King to France 24: We want a better life for Jordan
France 24 TV channel conducted an interview with His Majesty King Abdullah on Sunday that covered a number of domestic, regional, and international issues.
In the interview, conducted by France 24’s Marc Perelman, King Abdullah noted that the impact of regional developments has added pressure on Jordan, stressing the importance of providing opportunities for young people.
“We do want a better life for Jordan. We are stuck in a very difficult neighbourhood… the Syrian refugees have been a tremendous burden on us,” His Majesty told France 24.
“We are saving Europe tremendous amount of pressure by looking after the refugees in our country,” the King said.
His Majesty said Jordan is strategically committed to peace, noting that “the two-state solution in my mind, and I know in the majority of European countries, is the only way forward”, and reaffirming that “moving dialogue back between the Israelis and Palestinians is essential”.
Asked about the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman, who passed away recently, the King said he was “known for being a neutral voice, a voice of reason and a leader that actually brought people together”.
Noting that the region has the “largest youth cohort in history”, His Majesty said youth want a great opportunity at life and stability, which calls on all countries to deal with economic conditions in a way “to give people a better life”.
The King also warned against plunging the region into further instability, underscoring that “instability in our part of the world affects Europe and the rest of the globe”.
Following is the full text of the broadcast interview:
Perelman: Your Majesty, you’re about to go to Europe. And among the discussions, the topics of discussions you’ll have with European leaders, clearly there will be one, and it’s a big question, a daunting question—are we on the brink of an all-out war between the United States and Iran?
King Abdullah II: Well, I think that the quick response to that is I hope not. We will be in Brussels, Strasbourg, and Paris in the next couple of days, reaching out with our friends and the leadership of Europe to look at multiple subjects in this area and how we coordinate this region with Europe. Obviously, on the forefront of people’s minds is what is happening between Iran and the United States. So far, it looks like de-escalation. We hope that that continues to be the trend. We can’t afford any instability in our part of the world. An instability in our part of the world affects Europe and the rest of the globe, so I think a lot of our discussions will be centred around Iran, but mainly around Iraq. I feel that in this last phase, at the end of the day, it’s the Iraqi people who have suffered, who have paid the price. They deserve stability; they deserve a movement to the future. And I think a lot of the discussion in Europe is how do we all embrace the Iraqi people and give them the hope of stability and a future of their nation, and all the other subjects unfortunately that are in the region that we have to discuss.
Perelman: Yes. Was President Trump’s decision to kill Iran’s top General Qasem Soleimani the right decision?
King Abdullah II: Well, I mean, that’s an American decision, and what we want to make sure is that—this is something that has happened. We are ushering in a new decade, not just a new year, and we hope that in the next several months, we set the right tone for the region, which is, to really, bring the temperature down, and the sensitivities. As you know, everything in this part of the world is interlinked, so whatever happens in Tehran will affect Baghdad, will affect Damascus, will affect Beirut, will affect the Israeli-Palestinian process. So I think this is why this trip to Europe comes at the right time, where we need to talk about how do we talk to each other with maturity and respect, as opposed to rhetoric that could create this problem that takes us to the brink.
Perelman: You mentioned Iraq, obviously. Are you afraid that the country could again go into a period of sectarian strife, maybe civil war?
King Abdullah II: That is a possibility. I have tremendous faith in the Iraqi people. I think that—
Perelman: But you’re worried.
King Abdullah II: We have to be worried. And I’m worried. Again, I have faith in the Iraqi people being able to move towards the light. Iraq was moving in a tremendous positive trajectory over the past two years. I think that the loss of government has created, maybe, a couple of steps back. I have all the faith in Iraqi leaders to move back into that, into the positive direction. We have to work very strongly in making sure that sectarianism is not an issue that we have to deal with. But again, I think my major concern in the discussions I will be having in Europe is that we have seen over the past year the re-establishment and rise of ISIS not only in southern-eastern Syria, but also in western Iraq. So if there is a split in Iraqi society as there is today, and I know that the leaders of Iraq are making sure that that is overcome. We have to deal with the re-emergence of ISIS, and that is going to create a problem for Baghdad, and we need to be there to step in and help the Iraqis deal with that threat, which is a threat to all of us, not only in the region, but also to Europe and to the rest of the world.
Perelman: Well, obviously, as you mentioned, you must have noticed that ISIS hailed the killing of Qasem Soleimani as “divine intervention”; the coalition fighting ISIS has suspended its operation in Iraq; there’s obviously talk of US troop withdrawal from Iraq. We’ve seen it in Syria. So this begs the question, are we dropping the ball in the fight against ISIS?
King Abdullah II: I think common sense prevails. As we’ve seen what has happened over the past week or so, there has been a lot of discussion, with not only the United States, but a lot under the umbrella of NATO members, on how we go from protecting, for example, maybe coalition troops in Iraq, to getting the discussion back in the right direction in working with Iraq and others in the area in defeating ISIS and the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, keeping in mind it’s not only those two countries. We have an issue in Libya, where we’re seeing the strengthening of foreign fighters coming out of Syria, going to Libya. And so from a European perspective, Libya being much closer to Europe, that is also going to be an important discussion in the next couple of days on how do we look at Libya making sure that we are actually fighting the fight against terrorist organisations.
Perelman: Well, speaking of Libya, what’s your reaction to Turkey sending troops?
King Abdullah II: Well, again, that will only, I think, create more confusion. There is a very important Russian decision today. We hope that that helps de-escalate the issue, but several thousand hard-core foreign fighters have left Idlib through the northern border and have ended up in Libya, and that’s something that we in the region, but also our European friends will have to address in 2020, because we do not want a failed state in Libya, and a major conflict between all of us in a coalition against extremist terrorist organisations.
Perelman: Just coming back to Iran, President Trump warned that Iran was targeting four US embassies, do you know if the US embassy in Jordan was one of the targets? And more broadly, have you seen any indications of Iran proxies maybe plotting attacks against Jordan?
King Abdullah II: There has been a higher threat level over 2019 to certain targets inside of Jordan. I know from a military perspective we’ve been on a higher alert state for proxies possibly targeting—
Perelman: So not ISIS, you’re talking about Iranian proxies?
King Abdullah II: Yes, that has been a concern. Luckily, nothing has happened, but again—
Perelman: There have been attempts.
King Abdullah II: Not attempts; there has been—when we say higher state of level, because we hear chatter that there are targets in Jordan, and as a result, we’ve had to react accordingly, so that we can be prepared for anything. Nothing has happened. But again, I think we have to get the discussion back that dialogue by all of us, because any miscalculation for any side creates a problem for all of us, and all of us end up paying the price.
Perelman: Iran—obviously you mentioned the Iran crescent several years ago; Iran’s role in the region being a power player, but at the same time, we’ve seen protests inside Iran brutally repressed against price hikes. We’re now seeing again protests because of the downing of the—
King Abdullah II: The tragedy of the loss of the aircraft—
Perelman: —Ukrainian jetliner, so there seems to be a disconnect—Iran projecting power, but isn’t the Iranian regime very fragile?
King Abdullah II: Well, and I’m glad that you said—I think when I had mentioned that statement many years ago, I said the Shiite crescent, but more, I think, realistically, it’s the Iranian crescent that has obviously its reach not only in Iraq and Syria and Lebanon, which has been an issue that we’ve all had to deal with, and we have all seen the internal challenges that the Iranian people have had. And I think that the economy is difficult. It is a stress on the regime, and I think, like all of us in the region, we have the largest youth cohort in history that all want a great opportunity at life and stability, and so all of us are having to deal with how do we deal with the economy internally to give people a better life. And that’s a major challenge, I believe, for Iran and the Iranian people, who deserve, the Iranian people, a chance at a good life and prosperity.
Perelman: Just briefly, Sultan Qaboos of Oman just died, and he was, in a way, he was at some point a channel between Iran and the United States. Will this be someone missing even more due to the current circumstances?
King Abdullah II: Absolutely. His late Majesty the Sultan was an icon. There was a tremendous friendship between His late Majesty King Hussein and the late Sultan. I was very fortunate to have inherited that friendship. And His Majesty was known for being a neutral voice, a voice of reason and a leader that actually brought people together, specifically, I think, that he was a strong conduit between Iran, the Arab world, and the international community. I am fully convinced that Oman will continue to play that positive role, but definitely, he was one of those, sort of the last generation of leaders that we have all terribly missed, and I think the world will miss the ability that the Sultan had to bring nations together.
Perelman: I want to get to the Israel-Palestine issue; Benyamin Netanyahu has said he wants to annex the West Bank or large parts of the West Bank. The Israeli government is taking steps to do so; the US government has changed its policy two months ago regarding settlements. It says now it doesn’t violate international law. You warned that there would be “severe consequences” if this annexation happens, what do you mean by severe consequences, could this be downgrading or severing diplomatic ties?
King Abdullah II: Well, Jordan is strategically committed to the peace between Jordan and Israel, and that is a major element of stability in the region. We understand, unfortunately, that the issue of elections that have been going on for over a year means that there is Israel looking inwards as it’s dealing with its domestic issues. And as a result, our relationship is on pause. We hope that the Israeli people will decide on a government sooner rather than later, and then we can all see how to move forward. The two-state solution in my mind, and I know in the majority of European countries, is the only way forward. The one-staters that are pushing their agenda makes no sense to me whatsoever, because there is two standards there, two sets of laws for two sets of people. That can only create instability, and the only way that we are going to move forward is stability for the Middle East, and the only way you can do that is stability between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Perelman: What if Israel does annex the West Bank? What steps would you consider?
King Abdullah II: So again, this is what I’m saying. Israel, there is a certain rhetoric coming out of Israel, because of the election politics, which is creating tremendous concern to all of us in the region, because they’re moving way often to a direction that is completely uncharted territory for all of us, and can only create more instability and miscommunications. From the Jordanian perspective, the relationship is important; moving dialogue back between the Israelis and Palestinians is essential, and moving the dialogue back between Israel and Jordan, which has been on pause for the past two years is essential. We have to wait to see what the Israeli people decide.
Perelman: The 25-year-old relation, is it at an all-time low?
King Abdullah II: Because of the electioneering season, which unfortunately is taking a long time, there has been no bilateral communications or movement that has affected. And so, when you have certain announcements and decisions, like you said the West Bank, creates a lot of doubt in many of us on where are certain Israeli politicians going and—
Perelman: Starting with the Prime Minster—
King Abdullah II: Well again, the West Bank is an issue that has tremendous, I think, negativity towards the Israeli-Jordanian relationship. We need to have a better understanding of where that is going. So let’s see what happens with the Israeli elections and once there is a government formed that is stable, we can then look how to move forward.
Perelman: What about Donald Trump’s deal of the century? He promised it; we’ve seen the embassy move to Jerusalem; we’ve seen the shift on the settlements. The Palestinian Authority is not talking to the Trump administration. The Palestinians, and I put it bluntly, believe that actually instead of delivering the deal of the century, Donald Trump is in cahoots with Benyamin Netanyahu to bury the two-state solution. Do you still believe in this deal of the century or?
King Abdullah II: So, I’ve had numerous discussions with President Trump on this issue. I think he understands what is needed to bring Israelis and Palestinians together—
Perelman: But he’s not doing it.
King Abdullah II: Well, I think that we are waiting for the plan to be unveiled by the team, and as a result, that has been a grey area for all of us, because unless we know what the plan is, and again, here is the role that not only Jordan and the regional countries play, but with the Europeans—how do we look at the plan once it’s announced, and I think it will be announced.
Perelman: Before the US elections?
King Abdullah II: I’m not too sure when they’re going to do it, but we keep hearing that sometime soon, the plan will be presented. Our job then is to look at the glass half-full. How do we build on the plan and how do we build it in such a way we bring the Israelis and Palestinians together. And so the problem is, it’s difficult for us to make decisions on the plan when we don’t really know what it is. And that’s not a problem just for Jordan, but for our European friends. I know that we will be discussing this in Europe this week. So we are supportive of bringing the Israelis and Palestinians together, but we need to have the plan unveiled for us to be able to see it from a point of view of the glass half-full.
Perelman: Right. I want to get to Syria quickly, because I don’t have much time left. Bashar Al Assad seems to have won. Why not admit it? And in your case, there’s talk, I’ve heard of re-establishing full diplomatic relations between Jordan and Syria.
King Abdullah II: Well, I think there’s a reality on the ground that you have just alluded to. And I think the international community looks at it from—that is a reality. The regime is in a much stronger position. There is still a long way to go, and again, I think we have to continue to remember not only as how do the Syrian regime moves on the issues of constitution and a new governance, keeping in mind that there is still a second part of Syria, which is the war against ISIS, which I’ve just mentioned earlier, is back on the rise again. So we are working as part of the international community to make sure that the political and constitutional status is moving in the right direction. I don’t think that is going to be a quick fix. And then you have the immense challenge of rebuilding Syria and giving an opportunity to the lives of all Syrians. So this is something that we’re going to be at for quite a while. But as you alluded to, there is a reality on the ground that we have to deal with, and I think that reality doesn’t mean that they get off scot free; the reality is that we all have to talk together to make sure that the endgame is what we’ve all agreed upon, and that is the new constitution and the new life for Syria.
Perelman: So full diplomatic relations is on the horizon?
King Abdullah II: So, from the Jordanian perspective, we are in discussions with Damascus, but a lot of countries around the world are moving in that direction based on an international understanding of where Syria is going.
Perelman: Obviously, Syria has been a big issue for Jordan. An estimated 1.3 million Syrians are in Jordan. The main border crossing has been reopened, but only a trickle is going back essentially in Syria, so they are here to stay. Europe, you’re going there, Europe wrote a big cheque to Recep Tayyip Erdogan to keep the refugees in Turkey. It hasn’t done so with Jordan—far from it. I mean, have you been let down by the international community?
King Abdullah II: Because we do not threaten Europe by pushing refugees towards Europe because we think that is a responsibility that should be taken care of by us in the area. Having said that, I mean, last year was probably the least supportive year for Jordan, we have to borrow from the international community to house and look after and care for an increase of 20 per cent of our population. Imagine any European country that has just the increase of 10 percent of their population. So we are frustrated. We are thankful there’s a lot of countries that do help us, but at the end of the day, the burden is on the Jordanians to put all these Syrians in school, to look after their health, housing. It has been a tremendous struggle for us to move, and we’re, sorry to continue this, being let down for doing the right thing. We are saving Europe tremendous amount of pressure by looking after the refugees in our country.
Perelman: Are you hoping to get some commitments from Europe on this trip?
King Abdullah II: So the European leaders understand the challenges of Jordan, and many of them are extremely supportive of Jordan, and we are very grateful. And I’m sure there will be discussions on supporting—but again, part of the reality of life is there is donor fatigue, there is refugee fatigue, and Jordan suffers as a result.
Perelman: Just as a last question; we’ve seen recently in Algeria and in Sudan long-serving presidents being pushed aside. We’ve seen in Iraq, we mentioned it. In Lebanon, the prime minister is being pushed out by protests against bad governance, corruption and so on. This hasn’t happened here. I know you’ve said many times that what keeps you up at night is providing a future for the young Jordanians. Do you fear that something similar might happen here unless the international community and reforms are being implemented?
King Abdullah II: Well, I think the discussions that we’re having in Europe is to again highlight that the region needs 60 million jobs for young people over the next several years, and if we don’t find an opportunity for young people—this is an issue around the world. So you’ve seen demonstrations not just in the Middle East, but in Europe and elsewhere. But we have to work together to give those opportunities to young people, because if we don’t, then instability will continue to be on the rise. So, as I keep saying, it does keep me up at night, because we do want a better life for Jordan. We are stuck in a very difficult neighbourhood, as you alluded to, the Syrian refugees have been a tremendous burden on us. We have a good recovery plan. The government is coming out with packages to move the economy in the right direction. We’re seeing that, but we do need more support from our international friends to be able to make sure that at least Jordan is a model moving in the right direction, but as you alluded to, many other countries are dealing with the same problems in the Middle East.