HOW DO WE MOVE FROM HUMILIATION TO HUMAN DIGNITY? His Royal Highness Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan is well known for his international humanitarian work. He was recently appointed Honorary Chair of the World Refugee & Migration Council together with former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

This interview is also available to listen to as a podcast.

Your Royal Highness, each country in Europe has its own way of facing the Corona virus pandemic. Wouldn’t this be the right moment to prove that Europe has one voice? Of course, this is also a question for the Middle East. Shouldn’t the Middle East be of only one voice? Indeed, shouldn’t the whole world be of one voice in the face of this global pandemia?  

In many ways, it is a question of moving from humiliation to human dignity, but there seems to be a disconnect between geopolitics on the one side and the humanitarian situation on the other, one which against all reason, let alone humanity, has been aggravated by the world pandemic. Leaders and policy makers increasingly view the world in terms of us and them, my rights, my health, even if at the expense of yours.  You referred to our Middle East region. I prefer a broader view, from Marrakesh to Bangladesh, encompassing the Levant in which one would also include Egypt, Turkey and Iran and of course, Israel, if and when it becomes a part of the region in terms of mutual respect.

Yet this, the hinterland to oil in the Gulf and to gas in the eastern Mediterranean, has never been considered in terms of anything other than pipelines, reducing the periphery to the marginalized / dispossessed, whose needs are not taken into consideration either in terms of the nexus between water, energy and the human environment, or in terms of health, sanitation, and ecology – the basics of human dignity.

“We must develop the values that Pope Francis mentioned so eloquently and pertinently in Fratelli Tutti.”

Hassan bin Talal

His Royal Highness Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan meets His Holiness Pope Francis in the Vatican, 2019 

Your Royal Highness, is there effective regional policy making?

There is a total absence of regional policy making. Additionally, simmering conflict has reduced the possibility of the peaceful cultivation of resources, whether physical, economic or social, whilst  the change of physical realities by annexation or by  wall has resulted in a region suffering ecocide and sociocide. I see the crisis as one of absence of conscience in the failure to develop – despite early starts with the Middle East, then Mashreq or Levant Citizens’ Assembly – that central role of civil society through citizens’ assemblies, akin to the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly.

Is the region fragmenting?

In one sense, the story in the Levant differs little from those elsewhere, polarization and retrenchment and crises have a tendency to disproportionately affect the vulnerable and marginalized.  When talking about Balkanization, we see the region fragmenting, as a result of pipeline politics, into zones of influence from Libya to Syria to Iraq. The relations between Turkey, Iran and their neighbours to the west and also the ongoing crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh. Everything seems to be heading towards more and more fragmentation.

How and by who can this be corrected?

In the case of the Balkans, there was a heavy emphasis by NATO and the United States to bring people to the table in Dayton, but even those Accords are now threatened by polarization. What is at risk is what Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard University referred to as the Kindleberger trap – named after Charles Kindleberger, the intellectual architect of the Marshall Plan – who argued that the disastrous decade of the 1930s was as a result of American failure to provide global public goods after it had replaced Great Britain as the leading global power. I would not put the responsibility on the United States, but in this year of the seventy fifth anniversary of the United Nations following those of Bretton Woods and Dumbarton Oaks, is it not time for a review?

But unless and until we drop the brand names, pitting one side against the other – and let me remind you that the last Munich Security Conference was called “Westlessness” – what are these major discussions in Brussels and New York and elsewhere going to achieve? If one of the players is going to step up to a global role, ensuring a repeat of us and them, will a non-aligned movement of states be possible? What we need is alignment for peace. 

In the Levant region how much has the coronavirus changed things socially and economically?  

As far as Covid and Jordan is concerned, no other country has seen its population increase fourfold since the 1990s, from three to four million to over eleven million today, including over a million Syrian refugees, 83 percent of whom live in our urban areas. In the first months of Corona we applied the strictest measures in full lockdown and the so-called circuit breaker theory gave us time to organize ourselves. And then, of course, came the backlash. 55 percent of households experienced an increase in price of food. 36 percent of households were not able to access markets. And so it goes on.

You recently became an honorific Chair of the World Refugee Council?

Yes, and  I would like to suggest that that one cannot differentiate between locals, nationals, and refugees, whether Syrian, Palestinian, Iraqi;  they are all sitting at the same desks studying through virtual education.

The food distribution systems have been drastically revisited and improved, but we have an enormous challenge in the region. 70 to 80 percent of the population is on the move. The war in Syria is now nine years old and 5,500,000 Syrian refugees live in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. There are 6,600,000 internally displaced people inside Syria, and 2,100,000 children in Syria who are out of school, with an additional 1,300,000 at risk of dropping out.

So with that percentage of your population on the move it is difficult to talk about the reconstruction of Syria without talking about the reconstruction of the region. That is why when Paul Volcker suggested years ago the need for the Middle East Development Bank he was not talking about another pledging conference, but of working with people to empower them for citizenship in all its aspects.

“What we need is alignment for peace.

Prince Hassan, what about the impact of Covid on the environment?

As this pandemic has demonstrated, no single country can solve its problems alone, whether water, energy or the human environment. I’ve always asked why we cannot have a water and energy community, just as Europe developed a coal and steel community.

As elsewhere, the most direct impact on workers from Covid is loss of work, further highlighting the injustice between the haves and the have nots, both locally and regionally. We need to talk policy, not politics; to develop a vision for the stabilization of the Levant, despite the cross currents of the traditional crises: Arab/ Israeli, Palestinian/Israeli, or Turkish/Greek for that matter. Covid, as dramatic as it is, has not brought us to our senses yet.

You speak often of water, are you more concerned by water than by troublesome politics or by the corona virus itself? 

Of course Covid has placed a stress on systems that were already stressed and border closures and restrictions hamper operations, making it much more difficult to reach those most in need. The consequences have been devastating in the implementation of health facilities, food supplies and increasing protection risks, yet at heart the fundamental problem is our lack of good governance and regional institutional representation; of a functioning Arab League, an ECOSOC (United Nations Economic and Social Council). Maybe the basic step that has to be taken is to create an ESCWA (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for West Asia) for the Levant. The nations of ESCWA have different systems of government, and yet since 1967 they have developed interdependence.

Collective action is needed today, more than ever before. As you know Jordan is one of the most water scarce countries in the world. Access to safe water is an urgent concern.

Is water security your most important concern?  

What I am saying is that the human being, human dignity, is the fundamental challenge; how to develop entrustment of human beings to enable them and empower them for citizenship. Do we have the courage to create a water bank, for example, or a land bank, in which people become stakeholders in developing a vision of sharing and participating?

We need to think in an interdisciplinary manner – health, education, water – the creation of a new IT (Information Technology), above all of a regional map for sustainable social, economic and physical development.

Cogens – the use of one’s ability to think – is the most democratic expression I can think of, of commenting on public and private life. But the right to life has to be preserved by understanding that all these networks are interdisciplinary. There has to be a preventative approach and a resilience building approach, particularly in countries that have no voice. The alternative, I fear, may be that we as a region remain a région intermédiare. 

Do you think that as far as Israel is concerned there will be an appeasement and that this will lead to a better exchange and improvement in the local region?  

I have spent my whole life studying Hebrew and hoping that Muslims and Christians and Jews could come together, whether with reference to our shared patriarch Abraham or in the context of a Noahist accord which takes us back to the very beginnings and the survival of mankind. But interpretations in inter religious terms are different, and everyone preserves a peculiarity in their particularity.

Land for peace was the traditional formula, enshrined in UNSCR 242 (United Nations Security Council Resolution 242). Today, however, we see the continuous appropriation of land, despite the high level meetings in Washington and elsewhere, and international law – which I assume is extremely embarrassing to the Arabs involved. A strategic conversation is being re-started yet again between the United States and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But what is the strategic objective? Is it the containment of Iran? Has the Palestine question, because of the changes on the ground become so impossible to handle? These are the real issues. We have tried to make peace with the countries we neighbour. Maybe this small country, Jordan, between the Gulf on the one side and the Levant on the other, has a chance of contributing something as the regional hub of ideas by people from the region.

Hassan bin Talal

HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan participates in the International Workshop on Water Security in the Middle East – Montreux, Switzerland 2017 

Hassan bin Talal

With a group of children in Pella, Jordan,  2017

Hassan bin Talal

HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan visits the UNHCR Offices in Jordan 2017

Hassan bin Talal

At the 5th colloquium organised by RIIFS and the PCID entitled “Religion and dignity of life: Christian and Muslim viewpoints”. 2018

Hassan bin Talal

HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan visits the Zaatari Refugee Camp – 2019

Hassan bin Talal

HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan during the closing ceremony of “Enabling Communities for Climate Change Adaptation Planning: Understanding Gender Roles” 2019

“One can only hope that we have done something useful for future generations.”

Your Royal Highness, as you say, you have spent all your life fighting to put people together for peace, to appease differences, to encourage respect of each other. What is your approach?

I believe that we have to struggle for something and not always against. We must develop the values that Pope Francis mentioned so eloquently and pertinently in Fratelli Tutti.

You don’t have to be totally in agreement. Each individual has their own circumstance. But in terms of the essentials: human dignity, governance and the rule of law. The opposite of poverty is not wealth… in too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice.

Ultimately, at the end of Pandora’s Box, we have to find hope. The challenge that we face is ourselves. Do we have the will to make a new beginning before it is too late? I think that we do. We have three states in the region with nuclear capability: Pakistan, India and Israel. So the ability to destroy each other is there, and we are in the middle of the destruction zone. Yet on the other hand, I do believe this long, and possibly longer still-to-come period of lockdown, is a wonderful opportunity to share in using our cogens and develop a new moral authority for an alignment for peace.

Health versus economy is now the classic dilemma for politicians.  If you close everything, the economy will be a disaster and people will starve or lose jobs. But if you don’t, the virus is there.  

In our region, 40 percent of the Arab world’s population, 161 million people, are facing extreme poverty. This is exacerbated by Covid, but Covid is not the issue; the issue is poor governance and the lack of intra-independence. How can you empower a population and enable it for citizenship in the absence of a recognition of regional commons and in the midst of multiple struggles between both great and regional power interests in, for example, Yemen, Libya, Syria? 

What is your vision for the world at this moment?

It all boils down to the question of: How do we move from humiliation to human dignity? How do we develop a sense that we are consciously taking a choice, but that choice is not between lives and livelihoods? We want to create a balance between lives and livelihoods, and, as far as Jordan is concerned, we have made a beginning. 

There is a Jordanian ethic or steadfastness which does not involve reaching for the Kalashnikov, but cooperation, locally and regionally.

What would you like to say to conclude?

One can only hope that we have done something useful for future generations, and that they won’t think too harshly of us. We all have grandchildren and children, and I hope that in public life we have not just made a bêtise out of our conversation, but rather contributed, God knows, in a very draining manner of ourselves for them.

October 15th, 2020.