Incognito king may not be so plucky forever

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The Independent Online
IN ARABIC, there is no word for a spin-doctor. Nadeq - spokesman - is the nearest the Arabs can get to it. But after King Abdullah of Jordan's forays among the masses, they may have to construct a new phrase.

King Abdullah - son of the Plucky Little King Mark 1, the late King Hussein - has been playing the role of the Caliph Rashid (of One Thousand and One Nights fame) who wandered through the streets of Baghdad in disguise to hear what his people thought. He has - so we are told - posed as a television reporter to discover what Jordanians think about the bureaucrats. He has now driven in disguise through Amman in a taxi to discover the secrets of the traffic cops.

A worthy tradition, you might think, certainly enough to deflect public opinion from the fact that the PLK Mark 2 is even more pro-American than his father. Forget that the American embassy in Amman is regarded as the biggest Central Intelligence Agency base in the Middle East, that the king wanted his "elite" troops to train with the Israelis, that his country's peace treaty with Israel has never been so unpopular with his population, which is more than 50 per cent Palestinian. But His Majesty - in fairness, a decent man - has been among his people.

The Sultan Rashid would raise the poor and, on occasion, behead the wicked in his perambulations. And Arab leaders would occasionally follow his example. Even Nasser, goes the joke, once dressed up as a veiled Egyptian woman to examine the heart of his people. "We love our leader," they said. Then he came across another Egyptian "woman" in a black veil. "I love my leader," "she" said - until Nasser discovered it was one of his ministers, also in disguise.

The Great Leader of modern- day Iraq also developed the habit of dropping by to chat to Iraqi families. Saddam Hussein would enter a poor home in the suburbs of Baghdad to sample the family luncheon, only to find that his portrait hung on the bedroom wall and that the family regarded him as little less than a god.

And now a true story. During the Confrontation Front summit that followed Anwar Sadat's 1977 trip to Jerusalem, Saddam Hussein (then vice-president) was being interviewed by an Australian reporter for Newsweek who dared to ask why so many of his people despised him. Which people, the Living God asked? Well, said the Australian, the people in a city street. Which street, the vice-president demanded. Many missing heartbeats later, the journalist admitted he could not remember. "Come with me," Saddam said.

And the scribe was ushered into a Range Rover for a trip to downtown Baghdad. In a crowded square, the leader of the Iraqi masses climbed out of his car and asked the luckless journalist to choose anyone for interview. The reporter pointed at the nearest, luckless citizen who grovelled and vouchsafed his life, his blood for the dictator whom he loved. "You see how he loves me?" Saddam asked, turning to the reporter. "And it was you who chose him!"

Other, more discreet Arab leaders abhor such tactics. You will not find President Hafez al-Assad of Syria playing this game. Nor King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. Nor Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. But King Abdullah apparently brought it off.

Question: What will happen if the PLK Mark 2 goes on meeting the ordinary people of Jordan but fails to solve their problems? As the movie might have said: Thank goodness for the Caliph Rashid - without him, what would little kings do?

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