guardian.co.uk, Friday 22 March 2013
Barack Obama flies to Jordan on Friday for a brief visit – a reward for the most loyal of US Arab allies. But amid talks on the crisis in Syria and uncertain prospects for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, there is embarrassment over indiscreet comments by King Abdullah II.
The US president is spending just over 24 hours in Jordan but the trip is being billed as a boost for a conservative monarch shaken by the events of the Arab spring and alarmed by the escalating conflict between Bashar al-Assad and western-backed rebels.
The king’s public position on Syria has hardened. On Wednesday, he warned that Assad’s fall was inevitable because so much blood had been shed.
But publication of less carefully scripted royal remarks in a US magazine article caused irritation and red faces in Amman this week. According to Jeffrey Goldberg, writing in the Atlantic, Abdullah attacked Egypt’s president, Mohamed Morsi, as having “no depth”, ridiculed Assad for not knowing the meaning of “jet lag” and described the Muslim Brotherhood as a “masonic cult” and “wolves in sheep’s clothing”.
Abdullah also had harsh words for devout Muslims, members of his own family and the powerful Mukhabarat secret police. Perhaps worse, he described loyalist but restive East Bank tribal leaders as “dinosaurs”.
Israel, said the king, may have to choose between “apartheid and democracy”. In 1994, Jordan became the second Arab country after Egypt to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state – one of the principal reasons for its close relationship with the US.
The royal palace called the article “inaccurate and dishonest” and suggested that there was confusion between the king’s words and the journalist’s “personal analysis and opinions”. Goldberg said he was standing by his 10,000-word story and noted that his quotations, from recorded conversations, had not been denied. Naseem Tarawnah, a respected Jordanian blogger, called it “the most candid and in-depth interview we’ve ever seen involving the king”.
Analysts see Obama’s visit to the Hashemite kingdom as a gesture of support because of the burden of hosting some 450,000 Syrian refugees. Abdullah is also thought to be quietly backing efforts to arm the anti-Assad rebels after initial caution in the face of pressure from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, though he publicly opposes any foreign military intervention.
The king, clearly hoping for US financial support, said the Syrian refugees were equivalent to 30 million refugees flooding into the US.
Human Rights Watch has, meanwhile, asked Obama to urge Jordan to stop rejecting Palestinian refugees, single males, and undocumented people seeking asylum at its border with Syria.
Abdullah, king since 1999, has pledged to accelerate reforms in response to sporadic protests that began in 2011 and have been exacerbated by hefty fuel price rises. Unlike in other Arab countries, demonstrations have been overwhelmingly peaceful and security forces have acted with restraint.
Parliamentary elections in January went ahead after a partial boycott by Islamists. Still there has been little action to limit the king’s monopoly on power while he faces an old guard of conservatives. The reform process is on Obama’s agenda but he is unlikely to make any public criticism of the pace of change.
Abdullah is among the few foreign leaders who have addressed a joint session of the US Congress. Jordan has received more than $13bn in assistance since the establishment of diplomatic relations with the US.
On Saturday, Obama is also scheduled to visit the ancient rock-cut site of Petra, immortalised as the “rose-red city half as old as time”.