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A King in a Changing World

A King in a Changing World

Monday, 11 March, 2019 - 11:30
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper
In 1999, the profession took me to two young Arab men for an interview. The first had his future already sketched, while the second was still preparing for it.

The name of the first one is Abdullah II and the second is Bashar al-Assad. They belong to the same generation. When Bashar was born in 1965, Abdullah II was three years old.

I entered the office of the young Jordanian in Amman shortly after he took over the Jordanian destiny, and entered the office of the young Syrian in Qassion a year before he took over the Syrian fate. I was happy to have the opportunity to follow up on a new generation of Arab rulers. The arrival of the new generation was considered an occasion to launch new approaches to governance that would provide a degree of modernization in politics and economy.

As a journalist, I was thinking about the size of the tasks assigned to each of the two men. Since journalists usually like to compare, I was telling myself how hard it was to be the heir of an exceptional player who has established and strengthened his leadership and methods.

King Hussein Bin Talal was good at practicing his difficult career as a king. He learned the art of windsurfing to later develop the ability to detect approaching storms and provide umbrellas of survival. He realized that his small country had a difficult nature that needed maintenance at home and abroad: maintenance of stability, the role that protects it, and the ability to demonstrate that the last guarantee was present no matter how strong the wind.

President Hafez al-Assad was a skilled player who soon mastered swimming in troubled waters. He forged alliances with Moscow without forgetting Washington. He forbade any foreign player from having a say on the Syrian land, while he played his cards in neighboring countries, such as Lebanon.

The two men had to always think of a difficult third player, named Saddam Hussein. The latter considered himself to be equal to Jamal Abdel Nasser, but wealthier in oil. Iraq – strong or weak - is a difficult neighbor. Saddam and Hafez, both coming from the party of Michel Aflaq, differed in everything but in their admiration to Salaheddine Al-Ayoubi. “The Kurds have an exceptional historical leader named Salaheddine, but the Baath took over him,” President Jalal Talabani used to say while laughing.

Let’s leave comparisons aside. I entered the office of King Abdullah II a few days ago. I found him in his military uniform. I understood that he was just returning from a surprise visit to a military contingent.

We are in the Middle East, the land of surprises and dangers. If the ruler has to constantly monitor his country's economy, he must always make sure his army is ready. One of the constants in Jordan's army is that it cannot abandon the Palestinian fate, nor the Iraqi and Syrian destinies. In the past two decades, the three files have been very complex and difficult.

Neighboring crises leave their marks in the heart of the Jordanian house. In addition to the Palestinians, who were displaced by the Israeli occupation, Jordan has received waves of Iraqis, and about 400,000 of them still reside in its territory. The country has also hosted about 1,400,000 Syrians, and no more than 12,000 have already returned to their homeland. These burdens have exhausted the Jordanian economy and exposed the infrastructure to severe pressure, while international aid has been far below the needs.

The thunderous emergence of ISIS was not simple at all. Jordan had to remain on constant alert so that its borders would not be breached as happened in Iraq and Syria. It was necessary to prepare for any ISIS attacks and to face its attempts to attract the angry youth suffering from unemployment and to make them fall into the trap of militancy in a region that was witnessing a climate of inflammatory doctrine.

Tranquility is a plant that does not live in the soil of the Middle East. The dangers did not begin with ISIS and will not end with the movement’s collapse. But who said that the presence of ISIS has ended? The “Caliphate State” lost its presence on the land of Iraq and Syria, but it moved completely to a “virtual Caliphate state.” Through social networks and applications such as Telegram, WhatsApp, and others, ISIS is recruiting, training and directing operations.

Jordanian investigations revealed that the members of the “Fuheis terrorist cell”, who have a criminal background, mediated through the Internet over a month and moved on to the execution of their plan. Jordanian security forces killed three of them and arrested the others in less than 24 hours.

The fall of ISIS came in parallel with a new emergence of Al-Qaeda, especially the organization of Hurras el-Din (‘the protectors of religion’), which was born in the Syrian arena in February 2018 and was formed of Al-Qaeda members, who were close to Abu Mesaab Al-Zarqawi. It is said that Ayman al-Zawahiri's instructions are conveyed to them through Saif al-Adl, who resides in Iran.

Two decades after assuming his duties, Abdullah II realized that he was king in a changing world and in a changing region. Iraq today is not like the one that existed on the eve of this century. The same is true for Syria. Iranian militias are located near the Jordanian border through the Iraqi and Syrian maps. The peace horizon is locked and the "deal of the century" will not find a Palestinian approval.

In these difficult situations, Abdullah II continues to maintain his country’s stability, entity, and role. His close relationship with America, under the consecutive administrations, is firm, especially with his ability to address the Congress and his knowledge of the rules of the game there.

His strong relationship with Vladimir Putin has helped him deal with the Syrian crisis, especially with regard to the situation in the Syrian south.

Internally, where the tweeters hunt every shortcoming or corruption, the king maintains dialogue with politicians, parties, trade unions, media professionals, and activists. The best evidence is that the tweeters were among those who participated in open-ended dialogue sessions in a country that, despite its limited economic potential, has maintained its stability and hasn't hesitated to make painful decisions to save its economy.

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