Egyptian And Syrian Presidents Find No Friend In Jordanian King

Robert Siegel talks to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic about his profile of Jordan's King Abdullah. In the article, published in the magazine's April issue, the monarch openly criticizes the rulers of neighboring nations, the Jordanian secret police, local tribal leaders, members of his own royal family, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. On Friday, after traveling to Israel and the West Bank, President Obama will depart for Jordan. He'll meet with Jordan's King Abdullah II. The king is 51. He was educated at an American prep school. And if you want to know what he thinks about developments in the Middle East, read Jeffrey Goldberg's remarkably candid profile in The Atlantic, which includes interviews that the Jordanian Royal Court said earlier today present the king's words in an inaccurate and untrustworthy manner.

Jeffrey Goldberg now tells us the Royal Court is no longer contesting the accuracy of his quotes of the king; merely the way that Goldberg's analysis has been interpreted by the media. And we're trying to clarify exactly what Jordan's position is on the interview. But earlier today, I spoke with Jeffrey Goldberg, and began by asking what he thought of the Jordanian criticism.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: I interviewed him three different times, for over an hour each. All the interviews are recorded. The story was fact-checked. And I told the Royal Court today that if they want to put up the interviews - 'cause they recorded them as well - they should just post them on the Internet so people can see for themselves.

SIEGEL: Well, let's deal with some of the things that the king talked with you about. Jordan is being overwhelmed with refugees from its northern neighbor, Syria. I want you to describe what he told you about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

GOLDBERG: Well, I asked him to describe Bashar al-Assad to me. And he actually told me a very funny story. He said - by way of illustrating his parochialism - he said that in the year 2000, at the Arab Summit in Cairo, he had dinner one night at the King of Morocco's apartment, or house, with Bashar; just the three of them - the two kings and the dictator. And at some point during the meal, Bashar al-Assad turned to the two of them and said, can you tell me what jet lag is?

And the king, at that point in telling the story, looked at me and said, he didn't know what jet lag was. And he was telling me this as a kind of absurdist story, illustrating the obvious point that he thinks of Bashar as a bumpkin. He also quite...

SIEGEL: He is an M.D., by the way, we should add.

GOLDBERG: Well, you can be a bumpkin and an M.D. at the same time, can't you?

SIEGEL: Yeah.

GOLDBERG: And the king went on to describe Bashar in such a way as to make it very clear that he thinks he's a brutal dictator who has lost whatever legitimacy he has. I asked the king, if he were in the same situation Bashar found himself in - if there were, let's say, 250,000 demonstrators in the streets of Jordan - would he shoot, or would he leave? And the king said - to his credit - the king said, I would leave. I mean, if half the country is out on the street against me, I must have done something wrong.

SIEGEL: King Abdullah had a strong ally in Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. His take on the elected Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi - who succeeded Mubarak after the revolution - his take is scathing about Morsi.

GOLDBERG: Yeah. Well, you know, the king is one of the dwindling number of Arab leaders who are opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood. They see - he sees, in particular, what he calls a Muslim Brotherhood crescent rising over the Middle East. And he told me about his meeting with Morsi. And he came to the conclusion that Morsi is, quote, "out of his depth." That's what he said.

They were talking about the peace process, and I think the king was trying to have a sophisticated discussion with him about steps that could be taken. And Morsi was just sort of excoriating the Israelis over and over again. And Abdullah said, fine, fine; but let's work on the Palestinian side, and see if we can get the Palestinian factions together. And I think he just wasn't impressed. And of course, that's against the background of not trusting the Muslim Brotherhood. He feels that the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to subvert his monarchy.

SIEGEL: That comment from the Royal Court that you've commented on already, the most sensitive point there seemed to be statements attributed to the king of Jordan about Jordanians; about tribal leaders, for example. We love - the king loves all Jordanians, I think it says.

GOLDBERG: Yes.

SIEGEL: He comes across in your piece as a man very, very frustrated with his own countrymen. Fair?

GOLDBERG: Fair - not complete, but that's fair. He is frustrated by - this is the thing that Americans, in particular, have a hard time getting their minds around. Even though he's a king, a hereditary monarch, he is a reformer. He wants to devolve some of his power, to the people. He wants a parliament that is filled with parties that are parties based on ideas rather than tribal affiliation or patronage mills, or that sort of thing.

There are a lot of people in Jordan who obviously blame him for not engineering these kind of changes as adeptly as he could, or as quickly as he could. But yes, there is a level of frustration with the political system. There is a level of frustration with the sort of people who are, in his mind, mainly in politics to preserve their privileges.

SIEGEL: And his own family members who overdo their own royal privileges, the intelligence service - he was quite critical of lots of people, in this interview.

GOLDBERG: Well, you know, I've known him for 15 years; and I've always known him to be very candid. I also think of him as very canny. And I say that very specifically because he did not say these things to me by accident. And one of the ways he communicates to different parties, is through the press. And I think he is somewhat frustrated with certain members of his family.

Look, there is a serious issue of corruption in Jordan. And I took his statements about his family as the king throwing a brush-back pitch - to use a baseball metaphor in the Middle East; that he was signaling to his people, and to the world, that he is not going to tolerate the usual shenanigans that one expects in the Middle East by royals or by people in power, generally.

SIEGEL: Jeffrey Goldberg, bottom line, did Jordan - when you were there, and when you were interviewing the king - did it strike you as a place where the regime is relatively secure? Or is it next country up for an Arab revolution?

GOLDBERG: The conventional wisdom is that it's the next country up for revolution. I don't believe that, necessarily. You know, here's one way to judge: The opposition in Jordan has never been able to muster large rallies on the street. The king is a very different person than Bashar al-Assad or Hosni Mubarak. He is much more attuned to the needs and frustrations of his people than other leaders in the Middle East.

And here's one, final point about this. The people of Jordan look to the north; they see Syria becoming a charnel house. They looked to the east and see Anbar Province, of Iraq. They see Gaza. They see Egypt. And all of this instability has created in Jordan, I think, a new appreciation for stability. And the king and his government deliver stability. It is still a nice place, comparative to the rest of the region. And so, I don't think that he's in the sort of trouble that some people think he's in.

SIEGEL: Well, Jeffrey Goldberg, thanks a lot for talking with us about the interview.

GOLDBERG: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He was talking with us from Jerusalem, about his interview with King Abdullah II of Jordan. It's in the April issue of The Atlantic.

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