x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

King Abdullah’s memoir sympathetic to reform

Completed in September and published by Viking, Our Last Best Chance is written in a personable and, at times, informal style. The king focuses mostly on external threats to Jordan but, the Hashemite ruler does touch upon the need for democratic changes in his kingdom.

NEW YORK // It is uncertain whether Jordan's King Abdullah II could have picked a better - or worse - time to publish his memoir.

Yesterday was the ninth Friday in a row that protesters filled central Amman calling for reforms - days after the king's first book Our Last Best Chance: The Pursuit of Peace in a Time of Peril appeared in US book shops.

Completed in September and published by Viking, the king writes in a personable and, at times, informal style. He focuses mostly on external threats to the kingdom he has ruled since his father King Hussein died 12 years ago. But, the Hashemite ruler does touch upon the need for democratic changes in his kingdom.

In a chapter called Transforming Jordan he says the country will not reach its full potential without broader political and social reform. "Political reform could have progressed faster and we could have done a better job of explaining some of the reasons for what we were doing," he wrote. "Unfortunately, political development has sometimes been two steps forward and one step back."

He wrote that in 2009, he presented Samir Rifai, then prime minister, with a set of reforms and the government was committed "to fight corruption, increase transparency, protect the rights of women and children, and remove all obstacles to the development of a free and professional media industry".

"I know that Jordan's future dictates that we move forward with democratisation, to ensure that all Jordanians feel they have a larger say in their government and a stake in the country's future," he wrote.

About 3,000 Jordanian protesters were back on the streets of Amman yesterday.

"Reform and change, this is what people want," protesters shouted as they emerged from al Husseini Mosque after noon prayers.

The crowd criticised "sleepy Arab leaders", and demanded that they "listen" and "understand" that people need reforms and called for "reforming the regime".

"There is no alternative save for a democratic election law and early elections," Jamil Abu Baker, the Muslim Brotherhood's spokesman, said. "We want a parliament that truly represents people will, one that will eventually lead to the formation of a parliamentary government," he said.

After weeks of protests, the king sacked the government of Mr Rifai on February 1. Marouf Bakhit, a former army general and a former prime minister, was appointed the new head of cabinet tasked with introducing reforms.

The king's main messagein his book is the urgency of delivering Middle East peace. Many of the Jordanian activists who have held protests during the past two months have called for the end of the peace treaty Jordan signed with Israel in 1994.

While the king does not appear to face any imminent danger of being deposed, Islamists, liberals and traditional supporters of Jordan's royal family seem to have coalesced into a unified demand for a constitutional monarchy, which would curb the king's power and allow direct election of a prime minister.

The king's book outlines the many challenges facing the resource-poor kingdom. Its neighbours' conflicts have often emboldened Islamists and radicals at home and placed the country on the front line against terrorism.

In the past, the king has often been caught between the demands of native Jordanians, known as East Bankers, to retain their privileges and those of the Palestinians, who make up more than half of the population of some 6.4 million people and feel discriminated against.

Amin Mashaqbeh, a former minister of social development and professor of political science, said the king's vision of reform was made evident in his book but also in recent remarks about the need to amend laws governing political life, particularly the election and public gathering laws.

"The events in the region dictate political adaptation. We need to have comprehensive reforms but to start with small and gradual steps," said Mr Mashaqbeh. "The king has linked the peace process with stability in the region, which is a major requirement for development. The absence of the peace process, and a two-state solution, would impact Jordan particularly because of its geographical, historical and demographic links to the Palestinians."

King Abdullah blames much of the failure of previous reform efforts on those who "have resisted change out of fear of losing privileges they have long enjoyed, while others simply lacked imagination, preferring a status quo they have long enjoyed."

He does not examine a previous reform effort in 2005 led by Marwan Muasher, then deputy prime minister. Mr Muasher's 2008 book, The Arab Centre: The Promise of Moderation, explained in much greater detail the failure of ambitious proposals called the National Agenda that had been backed by the king but floundered amid apathy and opposition.

Among the many lighter passages in King Abdullah's book is an account of his courtship of Queen Rania. At one of their first meetings, she told him: "I've heard things about you."

"I'm no angel," he replied, "but at least half the things you hear are just idle gossip." He goes on to write: "She was not convinced and said she would need time to think about it."

As well as English, the book will also be published in Arabic and seven other languages.

sdevi@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Suha Philip Ma'ayeh in Amman