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Jordan's Monarch Goes Undercover

Jordan's King Abdullah, shown with Syrian Prime Minister Mahmud Zohbi last week, has posed as a TV producer and a taxi passenger. (Associated Press)
By Lee Hockstader
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 9, 1999; Page A1
AMMAN, Jordan—The Stealth King has struck again. No one knows where he'll pop up next -- or in what disguise. And the Jordanian royal palace isn't saying.
At least twice in the past two weeks, between his regular appointments with statesmen and courtiers, King Abdullah has slipped out of the cool provinces of his palace, posed as a commoner, mingled incognito with his subjects and inspected the workings of his troubled realm.
The 37-year-old monarch has had to take care about his appearance -- he is not exactly unrecognized here. Posters of his smiling, boyish face adorn the walls of practically every office and shop in Jordan, often alongside the likeness of his late father, King Hussein, whom he succeeded in February.
On his first undercover jaunt, 10 days ago, Abdullah donned a traditional long white robe, a red-and-white checked headdress and -- the final touch -- a scraggly white beard. Posing as a television producer, he accompanied a cameraman and a "reporter" -- in fact, his press secretary -- into Jordan's state-run trade zone, where he got an earful from merchants about red tape and inefficiency.
The king was finally outed by security guards, who accosted the crew and demanded to see its permit to film. Unable to shake them, and by some accounts annoyed at their persistence, Abdullah removed his disguise -- to the general astonishment and delight of all.
Disguised again last Tuesday, the king cruised the streets of Amman in a taxi driven by an aide, ostensibly to assess the performance of traffic police and listen to passengers' complaints. At one point, his cab cut off another car, taking care to do it directly in front of an officer of the law, who pulled the offenders over. They got off with a scolding.
As public relations stunts, the king's surreptitious wanderings are a big hit here. They are an apparent attempt to emulate the deft common touch of his widely beloved father and to provide himself with a populist shot in the arm.
Abdullah's clandestine forays also have roots in Arab culture, reaching back to the splendors of the eighth-century Islamic Empire. There, as recounted in "Arabian Nights," caliphs such as Harun ar-Rashid wandered the streets of Baghdad in disguise, soliciting the opinions of their subjects, attending to the needs of the suffering and occasionally ordering executions on the spot.
Today, executions are out. But an Arab king moving incognito among his subjects seems to make perfect sense to Jordanians. Also, harking back to Arab glory days cannot but help a young king who has spent a large part of his life outside the Arab world.
Born to a British mother and educated in Britain and the United States, the king was an army general but was virtually unknown to his countrymen before his father, weeks before his death, bypassed his brother and heir apparent and named Abdullah, his eldest son, as his successor.
Abdullah did not expect the job, nor was he groomed for it. He made a hash of his early speeches in formal Arabic. Many thought the new king, short and smiling, looked like a boy next to the elder statesmen of the Arab world.
As a result, the palace has been sensitive about the young king's image and eager to give him a boost. He has grown a trim beard, which makes him look older and imparts a certain gravitas. His clandestine forays also seem to have worked; Jordanians gave him rave reviews.
"He didn't want to just hear things; he wanted to see things for himself," said Muhammad Dourmi, a security guard at the trade zone who was pleasantly startled by the king's visit.
Many suspect Abdullah gets sugar-coated information from his advisers. Some Jordanians acknowledge they would feel tongue-tied in the king's presence should he appear in their street or office. Better, they say, that he make his inquiries in disguise.
"When you owe everything you have to just one person, why should you upset him?" said Nabib Kamhawi, a political analyst. "You tell him things that will please him."
Not all Abdullah's outings are stealthy, of course, but several have been unannounced. In Amman, the capital, he dropped in on a notoriously understaffed and ill-equipped hospital several times, then fired the director. He also made an unexpected visit to the Allenby Bridge between Jordan and the West Bank, a crossing that travelers regard as slow and inefficient.
Still, some Jordanians believe it made sense for Abdullah to disguise himself for the visit to the trade zone, a place widely seen as emblematic of the kingdom's economic troubles.
Jordan's economy, which never fully recovered from the 1991 Persian Gulf War, is a mess. Although the population is well educated, a quarter or more of the working population is jobless, and the country's once growing middle class is shrinking. Petty corruption, mismanagement and nepotism are rife. The bureaucracy is maddeningly inefficient.
Nowhere are the problems more on display than in the trade zone, where men with clipboards and files shuffle from window to window in an often excruciating attempt to extract goods from the customs service and move them into the country. Merchants complain that the glacial pace, red tape and conflicting regulations discourage investors.
"It would be catastrophic if the new king thought that by [disguising himself] he could rectify this situation," said Kamhawi. "What's needed are better laws, institutions, democracy and accountability. You can't simply go around in disguise."
But some analysts are heartened by the king's trip to the trade zone. King Hussein took little interest in such matters, preferring to leave them largely to his brother, Prince Hassan. When Hussein ventured among his subjects, it was usually to give alms to the needy or help treat the sick.
Abdullah, the analysts say, is showing he understands Jordan's problems are not only individual but also systemic. But there is also a risk, they add. "It's a double-edged sword," said one analyst. "People are happy to see him hopping from place to place. But if you go do it and nothing improves, then either you're not in a position to do anything or the government doesn't give a damn. The problem is highlighted, but then the problem isn't fixed. . . . PR is not enough."
Before he doffed his disguise in the trade zone, the king spent several hours listening to complaints. Afterward, a commission was named to recommend changes in laws and procedures there.
For the time being, though, the system endures. And ever since word of the king's disguises got out, this new joke has been circulating in Amman:
What's the best way to get anything done in Jordan?
Be short, wear a long robe and red headdress and grow a white beard.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company
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