King Abdullah: Jordan Needs 'Stable Middle Class'

King Abdullah II bin al-Hussein of  Jordan addresses the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday. i i

hide captionKing Abdullah II bin al-Hussein of Jordan addresses the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday.

Richard Drew/AP
King Abdullah II bin al-Hussein of  Jordan addresses the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday.

King Abdullah II bin al-Hussein of Jordan addresses the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday.

Richard Drew/AP

The protests of the Arab Spring have made it a risky time to be a ruler in the Middle East. But King Abdullah II of Jordan, who is among the world leaders at the United Nations this week, also sees opportunities.

"In certain countries, you're going to see revolution after revolution, until it calms down," the king tells Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep. "What we're trying to do in Jordan is [to] do evolution."

In Jordan, street protests have been limited compared with other nations in the region, but they prompted Abdullah, 49, to promise changes in the constitution that will allow his subjects to elect a prime minister and other officials.

During his visit to New York City, the Jordanian monarch spoke about the Arab Spring and the increasing calls for the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian state.


Interview Highlights:

On Israel, and Palestinians' Push for Statehood

"The bid by the Palestinians for statehood [as recognized by the U.N.] came out of desperation and frustration, because nothing was happening on the negotiation table. We could see this coming from several months ago. 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."

King Abdullah II speaks to Jordan's royal reform committee after receiving plans to alter his country's Constitution, during a ceremony at Raghadan Palace in Amman on Aug. 14. i i

hide captionKing Abdullah II speaks to Jordan's royal reform committee after receiving plans to alter his country's Constitution, during a ceremony at Raghadan Palace in Amman on Aug. 14.

Nader Daoud/AP
King Abdullah II speaks to Jordan's royal reform committee after receiving plans to alter his country's Constitution, during a ceremony at Raghadan Palace in Amman on Aug. 14.

King Abdullah II speaks to Jordan's royal reform committee after receiving plans to alter his country's Constitution, during a ceremony at Raghadan Palace in Amman on Aug. 14.

Nader Daoud/AP

On Turkey's recent downgrade of relations with Israel, and whether Jordan may follow suit

"We have, as you mention, 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 benefiting anybody?' Obviously, my answer is, you always benefit from peace. But ... we have seen no intention from the other side to try and move the process forward ...

"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, 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."

On the Arab Spring

"What bothers me in a lot of countries is [that] society is being led by the street, as opposed to the light at the end of the tunnel. But we have 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 the 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. ... You really need a strong, stable middle class."

A boy holds Jordan's national flag at a protest calling for King Abdullah II to institute more constitutional reforms in Amman, Sept. 9. Security forces formed a human chain to keep demonstrators at bay. i i

hide captionA boy holds Jordan's national flag at a protest calling for King Abdullah II to institute more constitutional reforms in Amman, Sept. 9. Security forces formed a human chain to keep demonstrators at bay.

Mohammad Hannon/AP
A boy holds Jordan's national flag at a protest calling for King Abdullah II to institute more constitutional reforms in Amman, Sept. 9. Security forces formed a human chain to keep demonstrators at bay.

A boy holds Jordan's national flag at a protest calling for King Abdullah II to institute more constitutional reforms in Amman, Sept. 9. Security forces formed a human chain to keep demonstrators at bay.

Mohammad Hannon/AP

On the role of the king today

"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 — and looking again at the European model, the United States in particular, also — 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 the middle class, the quicker they're going to 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."

On the future of Jordan's monarchy

"The monarchy that I hand over to my son is not going to be the same one that I have inherited. ... There is 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. Because today, if you're appointed by the king, they don't feel that they're responsible for the people. If you have a government that is elected, they need to do the hard work — because if they don't, they won't be around the next time the ballot box is open."

On holding elections in Jordan

"We're announcing municipal elections at the end of the year, and national elections at the beginning of next year. The challenge that we have — and this brings concerns, but also excitement — is trying to get a democratic mentality. For all the town-hall meetings that I have ... there's one question I now ask on purpose, because the first couple times I asked it, the answer surprised me. I say, 'Where do you stand on health, education, taxes, services, et cetera?' — and 99 percent, I get blank looks."

On Jordan's political climate

"As an American colleague said to me several months ago, he said, 'I think the challenge in Jordan' — again, this is for the rest of the Middle East — 'we need to define what "center" is. Once we can define what "center" is to a Jordanian, then we can decide what's left and what's right of that.' ... That takes time, for people to look along those lines."

On the future of the Arab Spring

"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. ... A very senior European politician said that when they saw the Israeli Embassy in Cairo being attacked, that was like taking a bucket of cold water and pouring it over a lot of heads of states' heads in the West. So, there is concern of where is this Arab Spring leading to in many countries. But the only way that we can help is all of us pitch in and try to support those countries go through these tough times."

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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.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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