Yesterday, a group of Jordanian bloggers (mostly tweeps) were invited to have a discussion with Foreign Minister, Nasser Judeh. The meeting was informal and some of what was said was off-the-record, which I choose to respect. The topics to be discussed were of our choosing, as he essentially sat down and immediately opened the floor/room to any issues without any set agenda. So we focused on foreign affairs issues that included wikileaks cables, Jordan’s potential membership in the GCC, Syria, the UN vote on Palestinian statehood, and various other bits and pieces in between. Looking over some of my brief notes from the meeting the following are some of the key points. If other attendees have other bits of information then can feel free to post it up here or on their own blogs.
1) The wikileaks cables are seen by the government as perceptions constructed by the US embassy. No more and no less. It would be impossible to take them seriously enough to review and respond each one of them. Judeh had not read the last batch of confidential cables and so could not respond to particulars. He also indicated that these cables and memos are common throughout all governments and their embassies and some of them tend to reflect personal perceptions as opposed to facts. Some of the questions asked were related to the vacuum gap of information that the Jordanian public often receives, i.e. we are told one thing only to discover it’s something else entirely.
2) Questions regarding the GCC membership and what it would entail for Jordan were risen, but the minister treaded carefully here as this isn’t a topic that can be easily discussed on the record while negotiations are ongoing, which would be akin to jumping the gun. That said, one of the key questions was whether membership would open doors to Jordan’s domestic politics being influenced by fellow members, some of which have outrageous human rights abuses. Judeh pointed out that the GCC is diverse in itself, as not all of its members are the same politically, socially, or culturally, with some being more conservative than others. He also pointed to this membership being mutually beneficial for Jordan and the GCC, highlighting our national human resources as being a selling point for the Kingdom. Part of this discussion was also about Jordan’s role in Bahrain in which the minister insisted that Jordan has had no active military role in the recent clampdown on demonstrators.
3) We spoke quite a bit about political prisoners in foreign jails, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and what not. Judeh highlighted the difficult task the ministry plays in either getting access to prisoners or finding ways to secure their release where it is deemed a viable option (i.e. they haven’t broken any laws). He indicated that this is one of those issues that the ministry cannot come right out and tell the Jordanian public every move their taking every step of the way as it burns bridges with governments they need to deal with, which would just as readily be prepared not to give up a prisoner, especially when it comes to governments where political prisoners have their names turned to numbers. Apparently there is an average of 1,300 Jordanian citizens in prisons abroad, and the ministry estimates that there are roughly 37 that are considered “political”. The estimate is based on the fact that not all governments categorize certain prisoners as being political, and it’s up to the ministry to figure that out.
4) This took us in to a discussion about the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. I’m not going to go in to detail here as it was basically a re-articulation of all the points for and against the treaty that most people have heard over the past two decades. Suffice to say that despite Jordan having serious issues with Israel, and particularly its current government and its handling of the peace portfolio, it continues to see the treaty as being beneficial for Jordan and for Palestinians.
5) The UN vote on Palestine was talked about with Judeh outlining the options the Palestinians and Israelis have in front of them at this point. Much of that discussion centered, again, on information that has already been tackled by political observers worldwide, such as what Israel’s response could be in the unlikely scenario of the resolution passing – so nothing new there. But there was also discussion on what this mean for the right of return, an issue that has tremendous impact on Jordan. Scenarios were imagined of which Israel would simply reject it (along with other issues like Jerusalem) due to a Palestinian state being declared.
This is a very brief rundown of the major things discussed. It was nearly a three hour sit-down so I’m not going to go in to any of the boring details or give my personal opinion on every topic as I assume my opinion on most of them is already known and remain the same. But I thought it was worth being transparent and letting everyone know about this meeting and its content. Ironically, I suppose, more Jordanians are interested in the fact the meeting was held at all, favoring style over substance.
So, in response to some of the expected comments already popping up on Twitter about going to this meeting, I’ll say this. First of all, one cannot lambast the media and all of its constituencies for not reporting and then turn around and lambast them for taking such meetings in the first place. That just doesn’t make sense. Second, by attending such meetings as, at most, a media operative, and at the very least, a concerned citizen – one is not by default declaring their allegiance, loyalty, love or admiration for any person, persons or states. It’s a meeting. You go because you feel it might be beneficial. You go because you feel it might be informative. I’ve gone to press conferences for lesser purposes, and I attend public lectures for the same purpose; yes, even the lectures where I disagree with the speaker.
In this case it was a chance to talk with someone on issues related to their political portfolio. No more no less. It was a chance to pick their brain a bit and see how the government, on a very personal level and away from the ink of newspaper reporting, thinks, or at least gauge their perceptions. Key bits of information can be gleaned from these meetings and it would be a mistake not to attend out of some sense of self-righteousness.
I’m pointing this out because this has always been one of our many problems as a society. We form allegiances and teams and squads and suddenly you can’t talk to anyone because if they don’t think like you, and talk like you, then they’re not worth it. And if they’re not with you, then they’re against you, and then you’ve rendered them the enemy. And suddenly, we can’t talk to anyone in government because they’re all deemed to be “the enemy” and by doing so you are betraying some sort of cause. The tragic irony of this is that we end up exasperating one of the key problems that got us here in the first place: the fact that people who disagree with each other do not talk to each other. Do not debate. Do not intersect. A dialog, by nature, is not one hosted by the left hand talking to the far left hand. And forget about the dialog, the information itself is beneficial. Journalists go to 2 hour press conferences they don’t want to go to and come out with nothing more than a press release. At least here you get the chance to understand an official’s train of thought beyond the normal soundbites we are accustomed to analyzing, and respond to their statements directly from across a table.
Whether these meetings are intended for PR purposes (which is a valid assumption) or not, is besides the point, at least for me. Strictly from a personal standpoint, I don’t really care too much what benefits the government derives from it, and I am more interested in what value I personally derive from it. These meetings (this being the second in two years) are frank and open – that much I know from simply being in the room. There are no intimidation tactics, and it is absurd to think that by attending one meeting you’re whole life is going to be flipped upside down and everything you believed in before will be thrown out the window. If that’s the case then these ministers should retire immediately and start a new career as motivational speakers because they’d likely make mad money in doing so if they have that kind of power over people’s thoughts. I’m unlikely to change my mind on the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty because of a meeting with the foreign minister. Moreover, when Judeh discussed the wikileaks issue, it offered me insight in to what the state’s stance is on these cables, which we knew next to nothing about. It offered me insight in to the fact that the state still doesn’t quite grasp the impact that the information vacuum presents, especially when it comes to forming local public perceptions.
So that’s my take. Like I’ve said over a few Twitter discussions, whether one disagrees with the content of the meeting and its host is one thing, but to disagree that a meeting is held at all, that’s a bit of a stretch. They are two separate things. And unless you are a robot who upon leaving a meeting is completely co-opted and re-programmed, venturing in to one of these meetings to be part of a discussion is never a bad thing unless there is an excessively blatant ulterior motive.