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Our Last Best Chance: The Pursuit of Peace in a Time of Peril, by King Abdullah II of Jordan

Very much in the footsteps of his father, the late King Hussein, King Abdullah of Jordan has published an autobiography early in his monarchical career. I was initially skeptical because autobiographies almost always seem to me designed to put their authors in the most favourable light possible, thereby necessitating much elasticity with the truth. The King has in part confirmed my conclusion, although there is value and veracity in much of what he has to say.

He clearly adored his father, who was a role model in virtually all things: sportsman, soldier, statesman. King Hussein was forced to prove himself over and over again in the face of repeated assassination attempts, a civil war fomented by the Palestine Liberation Organization and a Syrian invasion.

These are challenges the likes of which young King Abdullah has not yet faced. But the new Middle East emerging today will certainly test his wit and wisdom. If only because the authoritarian model he inherited, and rules by, is going to be tested as never before, particularly if democratization in Tunisia and Egypt proves sustainable.

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Abdullah has promised liberalization, as his father had in the past. Structures have changed, but the autocratic tradition dies hard, particularly when the pressure of the moment is off. The King speaks of following in his father's tradition of visiting the souk (marketplace) in mufti to discover himself what the ordinary Jordanian really thinks. He talks of making surprise visits to ministries, as did his father, to verify the actual state of play. This is portrayed by the author as a point of pride, but it is also a useful tool for autocrats.

These appearances suggest that advisers and institutions cannot be trusted, requiring the ruler himself to deal directly with the people to guarantee fairness. This paternalism, while often popular, undermines the role of institutions, the essential underpinnings of pluralism, by personalizing good governance in a single all-powerful individual.

Abdullah, however, may prove as successful as his father, if not more so. Only in his last years did Hussein give up his all-consuming efforts to regain the West Bank, which he lost to Israel in the 1967 war, and the competition for which led him to frequent confrontation with Arab and Palestinian nationalism. This recognition of the limits of the possible augurs well. Abdullah has a strong domestic agenda. He aims to be active on the Middle East political stage as a moderate supporting dialogue and accommodation, without the hunger for lost glory. He sees himself as a man of action and revels in his military background.

As Abdullah sees it, a settlement of the Palestine problem must be based on the two-state solution (Israel and a new Palestinian state). The absence of resolution is a rallying cry for Muslim irredentists. Until peace is reached, radicals will continue to be able to whip up opinion among those who feel the West has betrayed them and that Israel acts as an American proxy. Rightly or wrongly, Abdullah has insisted with Barack Obama that Israel's emphasis on the dangers of Iranian nuclear weapons is cynically designed to deflect attention from its settlements in the occupied territories.

He talks about the need for Islam to return to its pluralistic roots, a theme to which his uncle, the former Crown Prince Hassan, has been particularly devoted. Abdullah recalls his initiative in gathering religious scholars together to produce what is called the "Amman Message," incorporating a discussion of the traditional eight schools of Islamic jurisprudence and condemning those who advocate indiscriminate violence and terror as abandoning Islam's moral code and, indeed, Islam itself. Abdullah himself has been the target of an abortive al-Qaeda assassination attempt.

This review would be less than candid if it did not cover the perils of autobiography as they appear in this tome. It is beyond imagination that Abdullah rose so quickly in the armed forces based on merit alone, nor can one accept the claims that he was responsible for the many and massive reforms in the armed forces when he wore braid. His father had always been fascinated by the military. He never let it run down; it was his pride and joy. The King's rationale for his father's identification with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the build-up to the first Gulf War seems pure hokum to this reviewer. The battle for the Hashemite crown, with Abdullah the beneficiary as King Hussein lay on his deathbed, is another oversimplification of note.

The neglect in the text of his mother, Muna, and his English grandfather, Tony Gardner, who were both very close to him, is also disappointing, but perhaps not unexpected from a young ruler trying to establish a reputation as a leader of note in the Arab world.

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Michael Bell is the Paul Martin Sr. Scholar in International Diplomacy at the University of Windsor.

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