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King Abdullah II

King Abdullah II bridges the past and the future in the Middle East. Jordan’s new monarch can trace his family back 43 generations--almost 1,400 years--to the Prophet Mohammed, founder of Islam.

Yet, on his recently launched website, kingabdullah.jo, he says that his vision for “a new Jordan” centers on “global integration.” He’s an advocate of women’s rights, democratic reforms, press freedoms and membership in the World Trade Organization. He’s also a qualified frogman, a Cobra helicopter attack pilot and a free-fall parachutist.

Abdullah never thought he’d be king. Born Jan. 30, 1962, he was the oldest son of the legendary King Hussein, who ruled Jordan for 46 years, and his second wife, a British commoner named Antoinette “Toni” Gardiner. Abdullah, which means “slave of God” in Arabic, was named after his great-grandfather, the first leader of independent Jordan who was assassinated in Jerusalem 50 years ago.

But Abdullah was not crown prince--a position held by his uncle. Instead, he prepared for a life in the military, dabbling in diplomacy, when he trained at Britain’s Sandhurst Royal Military Academy and Oxford University.

The young prince also developed strong American connections. He attended Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts as a teenager, Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and took advanced military training at Fort Knox. By 1997, he was commander of Jordan’s elite special forces.

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His life changed abruptly, however, as his father battled cancer in 1999. In a move that stunned Jordan as well as Abdullah, King Hussein wrote a 14-page letter to his brother, which was read on national television, transferring the title of crown prince from him to Abdullah. Within two weeks, on Feb. 7, Abdullah assumed power hours after his father’s death.

To better understand what he needed to change, the new king donned disguises to test Jordan’s health programs and public services, a move that endeared him to the public. There is much to do. Jordan is a poor country surrounded by oil-rich or industrialized countries. In recent years, it has become dependent on Iraq for oil and trade.

Jordan’s economic growth now depends on a new free-trade agreement signed with the United States but still not ratified by Congress, one of several reasons why Abdullah is in Washington to see members of the Bush administration.

In 1993, the king married Rania Yassin, who, like over half of Jordan’s population, is Palestinian. They have three children, the oldest of whom is named for his legendary grandfather. The king’s hobbies have included racing cars and water sports. He was interviewed in his hotel suite.

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Question: Fewer than three months ago, peace between Palestinians and Israelis appeared so close. Now, the violence is the worse in a decade. What are the prospects for peace talks to resume?

Answer: At this stage, we’re not talking peace talks or peace process. We’re trying to find a mechanism to de-escalate the violence--which means [talks] at a very low level, unfortunately--getting the security apparatuses of both countries to sit down and find a mechanism to start bringing the violence down.

Q: Egyptian and Turkish leaders have recently come through Washington to plead with the new administration to get more directly involved. What is your message to President George W. Bush?

A: The American position, with this administration, has been to stand back, not disassociate itself from the Middle East, but basically say that when you are serious enough and you show us there is something we can work with, we’ll be back to talk to you.

I’m sympathetic, and I understand the American position, but if we leave [Palestinians and Israelis] by themselves and they don’t sit down, the violence will only escalate. Terrorism is on the rise, and what we see in the territories is just the start of things to come if there’s no dialogue. So it is imperative for all of us, in one way or another, to prod and encourage both partners to sit down.

Q: There’s a feeling in the United States that Yasser Arafat is either unwilling or unable to make peace because he walked away from a deal that gave him more than 90% of the land he sought. Is he prepared to make peace? And how much control does he really have?

A: Other countries make statements that he has no control. I don’t think that’s fair. He does have control in the territories. He is impeded by the situation that he’s in. In other words, if he needs to assert himself, he’s going to have to have something in his hand to give to his people, to say I want you to do this because I’ve been given that.

Obviously, from the start of the intifada till today, there has been a decline in his control, but he is to the Palestinian people still the symbol of the future Palestinian state.

Q: What are the dangers of a surge in radicalism or Islamic militancy if the violence continues?

A: There’s a tremendous danger of extremism and radicalism on both sides. Not only do you have the intifada and the loss of life on the streets--on both sides--but the Palestinians also have tremendous economic hardship. If you have neighbors sitting next to each other, one has everything and one has nothing, then you’re going to have an atmosphere of conflict. People feel their lives are not going anywhere, so they’ll put a bomb on their back and walk into a building or a bus stop and kill themselves.

The most striking incident that really worried me was when a Palestinian bus driver with no affiliation to a terrorist organization, not an extremist by any account, had breakfast with his wife and children, got into his bus and was driving around, saw some Israelis at a checkpoint, lost his senses and ran over the Israelis. Here’s somebody who’s so frustrated, he’s willing to do an irrational act like that. That is why the de-escalation of violence as quickly as possible is paramount. Otherwise, we’re going to have many more incidents like that.

Q: Will it spill over into the region?

A: If the cycle of violence moves to another level, and if both sides really lose common sense and there is a loss of life on a massive scale, you’re going to get tremendous rumbling in the Arab streets [for] some sort of action. Both parties realize that’s a kind of Pandora’s box at this moment. It could ignite the whole area. Yes. There is that danger.

Q: Ten years after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, is the Iraqi leader still a threat to the region?

A: At the Arab summit [last month in Jordan], there was an atmosphere of reconciliation and an attempt by Arab countries to end 10 years of animosity. Fifteen Arab delegates representing their leaders, with the blessing of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, sat down with the Iraqis and said, “Look, let’s put the past behind us. We have a very far-reaching proposal for reconciliation.” The Iraqis did not agree to the proposal, and they lost a golden opportunity. The summit, to an extent, was successful because nobody screamed at each other and nobody walked out, but there’s still a long way to go. Unfortunately, because we didn’t achieve a resolution, we’re back at the drawing board.

We all understand that the problem in Iraq is relieving the sanctions on the people of Iraq. But there is still a tremendous concern in a lot of countries about a weapons-of-mass-destruction program. The Iraqis mentioned at the summit that that is not their program. They’re willing to comply with the United Nations, but, basically, they’re saying that there should be a reasonable approach to limitations on weapons of mass destruction. They seem to be willing to say that we’re willing to do it if others in the region are willing to do it, too.

Q: The U.S. is redesigning its policy to streamline economic sanctions, retaining an arms embargo and U.N. control of Iraq’s oil income. Will it work?

A: [Secretary of State] Colin Powell has a very realistic approach. . . . The only way it will work, and the American administration understands this very well, is if everybody complies. The only three countries that have complied fully since the end of the Gulf War are Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. I can’t say the same for other neighbors and Arab countries. If countries don’t comply, you have to hold them accountable, and you have to make sure that you have the willingness in the international community and in the American administration to say, “OK, this is the policy and we won’t tolerate anybody breaking it.”

Q: All Iraq’s neighbors have bought oil from Iraq--in Jordan’s case, with the acknowledgment of the outside world. Do you really believe this is sustainable and that no one, particularly a country like Iran, is going to cheat and make it impossible for others?

A: [It] would be a bit more difficult to create a mechanism where you can make sure that Iran is complying, simply because the relationship between Iran and the West is not as good as it should be. But where America and the West will have tremendous influence, in many ways, will be with Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey. But if you closed everybody else off, and there is monitoring in the Gulf, you can make it more difficult for Iran.

Q: You could argue that, 10 years later, Hussein has basically won. He held out the longest, and the other side blinked and stepped away from economic sanctions. Did he win? Is he stronger today?

A: I don’t think the game is over, but he is in a very strong position at the moment, yes. No doubt about it. As a result, there is a feeling among those in the region, and, to some extent, in the international community, that there has been so much confusion on sanctions, that countries were not really coming together to make [them] work, that allowed countries to start sanctions-busting, because they felt there wasn’t a solid stand by the international community to enforce [the sanctions].

Q: Is there any opposition group outside Iraq capable of putting enough pressure on the regime to change its behavior or, as the U.S. hopes, to end the regime of Hussein?

A: The opposition, I presume, does have its benefits, but it will not by any chance be able to bring about change internally in Iraq. It does provide a function, and I understand the Americans feel [it’s a positive] to have an opposition group. But will it affect the internal situation in Iraq? No. It never will.

Q: So you think Hussein is around for the indefinite future?

A: I believe so.

Q: How dependent is Jordan on Iraq?

A: This is the unusual position we’re in. Our industries were geared during the 1980s to support Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war. Our industries have suffered since 1990 because of the sanctions. We have been trying, since 1994, to have more liberal trade with the West Bank. Israel, on average, has had a trade of about $2.4 billion [with the West Bank]. At maximum capacity, our industry could only take maybe 8% or 10% of that market.

But trade with Israel has been worse since we signed peace with Israel. Our trade with Israel [through] the West Bank is down to one-third of what it was before we signed the peace treaty in 1994. It would be in Israel’s best interest to wean Jordanian industries off Iraq, let’s say, and wean them onto Israel, so that they’re not forced toward the Iraqi market. But, unfortunately, there are commercial interest groups in Israel that don’t want us to be able to trade, which is ironic, because we’re talking about free and open economies, the freeness of Israeli trade going out toward the east with Jordan. But there are limitations going the other way.

So when people in the streets say peace with Israel, we don’t see the dividend. We’re talking to our Israeli partners and saying they do have a point. It’s mind boggling for me that we haven’t been able to solve this problem.

Q: Your father, King Hussein, was instrumental in introducing democracy to Jordan, beginning in the late 1980s with parliamentary elections. What do you plan to do to further democratization?

A: In the next 10 years, we will see a dramatic, positive transformation in our democracy. There is criticism that I’ve concentrated on the economy, and that politics take second place. If you can concentrate on the economy, make life better for people, improve the standard of living, you’re actually, in the long run, accelerating the process of political reform.

If we have a devastating economy, high unemployment, tremendous poverty, we are not going to have political reform. Small organized extremist groups are going to call for political reform, but, in the long run, they’re going to just take us back many, many steps.

Q: Your father was considered one of the great leaders in the region. How do you plan put your stamp on Jordan?

A: Times have changed. In the new age, economic position takes precedence over the political one. And the future of the world and our region is economic integration. Politics help countries but doesn’t really bring them together. The economy does. Dependence on each other, having to trade with each other, getting to know each other better, that is the future of the Middle East and the future of Israel and the region.

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Robin Wright is The Times’ chief diplomatic correspondent. Her latest book is “The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran.”


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