By: Maria Laura Avignolo
21 October 2008
King Abdullah of Jordan does not look like a stereotypical monarch but a sincere and dynamic head of state in charge of an Arab country without oil that has to survive in a volatile region. Stout, blue-eyed and very white skin, this former commander of the special forces of his country has a firm hand shake. He sits at his modern and simple desk and talks with an extreme ease, not too much protocol or distance, far from the reverences.
On the fortified premises of the Royal Hashemite Court in Bab Al Salam, on the hills of Amman, where the whole royal family lives in different houses and palaces, Abdullah II, son of King Hussein, welcomed Clarín to discuss not only his visit to Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, but also his vision on the Middle East peace process, the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and why his country has decided to choose nuclear power. During his visit to Buenos Aires, Jordan's King will be interested in the Argentinean nuclear reactors.
Clarin: Your Majesty, were your first days as monarch difficult?
King Abdullah: I think it was hard from the point of view that I was not familiar enough with issues on the civilian side; I had to acquaint myself more with economics and study deeper a lot of Jordan’s challenges - poverty, unemployment. And from day one, I have said that my responsibility is to help Jordanians put food on the table and help families achieve economic security.
I fundamentally believe that Jordan’s future must be about building and strengthening the middle class because if we have a capable and active middle class, then reforms – political, social, economic – become much easier. That was, I think, the main lesson that I have learnt as a leader.
Clarin: Why are you coming to Argentina and to the region now? And what are you trying to achieve there?
King Abdullah: We have been in contact with our friends in South America for a very long time. But I think the Arab world would like to reach out to South America, and vice versa, in more concrete ways that will benefit our peoples directly. Today there are tremendous opportunities for South-South cooperation.
Politically, our relations are solid. In the economic realm, we want to improve trade. We also want to improve cultural exchanges. There are Arab communities in South America that have been somewhat ignored by the Middle East and should be actively engaged. There are opportunities between the countries that we're visiting and Jordan and the rest of the Middle East, and we want to capitalise on that. These visits identify to each country potential connections, and then it becomes the job of leaders to make sure that the appropriate channels are opened to private sector and public sector entities to start talking to each other, start working with each other, hopefully for the benefit of all.
Clarin: Especially with Argentina and in Brazil what expectations do you have?
King Abdullah: I want to say here that just before my visit, negotiations started to establish a free trade area between Jordan and MERCOSUR. The achievement of an FTA can rapidly transform the depth of our relations with the countries of Latin America, and Jordan is extremely appreciative of the support we’ve had from both Argentina and Brazil in this initiative. Several bilateral agreements will be signed with both countries, mostly to facilitate our economic relations but also to start developing scientific and technological cooperation. For example, Jordan also has an interest in Argentina’s expertise in the field of nuclear energy development. Similarly, in Brazil, we will be signing nearly a dozen agreements on economic cooperation.
Clarin: Will there be any cooperation between Jordan and Argentina in the nuclear energy field?
King Abdullah: Yes, nuclear energy is our top priority in the development of alternative energy sources. I know that Argentina is very advanced in the field of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and cooperates with other countries in our region in that. As I understand it, the Jordan Nuclear Energy Commission is studying a proposal for cooperation submitted by its counterpart in Argentina. Hopefully, this will be an area where we are able to advance scientific exchange between our countries.
Clarin: The nuclear option, is it different for Jordan than for Iran?
King Abdullah: We are transparent. Four years ago, we explained to the United States and the international community our intent to pursue nuclear power to sustain our development. I explained our specific need for nuclear power and said that there needs to be transparency from all countries with nuclear capabilities. There is a lot of French involvement in our nuclear program. One of the reasons why we're going with the French is because as a European country, it’s very advanced in peaceful nuclear means and it's transparent. We're going to try to do it with the private sector.
Clarin: Iran and its nuclear power - is it a threat or is it a call for international attention?
King Abdullah: Ambiguity, when it comes to nuclear military power, is always a problem, not just as it concerns Iran but any country. So the ambiguity of Israel's nuclear weapons program or Iran's nuclear program or of any other fosters suspicion and instability. This is why I said earlier there has to be full transparency on any nuclear programs that countries have.
Clarin: What will happen in the region if Israel attacks Iran?
King Abdullah: It will be disastrous for the region. We have tremendous conflicts already in the Middle East, and all that would do is open a Pandora's box. Jordan’s stand and that of many countries in the region is that a strike on Iran is completely unacceptable. We believe in dialogue, and I think that a strike on Iran would just escalate the tension, the violence and the conflict in this part of the world.
Clarin: In this economic meltdown, do you believe that peace has a window of opportunity?
King Abdullah: I sense from my conversations with sensible leaders in our region, including several Israelis, that the economic challenges the world is facing, plus the uncertainty of recent Israeli, Palestinian and American domestic politics, are causing some concern. So our job is to build enough momentum, so that, whether McCain or Obama wins, the peace process moves forward.
Clarin: Who will eventually pay the cost of the war?
King Abdullah: The whole region will pay a heavy price for either harder economic conditions or continued instability. When I talk to American and Western officials, I urge them not to look at each problem as an isolated issue. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the core issue. And resolving it is the most essential requisite for stability. The problems of the region are interconnected. So I think to cope with the challenges, the new leaders, whether in America or in Israel, have to look at the bigger context. I'm really worried that Israel cannot see the future beyond fortress Israel.
Clarin: If the two states do not reach a solution, what is the choice?
King Abdullah: I think the challenge for Israelis is to look ten years into the future and explain how their world is going to look. I don't think they can, in the current political conditions, see beyond the next day or the day after.
Clarin: So you believe that Israel has a security obsession and can’t go forward? You believe that the Palestinians are not doing enough?
King Abdullah: His Majesty the late King Hussein always asked us to put ourselves in the other person's shoes. It is true that Israel puts security at the forefront and they can't envision their world in five years’ time. We're trying to assure them that they have a future as part of this region. But Israel has to decide, are they going to be the fortress Israel for the next decade or are they going to be part of the neighbourhood. It is important to solve the problems within the Palestinian leadership. But equally important is to continue with efforts to the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people.
Clarin: If Hezbollah and Hamas are always obstacles for the peace process, do you believe that they are really obstacles or excuses at the end?
King Abdullah: There's too much said about how to isolate Hamas and not enough about how to support the Palestinian National Authority. We have not seen any improvement in support for the Palestinian economy, reopening schools, creating jobs. So we can't always blame just Hamas. Let us place the responsibility on Israel and on ourselves to support the PNA and move the peace process forward towards the two-state solution.
Clarin: Do you believe that Jordan and yourself are paying a heavy price for your close link with the United States and the Bush administration?
King Abdullah: I don't think we're paying any price for any of our relations. Our relationships are actually extremely balanced with everyone in the world. I think we should look at the other side of the question and ask why we have a very good relationship with the Americans? It is because we're always honest and straightforward.
Clarin: Do you have hope for Iraq?
King Abdullah: Out of all the bad news that we have here, in the recent months, the glimmer of hope has been more in Iraq than the peace process or other issues.
Clarin: Is the peace process losing credibility?
King Abdullah: I'm not optimistic about the seriousness of Israel in achieving a two-state solution.
Clarin: How will the region be without the Bush administration?
King Abdullah: As you know, the two candidates have very different visions about US engagement in Iraq. In Jordan, and I think this applies to all of Iraq’s Arab neighbours, we would like to see a withdrawal of American troops as soon as possible but we would also like to see this done in a way that does not jeopardise the security or stability of Iraq or any of its neighbours. What we in Jordan also hope to see is that a new US administration will give the Middle East peace process high priority from the start.