Interview: Prince Hassan of Jordan

The Jordanian statesman admires Israel's 'tenacity of purpose' but has warnings on peace prospects and Iran.

By Adam Lebor, December 15, 2011
Prince Hassan recalls speaking in Hebrew to Shimon Peres during a visit to the White House. "Peres was happy and impressed," he says

Prince Hassan recalls speaking in Hebrew to Shimon Peres during a visit to the White House. "Peres was happy and impressed," he says

It is a rare Arab leader who says the Arab world can learn from Israel. But Hassan bin Talal, Prince of Jordan, is a realist, a pragmatist and one of the most outspoken reformers in the Middle East.

He praises Israel's "tenacity of purpose - to draw your line in the sand and say, here I will stand, to promote a shared public interest, in which all my population can participate. In terms of Israel's strategy of promoting and understanding their own position in the world, that is something the Arab world should have learned many years ago. We are our own worst enemies in that sense."

Born in Amman in 1947, Prince Hassan went to Harrow School and graduated from Oxford University in Oriental Studies. He was invested as Crown Prince in 1965 and served as the closest adviser to his brother, King Hussein. For decades the second most powerful man in Jordan, Prince Hassan was expected to succeed to the throne on the death of King Hussein in 1999. But, at the last moment, the Jordanian king replaced his brother with his son, Abdullah.

The decision sent shock waves through Jordan, but Prince Hassan has now successfully reinvented himself as a global leader and supporter of dialogue between faiths. He is an outspoken advocate for peace - and for Israel to reach a just solution with the Palestinians.

He was a key architect of the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty and came to know many senior Israeli figures well, particularly as Shimon Peres. He had studied biblical Hebrew at Oxford and remembered enough to exchange a few words with Peres when they met President Clinton together.

"Peres is, in my opinion, a versatile veteran of war and peace," he says. "During one meeting with President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, I remember that I spoke a few words to him in Hebrew and he was deeply happy and impressed. I responded to him that I hope one day he would be able to answer me in Arabic.

"I suppose this is also at the heart of what I deeply desire. For states and nations to not only be able to see the 'other' within the frame of a negotiation or a problem, but understand the context, culture, and human dimension of those they sit across the table from. To know their 'language' both literally and figuratively."

I don't believe Iran should have a nuclear weapon, of course

I am meeting Prince Hassan in Budapest, where he is speaking at the Central European University on citizenship and the Arab spring. This is a pivotal moment in the region's history, he says. Far-reaching changes are reshaping the Middle East. It is a time of both crisis and opportunity.

"The revolution in Tunisia has played out into elections," he says. "But in Yemen you have a very painful revolution in slow motion. The question is, could this lead to regional cohesion and developments such as an Arab parliament and Arab financial institutions?"

Although the prince is now strongly critical of Arab rulers, he is a very much a scion of the Jordanian establishment. The royal family has ruled Jordan since 1921 when the country was established. It enjoys broad support but the Arab spring has also reached the streets of the capital Amman.

Jordan is not a tyranny like Syria, but it cannot be considered a democracy. Opposition movements are legal, but King Abdullah has the right to appoint the prime minister, ministers and other senior figures. Human-rights groups and the US State Department have expressed strong concern at the lack of basic freedoms and the use of torture in prisons. King Abdullah recently announced that he will consult Parliament on the appointment of ministers. To which Prince Hassan tersely replies: "About time, too."

He argues that it is time to close what he calls the "fingernail factory", the prisons and cellars across the region where opposition figures and dissidents are routinely tortured. "Today, governments and security services all feel challenged by this popular manifestation of a call for change. The security services have been given a mandate to do things that obviously cannot be done in the context of the rule of law. Nobody can question these issues - it's easier to talk about knocking heads together."

But how should this change be channelled? The post-Communist countries, which have successfully made the transition to democracy, can provide a model, he replies. "There is the golden triangle - the public sector, the private sector and civil society - being forced to work together as a team. This the hope; if they don't miss the opportunity and allow the ideologues and hate-mongers to take over."

Prince Hassan shares the growing concern about the possibility of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. "I don't believe Iran, as a signatory of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, should have a nuclear bomb, of course. However, there is a difference between having a programme and having the actual capability, and this point cannot be ignored, as far too much is at stake in doing so. The Royal United Services Institute analysis of the International Atomic Energy Agency report last month showed us that development of knowledge is progressing but that sufficient evidence that a weapon will actually come to be is simply not there."

Sanctions are not proving effective in curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions, he believes. "The West has looked to create a vacuum to weaken Iran through sanctions but China and Russia have been more than happy to step in and engage. The permanent five UN security council members must be mindful of their western and Asian partners. I question the impact of low-intensity war-fare in forcing Iran's hand."

Global analysts have pointed to a growing confluence of interests, if not covert co-operation between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Unlikely as it may seem, the Jewish state and the most powerful Islamic monarchy share a common interest in weakening Iran. But temporary, ad-hoc communities of interest will not bring peace to Israel, says Prince Hassan:

"It is wrong to assume my enemy's enemy is my friend. History speaks for itself on the results of this way of thinking. Without the resolution of the Palestinian question, there is not going to be hope for Israel to define the extent of its eastern border. Also, it is only in times of peace when Israel could hope to develop a rich, meaningful, non-fear-based relationship with her neighbours. These circumstances do not exist today. I come back again to shared values, and something deeper than the concept of alliance merely for deterrence."

Adam LeBor is the author of 'City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa', published by Bloomsbury

Last updated: 11:32am, December 15 2011