Needless to say, the current title is one of these that I found on those shelves. As is frequently the case, this is not something that I might have picked up at a regular bookstore, or on-line, the dollar availability creating a serendipity that stirs up my reading habits (a good thing, yes?) a bit. Our Last Best Chance: The Pursuit of Peace in a Time of Peril is a book by King Abdullah II of Jordan which stands out firstly by simply being a book by a sitting monarch … something that I, at least, am not particularly aware of being “a thing”. It is also, obviously, a window into the politics and cultural forces in the Middle East that has almost no equal in terms of access to the “back stories” of pretty much everything happening in that arena.
It must be noted that, within his own family, this was not a unique entity, as the author's father, the famed King Hussein of Jordan, had penned an autobiography in the early 60's, and this is referenced as something of a touchstone for this. As far as niches go, this is not just an autobiography, albeit it is formatted on the arc of the author's life (and he is still a young man at age 53), but endeavors to provide an analysis of many factors gripping his country's region. This starts off on a bitter-sweet note, with the Preface starting with:
Of course, King Abdullah II's family, the Hashemite lineage (the current King being a 43rd generation descendent of the Prophet Mohammad), is notable in the region for both its Western sensibilities (with British and American educations featuring in their development), and its willingness, even eagerness, to make peace with its neighbor Israel. This stands clearly apart from other entities in the region, such as Hamas, whose raison d'être is the “elimination” of the Jewish state.... when I started writing this book, I hoped it would reveal the inner workings of how, against great odds, the United States, Israel, and the Arab and Muslim world had brokered peace in the Middle East. As I write these words, however, I can only say that this is a story about how peace has continued to elude our grasp.
This is not to say that he isn't critical of Israel. It is often too easy for those of us in the USA to see the region in very black & white terms, with Israel being the “good guys” and everybody else being threats to their existence. The author's view is, understandably, rather different, and while he appreciates certain aspects of Israel, his view is that there are factions within Israeli politics who are every bit as dead-set against a negotiated peace as Hamas is from the other side. One thing that was quite the eye-opener his was his experience with the Bush administration. He had seen a good deal of progress in the days of the Clinton administration, but the neo-cons in the Bush White House seemed to have little interest in hearing Jordan's side of things – despite the author's frequent overtures. It appears that the die had been cast early on in the Zeitgeist of the American government leading up to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein ... and making even middling efforts to “play nice” with the Palestinians was not part of that, being that they were clearly an “enemy force” in that world view.
Speaking of world views … it's a frequent jab at Americans that we don't have particularly much awareness of what happens in other parts of the globe, and one thing that King Abdullah II refers to here is “Benelux”, which is an economic union of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg within the E.U. that I don't believe I'd ever previously heard of … he holds this out as a model:
Personally, this is the most rational, and logical suggestion that I've seen for peace in that region. Unfortunately, politics (and religion) keep getting in the way. Another thing that I don't believe I'd read of was the “Arab Peace Initiative” that Jordan was instrumental on reaching an agreement on (endorsed by 22 members of the Arab League) … unfortunately, it came at a time (in 2002), when things on both sides were spiralling into chaos and conflict. I certainly hope, however, that the author has not abandoned the vision of a “Benelux in the Levant”.My dream is that we will link the economies of Israel, Palestine, and Jordan in a common market – patterned on Benelux in western Europe. We could combine the technical know-how and entrepreneurial drive of Jordan, Israel, and Palestine to create an economic and business hub in the Levant. The potential for joint tourism is massive, as it that for foreign investment. The possibility for cooperation is immense. The Israelis are world leaders I agriculture, but lack land and workers. We could work together to make the desert bloom.
Again, this is also an autobiography, and so there is a lot of personal information in here. I am skipping over all the details about his schooling in the UK and the US (which is interesting), but do want to highlight a couple of bits from that aspect of the book. On one hand, you get a real sense of how dangerous running a country “in that neighborhood” can be … among many leaders who were assassinated over the past century there was the author's great-grandfather, with his father standing next to him. One of the precautions that his father, King Hussein, had made was to name the author's uncle next in line for the succession. While this created some “issues” later, it shifted the target from the author's back, and allowed him to grow (in the relative obscurity of the military) into the leader he would become. On the other hand, there are the stories such as:
It is hard to imagine even the Mayor of a major American city successfully doing this, but this shows how manageable a country such as Jordan can be. Taking a cue from his father, the current King has made a habit of visiting various government offices in disguise, and making sure things changed when the people were being mistreated by officials. Sure, it's his own story about himself, but it's hard not to like the author as depicted in these stories!My father used to tell me how when he wanted to take the pulse of the country, he would wrap a traditional checkered head scarf around his face and drive around Amman at night in a battered old taxi, picking people up. He would ask every new passenger, “How's the economy going? What do you think of the Palestinian-Israeli situation? What do you think of the King's new policy?”
Another interesting “window” here is on the various wars in the region, and the interactions he (and his father) had with the main players in these conflicts (such as very uncomfortable visits with Saddam's notorious sons, Uday and Qusay). While the Jordanians have been strong allies of the USA, the author is certainly no “yes man” for American interests, and his perspective on the whole convoluted morass of political, military, religious, and regional elements is quite educational.
I would definitely recommend Our Last Best Chance to all and sundry, as not only is it a fascinating look at a really remarkable life, but a view of a globally important region that we certainly don't get from the press here – on the Left or the Right. As noted, I found the hardcover of this in the dollar store, but the paperback (which, oddly, has a different sub-title although just coming out a year after the initial release) is still available, and there are various other editions (international, large print, and, of course, ebook) also out there. I usually point readers to the “cheapest available” route to getting a copy of a book I'm reviewing, but books bought through retail channels have their proceeds going to support scholarships a the King's Academy – a top notch school that King Abdullah II established in Jordan (also discussed in the book), which is certainly something to consider.