King Abdullah: Jordan Needs 'Stable Middle Class'
DAVID GREENE, host: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.
STEVE INSKEEP, host: And I'm Steve Inskeep.
The man we'll hear from next has a very personal stake in dramatic events across the Middle East. King Abdullah of Jordan is one of many Arab rulers facing protests this year. He has responded by promising his people greater democracy over time.
GREENE: But that's not his only challenge. Abdullah's nation is a neighbor of Israel and it's also home to millions of Palestinians. So he's directly affected by this week's meetings at the United Nations, where Palestinians plan to make a bid for statehood.
King ABDULLAH: I think everybody is being backed into a corner. So we're working desperately to find a mechanism that is acceptable to all sides. So there's been a lot of late-night meetings between Palestinians, the Israelis, the Americans, et cetera.
INSKEEP: King Abdullah was talking at a New York hotel, sitting beside a table decorated with a photo of his family. He's 49 years old with a brisk walk. He wears a Western-style suit. His government, unlike most in the Arab world, maintains diplomatic ties with Israel. But now the king says something must happen within days to push Israel toward a settlement with Palestinians.
Given the state of negotiations, is it acceptable to you to walk away from this U.N. meeting this week, with something less than recognition of Palestinian statehood?
King ABDULLAH: Well, the bid by the Palestinians for statehood came out of desperation and frustration, because nothing was happening on the negotiating table. And we could see this coming from several months ago. And obviously, certain countries had raised their concerns about the Palestinian bid. Our response has been, well, let's then make an effort to get the Israelis and Palestinians to sit around the table. That hasn't happened. So we only have ourselves to blame for this crisis.
Having said that, I have to commend the role of the European Union, trying to find a mechanism that pleases everybody. We've had - every six hours it seems to change. So I think until the last minute, which is Friday when the Palestinians make the decision, there's a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiations to find something that's acceptable for everybody.
INSKEEP: Meaning something short of statehood that pushes a vote on statehood down the road, but gets negotiations started with...
King ABDULLAH: Well, I think what the Europeans are looking at is asking for statehood in a way that then there is a technical process that gives some time to allow Israelis and Palestinians to sit at the table and re-launch negotiations on final status issues.
INSKEEP: As you know, King Abdullah, Turkey has downgraded the state of its relations with Israel. Your country, we'll remind people, has relations with Israel.
King ABDULLAH: Yes.
INSKEEP: Have you considered downgrading your relations with Israel?
King ABDULLAH: No. But, you know, it's funny that you should mention this issue, because again, if we have a very negative impact coming out of the United Nations, in other words, that the Palestinians are really shorthanded on this issue. You saw recently what happened in Egypt with the attack on the Israeli Embassy. Turkey downgrading its relationship, Egypt having a problem with Israel. We have, as you mentioned, peace with Israel. We're actually the last man standing.
So there is going to be immense pressure. And people asking, why are we having this relationship when it's not benefitting anybody?
INSKEEP: You're saying you could be forced to take steps against Israel.
King ABDULLAH: I'm not a person that is forced. But having said that, there are going to be a lot of questions, not just in my country but across the Middle East. Is Israel going to continue to be Fortress Israel? Or, as we all hope, you know, become accepted into the neighborhood? Which I believe is the only way we can move forward in harmony.
And no matter what's happening in the Middle East - the Arab Spring, et cetera, the economic challenges, high rates of unemployment - the emotional, critical issue is always the Israeli-Palestinian one.
INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned the Arab Spring. What is it like to be a king of an Arab state at a time of a revolution like this?
King ABDULLAH: Well, actually quite exciting. I think that, you know, we have been trying to push reform. There has been a lot of pushback by the more conservative elements. And what the Arab Spring or the Arab Awakening did was bringing the subject front and center. As a result, in Jordan we've created a national dialogue committee. We went on outreach with everybody. We're announcing municipal elections at the end of the year, and national elections beginning of next year.
INSKEEP: Given the realities in other countries, how do you keep a lid on - if that's the appropriate way to put it? How do you avoid an explosion for a year here?
King ABDULLAH: Well, again, you know, what's happening today, now - as long a people are - benchmark understand what needs to be done. I think the challenge that I have is managing people's expectations. Even if we have parliamentary elections in 2012, you're not going to have those new political parties. So we can have a new parliament next year. But until we get right, left and center, there's going to be a delay for that. That's the challenge.
INSKEEP: When you talk about left, right and center, you're basically talking about laying out a democratic political landscape in your country...
King ABDULLAH: Exactly...
INSKEEP: ...what do people stand for and what do they believe.
King ABDULLAH: In short terms, I announced last year - I mean the beginning of this year, and I've been speaking to everybody, saying, look, my vision of Jordan is two to five political parties, representing left, right and center, as quickly as possible.
INSKEEP: Does it bother you that one of the implied and often explicit messages of these protests across the Arab world, is that, if I may say, people like you should have less power or perhaps no power?
King ABDULLAH: No, it - you know, it depends if you have an ego issue, which I - particularly it's not a problem of mine. And since I've been pushing this from the start, I mean, the first interview I ever had after my father passed away, said, you know, my job is to put food on the table for people. And what I meant by that is basically creating a middle class, knowing full well the stronger you have a middle class, the easier I think political transformation happens.
So it's a two-edged sword, the more I support, with my economic plans, the building of a middle class, the quicker they're going turn around and say, hey, we want a bigger say in things. So I knew what I was getting into right at the beginning. It's the right thing to do. This is bigger than Jordan. We want to be an example for the rest of the Arab world. Because there are a lot of people who say that the only democracy you can have in the Middle East is the Muslim Brotherhood. And I don't think that's the case. I think if a monarchy, as you said, can show a new democratic platform, then I think we'll be a symbol for other countries.
INSKEEP: Do you expect there to be a monarchy that you would pass on to your heir, and if so what power would remain to the king?
King ABDULLAH: Well, we're obviously going through some tremendous changes today. I think we've said this in interviews before over the past 10 years, that the monarchy that I hand over to my son is not going to be the same one that I've inherited. There's a tendency by a lot of officials to hide behind the king and it's about time that officials take their responsibility and are responsible in front of the people.
INSKEEP: What troubles you most about the protests of this year?
King ABDULLAH: Well, what bothers me in a lot of countries is, you know, society is being led by the street, as opposed to a light at the end of the tunnel. But we've got to remember that the Arab Spring began - and there's challenges all over the world, including your country, because of economic difficulties: unemployment, poverty, we have the largest youth cohort in history coming into the workforce in the Middle East - and that is how the Arab Spring started. I mean, Tunis started because of economy, not because of politics.
What keeps me up at night is poverty and unemployment. We have, in the past 10 years, managed to establish a credible middle class. But any shifts in oil prices, economic challenges - that middle class becomes very fragile.
INSKEEP: Are you also worried about who ends up ruling Arab countries?
King ABDULLAH: Well, you know, you have to always hope, in humanity, that the people will make the right choices. I think that when your stomach is full and you're secure, you can make better choices. And I think that's what we're trying to do in Jordan. But we are looking around our part of the world. There's lot of instability. I mean we miss, sorely, the strong role that Egypt played regionally. It's a regional powerhouse.
And today, with all the internal problems, unfortunately, they're not going to be on the scene for several years until this all settles. And I'm sad to see that, because we desperately need a strong, stable Egypt.
INSKEEP: And then there's Syria, your neighbor. What worries you most about the protests against Bashar al-Assad, the leader there?
King ABDULLAH: Well, from what I can see, I don't see much changes in the immediate future, which means that demonstrations will continue for quite a while. You know, there's nobody - no expert in the world now, can predict what's going to happen in the Middle East. Things are happening too quickly, and the area is changing so rapidly that we really don't know.
INSKEEP: King Abdullah, thanks very much.
King ABDULLAH: Thank you, sir.
INSKEEP: He is Abdullah II of Jordan, the namesake of his great grandfather, Jordan's first king in the years after World War I. He spoke with us in New York where meetings continue at and around the United Nations this week.
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