Amid the social and political transformations reshaping the Middle East, can Jordan's Abdullah II, the region's most pro-American Arab leader, liberalize his kingdom, modernize its economy, and save the country from capture by Islamist radicals?
It is still, on occasion, good to be the king.
It is not necessarily good to be the king of a Middle Eastern country that is bereft of oil; nor is it necessarily so wonderful to be the king during the turmoil and uncertainty of the Arab Spring. It is certainly not good to be the king when the mystique that once enveloped your throne is evaporating.
But when a squadron of Black Hawk helicopters is reserved for your use, and when you are the type of king who finds release from the pressures of monarchy by piloting those Black Hawks up and down the length of your sand-covered kingdom—then it is still good to be the king.
One morning last fall, Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein, the fourth Hashemite king of Jordan, rolled up to a helipad situated close to the royal office complex in Al Hummar, on the western edge of the capital, Amman. He stepped out of an armored Mercedes—he drove himself, and drove fast, like he was being chased—and hustled to one of his Black Hawks. The king, who as a young prince served as a commander in the Royal Jordanian special forces, climbed into the pilot’s seat, talked for a moment with his co‑pilot, a trusted member of the Royal Squadron, and lifted off, pointing us in the direction of the rough, unhappy city of Karak, about 80 miles to the south. A second Black Hawk, filled with bodyguards, lifted off a moment later.
The king was flying himself to Karak, which is one of the poorer cities in a distressingly poor country, to have lunch with the leaders of Jordan’s largest tribes, which form the spine of Jordan’s military and political elite. More than half of all Jordanians are of Palestinian origin, with roots on the West Bank of the Jordan River, but the tribal leaders are from the East Bank, and the Hashemite kings have depended on East Bankers to defend the throne since the Hashemites first came to what was then called Transjordan from Mecca almost 100 years ago. This relationship has a coldly transactional quality: in exchange for their support of the royal court, the leaders of the eastern tribes expect the Hashemites to protect their privileges, and to limit the power of the Palestinians. When the Hashemites appear insufficiently attentive, problems inevitably follow.
Earlier that day, in his private office in Al Hummar, which overlooks the wealthy neighborhoods of West Amman, the king had explained to me the reason for the trip to Karak: he was trying, in advance of parliamentary elections in January, to instruct these tribal leaders on the importance of representative democracy. He wanted, he said, to see Jordanians build political parties that would not simply function as patronage mills but would advance ideas from across a broad ideological spectrum, and thus establish for Jordan a mature political culture. He said he would like to see Palestinians more proportionately represented in parliament. And he would like to do all this, he explained, without allowing the Muslim Brotherhood—a “Masonic cult” (as he describes it) that today controls the most formidable political organization in Jordan, the Islamic Action Front—to hijack the cause of democratic reform in the name of Islam. In other words, the king wants to bring political reform to Jordan, and to cede some of his power to the people—but only to the right people.
It was obvious to me that King Abdullah was looking forward to flying his helicopter—but not so much to the meeting that awaited him in Karak. “I’m sitting with the old dinosaurs today,” he told me.
The men he would be meeting—a former prime minister among them—were leaders of the National Current Party, which had the support of many East Bankers of the south, and which would almost certainly control a substantial bloc of seats in the next parliament. What the party stood for, however, beyond patronage and the status quo, was not entirely clear, even to the king. Shortly after the eruption of the Arab Spring, the king told me, he met with Abdul Hadi al-Majali, the leader of the party. “I read your economic and social manifesto, and it scared the crap out of me,” the king said he told Majali. “This makes no sense whatsoever. If you’re going to reach out to the 70 percent of the population that is younger than me, you’ve got to work on this.” The party manifesto, the king told me, “didn’t have anything. It was slogans. There was no program. Nothing.” He went on, “It’s all about ‘I’ll vote for this guy because I’m in his tribe.’ I want this guy to develop a program that at least people will begin to understand.”
The king landed his helicopter on a soccer field on the outskirts of Karak. The tribal leaders, many of whom had served Abdullah’s father, the late King Hussein, were lined up to greet the king as his motorcade traveled the short distance from the improvised landing pad to a large meeting hall. There were kisses and handshakes and protestations of loyalty to the throne, followed by a lunch of mansaf, lamb cooked in fermented yogurt. Although mansaf is usually eaten with the right hand, the left hand placed behind the back, forks were distributed in a concession to modernity. Still, the meal was eaten standing up around a long, narrow table, in the Bedouin tradition.
Then the business of the afternoon was conducted. The 30 or so men (and one woman, a daughter of one of the tribal leaders) sat on couches against the walls. Tea was served. The king made a short plea for economic reform and for expanding political participation, and then the floor was opened. Leader after leader—many of whom were extremely old, many of whom merely had the appearance of being old—made small-bore requests and complaints. One of the men proposed an idea for the king’s consideration: “In the old days, we had night watchmen in the towns. They would be given sticks. The government should bring this back. It would be for security, and it would create more jobs for the young men.”
I was seated directly across the room from the king, and I caught his attention for a moment; he gave me a brief, wide-eyed look. He was interested in high-tech innovation, and in girls’ education, and in trimming the overstuffed government payroll. A jobs plan focused on men with sticks was not his idea of effective economic reform.
As we were leaving Karak a little while later, I asked him about the men-with-sticks idea. “There’s a lot of work to do,” he said, with fatigue in his voice.
We boarded the Black Hawk and took off. I was seated behind the king. He asked me whether I wanted to make a detour: “Have you ever seen Mount Nebo from the air?” He flew northwest, toward the mountain from which, the Bible tells us, God showed Moses the Land of Israel. The Dead Sea shimmered just beyond. I suggested a quick detour to Jerusalem, which was 30 miles away. “The cousins like to have more warning,” one of his aides said with a smirk. “The cousins” are the Israelis.
The king seemed to be in no rush to return to Amman. As we approached Mount Nebo, we passed over the ruins of the ancient fortress of Machaerus, which was built by the Hasmoneans, and then rebuilt and enlarged by King Herod the Great in 30 B.C. Machaerus is where Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, is said to have delivered to Salome the head of John the Baptist.
“That Herod,” Abdullah said. “Quite a character.” I wasn’t clear on which Herod he meant, father or son, but no matter. Each one had his idiosyncrasies. “Not a role model for you?,” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I have different role models.”
The King's Palace in Al Hummar is not Herodian in scale, but it is still sizable, expensively decorated, and well shielded from the noise of the city below. The complex is attached to the King Hussein bin Talal Mosque, which can hold 5,500 worshippers. (Abdullah commissioned the mosque to honor his father.) Hummar is guarded by machine guns mounted on jeeps, and by members of the Jordanian Armed Forces Security and Protection Unit of the Supreme Commander. Inside the palace, Circassian guards, who wear black astrakhans and carry silver swords, stand watch outside his office.
Men in Bedouin dress carrying smoking incense burners move quietly from room to room. The many waiting rooms are decorated elegantly, adorned with photographs of the ruins of the ancient Nabataean city of Petra, and with portraits of the past kings of Jordan.
The palace complex is under the unforgiving control of the chief of royal protocol, whose staff works assiduously to maintain an atmosphere of silence and reverence. But the atmosphere inside the king’s private office, where I spent many hours talking with him in recent months, is one of unstudied informality. Abdullah has, in some ways, grown accustomed to the trappings of the throne—when I first met him, not long after he took office more than 14 years ago, he told me that being addressed as “Your Majesty” made him queasy; he seems to have, over the years, adjusted to this aspect of kingship—but he still dislikes ceremony and prefers blunt talk to politesse.
He seems in many ways to be a contradiction—an Arab king who happens to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, evangelizing for liberal, secular, democratic rule. But Abdullah, now nearly a decade and a half into his reign, is, in his own conception, a political and economic reformer. He says he understands that the Hashemite throne, and perhaps Jordan itself, will not survive the coming decades if he does not move his country briskly toward modernity.
It is a small miracle, of course, that he is still in power at all. He has survived the first wave of the Arab Spring revolutions, which have so far claimed the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and will almost inevitably claim the Syrian president as well. But he has been roughed up in the process.
Geography has cursed Jordan. To Abdullah’s north is the charnel house of Syria, a failed state in the making. To his east is Iraq’s bloody Anbar province. Saudi Arabia, ruled by the superannuated princes of the House of Saud, the ancient rivals of the Hashemites, sits to his southeast. To his west are the obstreperous Israelis, as well as the disputatious Palestinians. Al‑Qaeda wants to kill him. The Iranian regime doesn’t like him very much either, especially since he denounced, in 2004, what he saw as a rising, Iranian-led “Shia crescent” looming over the Middle East. His country is broke, dependent on the United States, the International Monetary Fund, and haughty gulf Arabs to cover its budget. (The IMF recently forced fuel-price hikes that have intensified the domestic resentment directed at the throne.)
Demonstrations in Jordan’s main cities have been modest compared with those that led to regime change in Cairo and Tunis, but they have nevertheless been vociferous. Protesters have denounced the king as “Ali Baba,” and his family as the 40 thieves. They have made a special target of his wife, the stunning—and stunningly modern—Queen Rania, who is considered an icon of fashion and women’s empowerment in the West but is vilified at home. They have, on occasion, touted one of the king’s younger half brothers, Prince Hamzah, as an alternative to Abdullah. At the outset of his rule, Abdullah and Rania were broadly venerated. Not anymore.
Abdullah is a semi-absolute monarch—the country has a prime minister, and an elected lower house of parliament, but he can dismiss the prime minister and dissolve the parliament if he sees fit. Hiring and firing prime ministers has eaten up a lot of his time recently—he’s gone through six in the past five years—and he says he would like to remove himself from the process. “My blood pressure goes highest—my wife knows this—when we have to change governments,” he told me. “Whenever we go through that cycle, nobody is going to be happy.”
Abdullah kept repeating that he wanted to devolve power to an elected parliament, so I finally asked him whether he wanted a purely ceremonial role: “You don’t want to be Queen Elizabeth, do you?”
“Well, where are monarchies in 50 years?” he said. He clearly understands that monarchy is not a growth industry. But does his extended family understand this? The Hashemites are a small family, at least compared with the Saudi family. Still, he has 11 siblings and half siblings, as well as many aunts and uncles and cousins, each one a royal.
“No, members of my family don’t get it,” he said. “They’re not involved day-to-day. The further away you’re removed from this chair, the more of a prince or a princess you are. That happens in all royal families, I think. The further you are from this chair, the more you believe in absolute monarchy. That’s the best way of describing it. And that just doesn’t work.”
When I met King Abdullah, in 1999, shortly after the death of his father, he was new to the throne and filled with reformist zeal. Privatization, modernization, and political liberalization were all high on the agenda. He told me then, with a confidence born of inexperience, “Our country has a lot of challenges, but I think they are all manageable.”
He was already straining against protocol, and he told me that he loathed sycophancy and hated isolation. Early in his reign, he would occasionally dress as a peasant and mix with common people, to learn their desires and frustrations. I accompanied him on one such foray, to Zarqa, a city of disaffected Palestinians and perpetually enraged Islamists situated northeast of Amman.
We visited the local office of the finance ministry, as well as the city’s public hospital, neither of which appeared to be providing anything approaching quality service. The king watched as bloodless bureaucrats ignored reasonable requests by his browbeaten subjects. Eventually, his presence was discovered (the lurking American reporter in khakis made it hard for the king to hide his identity), and a crowd quickly gathered, filled with old women shouting blessings at him. We made a frantic dash to a nearby paratrooper base. I asked him to describe what he thought officials in Zarqa should be feeling at that moment. “Panic,” he said, with a half-smile. He would, he said, be writing a report.
Though he was distressed by what he saw, he seemed buoyed by the visit. In those early days, he imagined that the people of Jordan were ready to be his partners in lifting the country out of its archaic ways. Abdullah’s father, King Hussein, was a shrewd ruler, a skilled survivor, and a heroic peacemaker—but he was not a modern manager, and he bequeathed to his son a sclerotic economy and a political system built on wasta, or favoritism, and the exploitation of tribal rivalries. Abdullah believed he would fix all that.
But the future was lying in ambush. The Palestinian uprising; September 11; the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq—all of this was ahead. Within a few years, Zarqa would become best known as the birthplace of Abu Musab al‑Zarqawi, the master terrorist.
The intervening years have taken their toll. The king has gone decisively gray, and his forehead is lined. I noticed, on a couple of recent occasions, a heaviness about him, and I told him so.
“You know,” the king said, “when I reached my 10-year anniversary, I remember sitting down with members of my family and my close friends and saying, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ ”
“You can’t just quit,” I said.
“That’s what they said,” he responded.
King Abdullah is not only a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad; he is the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Hashemite kings, and he is the great-great-grandson of the last sharif of Mecca. Abdication is not a realistic option. And yet, here he was, admitting that the thought had crossed his mind. “I just said that I was so depressed because of all the forces I was dealing with on the inside,” the king said. “It wasn’t the outside—the outside, I understood. It was inside.”
He had complained before about “inside” political forces, but only elliptically, and I had assumed he was referring to the Islamic Action Front, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Jordanian branch. But now he identified a different foe.
“Institutions I had trusted were just not on board,” he said. “It was the mukhabarat”—the secret police—“and the others, and the old guard.” The mukhabarat, which is known in English as the General Intelligence Department, or GID, is devoted, in principle, to the protection of the Hashemite crown. Its foreboding headquarters could be mistaken for a shrine to the Hashemites. Oversize portraits of Abdullah and his family, and of the previous kings of Jordan, adorn many of its meeting rooms. The GID is the most respected Arab intelligence service; its agents are known for their ability to penetrate al‑Qaeda and other Islamist groups. (It has also been known to use torture: its headquarters was for a while known in Western diplomatic and intelligence circles as “the fingernail factory.”)
American officials, and political dissidents inside the kingdom, believe that GID officials have inserted themselves into Jordanian politics, for personal financial gain and to advance the agendas of East Bank Jordanians who wish to marginalize both Islamists and Palestinians. The king believes that each time he has tried to make a noteworthy reform—redrawing parliamentary districts to allow Palestinians a greater presence in the lower house of parliament, for instance—the GID, along with reactionaries in the political elite, have subverted his attempts. “I didn’t realize the extent to which the conservative elements had [penetrated] institutions like the GID,” he said. “It became apparent in later years how they were embedded in certain institutions. Two steps forward, one step back.”
GID troublemaking “was something that I inherited from my father,” the king told me. In the 1980s, riots broke out in the southern city of Ma’an, and he said his father suspected that either the Saudis or GID agents were fomenting them. “The GID was always problematic.” The king said one reason his difficulties with the GID have festered so long is his own gullibility. “I was naive enough to think—coming from the army, since in the army they said ‘Yes, sir’—the GID would say ‘Yes, sir.’ ”
Today, he says, he is making progress in reforming the agency. Two recent GID chiefs have gone to jail for corruption. A third died in disgrace. The current head is trying to depoliticize the agency, officials in Jordan say, aided by management advice from the CIA.
Jordan has always been beleaguered by corruption. In the old days, King Hussein was somewhat obvious about it, giving duty-free Mercedeses to loyalists and cronies. Critics say the situation hasn’t much improved since then. King Abdullah, in his early years, tried to bring more transparency to government budgeting, but his reputation for clean living has been damaged by allegations that family members have profited from the sale of government lands, and by charges that various family members and friends have otherwise benefited from their connections to the palace. Walid al‑Kurdi, the husband of Princess Basma, the late King Hussein’s sister, recently fled to London rather than face charges that he embezzled millions from the country’s phosphate industry. The king himself has been subjected to rumors that he is an overenthusiastic gambler.
Abdullah is defensive about charges that his family reaches for special privileges. In our conversations, he lashed out against relatives whose behavior he sees as a liability to Hashemite rule. “Look at some of my brothers. They believe that they’re princes, but my cousins are more princes than my brothers, and their in‑laws are like—oh my God,” he said. “I’m always having to stop members of my family from putting lights on their guard cars. I arrest members of my family and take their cars away from them and cut off their fuel rations and make them stop at traffic lights. I’m trying to be that example.”
Family sensitivities, he went on, “become irrelevant. If you catch my son being corrupt, take him to court. I’ve said that quite clearly from day one. What I’m trying to say is that everybody else is expendable in the royal family. Does that make sense? That’s the reality of the Arab Spring that hit me.” Abdullah does not want corrupt family members or courtiers—or anyone else—to be able to sink him, the way the petty (and grand) corruptions of the Mubaraks, and other ruling families, sunk those leaders.
When I passed along the king’s harsh commentary to a family member, that family member—who did not want to be named—gave an Alice in Wonderland–esque response: “His Majesty is His Majesty, and if His Majesty believes this to be an issue, then His Majesty is correct.”
His Majesty’s wife, the elegant and forthright Rania, has largely been hidden from the international press since the onset of the Arab Spring. Ever since the royal court staged an elaborate birthday party for her in 2010 in Wadi Rum, in the desert of southern Jordan, the woman Oprah Winfrey once described as an “international fashion icon” has been viewed with contempt by many Jordanians. (When she is photographed at all these days, it tends to be in schools and hospitals.)
Vicious gossip, the king says, is part of the capital’s terrain. Take the rumors about his gambling habit. “Look, the issue of gambling came out from West Amman,” he said, referring to the neighborhood that is home to the country’s political and financial elite. “I don’t even play cards, and the reason why I don’t gamble is probably that I just can’t count. When I see a seven, it looks like an eight. I had an American guy come and say, ‘There’s a concern about gambling.’ But with your government and your CIA and everybody, where could a king [with an international] profile go and gamble?”
He went on, “West Amman came out with stories that my son was deaf, my daughter was blind, all of this. They did this with my dad, too. There was a story that my father and I were going out with a stewardess and we killed her and buried her.”
In a conversation I had with the queen—a conversation carefully regulated by royal-court functionaries—she explained the current mood in Jordan this way: “In good times, people are more generous with giving you the benefit of the doubt. In difficult times, you know that people are going to cast doubt even when you are saying the truth. People are not generous. They don’t give you the benefit of the doubt.”
The king says that his inexperience—with governance, with the way he managed perceptions—explains why he hasn’t been more successful in pushing through modernizing political reforms. In the eyes of his critics among Jordanian liberals—including many of the men who worked for him in the first, hopeful years of his reign—he allowed himself to be outmaneuvered. Some of the changes he is trying to make today—building political parties, rewriting the country’s election laws to make parliament more representative—were on the agenda several years ago. In 2005, as pressure mounted on the king to open up society in accordance with his public promises, he appointed Marwan Muasher, one of his reformist aides, to formulate a comprehensive reform program.
The National Agenda, as it came to be known, was an ambitious plan for systemic change in many sectors of national life. One of the agenda items was to increase the number of seats in parliament reserved for candidates affiliated with national parties. Previously, the vast majority of parliamentarians had been elected by district, a system that encouraged voting based on patronage and tribal loyalty. The National Agenda was going to change all that. But before it could, the conservatives rose up and went to the king. According to several people familiar with the fateful meeting, a leading senator said to Abdullah: “This is a leap into the unknown.” The National Agenda was not implemented.
But in the wake of the Arab Spring, which has toppled autocracies around the region, Abdullah has finally managed to engineer a new election system that resembles, in a modest way, the vision of the National Agenda. Twenty-seven of the 150 seats in the lower house of parliament, which was itself expanded, were filled through national voting. Queen Rania told me that her husband was finally able to achieve the electoral reforms because the pressure of the Arab Spring had concentrated the attention of Jordan’s elites. “In a sense, I think the political upheaval of the last two years, it was a different kind of challenge—it brought about an atmosphere of open criticism,” she said. “What’s nice about that is it allowed him”—King Abdullah—“to reciprocate the frankness, to really go out and say what he believes in … I think that’s why, on several occasions, he will say that he saw the Arab Spring as an opportunity. The Arab Spring gave him the opportunity really to go out very candidly and express it in a very open way, and it gave us all the opportunity to really see him for who he is.”
But the Arab Spring may also mean that the king is running out of time. “The luxury of infinite time is no more,” Marwan Muasher told me, “because things have gone to the streets. The level of frustration is elevated to the point where the original slow pace is not adequate. I believe in gradual reform, but I think it must also be sustained with a clear time line. It’s not that the king doesn’t want it, but I believe he must lead a process that would accelerate the current pace. Otherwise it’s going to be 30 years before we reach a parliament that is able to exercise true authority.”
The pace of reform has King Abdullah’s friends, particularly in America, worried that he is going too slow to keep ahead of the revolutionary wave unleashed by the Arab Spring. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed the view, in sometimes withering fashion, that King Abdullah was moving at too leisurely a tempo, and that Jordanians were more capable of building idea-driven political parties than he gave them credit for. (The king argues, not unconvincingly, that holding elections without the necessary preparatory work is counterproductive.) The new secretary of state, John Kerry, is more supportive. Just after taking the reins at the State Department, Kerry said he remembered the king visiting him in 1999 in Boston, where he connected Abdullah with local businesses and universities. “He was forward-looking and economically focused at a time when so many Middle East leaders were moving in a different direction.” Kerry also said that Abdullah “represents the people of the region with dignity and intelligence.”Th
The stability of Jordan, and the king’s continued good health, are, of course, of great importance to the United States. Abdullah is a prime partner (and subcontractor) in the fight against Islamist terror, and he is the ruler of one of the rare more or less stable, pro-Western countries in an unhinged region. Senator John McCain, one of the king’s closest allies in Congress, told me, “This king and his father have done enormous things for us. Other countries have helped us—but none the way Jordan has.” (When I asked McCain whether he thought Abdullah was in danger of being overthrown like other rulers in the region have been, he said no, but then added: “On the other hand, I didn’t think a lot of those guys were in trouble.”)
To the Israelis, and to the gulf Arabs, he is indispensable as well. The gulf Arabs see him as a bellwether; no monarch has yet fallen in the Arab Spring. If King Abdullah can manage a way through, there is hope for the regimes of the Persian Gulf. “We need to be saying to the Obama administration and the West that if you don’t support Abdullah, you are undermining moderates across the region and you will create a region of extremists,” one gulf-state official told me.
Israel, in some ways, is Jordan’s most important ally. As the guarantor of quiet on Israel’s eastern front, and as the defender of the peace treaty that King Hussein forged with Yitzhak Rabin in 1994, Abdullah’s Jordan is essential to the Israelis. Jordan and Israel are also working together to prevent the chaos of Syria from spilling into their countries. The king would not talk about joint Jordanian-Israeli operations, but several sources in Amman and Tel Aviv told me that Israeli drones are monitoring the Jordan-Syria border on Jordan’s behalf, and that military and intelligence officials from the two countries are in constant contact, planning for post–Bashar al‑Assad chaos.
Even as Abdullah envisions ceding more of his power, he draws one red line: “I don’t want a government to come in and say, ‘We repudiate the peace treaty with Israel.’ ” He is cautious when speaking about the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he is reportedly in regular communication. He would say only that his relationship with Netanyahu is “very strong. Our discussions have really improved.”
Though he acknowledges the role Netanyahu plays in maintaining Jordanian stability, he is not optimistic about Israel’s future. King Abdullah is known as an advocate of two states for two peoples—Israel secure in its pre-1967 borders, Palestine to be established in Gaza and the West Bank—but when I asked him in January how much time he thought was left to implement this idea, his answer surprised me. “It could be too late already for the two-state solution,” he said. “I don’t know. Part of me is worried that is already past us.”
If it were too late, what would that mean?
He responded with a single word: “Isratine.” That’s a neologism popularized by the late Muammar Qaddafi to describe his vision of a joint Arab-Jewish state. If Israel doesn’t agree to a Palestinian state quickly, Abdullah said, “apartheid or democracy” will be its choice. “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?”
There are some Israelis, I said, who value Israel more as a Jewish state than as a democratic state. “The only way you’re going to have a Jewish part is if you have a two-state solution. That’s the Jewish part,” he said.
I asked him whether he believed President Obama wants to work on Middle East peace. “That’s the million-dollar question,” he said. He added that John Kerry clearly does. “We have a second-term president,” Abdullah said, suggesting that only a president in his second term has the maneuverability, and the experience, to oversee an effective peace process. “This is the last moment. Can it be achieved in four years? Are we too late? After four years, it’s over.”
While uncertainty persists across Jordan’s western border, chaos and bloodletting reign across its northern one, in Syria. As we were discussing the situation there, I asked Abdullah this question: If 250,000 Jordanians were to surge into the streets, demanding his downfall, would he order his security services to shoot? Or would he abdicate?
“My character is, I won’t shoot,” the king said. “I don’t think we as Hashemites shoot. If you, as a monarch, have created a situation in which half the population rises up and wants you out, then you’ve done something wrong.” Of course, I hadn’t asked what would happen if half the country rose up (Jordan’s population is 6.5 million), but I took his point.
It is not unfathomable that one day a demonstration of 250,000 could occur in Jordan. Demonstrations have erupted with some regularity there since the opening months of the Arab Spring. Many of the demonstrators are drawn from the Palestinian-dominated Muslim Brotherhood, but many are affiliated with the so-called herak, or “movement,” an amorphous collection of protest groups composed mainly of disaffected East Bankers.
The king insists that he has handled these demonstrations with gentle diplomacy. Queen Rania, he says, suggested he take a lenient approach with the protesters. “I said to take the weapons away. I was coordinating with all the commanders about how the first demonstrations should be handled, and Rania said, ‘You know what you should do? Hand out water and juice to all the demonstrators—have the police hand them water.’ That was a good idea, and I called them and said, ‘Rania’s idea is to do this.’ And the police did it. That was the flavor of the demonstrations.”
Of course, the confrontations between demonstrators and regime defenders were not always as benign as they may have seemed from the palace: security forces—along with mysterious bands of self-described royalists—have confronted demonstrators with beatings and tear gas from time to time. Still, Amman is most definitely not Damascus.
The king noted that Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, had, along with his loyalists, quite obviously made the decision to open fire against demonstrators and rebels. More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed in the uprising against Assad’s rule; forces under his command have committed unspeakable crimes against their countrymen. The danger for the entire region is acute. Jordan is working quietly with Israel and the United States to monitor the whereabouts of Assad’s chemical weapons. And Jordan is already being overrun by Syrian refugees—almost 400,000 as of late February. “The minute you get a Syrian coming across, there’s no way you can turn them back and say our border is closed,” the king told me. So far he has kept his word, maintaining a northern border open to fleeing Syrians.
He has also invited Assad’s family to Jordan, promising them protection. “I had offered a couple of times to get his wife out,” he told me, “and they said, ‘Thank you very much, but why don’t you worry about your country more than you worry about us?’ ”
Not all that long ago, Assad was seen, along with King Abdullah and King Mohammed VI of Morocco, as part of a trio of young, charismatic, and putatively progressive Arab leaders. In October 2000, shortly after the eruption of the second Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza, I attended a meeting of Arab leaders who had gathered in Cairo to ritually excoriate Israel, and to stand publicly (if impotently) with their Palestinian brethren. The meeting was stultifying. (Qaddafi had boycotted the session, so a great source of perverse entertainment was missing.) But the presence of three newly ascended Arab rulers lent interest to the proceedings: Abdullah had inherited the Hashemite throne the year before, after the death of his father, King Hussein; Mohammed had recently been crowned king of Morocco, after the death of his father, King Hassan; and Assad had a few months earlier inherited the presidency of Syria from his father, Hafez al‑Assad, in much the same way the Arab royals had inherited their thrones.
When I asked King Abdullah whether he could unravel the enigma of Bashar al‑Assad for me, he replied with an anecdote about the conference in Cairo. At the time, Assad was already controversial; the Syrian parliament had, upon Hafez al‑Assad’s death, voted to lower the minimum age for presidential candidates from 40 to 34—Bashar’s age at the time. Even by the standards of Levantine power grabs, this was considered to be a gauche act. In Syria, murmurs of discontent about the Assad family’s despotic inclinations had become audible. Abdullah says he took it upon himself to try to coach the new Syrian president in the ways of international statecraft. Even before the Arab League Summit, Abdullah says, he had devised a program to help Assad elevate his reputation. “I went to visit him and I said, ‘There’s the opening of the United Nations in September, please come—I can set up lunches and dinners,” the king recounted. “The World Economic Forum was doing something, and I said, ‘You’ll be the belle of the ball: everyone wants to meet you, you’re the new guy, you can have some interviews.’
“And he was like, ‘There’s no need—I have Syrian businessmen who can go on my behalf and get the contracts and investments.’ And I was like, ‘No, when you show up at the UN, everybody will come because you’re the flavor of the month.’ But he said he wouldn’t go.”
So, I asked, Bashar was a bit of a provincial? The king smiled, and told me about a conversation he had at the Arab Summit. “There was a dinner with me and him and the king of Morocco, at the king’s residence in Cairo. And so Bashar at dinner turns to us and says, ‘Can you guys explain to me what jet lag is?’ ”
The king arched an eyebrow at me. “He never heard of jet lag.”
Of course, provincialism alone can’t explain Assad’s behavior. After all, he’s not really that provincial: he’s a physician who trained in London. “He’s a smart guy, he’s married to someone who lived in the West,” the king conceded. But then he contrasted Assad’s upbringing with his own. “The fathers are two very different people,” he said. “The way his father ruled Syria, and the way my father ruled this country, and the relationship between the people and the ruler, were just very different.”
King Hussein, Abdullah’s father, did not always rule with a weightless touch—he used crushing force to put down the 1970 Palestinian revolt that came to be known as Black September—but he was generally known, especially by the standards of Middle Eastern royalty, for large-heartedness, and for a readiness to forgive.
No one would ever accuse an Assad of benevolence. Comparing the ways the Assads and the Hashemites have wrestled with two surpassingly important challenges to Arab leaders—the Muslim Brotherhood, on the one hand, and the existence of Israel, on the other—hints at the chasm of difference between the two families.
The Hashemites have sometimes used the General Intelligence Department to create dissension in the ranks of the Brotherhood; they have bought off some of the group’s leaders; and they have made the case to Jordanians, with intermittent success, that the Muslim Brothers are more interested in imposing the rule of fundamentalist sharia law than in making the country more democratic. The Assads, in contrast, have traditionally taken a more direct approach, killing Muslim Brothers in large numbers when they felt it necessary. In the most notorious instance, in 1982, Hafez al‑Assad’s forces killed between 10,000 and 20,000 people in a successful attempt to put down a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the city of Hama.
Which is not to say that the Hashemites don’t harbor visceral dislike for the Brotherhood. Abdullah expounds on that dislike to many of the Western visitors he receives—in part because he believes his Western allies are naive about the Brotherhood’s intentions. “When you go to the State Department and talk about this, they’re like, ‘This is just the liberals talking, this is the monarch saying that the Muslim Brotherhood is deep-rooted and sinister.’ ” Some of his Western interlocutors, he told me, argue that “the only way you can have democracy is through the Muslim Brotherhood.” His job, he says, is to point out that the Brotherhood is run by “wolves in sheep’s clothing” and wants to impose its retrograde vision of society and its anti-Western politics on the Muslim Middle East. This, he said, is “our major fight”—to prevent the Muslim Brothers from conniving their way into power across the region.
I’ve met Muslim Brotherhood members in Jordan who speak of Abdullah as something of an infidel—in part because his wife keeps her hair uncovered, wears pants, and speaks in public—but the king bridles at the idea that he is not a believer. I once asked him what it felt like to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. “It gives you a sense of calm,” he said. “Obviously there’s a tremendous sense of responsibility. It makes you feel very sure of yourself. I’m very comfortable in myself. I inherited this from my father, and he inherited it from his father. I pray five times a day—but I don’t have to keep telling everybody that I pray five times a day.” He then made a derisive reference to the zabiba, or “raisin,” the dark spot on the foreheads of some devout Muslim men, created over time by pressing the head firmly into the ground during prayer. “You see that black mark on the forehead—to show off that you pray five times a day?” he asked. “Why do that? That’s complete nonsense. I feel like having a black magic marker just to annoy people, to put a mark on my head.”
He became serious again. “My view of Christians and Jews, because of my father’s teachings and the family teachings—I was always brought up to believe that they are part of the larger family. Does that make sense? I don’t have that extremism.”
Though most of the gulf monarchs remain his allies—because they, too, fear the Muslim Brotherhood—the king’s expansive, moderate understanding of Islam has served to isolate him from the Arab world’s rising rulers. Tunisia is now ruled by Islamists. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, a longtime Jordanian ally, has been replaced by Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood leader. The king argues that a new, radical alliance is emerging—one that both complements and rivals the Iranian-led Shia crescent. “I see a Muslim Brotherhood crescent developing in Egypt and Turkey,” he told me. “The Arab Spring highlighted a new crescent in the process of development.”
Abdullah is wary of Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, whose Justice and Development Party is, he believes, merely promoting a softer-edged version of Islamism. (“Erdogan once said that democracy for him is a bus ride,” Abdullah reports. “ ‘Once I get to my stop, I’m getting off.’ ”) He sees Erdogan as a more restrained and more savvy version of Mohamed Morsi, who set back Muslim Brotherhood’s cause in Egypt by making a premature play for absolute power. “Instead of the Turkish model, taking six or seven years—being an Erdogan—Morsi wanted to do it overnight,” the king said.
If the king is wary of Erdogan, he is decidedly unimpressed with Morsi, whom he recently met in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. The two men were discussing the role of Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch. “There is no depth there,” Abdullah told me. “I was trying to explain to him how to deal with Hamas, how to get the peace process moving, and he was like, ‘The Israelis will not move.’ I said, ‘Listen, whether the Israelis move or don’t move, it’s how we get Fatah and Hamas”—the two rival Palestinian factions—“together.” When Morsi remained fixated on the Israelis (“He’s like, ‘The Israelis, the Israelis’ ”), Abdullah said, he tried to reiterate the importance of sorting out “the mess” on the Palestinian side.
“There’s no depth to the guy,” he repeated.
Constrained by morality, disposition, and political reality, the king cannot simply jail or murder the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, but he has done a creditable job of marginalizing them. Both the Hashemites and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front understood early on that the Arab Spring would pose a sharp challenge to the continuity of Hashemite rule. In the spring of 2011, as the Arab revolutions were beginning to unfold, I met with leaders of the Islamic Action Front at their headquarters in Amman. They were militant—though necessarily somewhat oblique—in their remarks about the future of the monarchy.
Zaki Bani Rashid, the chief of the IAF’s politburo, told me that the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions resembled the French revolution in its viral qualities. “The French revolution caused the end of regimes all through Europe,” he said. “The Arab-world revolutions will have the same effect through our region.” I asked him whether this meant he was calling for the overthrow of the Hashemites. He said, “The regime must understand that we need more democracy and more representative rule. We want a better country.” He said this while seated underneath a portrait of King Abdullah. Hamza Mansour, the IAF’s secretary general, said that if reform did not come quickly, the possibility of “social violence” would grow.
The king, for his part, is certain that the Muslim Brotherhood wants to see him gone. The GID has told him that the Brotherhood high command in Cairo is actively fomenting unrest in Jordan. According to multiple sources, the GID claims to have intercepted communications from Brotherhood leaders in Egypt to their Jordanian affiliates, encouraging them to boycott elections and destabilize the country. Abdullah told me that “behind closed doors, the Muslim Brotherhood here wants to overthrow” the government. I noted that the Brotherhood has his portrait on the walls of their offices. “They don’t believe in the constitution of Jordan,” he replied. “They won’t swear on the constitution. They will only swear on the constitution of the Muslim Brotherhood. Their allegiance is to the murshid,” the supreme guide, or leader, of the Brotherhood, who is based in Cairo. Abdullah said that when Brothers win election to parliament, and swear to follow the text of the Jordanian constitution, they get a fatwa—a religious ruling—stating that “you can put your hand on the Koran but what you swear on the Koran is nonbinding” when you’re declaring fealty to a secular document.
He noted that while he won’t let anyone kiss his hand (“we don’t believe anyone should kiss my hand, we’re all human beings”), “when you see Hamza Mansour, you see that after a speech, they all come kiss his hand.”
Two months after the Arab Spring erupted, the king received the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Jordanian branch in his office. “They were the first people I saw in the Arab Spring,” he told me. “They were the loudest voice, so I brought them in, and they said, ‘Our loyalty is to the Hashemites, and we stood with you in the ’40s and ’50s and ’70s,’ and I said, ‘That is the biggest load of crap I have ever heard.’ And they were like, ‘Aaaargh’—they were shocked.” He recounted that he said to them, “ ‘My father told me that you guys watched the way things were going, and when you saw that my father was winning, you went with him.’ I said, ‘This is complete and utter bullshit, and if we’re going to sit here and bullshit each other, then we might as well have a cup of tea and then say goodbye. If you want to have a serious conversation’—we Arabs like to ass-kiss each other for the first half hour of conversation—‘if you want to have a serious conversation, here’s where we start.’ ”
The king said he outlined for the Brotherhood leaders some areas of common interest, and then told them, “I think you’re part of the Jordanian system, and I think you should be part of the process.” He said he told them, “I think we all leave this meeting feeling really good, but—I’ll be honest with you—there’s 10 percent distrust from me, and 10 percent distrust from you, I’m sure. But we have good vibes here.”
Those Brotherhood leaders went to Cairo to ask the supreme guide and other Brotherhood leaders whether they should participate in the king’s newly established national-dialogue committee, meant to frame a broad civic discussion about political reform. Abdullah said he had told Hamza Mansour and two other Brotherhood leaders that he wanted an answer within a few days. “They were in Cairo to see the murshid, and they saw Tahrir Square and the Muslim Brotherhood. We asked Mansour, ‘Who are the three names you’re going to put on the national-dialogue committee?’ ” No names were ventured. “I think they thought the revolution was going to happen in Jordan, and they didn’t need to be part of the national committee,” the king said. “They thought they’d won. They had decided that they had won.”
The Islamic Action Front has boycotted the political-reform process for the past two years, but the boycott has not worked. In January’s parliamentary elections, voter turnout was comparatively high, and Islamists not affiliated with the Brotherhood won several seats. Political analysts in Amman generally agree that the Brotherhood is, at least for the moment, a more marginal movement than it otherwise would have been. “They’ve shot themselves in the foot a bit,” one of these analysts told me. “The rest of Jordan is moving on.”
King Abdullah is, emotionally and dispositionally, the most pro-American ruler in the Arab world. He and his wife and children—two sons and two daughters—enjoy watching Modern Family together; once, as prince, he made a cameo appearance on Star Trek: Voyager. In my experience, he is happiest when talking about his years in Massachusetts, at Deerfield Academy, the elite boarding school where he studied for several years in the 1970s. Abdullah’s core instincts may or may not be egalitarian, but he did seem to learn something about democracy and political equality at Deerfield, where deference to royalty was generally lacking. Though it was known on campus that he was a prince, he was on the wrestling team, everyone called him “Ab,” and he bused dining-hall tables like every other student.
One of Abdullah’s proudest achievements is the establishment of King’s Academy, a Deerfield-style prep school outside Amman. The school comprises 33 buildings, a nondenominational chapel, vast lawns (it’s the greenest place in Jordan), and a faculty imported mainly from the West. As he flew us from Karak to Amman in his helicopter, we passed near the campus. “It’s a wonderful school,” he said. “Merit-based.”
While Abdullah resists the urge to spend more time than is seemly in the United States, many summers he and a small group of friends (and a detachment of bodyguards) take an unpublicized motorcycle trip along some remote stretch of American highway. Last summer, he and his friends tracked the trans-Alaska pipeline as it winds its way south from Prudhoe Bay. No one at highway truck stops recognized him, of course, which made him happy. When David Petraeus, who was then the director of the CIA, visited him this past fall, King Abdullah mentioned the Alaska trip in order to have some fun at the expense of the American national-security apparatus. “I said, ‘I don’t know who’s the head of Homeland Security, but I have some real concerns for you. There was a whole bunch of AY-rabs’ ”—he stressed the first syllable in the stereotypically redneck way—“ ‘running around your pipeline, and no one stopped us. Nobody asked us any questions at all. Who’s protecting your border?’ ”
Perhaps Abdullah is so taken with the American system that, if anything, he overstates its virtues. In his proselytizing for political reform, he holds up the United States as the Platonic ideal. The paralysis and pettiness of Washington does not seem to have made an impression on him. In January, I talked with him the day after he met with a group of Jordanian “youth activists” at the palace. He explained the message he had given them. “I said, ‘You guys have no concept of left, right, and center. In the American concept, I’m a leftist, or a Democrat, when it comes to health, education, and taxes. I’m a Republican when it comes to … defense, okay? That’s me as Abdullah. How does that fit into the framework of a Jordanian mentality? I want you guys thinking like that. I don’t want you to agree with me. If you agree with me, fantastic, that’s fine.’ In our culture, if you don’t agree with me, you start shooting each other, or at least throwing our shoes at each other.”
Abdullah’s stated mission—when judged not against an ideal but against the pitiless realities of his neighborhood—is of course noble. Cynics argue that he is merely masquerading as a reformer, trying to preserve the monarchy by providing his people with only the facsimile of change. Radicals call him conservative; conservatives call him radical. The truth is that he is both. He is also something else: a Don Quixote. Meritocracy and democratic pluralism are not ideas that his country is prepared to accept. This may be because the culture of Jordan is not so plastic as he would like it to be—but it may also be that the nobility of his intentions is not matched by the quality of his abilities.
Abdullah seems to genuinely want his people to be richer, happier, and more politically empowered than they are now. But he also recognizes that only if Jordanians are content will they readily agree to the perpetuation of Hashemite rule. On visits to Amman in recent months, I noticed something new: photographs of his 18-year-old son, Crown Prince Hussein, have proliferated in the public rooms of the palace, as they have on billboards throughout the kingdom. As the elder of Abdullah’s two sons, Hussein is meant to inherit the throne from his father. Over the course of our conversations, it became obvious to me that King Abdullah has been preoccupied with ensuring a smooth transition to his son’s rule. Abdullah is only 51, but he is not unaware, two people close to him told me, that his father died at the age of 63.
Abdullah has dispatched Hussein to Washington, to be certain that he is thinking about politics in the American manner. After several years of American-style education at King’s Academy, Prince Hussein is now a freshman at Georgetown University.
The king told me he regrets having made Hussein crown prince so early in his life. “When I made him crown prince, I don’t think he was very happy,” the king said. “He was 15, and I don’t think he was happy with me at all.” But in naming Hussein crown prince early, Abdullah had hoped to avoid the confusion and anxiety in the kingdom that marked his father’s last days.
Abdullah himself was made crown prince with very little notice, just two weeks before his father’s death from cancer. Until then, Hussein’s hapless brother, Hassan, had been crown prince, and Abdullah had led a largely anonymous life in the military. “Looking back at my life, I was Forrest Gump,” he told me. “I was with my father in all the crises, but I didn’t have the spotlight on me. I was watching and learning without having the pressures on me.” Knowing the pressure that he imposed on his son by naming him successor to the throne produced “huge turmoil” in Abdullah. The queen, too, says she wasn’t particularly happy about Hussein’s elevation. “It’s a struggle for me,” she told me, “because as a mother, you want your children to have a normal life to the extent possible, an anonymous life that is free from struggle, and we know for sure that is not what we are giving him.”
“I didn’t want to do this to a young boy,” the king said. “He’s matured a lot over the past couple of years. He understands the responsibility. He won’t have the life I had … As a teenager, as a young officer, nobody was looking at me. They didn’t care who I was. I had the ability to develop, and make friends, and see the world without having … people taking pictures of [me] left, right, and center. The title is going to follow him around. So I didn’t do him any favors.”
The biggest favor he could do for his son now, he says, is to de-emphasize the power of the throne. “The monarchy is going to change. When my son becomes of age and becomes king, the system will be stabilized and … it will be a Western democracy with a constitutional monarchy.” But, he says, “even with all the changes I’m doing here, there is still going to be a monarchy.” Abdullah would like to see his son become a symbol of national unification, and a source of moral guidance. He also hopes his son “is not going to have to work his butt off for the rest of his life. I hope he works hard, but not with the same pressures.”
What Abdullah does not want is for his son to take the throne in a situation where he’s “in the position of Bashar today.” Rather, he wants Hussein to become king of a Jordan where “the people are happy, and they love the monarchy, just like you saw with the outpouring toward Queen Elizabeth in England.”