The King Speaks Frankly. Maybe a Little Too Frankly
In the past week, the lengthy article published in The Atlantic, based on various interviews conducted with HM King Abdullah, has been making the media rounds. (For those who haven’t read it, please take a look here, as my goal is not to summarize it). Suffice to say, it’s made waves locally despite the fact that probably 99% of the people have not read it and local media has stayed away from offering a complete translation (which has caused even more confusion).
Why has it made waves? Possibly because this is the most candid and in-depth interview we’ve ever seen involving the King, which makes it obviously relevant in the Arab Spring era. Roughly 24 hours after its publication the local Internet pretty much exploded, and rejection of it followed from the state, with a report quoting unnamed sources at the Royal Hashemite Court (RHC) claiming that it “contained many inaccuracies” and that the King’s words “were taken out of context.”
The author of the piece, Jeffrey Goldberg, has confirmed via Twitter that both he and the RHC have recordings of the interview, so it may be safe to assume that the piece is in no position to be dismissed. Nevertheless, many of the King’s supporters have rushed to his defense, with reactions ranging from “he never said any of that” and “it was probably all off the record”, to accusations of the author being a Zionist propagandist who has an Israeli agenda bent on creating chaos in Jordan (despite his 14 year relationship with the King and full access). On the other side of the spectrum, you have people who feel somewhat insulted by some of the King’s remarks, specifically those referring to Jordanian tribal leaders as “dinosaurs”, or his demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood as a “masonic cult”. Others have merely shrugged their shoulders, believing that the piece offers no new insight.
While public perceptions vary, the piece puts the King in a fairly positive light, and he comes off as blunt and transparent – openly speaking his mind on the realities he’s dealing with. However, that bluntness came in the form of comments that some have deemed to be controversial in nature and international media has been quick to highlight these comments.
The following are my thoughts on the piece and specifically on what the King himself said as opposed to the author’s perspectives.
First off, yes, the piece was obviously intended for a western audience, and therein lies the central problem. The picture of the King that emerges is one of a leader who, at heart, is a reformist and a modernizer but has been unable to carry out his agenda for 14 years because the General Intelligence Department and tribal conservatives (the “dinosaurs”) have been too powerful a force, working against him or rejecting his changes. In other words, the portrait of a leader the West can sympathize with emerges. It’s an image that sells well in the Western hemisphere but if you simply live in Jordan, you probably recognize the holes in that picture.
For starters, it is difficult for me to fathom that an absolute Monarch is unable to “control” forces within his own security apparatus – and if this is the case then we’re left with the assumption that this security apparatus operates beyond the King’s reach, which is a very troubling piece of information and ends up merely tarnishing the King’s power. This is something that has been repeated a few times publically over the past two years, but I fail to see the virtue or value in having a media strategy that makes a leader appear helpless. At the end of the day, most Jordanians (including myself) are unaware of the true relationship between the King and the GID, nor the extent to which this body operates within the larger framework of the country. It is simply a body that receives simultaneous respect and fear from the overwhelming majority. The quotes in this article are probably the first of their kind to shed light on that relationship.
And as for conservative forces – this is just as troublesome for me. For while the GID remains a mystery, subject to rumors and assumptions, political appointments are not. And the overwhelming majority of the people the King appoints and the names he puts his Royal stamp of approval on, are simply put, old guard conservatives. It is difficult to paint that picture of a leader who recognizes the Arab Spring as this grand “opportunity” he’s been waiting for to reform, but then whose first move in the midst of that spring is to appoint a Prime Minister straight out of the security apparatus who was last brought in to power after the 2005 Amman bombings. It is difficult to maintain that image when you form a national dialog committee, or a Royal commission to amend the constitution, an then appoint old guard politicians to lead it. It is difficult to maintain that image when many of the key reformist initiatives of the past two years, including the election law and the constitutional amendments, were done predominantly behind closed doors with little national consultation beyond the mere sycophantic musings of a parliament that was supposedly legitimate but then subsequently dissolved in order to pave the way for yet another election. That’s to say nothing of a press law that continues to offer nothing short of a stranglehold on freedom of speech, and a population of university students who are too afraid to practice political freedom on their own campuses (and rightly so). And so on, and so forth – that list of contradictions is pretty long.
In short, while this image works for western audiences, I really find it difficult to conjure up similar sympathies given that the policies, laws, and political maneuverings we’ve seen come out of the state for the past 14 years are not indicative of the characteristics this image is supposed to present. However, my point here is not to simply say ‘the King says one thing but does another’, but rather to say that this media strategy is no longer sustainable. In fact, it’s a terrible one.
One of the biggest lessons to be taken away from The Atlantic article is regarding the communication policy of the Royal Hashemite Court, which seems to still be using a 1992 playbook. In the digital age, the whole “speak to western audiences in one language and to a local audience in another” approach is no longer functional or feasible. The World Wide Web will find it in a matter of seconds, retweet it and share it within a matter of minutes, translate it and publish it for local consumption within the hour. In the digital age, shit hitting the fan is unhindered by physical limitations – everything is or can be made accessible. Subsequently, the communication strategy not only needs to change – an entire radical paradigm shift needs to occur. And watching the government scramble to “contain” this is a further testament to why that shift is needed.
A shift towards what? How about honesty? If we’re going to really be honest and if we’re going to be transparent and blunt about things, then lets. If the King came out and, for instance, said to his people: ‘let’s shelve reform for now – we live in an increasingly unstable region and are faced with new destabilizing forces such as Syria, and we need to buckle down for the time being’ – then I would have no problem with that kind of honesty. I might not agree with the decision, but I’d recognize where he’s coming from and respect the fact that no one is trying to peddle me something I’m not buying. But holding on to this media strategy that paints this kind of contradictory picture insults the intelligence of many. To quote the King from the article:
“…if we’re going to sit here and bullshit each other, then we might as well have a cup of tea and then say goodbye. If you want to have a serious conversation…here’s where we start.’ ”
We start by being honest with each other; by being honest with what’s really happening in Jordan. Until that happens, I find progress and reform to be unattainable. This seems to be our biggest obstacle to change right now.
Second, I actually find it difficult to find anything in the article that the King directly said, which I would categorize as a fallacy. Personally, I largely agree with much of what he said, and disagree with other things, but find nothing so objectionable that we would rush to categorize it as “scandalous”. Are there conservative forces that have no interest in reform and wish to maintain the status quo? Yes. Are most of the country’s political parties (be it the brotherhood or Majali’s party) underdeveloped and have no logical political platforms? Yes. Does the Muslim Brotherhood have regional connections and questionable political agendas? Probably.
But while I am no fan of the Muslim Brotherhood, I don’t think demonizing them is the smartest move when you’re the leader of a country where they play a significant political force (like it or not). Such attempts only help to further polarize matters, allowing Islamists to further consolidate their base, and anti-Islamists to become even more aggressively so. It doesn’t really change anyone’s mind or help bring a somewhat socially divided nation together; a role the article claims that the King envisions his son might inherit.
But when it comes to the “realities” the King highlights, there should be some recognition that many of these realities are largely of his own government’s doing. For instance, the East Banker tribal relationship, which this article (and many others) paints as one based on quid-pro-quo is one that was established by the monarchy from the onset, and is a relationship that has grown over the years. The patronage system, land allocations, gifts, university seats for the privileged few, vast public sector employment – all of this has expanded in the past 14 years, not decreased. This over-reliance on government to solve all problems is based on that relationship having thrived over the past few years.
The GID is beyond criticism in the country and anyone who would do so in, say, mainstream media, would likely end up sleeping in a jail cell or tried in front of a military court. Any institution that is beyond criticism is subsequently beyond accountability – and that creates a situation where it is allowed to grow in power, unchecked. The fact that one of its recent chiefs (circa 2007) committed massive electoral fraud and is behind bars for stealing millions is testament to that. Again, this too is a reality created by the state.
The King also notes that in a meeting with young Jordanians he told them that they “…have no concept of left, right, and center,” when it comes to an American style democracy that he seems to want to see happen in Jordan. This is somewhat true – most Jordanians are not necessarily politically aligned in to three neat ideological boxes. But aside from the question of why they should be organizing themselves in to said boxes at all, the natural question that arises for me is how are young Jordanians supposed to have developed these advanced political sensibilities when most of their political mobilization or activities over the past few decades have been met with contempt? In Jordan, parents who send their kids off on the first day of university tend to have one key warning for them: don’t get involved in politics. Their warnings are only logical given the subverted political environment in the academic realm to say nothing of beyond the university gates. To say nothing of the lacking role in our educational system that has failed to promote critical thinking, a comprehensive national history (now substituted with nationalism), let alone the kind of pragmatic political thought the King yearns for. Instead, they get speeches on why they should vote in elections that favor tribalism.
At the end of the day, all I can say is that, just like the King, I’m pretty fatigued with the system. Our inability to be honest about who we are and how we got to this point is really holding this country back. We barely acknowledge the problem, but when we do, we just blame it on “the realities of the country” despite the fact that many of these realities are of the state’s own creation.
People react to the environment that has been created for them. If it’s an environment of privilege and entitlement to a select few – then you’re not going to get a forward thinking meritocratic population, and you’re not going to get a sense of social justice. If you appoint conservatives to high-level posts, you’re not going to get people suddenly demanding liberal reformists. And if many of those appointed end up being charged with corruption (years and years after the fact) – then you’re not going to get a population that has much trust in government. Similarly, if you have a one-man one-vote system in a heavily tribal country, you’re going to have voters voting only for their relatives and you’re not going to get much political party development. Similarly, if you approve restrictive media laws, you end up with a subverted media landscape, and subsequently high self-censorship, less transparency, and less accountability. Similarly, if you surround yourself with what one can only describe as out of touch elitists, then the picture they paint for you isn’t going to be an accurate one, and they’ll spend most of their time shielding you from certain realities in the name of preserving the status quo. None of this is good for the country. None of it has been good for the country.
Suffice to say, the King’s got a lot on his plate. But what this article demonstrated for me (aside from the fact that there is an outdated media strategy that invests a great deal of time in setting and putting out fires) – is that there is a reciprocal relationship between a leader and his followers. While the King does indeed enjoy a great deal of support from the population for a wide variety of reasons, the article and his own words suggests that he doesn’t have the kind of support he’s looking for, or the kind he wants. And given the environment that was created and continues to be largely sustained, that comes as no surprise.
Changing that environment starts with all us being honest with each other about our realities, how they came about, why they continue to exist, and collectively figuring out how to change them.