did not succeed. If it had been successful, the idea behind that was to have a profound effect on the West and change America’s policies to the worse in dealing with our part of the world. We are building bridges between societies and between cultures, and what people like Al Qaeda want to do is try and destroy that. They don’t want to see the Israelis and Palestinians solving their problems. They don’t want to see different areas of our nations solving their problems and moving on with our societies. They want conflict.
Zakaria: But do they seem stronger or weaker to you than five years ago?
H.M. King Abdullah: From a purely tactical point of view, one of the reasons why you are seeing them in Yemen and on the Horn of Africa is because they have been very badly hurt in Afghanistan and Pakistan so they were shifting to a different area. A year ago, I did warn people in the region and the West that we could see the development of Al Qaeda trying to get a foothold on the Arab peninsula. They have not been successful in their aims in Iraq, although they are still an effective –unfortunately –element of creating instability in that country. So if you look at their operations, if they are moving from area to area it is because they have not been able to hold down where they are. Having said that, because again of the Israeli- Palestinian issue they are a tremendous recruiting ground for the disenfranchised youth that we have in the Middle East. And so that is a challenge that I think all countries have to face.
Zakaria: Why is it that there is still, though, this cancer within the world of Islam? Any time there is a terrorist attack anywhere in the world now, honestly you really don’t have to think about, you know, who did it in the sense that what community that person came from. You know that it is some fanatical, wrong-headed Muslim. What is it that has made it –and you know that so many people say, ‘Why is it that moderates don’t condemn these attacks? Why is it that the world of Islam allows this?’ What is your response to that?
H.M. King Abdullah: I think moderates through the Arab and Islamic world do condemn it. And not only just condemn it in words: in actions. There has been the Amman message, which has reached between inter- faiths. We have what is called the Common Word, which again is a Jordanian-inspired initiative to bring Muslims and Christian communities closer together. We are working in our part of the world, in Asia, in the West. We are also looking at the educational aspect of this, but again I think I have to continue to underline that where do the disenfranchised youth move to? The Israeli-Palestinian issue is such an emotional issue inside of Islam that everyone tries to hijack it for very destructive ends. This is why it is so imperative for all of us to solve this problem. Otherwise, we will always live under the shadow of terror and terror is not something, as you well know, that Israelis are having to deal with; Arabs, Muslims, the West are dealing with all because of the core issue of the Middle East, which is the Israeli-Palestinian one, if we can solve that.
Zakaria: You really believe that if you solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, you wouldn’t have some Nigerian fanatic who believes in jihad who gets onto a plane?
H.M. King Abdullah: You’re always going to have extremists in every religion; you’re never going to be able to get rid of terrorism because there’s always going to evil in the world. What I am saying is for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing. And I think that’s the challenge that we have. There is no magic wand that solves that problem, but it’s not specific to Islam or Christianity or Judaism or any other religion.
Evil is always going to be out there, but it allows us to create a new future for the people living in the region and allows us the tools to be able to bring our religion back onto focus and strengthen the role of the silent majority, that those extremists that have hijacked our religion have nothing to do with Islam.
Zakaria: You know there are many people who have an alternate theory of what is fuelling terror, and that is you know actually one that was loosely associated with President Bush and his administration, expounded by people like Bernard Lewis, the Princeton scholar, which is that it is the lack of any kind of political openness in the Arab world that produces extreme opposition movements, that produces the desire for jihad; that Al Qaeda began as a group that wanted to topple the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It only later on latched itself to the Palestinian cause, and that unless you have openness in the Arab world you will not be able to find a way to avoid these extreme political movements.
H.M. King Abdullah: No, listen, I think reform is not something that you can wait until the Israeli-Palestinian issue is resolved. Jordan as a prime example is embarking on reform, and I think that everybody in the Middle East has its own pace of reform and I can’t be specific to how each country is dealing with it, just to say that they all have a different challenge. We have the largest youth cohort in history. We have 200 million young men and women that need jobs in the next several years. If we don’t create a positive future where they have a role and a say in their future, definitely we are going to have a major problem. I think the issues are interconnected, but on the political, emotional issue don’t discount the Israeli-Palestinian one. Having said that, there is a moral responsibility for all of us in the Arab world to move reform in the right direction.
Zakaria: But talk specifically about your country, because you know Jordan is often characterized as a benign or an enlightened dictatorship but it is still a pretty tough set of controls that you have in the country.
Will your son, when he succeeds you, be a constitutional monarch?
H.M. King Abdullah: Jordan is going through changes and will continue to go through changes. We are now calling for early elections so that we have a new election law that gives much more transparency, much more participation, and much greater quality of parliamentarians. And so I think where you have the issue that democracy is going to happen through the ballot box, we have seen several cases in the Middle East where actually it has gone the other way. We have to push the envelope and it comes down to education, to empowerment, to a larger role in society. We are embarking on a major program, which I think will allow Jordanians to move democracy in the right direction and Jordan has decentralizations. If you look at the Arab world, very strong central governments.
The program that we have in Jordan now is to decentralize and give more power to the people across the different governors. But again this is something that we realized through experience can’t happen overnight. There’s the issue of capacity building also that they are capable of being able to move their societies forward. So we are addressing all these issues. It takes time and I wish it could move faster than it has been. I think when I look back at the past 10 years, the reform aspect of our country; in many cases sometimes you take two steps forward, one step back. There is resistance for change. There is a resistance to ideas when we try to push the envelope. There are certain sectors of society that say this is a Zionist plot to sort of destabilize our country, or this is an American agenda. So it’s very difficult to convince people to move forward. I believe –
Zakaria: What’s the end goal? Let me repeat my final question, which was will your son be a constitutional monarch? Now, of course, given your age that he‘s going to wait for a long time, but at some point –I mean Prince Charles hasn’t seen anything yet, it’s going to take a while, but at the point he ascends the throne, what will Jordan look like?
H.M. King Abdullah: I know exactly what you’re saying, and what I’m trying to say is the way Jordan is today is not going to be the Jordan of tomorrow. But having said that, how do you make that transition? If you look at Europe by itself, there are several monarchies there. All have different strengths and weaknesses in how they deal with the governments and with civil societies. The future that I see of my country –and again, Europeans understand this –is for democracy to move, I think, in our part of the world is the strengthening of the middle class. 10 years ago, I said my role is to be able to get food on the table. What I’m trying to say by that is trying to create a vibrant, capable and effective middle class. The quicker and stronger that we can be able to do this, the easier it is for political reform to move forward. So from day one, my view has always been in strengthening our society and getting Jordanians to have a much stronger role that then leads to political reform for the future of my country. And that’s the only way that you can –monarchies have to adapt and they have to move forward. But I think that’s all I can say now. It’s a partnership between me and the people, of being able to move the society so that they’re capable of moving democracy forward. And I know that Jordanians have it in them and have the capability, and I hope that as we start with decentralization that’s going to move Jordan stronger.
Zakaria: A final question. This is the 10thyear of your ascending the throne. Am I correct? In this period, you have really dramatically transformed Jordan’s economy. It’s a country that has no natural resources and has been growing steadily and strongly. What did you do and what has been most effective? What is the lesson in terms of creating growth in countries like Jordan?
H.M. King Abdullah: Well, first, don’t give up. Don’t take no for an answer. There are members of my society that, when I say ‘Let’s do something’, there’s a –I wish I could translate it into English–but it’s ‘Tsk’. The Arabs will know what I mean when I say ‘Let’s move this sector of society’ –‘Tsk, that’s never going to happen. We can’t find the money’. And I think that has been the major challenge that I’ve had over the past 10 years. It is not to be intimidated by the ‘Tsk’ that I get from society. And it takes, you know, we move forward. Sometimes we get knocked down; you have to dust yourself off and just keep trying. I am not –we, as Jordan, are not where I wanted it to be, but again there’s been a lot of regional issues. But I am the type of person that wants everything today and not tomorrow. If I can put it down to a single maybe –and I think this is relevant to the rest of the Middle East –if you want to move Jordan and your countries forward, it comes down to education, education, education. The incentive that you give to your youth is going to be the make or break future of the country. I’ve got my good friend, the Crown Prince of Bahrain, here. He’s moving his country, understanding I think the same language that we speak.
There is a core group of young countries that believe in that vision and the ability to move their countries forward. I’m optimistic about the future, but we just can’t accept defeat and no as an answer.
Zakaria: Your Majesty, thank you very much.