The Arab World’s Can-Do Guy

Abdullah II’s Jordan is a model for the Middle East.

Between Iraq on one side and Israel/Palestine on the other, “we’re in a difficult neighborhood,” Jordan’s King Abdullah II told me in a recent interview. “And so we reach out to the West and say, help us succeed.” On Thursday, it seemed the White House heard him.

Last month, Abdullah canceled his Washington trip after President Bush agreed to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s proposed unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and rejected the Palestinians’ right of return. It wasn’t a good time for an Arab leader to be photographed with a man many Arabs loathe. Nor did this week seem any more charmed, but the king waded into a quagmire and walked out of the Rose Garden with Bush promising a letter to Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and the White House’s assurances not to prejudice future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Even more timely, Abdullah got the apology the Arab world was waiting for all week long.

“I told him I was sorry,” President Bush related in a press conference after their meeting. He was sorry “for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners, and the humiliation suffered by their families.”

In wresting the magic words from the president, the man a European diplomat once referred to as “the Middle East’s weakest leader” became the Arab world’s can-do guy. The king’s entourage is ecstatic, anticipating the kind of greeting Abdullah will receive back home. But U.S. officials also have reason to be happy with the royal Hashemite court. On April 29 in Amman, Jordan’s capital, Abdullah’s wife Queen Rania led a march against terrorism. The Pan-Arab daily Al Hayat reported that close to 150,000 people turned out, some of them burning photographs of Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida associate Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian national who had allegedly plotted a chemical attack against several targets in Amman. A public demonstration like the one led by the queen is unprecedented good news for a U.S. president whose image is all too familiar with the working end of a matchstick. Surely, there’s some consolation for the White House in the knowledge that if Arabs hate us, at least they hate those guys, too.

King Abdullah has been counting on the tide turning against the jihadists. “It takes tremendous pressure off the silent majority for them to speak out and say enough is enough,” he told me. “We were hijacked by the loud minority, by the extremists. But sometimes, maybe it takes the shock of extremism to propel a new era of renaissance.”

Jordanians were certainly shocked to hear that had Zarqawi’s operation succeeded, an estimated 80,000 people would have died. Later, in a recorded message believed to have come from Zarqawi himself, the one-time “Afghan Arab” said that Jordanian officials had misrepresented the nature and extent of the attack. Sure, he’d meant to kill a lot of people, but not 80,000.

Since Zarqawi is a member of the Bani Hassan, one of the region’s largest tribes, with groupings in both Jordan and Iraq, some commentators have wondered if this wouldn’t signal another potential insurgency in Iraq: first Baathist remnants, then foreign jihadists, and now all the region’s Bedouins bound to each other by blood ties. No, says one Jordanian journalist familiar with the tribes. “It’s a personal matter for Zarqawi. It’s not tribal, it’s jihadist. The tribes aren’t going to follow him anywhere. Bedouins aren’t religious zealots. They pursue their own interests, and the state represents those interests.”

The Bedouins dominate Jordan’s government, police, and military. The king’s royal court chief, appointed shortly before the Iraq war, is a member of the Bani Hassan, as are thousands of members of the Jordanian army, historically the Arab world’s crack fighting unit. Jordan’s Palestinian population, comprising roughly 50 percent of the country, runs the private sector. They are also the country’s liberalizing force.

“After 1948,” explained a Palestinian financial analyst based in Amman, “our families realized the kids had to have something to fall back on. There was no land, so we got educations instead. Palestinians went to Europe, the United States, the Gulf, and now that we’re in Jordan, we know how business works. But if we get too much power, it throws off the delicate balance between us and the Trans-Jordanians, or Bedouins.”

Keeping the two parties happy has been one of the major tasks of Jordan’s Hashemite rulers since the country’s declaration of independence in 1946, and they haven’t always been successful. The king’s great-grandfather, Abdullah I, was assassinated by a Palestinian radical in 1951, and in 1970 his father Hussein crushed a Palestinian rebellion that threatened to overthrow the state. Whether or not King Abdullah II agrees with most Arabs that the security fence separating Israel from the West Bank is an “apartheid wall,” his government is worried it’s going to cause security problems for Jordan. In cutting West Bank residents off from Israel, and thus one of the few sources of income available to them, Jordan fears a new wave of refugees its own economy can’t sustain.

As Philip Robins details in his new History of Jordan, the kingdom has often appeared to be on the verge of coming apart at the seams. Indeed, the Hashemites, who are direct descendants of the prophet Mohammed, have always had a somewhat precarious existence in the region. After World War I, the British thanked these leaders of the Arab revolt for turning on their Turkish masters by carving out parts of the former Ottoman Empire for them to rule. Transjordan, later Jordan, was given to Abdullah’s great-grandfather, Syria to his great-grand uncle Faisal. When the French kicked Faisal out of Damascus, the British stacked together several wildly diverse precincts—with Kurds in the north, Arab Bedouins in the center, and Shiites in the south—called it Iraq, and wished Faisal well. That nation’s Hashemite monarchy ended with an assassination in 1958, and of course the situation in neighboring Iraq today makes life harder for the one Hashemite still ruling an Arab state. However, as King Abdullah told me, “We’re not using the regional problems as an excuse not to go forward, and that tends to be a trend in this part of the world.”

The country’s motto is “Jordan First,” distancing itself from the “all-for-one” Pan-Arab ideologies that during the last half-century did little more than conceal vast reserves of enmity between Arab rulers. Reform is the answer, the king says, emphasizing economic reform that he hopes will provide a safety net that will make it possible to enact riskier political and social reforms.

“I believe we’re setting the trend for the Middle East,” he explained. “If we do succeed, then the experiment works. Change is always difficult, it’s always frightening. If you can show a country next to you that you’ve done something and it’s worked, it’s always a good argument to be able to move forward. If we set the pace in the region for democratic, political, social, economic reform then we’re not only doing something for our people, we’re doing something for the whole region.”

That President Bush’s apology was given to Abdullah II to accept on behalf of the whole region suggests that while the White House has gotten Iraq wrong in lots of important ways, it recognizes what reform ought to look like. “My descendants are descendants of the prophet,” the king said, “and as the direct line, I think we know what we’re talking about.”