Before an official visit to Portugal, in 2009 King Abdullah II of Jordan gave me an exclusive interview. The questions were sent to and received from the Royal House via e-mail. The son who inherited Hussein bin Talal’s crown spoke about the so-called “peace process” in the Middle East, his Hashemite Kingdom and the relations between Amman and Lisbon. (Read more…)
You have defined yourself as “one of the most optimistic leaders in the Middle East”. Are you still optimistic when you look at the region?
I don’t see an alternative to being optimistic and determined and active in trying to address the issues of my region. I know there are people who say it’s pointless to do anything because things will never change… there’s no hope. But if we just sit on our hands, things will get much worse.
Frankly, we do not have the right to pessimism or inaction; we owe it to our young people to do everything we can to advance peace and development in our region. It is their birthright – as well as their wish – to grow up and live in security, to have opportunity, to be able to plan their lives without wondering when the next conflict will happen, and how it will affect them. Yes, the situation is difficult.
But we simply have no choice but to pursue a lasting settlement that will free our region from continued conflict, that will unleash its potential, and that will enable our peoples, especially the young, to look forward to a future of progress and achievement rather that live with fear and frustration.
The Arab states have put forward the Arab Peace Initiative that can bring a lasting and comprehensive peace on the basis of the two-state solution. It is consistent with the solution that the whole international community supports.
We have made our choice: a lasting and comprehensive peace. Israel has to make its choice too: Does it want to remain fortress Israel, isolated in the region and responsible for prolonging conflict and injustice, or does it want to be integrated into the region, live in peace with its neighbours and contribute to a new Middle East focused on progress and development and security for all?
And we are encouraged by the positive signs that are coming form the United States and Europe. The new US administration has asserted that it will be actively engaged in efforts to reach a settlement and so has Europe been trying to work with all parties concerned to push the negotiations forward.
You were a close ally of the Bush Administration but many political pundits are now saying that the Middle East is in a worse situation due to its “failed policies”. What is your opinion?
We have worked with successive American administrations to try and bring peace to our region, and especially on resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which we believe is the main source of instability in the Middle East. We will continue to do so. We have to look forward and cooperate with the international community, the US, Europe and others, to realise progress.
What matters now is that the conflict is still there, that occupation is still there and that injustice is still there. We have to end all of this. And we will continue to do every thing we can to give the people of the region the dignified and peaceful life they deserve.
Is it possible to solve the conflict without Hamas?
This is not just a matter of can the conflict be solved with or without one party or the other. Conflict resolution anywhere requires political consensus and unity within the concerned parties; this applies to both Palestinians and Israelis, as well.
As far as it concerns the Palestinians, Jordan wholeheartedly supports the efforts in the region, especially the valuable Egyptian efforts, to help the various Palestinian groups overcome their differences and reach agreement. We believe that Palestinian unity is essential, and is dictated by Palestinian interests.
We will continue to support all efforts that seek to end differences among the different sides and to provide all assistance possible to the Palestinians in building and sustaining their institutions.
Is a two-state solution possible while the Palestinians are divided and the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem?
The problem is much bigger than settlements; it is the occupation in its entirety – the daily strangulation of Palestinian economic, cultural and social life. On top of that, Gaza is living a humanitarian crisis; the human suffering is immense, and anger and frustration are growing.
Simply, the status quo is not in anyone’s interest. I want to reiterate here that there is no alternative to the two-state solution – a Palestinian state, living in peace and security alongside Israel.
The Palestinians, the Arabs, have embraced this solution. Israel must do the same if it really seeks to live in peace in the region. We cannot give up and we will continue to pursue the two-state solution, with the support of the international community, and through negotiations that must be accelerated and supported.
The alternative is more of the same, more conflict and more suffering. And that is an alternative that we simply will not accept.
Is there any prospect of a new Arab peace plan or of reformulating the one proposed in 2002, refused by Israel because it contemplated the right of return of the Palestinian refugees?
The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative expresses the Arab states’ strategic choice for peace and reflects our collective vision of the future of the Middle East. The future that we see is a region where all the states, including Israel, live together in peace and security and enjoy normal relations.
The Arab states proposed a broad framework of how to achieve this vision that addresses the interests and concerns of all parties to the conflict: Israel’s withdrawal from all Arab land occupied since 1967, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, collective security guarantees and the normalisation of relations between Israel and all her neighbours, and an agreed solution to the Palestinian refugee problem in accordance with UN resolutions.
This proposal is a foundation for peace talks and is unprecedented in the history of the conflict. It was unanimously endorsed by all 22 Arab states and enjoys the support of Muslim countries outside our region, with which Israel does not enjoy political or economic relations because of the conflict.
Peace with Israel, you said, is a “strategic imperative” for Jordan. Why?
As I mentioned before, peace is the strategic option of all the Arab states, not just Jordan. The reasons for this are many. In the first place, conflict is becoming more dangerous and more frequent in our region. This is partly because the state of conflict itself is allowing outsiders to exploit the conflict. New and more deadly weapons also are being introduced to the mix.
The status quo is also an invitation to extremism, and I don’t need to explain where that has led. At a more practical level, the countries of the region confront several common challenges that cannot be effectively addressed or resolved as long as the conflict persists.
Overall, the conflict has impeded the development of the region as a whole. We know that we cannot realise our full potential until there is a comprehensive and lasting peace in the region.
Assuming the US withdraws from a stable Iraq by 2010 [it began in 2009], how will the stabilisation of Iraq affect the economy of Jordan if the affluent Iraqi community of exiles (those who fled after 1991 Gulf war, not the refugees of the war that overthrew Saddam Hussein) returns to their homeland?
The stability is essential for the stability of the whole region. Iraqis in Jordan have been welcome guests until they are able and choose to return to their country.
Many have contributed to our economy. But the high number of Iraqis who reside in Jordan also strained our already tight resources, water, education, the health system. And of course we are not worried about affluent Iraqis going back to their country.
On the contrary, it is in our interest for the Iraqis to be able to rebuild their country. Iraq was Jordan’s main trade partner, and our economy will benefit from the growth of the Iraqi economy, in trade, in investment and in many other areas.
But beyond economic relations, Iraq has always been a major country in the Middle East, and it is in every body’s interest that Iraq overcomes its problems and that Iraqis be able to rebuild their country and restore to it its vital role in the region.
Jordan must have a nuclear energy programme, you said. Is this plan related to the Iranian ambitions?
No. Our peaceful nuclear programme will enable us to generate energy, to launch water desalination projects and end our dependence on imported oil. It will contribute to our economic growth and reduce the energy bill for our country and citizens.
Time has come for us to diversify our resources of energy so as to achieve greater energy security, be more energy independent and preserve the environment by exploring all alternative energy options.
Finally, would you please tell us if, as a King, you still find time to be a “frogman, pilot and free-fall parachutist”, and enjoy “automobile racing, water sports, scuba diving and collecting ancient weapons and armaments”, as we can read in your official biography?
Well, as you might imagine, free time is precious, so I have to be more selective in how I spend it. Usually I do those things that my wife and children also have an interest in or enjoy. We all enjoy water sports, so we do spend quite a bit of time in Aqaba, boating, scuba diving and water skiing.
We also like to camp in the desert in Wadi Rum, and I’m fortunate that my kids have indulged me in one of my favourite pastimes by allowing me to teach them archery! Whatever little free time I have I spend with my family. I believe that one can never get enough of that.
Have you ever been in Portugal or is this your first ever visit?
This is my first official visit to Portugal, and I have been very much looking forward to it, as has Rania. His Excellency President Cavaco Silva honoured us with a visit to Jordan last year , and I am looking forward to meeting him again, as well as several Portuguese officials and members of parliament.
We have a very full agenda during this visit, for which our main focus is not only to advance our official bilateral relations, but also to help build the contacts between the Jordanian and Portuguese private sectors.
The delegation that has accompanied me to Lisbon includes several Jordanian officials and representatives of the private sector. They will meet their Portuguese counterparts during a business forum organised by the Jordan Investment Board, and I hope this will be a platform for greater trade and investment between our countries.
Are you familiar with Portugal’s Arab heritage?
Yes, I am, as many Jordanians – and many Arabs – are familiar with Portugal’s Arab heritage, because it is also our heritage, and one that we are very proud of in terms of the contributions that Arabs and Muslims made to socio-economic development, cultural advancement, the sciences, the arts, etc.
I hope this common heritage will enable us to build better bridges of cooperation and understanding. It should inspire us to accept each other, to embrace what is common and to respect differences and to overcome all misconceptions.
How do you evaluate the relations between Jordan and Portugal, and what can be done to improve the bilateral cooperation?
Our bilateral relations are very warm and friendly, but in Jordan, we believe that there is a much greater scope for cooperation at the official level and beyond, and the framework needs to be put in place at the level of leadership.
This process began with President Cavaco Silva’s visit to Jordan last year, when five different agreements were signed, mostly concerning economic and cultural cooperation.
Since that time, a number of new agreements have been proposed and I expect that these will be on the agenda for discussion during this visit. I am keen to explore all kinds of possibilities for furthering our relations, and not just economic relations, but also cultural and political. Yes we do have excellent relations, but I am sure we can develop them further.
What role can Portugal play in the Middle East and in which context?
Through its participation in UNIFIL, its contribution of funds, personnel and training for reconstruction in Iraq, and its support for a negotiated settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Portugal is already playing a valuable role in our region, and I hope it will continue to do so, both as a near neighbour to our region with whom we share historical and cultural ties, and as a prominent voice within the European Union.
Here, I should express Jordan’s appreciation for your country’s firm stand on the recent conflict in Gaza, as well as for the work Portugal has done to keep the focus in Europe on humanitarian aid for the people of Gaza and for Portugal’s pledge to the UNRWA emergency appeal.
THE HASHEMITE KINGDOM
Dependent on the supply of oil and gas, facing high unemployment, poverty and government debt, how is your country coping with the global economic crisis?
This past year has been a difficult one for Jordanians, when you take into consideration, not only the crisis in the financial markets, but also the ups and downs of the oil market.
As it stands, our economy performed well last year, with growth around 6 per cent and our exports rose considerably as well – more than 35% . External debt, as a percentage of GDP, also decreased from 46.8% in 2007 to 26.3% at the end of 2008.
Our currency reserves remain sound. Although we have not been affected as severely as other parts of our region by the global economic crisis, we are taking all the necessary precautions to ensure that our economy is able to withstand any possible consequences for it.We feel that the best way to deal with this challenge is to press on with our development programme to the greatest extent possible.
This includes several major infrastructure projects in the energy, water and transport sectors that will create jobs in the medium term and facilitate development in the long term. Poverty and unemployment are problems that we are doing every thing we can to face. We have initiated reforms that have enabled our economy to do well in the hardest of times.
We believe Jordan offers an extremely lucrative environment for investment and we are trying to lure investment that can create jobs and contribute to economic growth. We have many competitive advantages that more and more foreign investors are coming to realise.
Our stability, our location, our modern laws are pluses. But most importantly, we have highly qualified manpower that has contributed to the development of the whole region.
With lower and middle income sectors being the most affected by the crisis, is there a risk of Islamist groups in the Kingdom fomenting a social upheaval and preventing the promised advancing of the reforms?
Concern about the social effects of the economic crisis is not one that is limited to one country or another, or one political group or another. Around the world whole societies are under strain due to the economic crisis.
We have been shielded to a great extent from some of the crises that have been witnessed elsewhere. But as I said, we are taking all the necessary precautions to ensure that our economy and our people are protected as much as possible from this global crisis.
Of course, our economic policies have focused on the underprivileged, with a view to improving their conditions. We have also followed policies to protect and expand our middle class. The government has taken several measures to try to ensure that their standards of living will not deteriorate. As for your question on the Islamists, they are integral part of our social fabric and body politic.
Like all Jordanians, they exercise their political rights and participate in public life. We are a stable country governed by our Constitution and our laws. And we encourage all Jordanians to contribute to the political life in the country.
We want the best for our people, and we are committed to home-grown reforms that will improve conditions for all, and ensure that people participate more in deciding their futures. The government will soon start a major decentralisation project that will give people more say in making their decisions and forming their futures.
What has been the biggest challenge since 1999 upon the death of your father, King Hussein?
I have always said my number one priority and my number one challenge is to secure and improve the standard of living of Jordanian families. Jordan does not have natural resource wealth like many of our neighbours; we don’t have oil and at the same time, we are also a water scarce country. We have a very young population, and quite a bit of poverty and unemployment.
So the government and I have been particularly focused on, first, supporting the most vulnerable in Jordanian society by expanding the social safety net and access to health care and trying to ensure that everyone has safe and affordable housing. And second, our socio-economic policies are geared to creating opportunity for our young people.
That means we have concentrated a lot on developing the education and vocational training sectors, so that Jordanians are globally competitive job candidates. And at the same time, we have opened our country up in terms of trade and investment and are constantly seeking to expand both with the objective of creating opportunity.
Through this, we hope to solidify our middle class, which is really the backbone of any economy. Finally, we’ve been very concerned to make sure that every part of the country is able to develop through a programme that establishes special development zones in each area.
The idea is to lure investment to each area of the country by drawing on the strengths and resources available locally to create a sort of economic hub in each area. We tried this first in our port city, Aqaba, and two years ago, began to roll out the model at the national level.
The challenge is to be able to provide our citizens with the best life possible and to make sure the country is able to progress. This has been my priority, and it continues to be so.
This article, now revised, edited, and updated, was originally published in the Portuguese newspaper PÚBLICO on March 16, 2009