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King Abdullah placates his American audience and angers many at home

January 23, 2014 at 2:59 pm

By all accounts, Jordan’s King Abdullah II prides himself on being blunt. That is certainly in evidence in Jeffrey Goldberg’s long profile in the Atlantic, which was based on several interviews with the monarch, carried out over the course of four months. Other Middle Eastern leaders, the Jordanian secret police, Abdullah’s tribal supporters, and, indeed, his own family members all come in for a roasting.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the article has created quite a stir in Jordan. In the aftermath of the article and the social media storm that followed, the palace has issued a rebuttal, saying that the piece contained “many fallacies and took matters out of their correct context.” It also reiterated that the King takes “pride in all Jordanians, and in all the state agencies and institutions, the sincerity of their loyalty, and awareness of the challenges that faces the nation from both the inside and outside.”

Much of the controversy stems from Abdullah’s take on the Muslim Brotherhood. He likens it to “a Masonic cult” taking over the region, warning that they are “wolves in sheep’s clothing”. Of Egypt’s president Mohammed Morsi, he repeats several times: “There is no depth to the guy.” Such hostility towards the Brotherhood is perhaps to be expected from a monarch broadly considered to be the most pro-western Arab leader, and one who has faced internal challenges from the local branch of the Brotherhood. In January, the group attempted to undermine parliamentary elections in January by boycotting them. The polls went ahead anyway and most people ignored the Brotherhood’s attempted ban. Abdullah seems confident about continuing to overcome their “bullshit”. There were reports yesterday that Egypt would decrease gas exports to Jordan. Egypt has since denied the reports, but it is inevitable that diplomatic ties will be worsened.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also comes in for some criticism, with the King saying that Erdogan sees democracy as “a bus ride”, claiming that he said: “Once I get to my stop, I’m getting off.” Indeed, the only regional leader who comes off well is Israel’s leader Binyamin Netanyahu, with Abdullah saying only that the relationship is “very strong. Our discussions have really improved.” Goldberg notes that Abdullah is “cautious” in what he says about the Israeli PM.

The two countries are close allies. Not only does Jordan guarantee peace on Israel’s eastern front, but they are reportedly working together to prevent the conflict in Syria from spilling over into their borders. In the Atlantic piece, the King reiterates his commitment to the peace treaty with Israel.

While he was guarded on the subject of Netanyahu, King Abdullah expressed anxiety that it is already too late for a two-state solution, which he supports. “Part of me is worried that is already past us,” he says, going on to say that the only remaining option may be “Isratine” – a neologism used by Muammar Gaddafi to describe a joint Arab-Jewish state. Abdullah warns that if Israel does not agree to a Palestinian state soon, then “apartheid or democracy” – a non-Jewish democracy – will be the remaining options. “The practical question is, can Israel exert permanent control over Palestinians who are disenfranchised ad infinitum, or does it eventually become a South Africa, which couldn’t survive as a pariah state?”

Abdullah’s pro-Israel foreign policy is already out of step with public opinion in Jordan, where the population is significantly composed of Palestinians who were forced out of their homes upon the creation of Israel. While expressing his support for the two-state solution, Abdullah makes no reference to the impact that this would have on Jordan’s demographics. If Israel ever did decide to expel the 2 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, Jordan would become a de facto Palestinian state. Its population of 6.5 million is already substantially made up of Palestinians. That is a big change for any country – and, of course, there is the question of where a Hashemite monarch would fit into that picture.

This is a delicate time for King Abdullah. He was able to ride out the Arab Spring and hang onto power with the promise of some political reform. Indeed, he tells Goldberg that his son will be a constitutional monarch, presiding over a western-style democracy. But he is certainly not out of the woods as far as hanging onto power is concerned. Instability in the region remains, and he has come under increasing criticism from tribal leaders, traditionally a backbone of support for the monarchy. In the Atlantic piece, Abdullah describes these leaders as “the old dinosaurs”, which is hardly likely to help with keeping them on-side.

From an American point of view, the article is highly favourable, painting Abdullah as a moderniser and ally. But this is essentially the opposite of favourable for a population in which anti-western and anti-Israeli sentiment is dominant. In playing to his western audience and allies, King Abdullah seems to have forgotten that he still needs to retain support within his own borders.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.