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King Abdullah II of Jordan, World Statesman?

[King Abdullah II of Jordan speaks at the inauguration of the newly-elected parliament, in Amman, Jordan, 10 February 2013. Photo by Mohammad Hannon via AP Photo] [King Abdullah II of Jordan speaks at the inauguration of the newly-elected parliament, in Amman, Jordan, 10 February 2013. Photo by Mohammad Hannon via AP Photo]

This week, Jeffrey Goldberg published a now infamous interview with King Abdullah II of Jordan in The Atlantic. Its contents have reverberated all around the blogosphere, generating heated real-life debates. Even before the full interview was made public, the New York Times culled out the most egregious of quotes for an article on 18 March. It was this truncated version that was initially circulating through the Internet and in the media in Jordan. Increasingly, references to the fuller Atlantic article were also being passed around. Initially, parts of the article were circulating in Arabic, and eventually the whole article was translated. Already, at least one demonstration in opposition to Abdullah’s statements has broken out in Jordan, taking place on 19 March in front of the Royal Court in Amman.

A few key quotes have had the most impact on their readers. As the New York Times article proclaimed, “Jordan’s King Finds Fault with Everyone Concerned.” Goldberg reports that Abdullah declared that President Muhammad Morsi of Egypt has “no depth,” and that the Muslim Brotherhood is “a Masonic cult”; that President Bashar al-Asad of Syria does not know what jet lag is; and that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey views democracy as a “bus ride.” Back home in Jordan, King Abdullah explains that he has to arrest members of his own family and take away their cars and fuel subsidies when they fail to obey traffic rules. Furthermore, Jordan’s tribal leaders are “old dinosaurs,” and “conservative elements” have embedded themselves in “certain institutions” such as the intelligence agency (otherwise referred to as the mukhabarat).

When reading the above paragraph, or the New York Times article in full, these statements are shocking coming from a world leader (as is some of the crass language Abdullah uses in the interview). Like many of his colleagues around the world, Abdullah typically articulates carefully vetted talking points whenever he speaks to the international press. A cursory look at his interviews for the last couple of years finds the same phrases used over and over again. These phrases are largely innocuous, and pointedly avoid terms that could cause a controversy. As we discussed in our article about his appearance on The Daily Show (2 October 2012), Abdullah alters his statements to fit his particular audience. In that case, he expected that Stewart and his viewership would be unfamiliar with the political realities of Jordan so he could peddle an idealistic and unrealistic image of himself with impunity.

The quotes presented in this latest interview are like the blips in the media when a politician is caught saying something off message while the microphone is still on. Damage control quickly follows any of these verbal lapses. Abdullah is following this script, as so many politicians have done before him, by making the claim that the quotes were taken out of their correct context. As presented by the New York Times and other venues that have picked up the story, the quotes are out of context. They sound like a politician who got over-confident, or did not know that he was being recorded. Maybe the journalist read too much into a particular statement. Politicians always fall back on these kinds of excuses to divert attention from their supposedly mistaken statements.

Nevertheless, a full reading of Goldberg’s seventeen-page article shows that these quotes fit perfectly into the brand Abdullah has been marketing on the world stage since he came to the throne in 1999. Goldberg draws on all the main tropes that have been part of Abdullah’s previous campaigns: a father guiding his people; a modern leader in a pre-modern world; an interlocutor between east and west; the most moderate of regional leaders; and even the old standby of a boy playing with his toys. The complete article should be seen as part of the larger fourteen-year project of branding King Abdullah II of Jordan, World Statesman, with Goldberg serving as a consultant for Abdullah’s PR program. From that perspective, these quotes are in their correct context because they present the logical projection of the man, the myth, and now the superhero that King Abdullah and his PR staff have been producing into existence for years.

From the first anecdote of the article, Goldberg ties together all the pieces of the by-now-well-known Abdullah brand. Abdullah speeds up to the tarmac in an armored Mercedes and then hops into a Black Hawk helicopter that he pilots himself to a meeting in the southern town of Karak. There, he meets with a group of tribal leaders, and a former prime minister, who are the “old dinosaurs” because they do not understand modern politics and think that voting should be based solely on what tribal leaders can supply to their tribesmen. Abdullah has arrived via the latest helicopter model; the meeting and lunch hark back to a pre-modern era when men stood around eating mansaf (the alleged national/tribal dish of Jordan) with their hands. In this case, however, “forks were distributed in a concession to modernity.” According to Goldberg and many a press release over the years, Abdullah cares about girls’ education and high tech innovation. In sharp contrast, one of the tribesmen he is meeting with wants to bring night watchmen back to his town armed with sticks. When this request is made, Abdullah and Goldberg share a look because they both understand how foolish the idea is in their modern world. During the lunch, Abdullah berates the men for not putting together a viable political and economic program for their new political party. In this anecdote, Abdullah is the only one in the room (besides Goldberg, of course) who sees Jordan’s future properly. On the flight back to Amman, Abdullah detours so Goldberg can view the ancient sites of Jordan. When Goldberg suggests that they might fly over Jerusalem, one of Abdullah’s aids jokes that “the cousins like to have more warning.”

In one fell swoop, Goldberg has shown Abdullah as a dynamic and benevolent ruler fruitlessly struggling to bring his country into the modern age. Despite his fatigue at the pressure he is facing, Abdullah appears young and forward-looking while the men he meets are old or “had the appearance of being old.” Goldberg’s Abdullah, which matches perfectly with Abdullah’s Abdullah, is the only man in the room who has the vision to right the wrongs of Jordan. Goldberg even brings back the trope of Abdullah as daredevil that has been missing from the publicity campaigns of the last few years. When Abdullah first came to the throne, stories abounded of him dressing as an ordinary person (in the article, Goldberg explains that he did so as “a peasant”) so he could see how badly the country’s institutions functioned. About the same time, Abdullah filmed “Jordan – The Royal Tour” (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5) that profiles his exploits tooling around the country on his motorcycle, climbing cliffs in Wadi Mujib with his brothers, and snorkeling off Aqaba. The man piloting his helicopter back into the dark ages that are Karak may have grayer hair than the younger self of his video, but he is still more forward looking than anyone else around him.

Both the imagery and the phrases Abdullah and Goldberg use throughout the article are familiar to anyone who has watched Abdullah’s branding project: the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan is hijacking the democratic process; the Brotherhood does not believe in the constitution but it needs to be part of the political process anyway; the nature of the monarchy must change, but only if Jordan’s politicians understand the true nature of modern politics; and Jordan’s politics should mimic America’s with parties to the left, right, and center. That is the context that Abdullah has written for himself. More so, Goldberg unquestionably adopts it as the parameters for his article.

Let us set aside the absolute irony of a man whose “mandate” for leadership is based entirely on kinship and inheritance criticizing kin-based politics. After all, is not royal descent the epitome of kin-based politics? Beyond this, Abdullah conveys either a fundamental misunderstanding or deliberate distortion of how kinship functions in Jordan’s political system for his Western audience. He mocks his subjects saying, “It’s all about ‘I’ll vote for this guy because I’m in his tribe.’” Jordanians do not elect members of their clan (or particular members of their clan, as there are often multiple candidates from the same clan or sub-clan running for office) out of some primordial attachment. They vote for kin, or other families they have alliances with, because access to services, jobs, scholarships, etcetera are all predicated on personal links to people with power. Equally important, the political system created by the Hashemites ensures they have few choices beyond these kin-based ties for accessing these resources. Jordan had a vibrant political movement in the 1950s and 1960s with a number of emergent political parties. Many of the leaders of these movements came from places like Karak–a city that is mocked in this interview both by the king and Goldberg. The regime crushed these parties in 1957 and, with the support of the United States, severely curtailed independent political activity for decades under a regime of martial law. [1] The political liberalization program of the 1990s was also short-lived as King Hussein and then King Abdullah passed voting laws and press restrictions to weaken party influence. Chief beneficiaries of these laws were the tribes that Abdullah now excoriates.[2] But according to Goldberg and King Abdullah, it is Jordan’s backward culture that leaves Jordanians woefully unprepared for democracy. The only proper model comes from the United States, and protected at all times by Israel.

Goldberg references accusations thrown at Abdullah over the years, such that he has a gambling problem and that corruption reigns in Jordan. However, he easily dismisses them. At no point does Goldberg challenge the intentions of the king as a reformist. He merely questions his ability to implement reform. There is no discussion in his article of the corruption linked to the royal family itself, like the registration of public lands in the king’s name, or the corruption among the king’s closest cohorts. Instead, in Goldberg’s narrative, other members of the royal family or government are to blame—and when problems have arisen, it is because Abdullah must make difficult decisions in order to right his country. Goldberg’s conclusions are easy to come by because he does not bother to interview anyone who might bring into question any aspect of Abdullah’s brand.

Despite this image of the king, which Goldberg supports (although his own bias bursts through this piece so strongly at times, that the piece often reads like he is mocking Abdullah), the reality is that any serious political organizing in Jordan has been regularly met with repression. In the lived world of Jordan, one finds little evidence that the Jordanian authorities would allow any serious attempt at establishing an independent reform-minded political party. Constitutional reforms are minimal at best, and the regime passed a new repressive press law just last year, aimed in part at censoring online journalism and critique of the regime. The constant refrain that Abdullah wants to establish a constitutional monarchy on the British model is little in evidence when one gets outside the royal palace. Despite these monarchical and state prohibitions, the last few years have seen an eruption of political organizing among groups all over the country. This organizing is not just by the Muslim Brotherhood—who get discussed in most international media. It is also by students, workers, and those supposedly moribund tribes. Many of them are the people who are now moving the quotes from this interview into debate in Jordan, even with the threat of punishment they face because of the press law. But for Abdullah’s brand to work as a cohesive description of Jordanian life and politics, these Jordanians must be made invisible. Abdullah must be considered the only voice allowed an audience. Abdullah’s quotes and Goldberg’s context perform this magic act together.

Goldberg moves the imagery from man and myth to superhero not only by upping the ante on the toys Abdullah uses (i.e., a Black Hawk helicopter rather than a motorcycle), but also by highlighting the vital role Abdullah plays in the region and around the world. This is not the little king who could, the moniker of his father, King Hussein. To the United States, the Gulf Arab countries, and Israel, Abdullah is “indispensable,” though Goldberg, a former Israeli Defense Force (IDF) prison guard, makes sure to emphasize that Israel and Netanyahu in particular protect Jordan. Abdullah has become the linchpin for the region, not just an inspired monarch ruling over a benighted people. While that particular declaration has been largely missing from Abdullah’s own branding scheme, by situating Abdullah in such a way Goldberg has added a new element to the Abdullah project. It does not reflect the position Abdullah holds in the region or on the world stage any more than the other talking points reflect Abdullah’s place in the real Jordan. They are, however, the natural and logical extensions of Abdullah’s own description of his policies and desires for Jordan. In this imagined world, Abdullah is such an important and knowledgeable world statesman that he has both the right and the duty to analyze the actions and motivations of others, both inside and outside Jordan, with no need for those being targeted to speak for themselves. None of the quotes that appear in the article, or that have been highlighted in subsequent ones, go off message. They are just more blunt than the innocuous sound-bites Abdullah usually spouts. Goldberg’s regional superhero does not and should not filter his comments.

The firestorm that has emerged–on Twitter, in online media sources[3] and through demonstrations–in Jordan over this interview is indicative of a new era in which the monarchy can no longer produce one image and discourse for the West (something the Hashemites have been very skilled at doing up until now), while enacting policies that go against that image and discourse on the ground. Damage control is underway in the Jordanian press. Several prominent journalists have moved to minimize the significance of the king’s interview[4] and various “tribes” have made public statements, most likely “encouraged,” to show their support. The home of one political activist who wrote a satirical piece about the Atlantic interview was raided on 22 March. But in this age of social media and online publication, articles, interviews, and photographs travel in real time. What appears in the New York Times is picked up almost instantly by a blogger in Jordan, and then quickly circulates through all the new media and very quickly into real-life discourse. The Black Iris posted a fascinating analysis on 20 March detailing Abdullah’s failed PR strategy as well as the political problems existing in Jordan today.  Yet, somehow the Jordanian regime–the king, the palace, and his PR people–continue to act as if these are two separate universes of information sharing. After this latest incident, perhaps the regime will finally be dissuaded of such assumptions. Abdullah’s brand has assuredly crashed on the shoals of its own contradictions. The bigger question is how this disjuncture between image and reality plays out in the very complex political realm that currently exists in Jordan.

 



[1] See Uriel Dann, King Hussein and the Challenge of Arab Radicalism: Jordan, 1955-1967 (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1989); Joseph A. Massad, Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan (New York:  Columbia University Press, 2001); and Betty S. Anderson, Nationalist Voices in Jordan:  The Street and the State (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2005).

[2] See Russell E. Lucas, “Deliberalization in Jordan,”  Journal of Democracy Vol. 14, No. 1(12003): pp. 137-144; Curtis R. Ryan, Jordan in Transition: From Hussein to Abdullah.  Boulder (Boulder:  Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002); and Laurie A. Brand,  “The Effects of the Peace Process on Political Liberalization in Jordan,”  Journal of Palestine Studies Vol. 28, No. 2(1999): 52-67.

[4] For example see articles by Nabil al Sharif, Osama Tulaylan, and Fahid al-Khitan. Many more journalists have written about the interview. Some defended the king’s interview by laying blame on Goldberg, by arguing that the interview was off the record, and the comments taken out of context. Others have said that the king is only conveying what needs to be said.

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