King Abdullah: Jordan Needs 'Stable Middle Class'
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.
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."
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."
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."