Groomed and then in a historic twist installed by the Americans, Abdullah of Jordan is a Western King working closely with the US and UK:
June 23, 2003
Jordan's King Shows Guests Some Flair
By ALAN COWELL
SHUNEH, Jordan, June 22 — The performance was as seamless as the schedule was packed.
In less than 24 hours King Abdullah II of Jordan, the 41-year-old ruler of this land sandwiched between Israel and Iraq, opened a major international conference; held a banquet; presided over a moonlit concert with Palestinian and Israeli performers; watched fireworks on the shores of the Dead Sea here; initiated a new educational program; laid out his thoughts on a range of issues from Middle East peace to Arab democracy; and made a computerized PowerPoint pitch to to investors.
If nothing else, King Abdullah, the newest descendant of the Hashemite dynasty that took over this land at its creation in 1921, has set out to prove that he is a king for his time. And, four years after the death of his father, King Hussein, King Abdullah seems also to have created his own style, in part extending his father's courtly manner, but with its own hallmarks — certainly not regal-lite but not aloof, either.
"Of the two, the old king had the greater gravitas," said an international diplomat who has met both men. "King Hussein was such a dominating figure. When you had a conversation with him, he dominated. With King Abdullah, it's a dialogue."
Of course, diplomats are paid to be, well, diplomatic, and there are others in this modest kingdom who fault King Abdullah harshly for dissolving Parliament and postponing elections for two years until they were finally held last week.
In that period, this argument goes, Jordan's influential internal security services accumulated greater powers. The occupation of Iraq by the United States was deeply unpopular here and so was the King's decision to allow American troops onto Jordanian soil. Even when the elections were held, critics assert, the constituencies were gerrymandered to counter the influence of his land's Palestinian majority — centered in the capital, Amman — and to strengthen his tribal followers.
Still, in a region ruled generally by fiat of one kind or another, King Abdullah seems to have won other plaudits if only for holding elections at all and for emerging relatively unscathed from the serial shocks of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States that reverberated across this region, the resurgence of the Palestinian uprising on his western border and the relatively short war in Iraq to the east.
"You are such a leader in advancing economic and social but also political reforms," Klaus Schwab, head of the World Economic Forum, said at the opening yesterday of an unusual gathering of the organization in a so-called Royal Tent in the grounds of a luxury resort here.
The meeting opened just weeks after King Abdullah was host to President Bush in the southern port of Aqaba at a meeting that brought together the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers and pressed Washington and the region onto the newest Middle East peace initiative.
With the latest gathering here, moreover, King Abdullah has cemented his prominence in regional peacemaking, an exposed and risky position. With Iraq to the east and Israel to the west, the fortunes of both king and country are hostage to events on both flanks, particularly since some 70 percent of Jordan's population is of Palestinian descent. The balancing act between a restive population, a rough neighborhood and close ties with Washington in the quest for peace is part of the king's legacy from his father.
For all the weight of his heritage, though, King Abdullah seems to want to blend the dignity of his job with a more open manner. For example, he maintains his own Web site. He arrived at the conference on Saturday chauffeured not in an armor-plated sedan but in a golf cart, albeit surrounded by armed bodyguards. (Peace has exacted a high price for earlier champions of Arab-Israeli reconciliation, including Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Yitzhak Rabin of Israel, who were both assassinated, as was the King's own grandfather, King Abdullah the First, in 1951.)
For his PowerPoint presentation, he wore blazer and slacks, eschewing the robes and headdresses of some of his Arab peers at the gathering. He apologized with a noblesse-oblige quip for having so little time to stay at a lunch with investors because of another commitment: "What's the difference between terrorists and protocol?" he said. "You can always negotiate with terrorists."
Like King Hussein before him, he has sought to encourage investment here, but has taken the economic opening much further, signing an unusual free trade agreement with the United States and ordering that some state businesses and military sites be sold to private buyers.
He has projected his land as a haven of economic reform and technological advance. And like his father, who signed Jordan's 1994 peace with Israel, he is a cornerstone of American regional diplomacy. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell called Jordan today the "land of hope."
King Abdullah is the son of King Hussein's English-born second wife, Princess Muna, who was born Antoinette Gardiner. He was educated in England from the age of 4 and completed his high school education in the United States. He later studied international affairs at Oxford and Georgetown Universities.
In 1980, he entered Sandhurst, the British military academy, and served in the British Army before joining the Jordanian Army, where he commanded special forces that put down riots in 1996. His schooling in Britain and the United States and his fluency in English has led some critics to say he does not have his father's understanding of his people.
Indeed, Abdullah had not been groomed for the monarchy, and when his father died in 1999, he was chosen to succeed him only at the last moment. At the time he was reported to have donned disguises, including that of a television reporter, to learn what his countrymen were thinking.
These days, King Abdullah has plenty to think about on his own account, be it in Iraq or in the Arab-Israeli dispute or within a region primed for further disenchantment if peace efforts falter and Iraq descends into chaos.
"Never have we been more in control of our fate," he said on Saturday. "At no other time have we had such clear choices in our actions and decisions. And certainly, at no other place can we better hear the cries of those who so desperately need us to succeed."