Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Ghassan Sharbel
Al Wasat
14 November 1999
(Translated from Arabic)

Al Wasat: When did you learn from the late King Hussein that you would be the next King of Jordan?

King Abdullah: In October 1998, my late father said to me: "I want you to play an important role, Abdullah, because I am pleased with your performance, especially that you have worked without any backing from me since the very beginning." That was the first signal from him. When I saw him a few days later in Wye [Maryland, USA], I knew a change was going to take place but I did not know how. Some tried to discuss the matter with me but I refrained from doing so, maintaining that any discussion in this subject can only come from the King himself.

When His Majesty stopped in London in December 1998, on his way from the USA, he told me, "We should find a few hours to discuss an important issue." We could not find that time because of the visits of friends and I told him that I had to go back to Amman. When he arrived in Amman, he greeted me hastily and that was another signal. I visited him later on and he said: "I am ill and unfortunately my health is deteriorating, and I want you to carry on my job." Officially I was notified when the letter was announced, and I had refrained from going into this subject before that, as concern for my father's health was paramount on my mind.

Al Wasat: While holding your military posts, hadn't you anticipated that you would become king one day?

King Abdullah: Throughout my life, I learned from my father to concentrate on serving my country. I was busy carrying out the duties he assigned me. My military responsibilities and my closeness to the King increased my awareness of the necessity of carrying out the task as best as I could, and supplied me with useful experience. Honestly, I never aspired to become King. Our collective feeling was that our father will remain among us and I dreamt that he would one day witness the graduation of my son from military college. I also don't like aspiring to other positions and I believe that one should succeed in the position he is in before anything else.

Al Wasat: What was your feeling upon learning of your new responsibility?

King Abdullah: Two feelings at once. The first was the magnitude of the responsibility and the duties it entails, and the second was the increasing anxiety about my father's health, as I was aware of his health condition.

Al Wasat: What does it mean for one to be king, and especially a king in Jordan?

King Abdullah: To be a king means facing great responsibilities and challenges, the simplest form of which is feeling that your people are your family and that you are responsible for their well-being exactly as you are for your direct family. I was responsible for my family, four people, and today I am responsible for a family of more than four million.

Al Wasat: You assumed power nine months ago, among domestic, regional and international sympathy towards Jordan and its new king. How do you evaluate this period?

King Abdullah: The circumstances we went through were never easy. The passing away of the late King Hussein was a great shock to us and to the entire world. However, when we witnessed how the whole world was standing by our side, sharing in the grief of Jordanians and their grave loss, and saw leaders from Arab and foreign countries arriving in Jordan to participate in the funeral of the late King and expressing support for us, we realised how great King Hussein was and the magnitude of the responsibility and duty we must uphold. The late King had left us a lot of space from which we could begin to continue the work he had begun. The most important element was the solidarity of the Jordanian public, which was expressed by Jordanians from all origins. That proved to me how great and strong those people were, just like they have always been in difficult situations. The resolve I derived from the Jordanian people made me comfortable about the future and about aspiring to continue the work of the late King.

The stance of our Arab brothers and their sincere initiatives towards Jordan had a strong effect in supporting our firm belief and conviction of this country's belonging to the Arab nation first and foremost. The leadership of this country believed and will continue to believe that the relationship of Jordan with its Arab brothers is the foundation, and that no other relationship with any country shall take precedence to its relationships with its Arab nation.

Al Wasat: The past few months have shown your keenness to establish a direct relationship with the Jordanian citizen and looking into his daily concerns. How do view this relationship?

King Abdullah: The relationship of the Jordanian people with their leadership is special and intimate. It was never a relationship of a ruler with his subjects, and so I found myself, from the first day, a son of this nation and close to their aspirations and concerns. Accordingly, I wanted to closely touch the daily concerns of the Jordanian citizens through conducting surprise visits to establishments that are in direct contact with the citizens. I saw, up close, how the Jordanian citizen lives and how the government institutions deal with him. The results of these visits were positive, as some institutions where I noted flaws proceeded to correct these dysfunctions and to deal with the citizens with transparency and with less bureaucracy. Before that, I had served as an officer in the army and had lived amongst soldiers in their barracks. I learned through this experience the minute details in the lives of the soldier and the ordinary citizen and what the level of this life was.

Al Wasat: In light of this experience, what are your domestic priorities?

King Abdullah: The truth is, this experience left me a significant margin in which to study the dysfunctional points and to present them to the government officials in the concerned departments, in order to correct them. We will also begin amending many laws and regulations to gradually eliminate bureaucracy, as it hinders the advancement of society and economic growth, which is on top of our list of national priorities.

Al Wasat: In your first tour abroad, you had hoped to drop two billion dollars, out of seven billion, of your country's foreign debt. How do you see the situation now? And have you obtained any Arab assistance?

King Abdullah: The tour we've made to friendly countries was not only for the purpose of cancelling debts but rather to fundamentally to meet with the leaders of these countries and to maintain the friendships established by the late King Hussein. Therefore, I found great understanding by the leaders of these countries to the nature of the issues I presented, both to the issues relating to Jordan and to the area in general, such as the peace process and the development issue. The burden of our foreign debt was among these issues. My visits to the Arab countries, and in particular to the Arabian Gulf countries, produced very positive results, especially in the areas of reducing Jordanian unemployment and in the establishment of constructive cooperation in the fields of investment and commercial transactions. In the water issue, the response of the brothers in Syria, Libya and the United Arab Emirates was very fruitful, and the Syrian brothers gave us eight million cubic meters of water. Libya and the United Arab Emirates offered us assistance in carrying out water projects and finding new water resources.

As for the issue of debts, there was a response by the Paris Club to reschedule the Jordanian debts. There was also an understanding during the Cologne summit of the seven industrial nations, about the issue of these debts. Though this response was not immediate nor was it up to our expectations, we are still hopeful that a more significant response will be shown to Jordan, which has given a lot for the sake of peace, not only for the area but also for the world.

Al Wasat: You asked the Jordanian people to be patient until the end of the year, in anticipation of economic improvement. Are there any indications of such improvement?

King Abdullah: Jordan's reliance, first and foremost, will be on the abilities of its people and their unlimited contribution. We believe that we are on our way to relying on our own capabilities and our people's enormous abilities. Work is already underway to amend laws and regulations to aid our move towards globalisation and to remove all obstacles that may have prevented attracting Arab and foreign investments to Jordan. We have begun moving our economy towards privatisation and have already privatised some institutions. This year saw the signing of several agreements with international companies to invest in the cement, phosphate, communications and transportation sectors. Economic improvement does not come overnight. There must first be a suitable environment to encourage investment in Jordan.

Even though the economic growth rate is currently not at an acceptable level, we are hopeful that the next few years will witness increasing growth consistent with our aspiration towards self-reliance and to move the Jordanian economy into new horizons. Our trust in the future and in our people's ability to overcome current difficulties is enormous. We also hope that achieving a comprehensive peace in the area will create an environment of security and stability, enabling us to establish an infrastructure consistent with the people's needs and the future they look forward to.

Al Wasat: The government is currently debating the one-man, one-vote law, in hope of improving this law. What is the government's goal on this?

King Abdullah: The present voting law is not as bad as some would claim. However, we sought to debate all controversial issues in order to find an electoral system suitable to everyone across the political spectrum. The matter now lays with the government, parliament and the various political forces in order to come up with an appropriate formula, which realises justice in harmony with the democratic course and political diversity of Jordan.

Al Wasat: There is always a debate about the Press and Publications Law in Jordan. How do you view this issue?

King Abdullah: We have finished laying a modern and contemporary publications law, consistent with Jordan's democratic direction, the protection of the freedom of press, freedom of expression and the openness of media without restriction or hindrance. The Jordanian press representatives have contributed to the drafting of this law. The domestic press writes what it desires without any barriers or restrictions, and we do not exercise any censorship on foreign press coming into Jordan.

Al Wasat: Wasn't there a subtler approach in dealing with Hamas? And was Hamas asked to leave before the procedures, and what was the answer?

King Abdullah: An exaggerated scope both politically and in the media was given to the Hamas issue. This may be due to the freedom of press in Jordan or to the manner by which the foreign media had dealt with this issue. We respect the brothers in Hamas and appreciate their struggle as a Palestinian liberation movement. The director of the political office of Hamas is a Jordanian citizen who belongs to a non-Jordanian organisation. Any political organisation or party wishing to operate in Jordan must obtain a license or approval from the Jordanian authorities, even if it is a Jordanian organisation. Is there any difference if it is non-Jordanian? The Jordanian government simply did its duty and exercised its legitimate right in dealing with this case. The brothers in Hamas, however, insisted on their position and it was therefore necessary to take this course of action in order to protect the security of Jordan, in the first place, and to preserve both our national interests and the interests of our brethren. In any case, the issue is now on its way to final settlement.

Al Wasat: Did you take into consideration, in this issue, on the understanding of the Muslim Brotherhood? And what is the solution for the demand of Hamas to the right of operating politically and media-wise on Jordanian soil, in view of your declaration that there would be no reopening of Hamas offices?

King Abdullah: The government did not present this issue to the Muslim Brotherhood, but they offered to mediate in this matter, and the government accepted their offer out of its desire to resolve this issue through discussion. We were not counting on anyone. The issue is one of principle and respect for our laws and commitments, as well as consideration for our national interest, security and stability. There is no going back to the previous situation and as I mentioned, the matter is moving towards a proper solution, which fulfils Jordanian goals and interests.

Al Wasat: You have said that Jordan has an interest in the final stage of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. What is this interest? And are you partners in negotiation or in signing?

King Abdullah: As you know, Jordan is host to the largest number of Palestinian refugees and the resolutions of international community have provided for their right of return and compensation. Jordan has endured a lot as a result of the presence of this great number of refugees on its soil and therefore we must have a role when this matter is studied. Furthermore, there is the issue of water, which is a matter that can only be dealt with on a regional level. Also, there is the matter of the holy sites.

Al Wasat: How do you look upon the prevention of the Jordanian parliamentary delegation from entering the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron?

King Abdullah: I was surprised and dismayed by this incident. The government made an official protest about the behaviour of the Israeli settlers, which was inconsistent with international accords or even with common courtesy. The Israeli government apologised for this incident. We hope there would not be any repeat of such incidents, which may hinder and discredit the peace process.

Al Wasat: How can you balance both the Jordanian citizenship of the Palestinian refugees in Jordan and their right to return to Palestine?

King Abdullah: The Palestinian refugees in Jordan are Jordanian citizens, and the international laws have granted them the right of return and compensation. I don't see any conflict between their citizenship and their right of return to the home from which they were driven out. The citizenship granted them by Jordan shall never deprive them of this right. They are now Jordanians with rights as well as duties.

Al Wasat: You have said that a confederation is not in your dictionary right now. What are the conditions for its establishment or consideration?

King Abdullah: A confederation usually exists between two independent countries and is based on the free choice of two peoples. So, after the independent Palestinian state is declared, the peoples of Jordan and Palestine can freely decide on any form of confederation, which may fulfil their ambitions.

Al Wasat: What was the purpose of the Jordanian declaration of giving up looking after the holy sites in Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority?

King Abdullah: The purpose behind this declaration was, in the first place, to open the way for our Palestinian brothers to move freely, especially while they are entering into the final negotiations. We know that they are now closer to the reality of what the holy sites are going through and to the suitable view on how to determine the future of these sites, as a result of their presence on the same soil.

The holy sites were in the custody of the Hashemites, who preserved them and enabled all to reach them freely and securely. Now, we place our abilities and resources at the disposal of our Palestinian brothers and we support them to reach all their rights. Also, don't forget that these holy sites are on the soil of Jerusalem and that Jerusalem is a Palestinian city subject to whatever other Palestinian cities are subjected to.

Al Wasat: How do you view the relationship with the Palestinian Authority?

King Abdullah: The relationship with the Palestinian Authority is one of partnership in all that relates to the worries and aspirations of the brotherly peoples of Jordan and Palestine. We will support our Palestinian brothers, under the leadership of president Yasser Arafat, with all our resources and abilities until they obtain their legitimate rights and establish their independent state on Palestinian soil with Jerusalem as their capital. We also see that the Palestinian cause is the core of the struggle in the region, and that there will be no peace without the fundamental and just resolution of this issue. Therefore, I call on all Arab brothers to stand by this struggling people, because we cannot leave them alone during this critical stage they are going through.

Al Wasat: You have exerted efforts for the resumption of negotiations on the Syrian and Lebanese tracks. What are the obstacles?

King Abdullah: I sensed, during my meetings with the leaders of these two nations, the Syrian and Lebanese resolve to work towards a just peace, which regains all the land back in return for peace. The Israelis have shown me, also, that they want to resume negotiations on the Syrian and Lebanese tracks. I hope that the two would meet to find an appropriate way out of the unresolved issues and resume the negotiations from where they have stopped. I believe that the matter requires a doubling of efforts on the part of the United States and other concerned international parties, in order to bring the points of view closer together and to resume the negotiations on these parallel and inseparable tracks.

Al Wasat: Months ago, Jordanian-Syrian relations seemed warm and viable. Is this still the case? And how do you describe your relationship with President Assad and Dr. Bashar Assad?

King Abdullah: The relations with Syria are better than they used to be, and we were able, through the meetings with President Assad, to resolve all temporary entanglements that may have speckled the clarity of our brotherly relations. The Syrians and we have a lot in common, and the relation now is growing at all levels, which is the norm.

My brother, Dr. Bashar, is an example of energy, zeal, open-mindedness and foresight. I see in him an example of the Arab youth who shoulders his nation's concerns and his people's hopes. He has learned from his father wisdom, foresight and willingness to serve his people and nation.

Al Wasat: It has been said that a shadow of competition for a role in the peace process has clouded the Egyptian-Jordanian relations. Is this true?

King Abdullah: Jordan and Egypt share aspirations and hopes of achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace, when a new dawn of security, stability and prosperity will shine on the peoples of the entire region. If Jordan has a role in the peace process, then it would be a completion of the role started by our Egyptian brethren, for they had the main role in building the peace we are now seeing. Egypt is the elder sister, whose role cannot be denied or competed with by anyone. I have met with my brother, President Hosni Mubarak, on more than one occasion for the purpose of coordination and consultation on our joint efforts towards achieving the goals of peace. I have sensed his deep commitment to consultation and coordination on all issues relating to the peace process and the Arab situation in general.

Al Wasat: You met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. How do you view his attitude towards peace and his readiness to move towards a comprehensive peace?

King Abdullah: When the results of the Israeli elections came out and Mr. Barak won, we said that the results of these elections were a referendum on the desire of the Israeli people to move towards peace. I have met the Israeli prime minister and I sensed in him a sincere desire to achieve peace and overcome the obstacles in the path of the peace process that were laid by the Netanyahu government.

I believe that there is now a historic opportunity for achieving peace, which should be grasped, and that the signing of agreements in the past few weeks calls for optimism and for assisting the concerned parties to achieve more progress towards peace.

Al Wasat: The Iraqi issue was brought up in your latest talks with President Bill Clinton and mystery surrounded the story of the Iraqi message. Can you explain that? And how do you view the current situation in Iraq and the way out of it?

King Abdullah: The suffering of the Iraqi people and the embargo imposed on them has been present in the conscious of the Jordanian people. We see that the tragedy of this Arab people must be brought to an end. However, the Iraq issue has become an international one and neither Jordan nor any other Arab country can come up with a solution that ends the suffering of this people and returns Iraq to its natural environment and status in the region.

I did not carry a specific Iraqi message to my meeting with President Clinton, but the Iraqi concern was always present. The way out of this dilemma requires both Iraqi and international effort.

Al Wasat: What impressions did your visit to Lebanon leave?

King Abdullah: My first visit to Lebanon was in 1964 and lasted only a few hours. I have always longed to visit this country. The visit was excellent on all levels and we harbour feelings of love towards this country.

Al Wasat: It has been noted that your relationships in Lebanon include officials and non-officials?

King Abdullah: Yes, I've met with President Emile Lahoud and the meeting was an excellent one. Perhaps the military background of both of us made it easy for us to understand one another. The meetings with other officials also went well.

Al Wasat: It was also noted that there is a relationship between you and former Premier Rafiq Hariri, who is now in the opposition?

King Abdullah: The relationship with Premier Hariri is a family one. One of his sons went to college with one of my cousins; we met there and the relationship continued. I would like to say here that we do not meddle in the internal affairs of any other country and it is on this basis that we establish our relationships. We shall not hesitate in offering any support to Lebanon.

Al Wasat: There are fears of a rise in the wave of desperation and fundamentalism in the area. Do you have such fears?

King Abdullah: The absence of true peace, justice, security and stability; the deprivation of justice and democracy; the loss of freedoms and the disregard to the individual's freedom and dignity are all reasons for desperation and frustration and are fertile grounds for violence. The region, however, is witnessing a flourishing of freedoms, stability, security and prosperity. Therefore, I am optimistic that the wave of desperation and extremism shall vanish, God willing. Incidentally, we must differentiate between fundamentalism and extremism. Fundamentalism means going back to the origin and therefore should be separated from extremism and radicalism.