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Los Angeles Times Interview

King Abdullah II

Jordan's Leader Worries Violence In Middle East Could Ignite Region

April 08, 2001|Robin Wright

WASHINGTON — 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.

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?

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