The Modern King in the Arab Spring

Amid the social and political transformations reshaping the Middle East, can Jordan's Abdullah II, the region's most pro-American Arab leader, liberalize his kingdom, modernize its economy, and save the country from capture by Islamist radicals?
David Degner

It is still, on occasion, good to be the king.

It is not necessarily good to be the king of a Middle Eastern country that is bereft of oil; nor is it necessarily so wonderful to be the king during the turmoil and uncertainty of the Arab Spring. It is certainly not good to be the king when the mystique that once enveloped your throne is evaporating.

But when a squadron of Black Hawk helicopters is reserved for your use, and when you are the type of king who finds release from the pressures of monarchy by piloting those Black Hawks up and down the length of your sand-covered kingdom—then it is still good to be the king.

One morning last fall, Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein, the fourth Hashemite king of Jordan, rolled up to a helipad situated close to the royal office complex in Al Hummar, on the western edge of the capital, Amman. He stepped out of an armored Mercedes—he drove himself, and drove fast, like he was being chased—and hustled to one of his Black Hawks. The king, who as a young prince served as a commander in the Royal Jordanian special forces, climbed into the pilot’s seat, talked for a moment with his co‑pilot, a trusted member of the Royal Squadron, and lifted off, pointing us in the direction of the rough, unhappy city of Karak, about 80 miles to the south. A second Black Hawk, filled with bodyguards, lifted off a moment later.

The king was flying himself to Karak, which is one of the poorer cities in a distressingly poor country, to have lunch with the leaders of Jordan’s largest tribes, which form the spine of Jordan’s military and political elite. More than half of all Jordanians are of Palestinian origin, with roots on the West Bank of the Jordan River, but the tribal leaders are from the East Bank, and the Hashemite kings have depended on East Bankers to defend the throne since the Hashemites first came to what was then called Transjordan from Mecca almost 100 years ago. This relationship has a coldly transactional quality: in exchange for their support of the royal court, the leaders of the eastern tribes expect the Hashemites to protect their privileges, and to limit the power of the Palestinians. When the Hashemites appear insufficiently attentive, problems inevitably follow.

Earlier that day, in his private office in Al Hummar, which overlooks the wealthy neighborhoods of West Amman, the king had explained to me the reason for the trip to Karak: he was trying, in advance of parliamentary elections in January, to instruct these tribal leaders on the importance of representative democracy. He wanted, he said, to see Jordanians build political parties that would not simply function as patronage mills but would advance ideas from across a broad ideological spectrum, and thus establish for Jordan a mature political culture. He said he would like to see Palestinians more proportionately represented in parliament. And he would like to do all this, he explained, without allowing the Muslim Brotherhood—a “Masonic cult” (as he describes it) that today controls the most formidable political organization in Jordan, the Islamic Action Front—to hijack the cause of democratic reform in the name of Islam. In other words, the king wants to bring political reform to Jordan, and to cede some of his power to the people—but only to the right people.

It was obvious to me that King Abdullah was looking forward to flying his helicopter—but not so much to the meeting that awaited him in Karak. “I’m sitting with the old dinosaurs today,” he told me.

The men he would be meeting—a former prime minister among them—were leaders of the National Current Party, which had the support of many East Bankers of the south, and which would almost certainly control a substantial bloc of seats in the next parliament. What the party stood for, however, beyond patronage and the status quo, was not entirely clear, even to the king. Shortly after the eruption of the Arab Spring, the king told me, he met with Abdul Hadi al-Majali, the leader of the party. “I read your economic and social manifesto, and it scared the crap out of me,” the king said he told Majali. “This makes no sense whatsoever. If you’re going to reach out to the 70 percent of the population that is younger than me, you’ve got to work on this.” The party manifesto, the king told me, “didn’t have anything. It was slogans. There was no program. Nothing.” He went on, “It’s all about ‘I’ll vote for this guy because I’m in his tribe.’ I want this guy to develop a program that at least people will begin to understand.”

“That Herod,” Abdullah said as we flew over the ruins of the ancient king’s fortress. “Quite a character.” “Not a role model for you?,” I asked. “No,” he said. “I have different role models.”

The king landed his helicopter on a soccer field on the outskirts of Karak. The tribal leaders, many of whom had served Abdullah’s father, the late King Hussein, were lined up to greet the king as his motorcade traveled the short distance from the improvised landing pad to a large meeting hall. There were kisses and handshakes and protestations of loyalty to the throne, followed by a lunch of mansaf, lamb cooked in fermented yogurt. Although mansaf is usually eaten with the right hand, the left hand placed behind the back, forks were distributed in a concession to modernity. Still, the meal was eaten standing up around a long, narrow table, in the Bedouin tradition.

Then the business of the afternoon was conducted. The 30 or so men (and one woman, a daughter of one of the tribal leaders) sat on couches against the walls. Tea was served. The king made a short plea for economic reform and for expanding political participation, and then the floor was opened. Leader after leader—many of whom were extremely old, many of whom merely had the appearance of being old—made small-bore requests and complaints. One of the men proposed an idea for the king’s consideration: “In the old days, we had night watchmen in the towns. They would be given sticks. The government should bring this back. It would be for security, and it would create more jobs for the young men.”

I was seated directly across the room from the king, and I caught his attention for a moment; he gave me a brief, wide-eyed look. He was interested in high-tech innovation, and in girls’ education, and in trimming the overstuffed government payroll. A jobs plan focused on men with sticks was not his idea of effective economic reform.

As we were leaving Karak a little while later, I asked him about the men-with-sticks idea. “There’s a lot of work to do,” he said, with fatigue in his voice.

We boarded the Black Hawk and took off. I was seated behind the king. He asked me whether I wanted to make a detour: “Have you ever seen Mount Nebo from the air?” He flew northwest, toward the mountain from which, the Bible tells us, God showed Moses the Land of Israel. The Dead Sea shimmered just beyond. I suggested a quick detour to Jerusalem, which was 30 miles away. “The cousins like to have more warning,” one of his aides said with a smirk. “The cousins” are the Israelis.

The king seemed to be in no rush to return to Amman. As we approached Mount Nebo, we passed over the ruins of the ancient fortress of Machaerus, which was built by the Hasmoneans, and then rebuilt and enlarged by King Herod the Great in 30 B.C. Machaerus is where Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, is said to have delivered to Salome the head of John the Baptist.

“That Herod,” Abdullah said. “Quite a character.” I wasn’t clear on which Herod he meant, father or son, but no matter. Each one had his idiosyncrasies. “Not a role model for you?,” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I have different role models.”

The King's Palace in Al Hummar is not Herodian in scale, but it is still sizable, expensively decorated, and well shielded from the noise of the city below. The complex is attached to the King Hussein bin Talal Mosque, which can hold 5,500 worshippers. (Abdullah commissioned the mosque to honor his father.) Hummar is guarded by machine guns mounted on jeeps, and by members of the Jordanian Armed Forces Security and Protection Unit of the Supreme Commander. Inside the palace, Circassian guards, who wear black astrakhans and carry silver swords, stand watch outside his office.

Men in Bedouin dress carrying smoking incense burners move quietly from room to room. The many waiting rooms are decorated elegantly, adorned with photographs of the ruins of the ancient Nabataean city of Petra, and with portraits of the past kings of Jordan.

The palace complex is under the unforgiving control of the chief of royal protocol, whose staff works assiduously to maintain an atmosphere of silence and reverence. But the atmosphere inside the king’s private office, where I spent many hours talking with him in recent months, is one of unstudied informality. Abdullah has, in some ways, grown accustomed to the trappings of the throne—when I first met him, not long after he took office more than 14 years ago, he told me that being addressed as “Your Majesty” made him queasy; he seems to have, over the years, adjusted to this aspect of kingship—but he still dislikes ceremony and prefers blunt talk to politesse.

He seems in many ways to be a contradiction—an Arab king who happens to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, evangelizing for liberal, secular, democratic rule. But Abdullah, now nearly a decade and a half into his reign, is, in his own conception, a political and economic reformer. He says he understands that the Hashemite throne, and perhaps Jordan itself, will not survive the coming decades if he does not move his country briskly toward modernity.

It is a small miracle, of course, that he is still in power at all. He has survived the first wave of the Arab Spring revolutions, which have so far claimed the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and will almost inevitably claim the Syrian president as well. But he has been roughed up in the process.

Geography has cursed Jordan. To Abdullah’s north is the charnel house of Syria, a failed state in the making. To his east is Iraq’s bloody Anbar province. Saudi Arabia, ruled by the superannuated princes of the House of Saud, the ancient rivals of the Hashemites, sits to his southeast. To his west are the obstreperous Israelis, as well as the disputatious Palestinians. Al‑Qaeda wants to kill him. The Iranian regime doesn’t like him very much either, especially since he denounced, in 2004, what he saw as a rising, Iranian-led “Shia crescent” looming over the Middle East. His country is broke, dependent on the United States, the International Monetary Fund, and haughty gulf Arabs to cover its budget. (The IMF recently forced fuel-price hikes that have intensified the domestic resentment directed at the throne.)

Demonstrations in Jordan’s main cities have been modest compared with those that led to regime change in Cairo and Tunis, but they have nevertheless been vociferous. Protesters have denounced the king as “Ali Baba,” and his family as the 40 thieves. They have made a special target of his wife, the stunning—and stunningly modern—Queen Rania, who is considered an icon of fashion and women’s empowerment in the West but is vilified at home. They have, on occasion, touted one of the king’s younger half brothers, Prince Hamzah, as an alternative to Abdullah. At the outset of his rule, Abdullah and Rania were broadly venerated. Not anymore.

Abdullah is a semi-absolute monarch—the country has a prime minister, and an elected lower house of parliament, but he can dismiss the prime minister and dissolve the parliament if he sees fit. Hiring and firing prime ministers has eaten up a lot of his time recently—he’s gone through six in the past five years—and he says he would like to remove himself from the process. “My blood pressure goes highest—my wife knows this—when we have to change governments,” he told me. “Whenever we go through that cycle, nobody is going to be happy.”

Abdullah kept repeating that he wanted to devolve power to an elected parliament, so I finally asked him whether he wanted a purely ceremonial role: “You don’t want to be Queen Elizabeth, do you?”

“Well, where are monarchies in 50 years?” he said. He clearly understands that monarchy is not a growth industry. But does his extended family understand this? The Hashemites are a small family, at least compared with the Saudi family. Still, he has 11 siblings and half siblings, as well as many aunts and uncles and cousins, each one a royal.

“No, members of my family don’t get it,” he said. “They’re not involved day-to-day. The further away you’re removed from this chair, the more of a prince or a princess you are. That happens in all royal families, I think. The further you are from this chair, the more you believe in absolute monarchy. That’s the best way of describing it. And that just doesn’t work.”

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.