JORDAN: Relations With US Continue to Strengthen
Thomas Cromwell

You could not want a better representative for your country in Washington. Cambridge-educated, Ambassador Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein is very knowledgeable about affairs in his country, the Middle East, and the world, and is able to articulate his government’s agenda and positions clearly.

The son and designated heir of the titular King of Iraq (the throne in Baghdad was last held by Faisal II, a cousin of Jordan’s late King Hussein, who was deposed and murdered in 1958), and a former candidate for secretary general of the United Nations, he makes a very effective envoy for Amman.

In a recent interview with DiplomaticTraffic.com, he discussed a range of issues, including the rule of King Abdullah II, which early next year will complete its first decade.

When a dying King Hussein suddenly replaced as crown prince his brother, Prince Hassan, with his son Abdullah, many wondered what we could expect from a man who had largely led a private life up to that time. Suddenly Hussein’s son by his first wife, Princess Mona of Britain, was brought out of relative obscurity into the bright light of public scrutiny, in Jordan and around the world.

Few would disagree with the view that the young monarch has done well, and that he and his attractive and active wife, Queen Rania, are making their mark as modern rulers on the Hashemite dynasty.

Ambassador Al Hussein said that King Abdullah’s agenda from the outset has been economic development, and in particular attracting foreign investment to Jordan. Among the landmark achievements along this path have been Jordan’s entry into the World Trade Organization, the establishment of a Free Trade Agreement with the United States, and a rapid expansion of the ITC sector, which is growing at a rate of 50 percent a year and has come from an insignificant role in the economy to represent 12 percent of GDP today.

The US FTA has seen a growth in exports to the United States from $20 million in 2000, when it was signed, to $1.3 billion today, which represents about 25 percent of all Jordan’s exports and makes the United States Jordan’s number one export partner by a large margin. 

But economic growth for Jordan can never be a simple matter of boosting investment and increasing standards of living. Sharing borders with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and the West Bank, Jordan has always had to maintain a carefully balanced foreign policy. Like his father before him, King Abdullah has done this with skill, keeping Jordan a haven of peace and stability in a very turbulent area.

The ambassador said King Abdullah’s second major achievement has been “navigating Jordan through several crises that have beset the region.” Indeed, the King has emerged as a strong advocate for peace in the area, and for peace on the wider stage of relations between the Arab and Muslim worlds on the one hand, and the West on the other. 

Ambassador Al Hussein noted that the invitation for the King to speak before a joint session of Congress last year was testimony to Washington’s appreciation for his constructive role in the region.

With a majority of its population of Palestinian origin, Jordan can never be far removed from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict playing out across the Jordan Valley. And while not wanting to comment on the prospects for the Bush administration’s efforts to bring about an agreement by the end of this year, the ambassador did note that George Bush was the first American president to make a two-state solution official US policy, as early as 2002.

He also pointed out that “negotiations are ongoing and resilient enough to withstand the situation on the ground” which is dominated by intra-Palestinian conflicts and endless clashes between Hamas and Israel.

He said Jordan is “still worried by the settlement activities, especially around Jerusalem,” which creates “facts on the ground” and gives an ever louder voice to Israeli settlers in the occupied territories, who are steadily increasing in number.

“We would like to see a complete cessation of settlement activity,” he said, echoing a long-standing Jordanian and Arab position.

Jordan is unequivocal in its support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “We believe he and his prime minister are excellent leaders,” the ambassador said.

For its part, Jordan has managed to steer clear of the dangerous waters of Islamic extremism. Although for decades Jordan has allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to operate on its soil (“they are very much part of the Jordanian family,” the ambassador said), the Muslim party has acted responsibly and participated in parliamentary elections, along with other parties.

“Only if they break laws are actions taken against them,” the ambassador said of Jordan’s policy towards them. And when suicide bombers from Iraq attacked a wedding in November 2005, killing dozens of innocents, the Muslim Brotherhood was first to condemn the attack.

“We will do our utmost to stop them,” the ambassador said of his country’s response to terrorists. And Jordan has generally done well in limiting attacks, despite being surrounded by countries like Syria and Iraq that are known to have been state sponsors of terrorism.

In discussing how Jordan has tried to address the problem of Muslim extremism, the ambassador referred to his own studies of social anthropology (a discipline he would like to see abolished because “it serves only the bigots”) and the book “Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny”, by Amartya Sen.

That book points out that all humans have multiple identities within them (for example, a man is a son, brother, husband, worker, etc) but that extremists only give weight to one of them, almost to the exclusion of others. Society should encourage the development of positive identities and not contribute to a narrowing of identity into a single, radical profile.

Jordan’s benevolent rulers have created a society that does offer opportunities and does nurture rounded character.

“Jordan is an amazing country because it gave so many people an opportunity to build a future,” the ambassador said. And his family, which was offered exile there in 1962, is one that has benefited from that generous spirit.

The ambassador has never visited Iraq, despite his family’s historic ties there and his own role as a designated Iraqi monarch. He said Jordan and Iraq were “close by dint of geography” but also have been connected closely since the 1920s when Jordan was ruled by Abdullah I and Iraq by his brother, Faisal I.  

Commenting on the situation in Iraq, he said the main challenge is “how to create a balance between the center and the states.”

He said, “We tend to throw cement at problems when the real difficulty is how you deal with the gray matter.” In Iraq, the gray matter is the minds of Iraqis in 29 ethnic communities, who lack a common national narrative.

“Very few developing countries have a national archive, so they lack a national memory and narrative that is reflected in a national curriculum.”

All too often, groups create their own narratives that describe their history as the history of victims.

Turning to Jordan’s relations with Washington, the ambassador noted that next year the two countries will celebrate 60 years of diplomatic relations, ties “that continue to grow from strength to strength.”

He said that the relationship has been “marked by cooperation in various fields, through successive administrations and Congresses.”

“We have strong bi-partisan support,” the ambassador said, noting that recently a Friends of Jordan caucus has been created in the House, and a similar group in the Senate. 

“Our relations continue to deepen from month to month,” he said.

“It is exceedingly easy for me to do my job here. I feel welcome wherever I go,” the ambassador said. “Our views are elicited; we are listened to carefully. I am exceedingly grateful for that.”