When the April issue of Atlantic Magazine published an article by its national correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg about his interview and impressions of King Abdullah of Jordan, Jordan was swept in a political storm that has yet to quiet down. The problem isn’t with what the King actually said in the interview, rather with the perception it created for him at home. In fact, and at least from the perspective of an American reader, he did not say anything wrong or even controversial. Conversely, however, the King appeared to be more of a modernizing force with progressive views about transforming Jordan into a democracy with constitutional monarchy as a unifying symbol of all Jordanians.
But, at the heart of the controversy is the word “dinosaurs” the King used to describe the old guard Jordanian politicians. Another one is, as trivial as it may sound, a facial impression of the King opening his eyes wide when an important tribal chief suggested hiring the local young men as neighborhood watch as in the old days. Other statements that were troublesome for the King was his anecdotal stories about other Arab leaders, mainly Bashaar al Assad and Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi, whom, according to Goldberg’s phrasing, were portrayed negatively by the King.
From an American or western perspective, where media is much more open and aggressive, and where politicians and the public are always engaging in some kind of debate or even at war with each other, this hardly qualifies as a “ scandal” or even hard news.
But in Jordan or any other Arab country for that matter where the media is not really free and where the society is not as open or as free as the American or Western ones, gestures, words, and facial expressions can have dangerous consequences.
After all, the manner in which the King conducted this free-style interview with the Atlantic was a disaster that could have been easily prevented.
Although Goldberg did not commit any unethical conduct as far his article goes and in describing the King’s reactions and statements as he observed them during the stay and travels with the King in Jordan. It was however, a grave mistake to let Goldberg use his own words and impressions to create a psychological profile of the king. If this were war time, or in a different setting, this interview and others like it that the King gave in the past could be considered a treasure trove of intelligence about the King, his own family, his likes and dislikes, his vacation spots, and how he governs his kingdom and who his enemies and friends are. The King was too open, too trusting and did not take into the account the unintended consequences that can result from failure to know how Western media or Western journalists operate. Normally, professional journalists are out to write a story; they are not your friends.
It is unthinkable for example, for a sitting president of the United States to allow this kind of free and unlimited access to journalists unless it is for a book or a biography and even at that presidents rarely veer from their prepared scripts and official remarks.
In fact Goldberg did what any crafty journalist would do when speaking to his subject by providing a scope and a context for the subject’s statements, facial impressions, and demeanor.
One incident that set off the tribal sensitivities was Goldberg’s recounting of what took place inside a meeting between the King and tribal elders in the southern town of Kerak. The story as described by Goldberg was about a simple yet a brilliant idea made by one of the tribal leaders in Kerak to ease unemployment in the town. His idea was to have the young and unemployed men perform something like a neighborhood watch, just like the old days, and without arming them with firearms, except for batons. In Goldberg’s account, he described the King’s “wide-eyed look” in reaction to the proposal which reflect, most likely, the King’s surprise at the simplicity of suggestion. Obviously the King was more interested in long-term solutions to the woes of the Jordanian economy. The King’s “wide-eyed look” was perceived as if the King was looking down on the tribal leaders who represent the traditional backbone of the Jordanian monarchy.
It was, however, the fault of the royal court in allowing such easy and free access to the head of the state and a sovereign king whose words and utterance and even his facial expressions do in fact matter and might even cause problems.
The King also made a strategic plunder by letting his guard down in the presence of foreign journalists who by instinct are human tape-recorders and can unravel Jordan’s relations with other Arab states or even damage the economy.
There is also the element of cultural differences between the political terminology the King used in English, such as the word “dinosaurs,” which would sound normal, and the impressions he made in a Western setting. But in a traditional and tribal society such as Jordan, titles, status and prestige do matter more than reality sometimes.
This does not mean, of course, that the Jordanian society should all of the sudden become Western in order to understand what its king means when he speaks. Rather, it is the other way around. The King’s advisors should have advised him about the pitfalls of letting his guard down with foreign journalists, which is akin to stepping into a minefield.
In addition, his remarks about the Jordanian “Muslim brotherhood” being a “Masonic cult” were taken literally, when in fact he most likely was referring to their proclivity to secrecy. Still, using the term “Masonic cult” to describe an Islamic group is considered very offensive. The same goes for his remarks about the Egyptian and Turkish leaders which can have dire political ramifications for Jordan, which needs friends and allies more than it needs enemies.
But the King also spoke about other important issues, such as the need to reform the Jordanian intelligence Department, the Mukhabarat, which has injected itself in the Jordanian political and economical life and is mainly responsible for sowing the seeds of divisions within the Jordanian society along the Jordanian-Palestinian lines. Outside the wrong impressions the interview created for him, the reality is that King Abdullah is trying to be a liberal and progressive reformer while many in his inner circle are working against him, as he put it in the interview. But the sad reality, for the King, however, is that many in the Jordanian society and its political elite were more in interested in gossip and wild conspiracy theories about facial gestures or this or that word than the important issues.
Ali Younes is a writer and analyst based in Washington D.C. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @clearali.