We visited the local office of the finance ministry, as well as the city’s public hospital, neither of which appeared to be providing anything approaching quality service. The king watched as bloodless bureaucrats ignored reasonable requests by his browbeaten subjects. Eventually, his presence was discovered (the lurking American reporter in khakis made it hard for the king to hide his identity), and a crowd quickly gathered, filled with old women shouting blessings at him. We made a frantic dash to a nearby paratrooper base. I asked him to describe what he thought officials in Zarqa should be feeling at that moment. “Panic,” he said, with a half-smile. He would, he said, be writing a report.
Though he was distressed by what he saw, he seemed buoyed by the visit. In those early days, he imagined that the people of Jordan were ready to be his partners in lifting the country out of its archaic ways. Abdullah’s father, King Hussein, was a shrewd ruler, a skilled survivor, and a heroic peacemaker—but he was not a modern manager, and he bequeathed to his son a sclerotic economy and a political system built on wasta, or favoritism, and the exploitation of tribal rivalries. Abdullah believed he would fix all that.
But the future was lying in ambush. The Palestinian uprising; September 11; the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq—all of this was ahead. Within a few years, Zarqa would become best known as the birthplace of Abu Musab al‑Zarqawi, the master terrorist.
The intervening years have taken their toll. The king has gone decisively gray, and his forehead is lined. I noticed, on a couple of recent occasions, a heaviness about him, and I told him so.
“You know,” the king said, “when I reached my 10-year anniversary, I remember sitting down with members of my family and my close friends and saying, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ ”
“You can’t just quit,” I said.
“That’s what they said,” he responded.
King Abdullah is not only a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad; he is the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Hashemite kings, and he is the great-great-grandson of the last sharif of Mecca. Abdication is not a realistic option. And yet, here he was, admitting that the thought had crossed his mind. “I just said that I was so depressed because of all the forces I was dealing with on the inside,” the king said. “It wasn’t the outside—the outside, I understood. It was inside.”
He had complained before about “inside” political forces, but only elliptically, and I had assumed he was referring to the Islamic Action Front, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Jordanian branch. But now he identified a different foe.
“Institutions I had trusted were just not on board,” he said. “It was the mukhabarat”—the secret police—“and the others, and the old guard.” The mukhabarat, which is known in English as the General Intelligence Department, or GID, is devoted, in principle, to the protection of the Hashemite crown. Its foreboding headquarters could be mistaken for a shrine to the Hashemites. Oversize portraits of Abdullah and his family, and of the previous kings of Jordan, adorn many of its meeting rooms. The GID is the most respected Arab intelligence service; its agents are known for their ability to penetrate al‑Qaeda and other Islamist groups. (It has also been known to use torture: its headquarters was for a while known in Western diplomatic and intelligence circles as “the fingernail factory.”)