Jordan’s key role in the region, its relationship with the Western world, the threat of ISIS. The Italian Ambassador in Amman, Patrizio Fondi, talks about the current situation in the Middle East and the struggle to maintain stability and security.
Does serving as an ambassador in Amman today mean living with a lot of pressure?
Above all, it means being vigilant and not just in the obvious sense of being prudent and taking all reasonable precautions for the embassy and for oneself, but in the sense of closely following rapidly-evolving events as well as following subsequent reactions in Jordan in order to keep Rome constantly abreast of the situation. It should be pointed out, while not underestimating the risks and dangers, that the general atmosphere in Amman is much better than in other neighbouring countries. Therefore, I consider myself to be in a privileged position compared to colleagues working in the same region.
In day-to-day life in the country, is there a sense of tension or fear for the future?
Compared to when I arrived in Jordan more than a year and a half ago, you can sense a feeling of greater tension and a certain sense of worry in terms of possible future developments. You also have to keep in mind the Syrian refugee problem as refugees continue to arrive, though now to a lesser extent (but there are at least 600,000). As King Abdullah II himself recently pointed out, the most serious and urgent problems to resolve are poverty and unemployment, especially unemployment among young people, which is as much as 28% among those aged 20 to 24. I would sum up the mood here with the words of a retired Jordanian general: “I am concerned but not scared.”
King Abdullah finds himself in quite a difficult position surrounded by wars and tensions. What is his role in the region? What is his position on ISIS, Damascus, and Israel?
To describe the critical phase that the country is going through, what we say among my staff members is that the king has a “crown of thorns” on his head because he’s surrounded by territories facing crises – some of which are quite serious – in neighbouring countries, such as in Israel, Palestine, Syria, and Iraq, or close by in Sinai and Lebanon. There’s no doubt that it’s a country that is used to living with a turbulent environment, thus it is most definitely resilient and has been able to overcome many difficult situations since its founding. Nevertheless, now pressures are mounting and are even greater. This requires an unusually high level of attention. Moreover, the king is very active on the diplomatic front and is very good at playing the traditional role of a moderate and a mediator, which is typical of the Hashemite Kingdom. It’s a role that is appreciated across the board, and he is a great
resource for the entire region. He tries to maintain relationships with everyone in order to be able to rely on those relationships at the right times. Here are two important examples. Jordan still has diplomatic relationships with the regime in Damascus and it is one of two Arab countries (the other is Egypt) that has a peace agreement with Israel. As for Iraq, the king speaks with institutional authorities and the Sunni tribes, and most certainly not with ISIS, which doesn’t give the impression of wanting to have a dialogue. Amman hopes, as we do, that the country can create a government that includes all of the components of Iraqi society.
Is the United States still the strongest ally?
The U.S. most certainly is an essential point of reference for Amman, and this will continue to be the case given the strategic interest that it has in their policies in the Middle East. It’s no surprise that President Obama nominated Alice Wells, a career Foreign Service Officer who was also part of his staff in the White House, as the ambassador in Amman. Furthermore, it’s no secret that there is a contingent – albeit limited to about 1,000 units – of American soldiers stationed here that helps the Jordanian army with Patriot missiles and F-16 airplanes supplied to Amman as a defensive measure and a deterrent. The contingent also trains local units to deal with potential chemical attacks. And let’s not forget that the U.S. gives Jordan about $1 billion (U.S.) per year in terms of military, economic, and refugee aid.
What about the European Union and, specifically, Italy?
Jordan is one of the countries in the region with the strongest ties to the EU and, in general, to its member states. There’s an Association Agreement with the EU, and there’s dialogue on various topics, ranging from human rights to economic matters, and from working together on development to the refugee crisis. There’s an excellent relationship with Italy (evidenced by the fact that there was a meeting between Prime Minister Renzi and the Jordanian king during the recent NATO summit in England; and Minister Mogherini has already come to Jordan twice in the last year), especially because we have the undeniable advantage of not having a colonial past in the region, and this allows us to enjoy an incredibly positive image locally in all areas. This makes my job easy because of the goodwill I find everywhere and the easy access to the highest levels institutionally. In terms of bilateral relationships, I am focusing a lot on economic/commercial aspects (trying to create relationships between Italian businesses and Jordanian businesses – especially small and mid-sized businesses – given that we are already the number one trade partner from Europe and the fifth largest trade
partner worldwide) as well as the cultural side of things where we are recognised for our leadership, especially in terms of the area of protecting cultural heritage. We are carrying out a project in Petra along with UNESCO and our Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities is restoring some frescoes that are truly one-of-a-kind in the world in an Umayyad castle in the Amra desert.
Ambassador Fondi, as you look at things from Amman, what is your opinion of what is happening in the region? Is this a singular problem?
The current situation in the Middle East, which is quite complex, is the result of various factors, some of which are historical and others of which are more recent. There is no doubt that many are interrelated and that the blame lies on many. Living in the Middle East brings to mind that final scene in the famous film by Orson Welles – The Lady from Shanghai – in which Humphrey Bogart chases after a lovely Rita Hayworth in a hall of mirrors. The woman appears, disappears and multiplies…isn’t this sort of the same impression we get, for example, when we ask ourselves who finances terrorist groups? The Jordanian leadership is strongly convinced, and it probably isn’t altogether wrong, that a solution to the Palestinian problem would help greatly in the start of a process for bringing peace to the entire region, eliminating a long-standing element of friction, and allowing for collaboration in terms of economics and technology between Israel and Arab countries. In the long term, this would only have positive results on the political front as well. To that end, the king has been forceful in his position for quite some time that the solution is to have two countries – an Israeli state alongside a Palestinian state made up of territories occupied by Tel Aviv in 1967 (the West Bank and Gaza) and with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, as per the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002.
Is ISIS becoming a real threat to Israel in the Golan?
Now there seem to be other terrorist groups at work in the Golan, and they are hard to identify.
Do you think a new conflict will break out?
I think there are already more than enough conflicts going on and these are keeping the various sides fighting…In the short- to mid-term, I think we need to accept that the wars in Syria and Iraq are going to continue, and unfortunately these conflicts are all running together. It will, therefore, be necessary for the entire international community to really focus on a political solution for these two conflicts, including the most important key players in the region who can have influence on the various opposing factions.
What is the U.N.’s role?
Up to now, given the impasse in the Security Council, the U.N.’s role has been mainly a humanitarian one. The hope now is that the new Special Envoy of the Secretary General for Syria, Italian-Swedish diplomat Staffan de Mistura, can create fruitful relationships that will get the negotiation mechanism working in a broader way as compared to what happened in Geneva under the previous U.N. Envoy.
President Obama would like a reinforced NATO task force. How is the American position seen in Jordan?
My impression is that Jordan is ready to do its part in collective international and/or regional actions, to stabilise the area, and to eliminate the disturbing forces. The English Ambassador to Amman sees Jordan making more of a humanitarian contribution. That could be a pragmatic position, but let’s see what the king thinks.
And the Russian position?
Jordan has an excellent relationship with Russia in an overall sense with the idea being not to have conflict with anyone and to maintain a dialogue with everyone. This approach isn’t considered a contradiction in terms of its privileged relationship with the U.S. For example, the Russians are supposed to work with the Kingdom to build the first Jordanian nuclear reactor, if ultimately a definitive decision is taken in this direction. But that doesn’t mean that Jordan doesn’t have different positions from Moscow with regards to political issues – first and foremost, Syria and the Ukraine – and this can be clearly seen in the decisions taken in the U.N. Security Council, of which Jordan is currently a non-permanent member.
What is Jordan’s role today? Things are exploding in neighbouring countries and on neighbouring borders. What, in your opinion, will happen in Jordan and what is the monarchy’s role?
Currently, Jordan is stable and safe. It represents a regional “hub” in which everyone – diplomats, international organisations, and NGOs – can work easily to carry out their own policies in the country and/or in the area. Thus, everyone has a strong interest in protecting the country from unpleasant surprises. The king, for his part, is able to easily carry out his activities here and abroad. This combination of factors should make us optimistic about the near future.
(In the picture, Ambassador Fondi visiting a Syrian refugee camp)
*Author and journalist, www.alainelkanninterviews.com