Amman, Asharq Al-Awsat—With worries increasing about the regional spillover from the bloodshed in Syria, Jordan finds itself dealing with four serious regional crises at once: a civil war in a neighboring country, the ongoing fallout from the “Arab Spring,” the escalating tensions in Iraq, and the simmering Arab-Israeli dispute.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Jordan’s Prime Minister, Abdullah Ensour, admitted that the troubled kingdom finds itself in the middle of a “ring of fire,” and spoke about the security challenges facing his country, and his government’s attempts to deal with them, as well as the ongoing disputes over subsidy reform.
This interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What is Jordan’s take on the Syrian crisis?
Abdullah Ensour: Jordan’s stance echoes that of the Arab League in terms of supporting and participating the Geneva II convention. Jordan also hosted the G11 conference [the core of the ‘Friends of Syria’ group]. The message is clear: we support the conference, aiming to ensure its success and that it produces tangible results.
Q: Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem described Jordan’s position on Syria as confusing. Do you agree?
I do not want to argue with Mr. Walid Muallem given that our position is clear; only ambiguous matters are confusing. Our position is very easy and simple: first, our stance echoes that of the Arab League; second, we supported the Geneva I conference which Syria itself supported, indicating that we have something in common. We in Jordan support the unity of Syria against partition plans, calling on the two parties of the conflict to negotiate a peaceful solution; what is wrong with that? We condemn any aggression against Syria and any foreign power invading Syria or intervening in its affairs; what is wrong with that? After examination, Jordan’s stance appears clear and firm.
Q: What about Jordan’s military precautions? Don’t they send a different message?
The Syrian Arab Republic has issued no statements in this regard, simply because [such preparations] do not exist. Besides, there are no foreign forces—from any country—on Jordanian soil targeting the Syrian Arab Republic.
Q: What about Jordan allowing weapons and volunteers to cross the border into Syria and join the rebels?
Had the Syrian Arab Republic captured any weapons, it would have shown them; so where are the weapons? No weapons cross our borders. Two radical extremist groups tried once to enter Syria [through Jordan]. They were captured and prosecuted and now they are in prison. Should Syrians capture one pistol smuggled from Jordan, they can show it to us.
Q: Is there any chance of Jordan closing its border with Syria due to the influx of Syrian refugees, particularly in light of the international community’s unwillingness to take any action?
Closing the borders is not part of our policy. Although some suggested that we do not accept refugees anymore, we will not stop taking in our brothers from Syria. The fact that the number of refugees arriving in Jordan has recently dropped is because the nature of clashes on the other side of the borders has changed.
Q: What is the situation on trade between Jordan and Syria?
It has been halted.
Q: Is there any contact between Jordanian and Syrian officials and if so on what level?
The contact between us and Syria is at the embassy level only.
Q: Have you tried to communicate with Syria?
In fact, there are no communications. And the current contact is on the level of embassies. However, we did not severe ties with Syria or vice–versa. Since Jordan did not recall its ambassador from Damascus and the Syrian Ambassador is in Amman, we still enjoy diplomatic ties.
Q: Is it true that Jordanian forces were deployed on the Palestinian side of the Jordan Valley?
This is not true. US Foreign Secretary John Kerry did not issue any statements about the nature of the solution [for Palestinians and Israelis], making no proposals to us so far. Moreover, all efforts remain bilateral, either between Kerry and the Israelis, or Kerry and the Palestinians. Jordan so far has not participated in the negotiations. Only when the Palestinian and the Israeli sides meet to negotiate will the Jordanians participate; but the two sides have not met yet.
Q: Did Kerry brief you on the nature of his meetings with the Palestinians and the Israelis?
Kerry treats the matter with a great deal of reserve, not wanting to bring his talks to the public until they have achieved a degree of success.
Q: Are you optimistic about the outcome of Kerry’s meetings?
I am sure that Kerry wants to make a historic achievement and that the US President, Barack Obama, wants that too. However, knowing their intentions is one thing and predicting the results is something else. I think Israel will remain firm, playing for time until the deadline of the US efforts pass. In a bid to gain time, Israel wants to pass these two years until the US elections start and Washington becomes busy with its domestic affairs. By then Israel will have won the bet.
Although Palestinians authorized King Abdullah II to act as custodian of the holy sites, Israel did not respect the Jordan-Israeli peace treaty nor Jordan’s right to defend the holy sites in occupied Jerusalem.
Q: How will your government respond if Israel continues to attack the holy sites?
Jordan’s custody of the Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem was acknowledged by the peace treaty [Wadi Araba Treaty], and breaking the treaty is extremely dangerous and contrary to the interests of all sides. Any breach of the treaty on the part of Israel will tempt all Arab sides to do the same; this is not limited to Jordan but includes all other Arab countries. Israel either has to respect or break its commitments. If it does not respect its commitments, Arab sides will realize that all treaties and agreements are meaningless, threatening the interests of the peace process, Israel, and the Arabs.
Q: What about establishing a confederation between Jordan and Palestine?
The issue is not on the table and we will not accept it until a Palestinian state has been established. With the establishment of such a state, Palestinians, then free and independent, will enter into dialogue with another free and independent people of Jordan. However, we will not establish such a confederation with Palestinians under the pressure of events.
Q: How do you assess Jordan-Egyptian relations following cuts in gas supplies?
Despite the circumstances it finds itself in, which we understand, Egypt is making every effort to respect its gas supply agreement with Jordan. In fact, since the visit of Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil to Jordan in December the gas supply from Egypt did not stop flowing, albeit falling below the agreed-upon level. In all our meetings and contacts we urge our brothers in Egypt to commit to the agreed-upon level. In fact, the Egyptian government is doing its best despite the circumstances. We hope that the situation [in Egypt] gets better and the gas flow returns to its normal level.
Q: What is the state of Jordanian-Iraqi relations at present?
The Iraqi government has apologized for the ill-treatment Jordanians suffered at the hands of the members of the Iraqi embassy in Amman. We would not like to see the relations between our governments and peoples deteriorate, as this will only serve the interests of our enemies and affect the economic developments in both countries. We want to have positive relations with Iraq.
Q: What about Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki postponing his visit to Jordan?
The Iraqi Prime Minister was to attend the World Economic Forum in the Red Sea not an official visit to Jordan. In other words, the visit to Jordan was attend the forum, which in no way can be regarded as an official visit to Jordan itself. Moreover, he apologized for not attending the forum due to domestic unrest four days before the incident at the Iraqi embassy took place.
Q: What about relations between Amman and Riyadh?
Contact between Jordanian and Saudi officials are ongoing. Nasser Judeh, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, contacted Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the Saudi Foreign Minister, ten days after the latter’s visit to Amman to attend the Friends of Syria conference. Political coordination is facilitated between the two countries at the highest level.
Q: You mentioned in the past that Jordan today finds itself surrounded by a “ring of fire,” could you clarify?
It is clear; is Palestine not a ring of fire? There is also Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. This is not to mention a further ring of fire represented by the situation in Yemen, Sudan, and the Arab revolutions in North Africa.
Q: Where does Jordan stand on this “ring of fire?”
This represents a challenge to the Jordanian people. As we had expected, Jordanians, who are educated, aware, and experienced, reasonably rose to all challenges to save their country. They absolutely know that chaos leads to the destruction of the country. Therefore, Jordanians are willing to endure all hardships in order to maintain the security and stability of their country.
Q: What about the issue of electricity subsidies in Jordan? Will you raise prices?
The issue of electricity prices is a financial and economic problem and Jordanians know this well. It has caused a budget deficit which must not continue to exist. We are now speaking with the parliament to exchange ideas [to resolve the issue].
Q: What is the yearly electricity expenditure?
Expenditure incurred by subsidizing electric power amount to JOD 1.3 billion (approximately USD 2 billion) per year. We make USD 3 billion through generating power, with the treasury supporting the electricity company with USD 2 billion.
Q: Can the treasury afford this?
Absolutely not! Therefore, we should reconsider the prices of electricity because raising the rates is the only solution for the problem. A great amount of electricity is either wasted, leaked, or stolen; and the government should take more economic measures to boost the performance of electricity generators. Since the government uses 40% of electricity in Jordan, it seeks to reduce and control costs. Citizens should save electricity after the rise in prices.
Q: How long will the government subsidize basic commodities, given the government’s limited resources? When will the government subsidies be withdrawn?
This is the crux of the matter. And this is the main task of my government; the Jordanian people are my only concern. The government tackles these problems quickly, and its members offer their services in an honest and brave way.
As for bread, we do not intend to raise the price of bread now or in the future; a political decision has been made in this regard. However, we might introduce a policy where each family is issued a smart card to buy bread at a price set by the government or may be given a subsidy. Another solution might be that the government provides families with free bread for one year, with extra demand being bought at the normal price.
Q: Following parliamentary elections, constitutional amendments, and political reform, public unrest continues in Jordan. Why?
The unrest exists. We do not regard legal protests as a problem. A protest that complies with the law, making just demands in a peaceful way that does not effect passers-by, block traffic, restrict trade or prevent people from going to work or schools is fine and does not pose a problem for the government.
Q: Is the relationship between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood still troubled?
We urge the Brotherhood to perform a more positive role and not just criticize [the government], participating in the political process from the inside not from the outside.
Q: But they chose to be outside the process.
With all due respect, we think they are wrong; I am not going to guide them because they know their way back.
Q: When will a cabinet reshuffle take place?
Up till now, no decision has been made in this regard; such a decision is not my prerogative given that King Abdullah II is the head of state.