As Hollywood gears up for this year's Academy Awards, they might wish to consider adding a new category to their repertoire: best autocrat in disguise. Were they to do so, few would be better qualified to take home this dubious honor than His Royal Highness King Abdullah II of Jordan.
With his elegant English and ever-so-dapper Western dress, the Jordanian monarch is virtually unmatched in his ability to portray himself as an irreplaceable bulwark against extremism in an otherwise troubled corner of the Middle East. Like a polished thespian he utters the sweet words Western audiences wish to hear, putting on a performance so persuasive and believable that it truly does merit an Oscar nomination.
Take, for example, Abdullah's recent visit to Washington, where the unelected monarch graced audiences up and down Pennsylvania Avenue with his regal presence, wowing the Beltway's movers and shakers with his oh-so-moderate shtick.
Addressing a largely Christian evangelical audience at the National Prayer Breakfast, Abdullah quoted the Bible almost as much as the Koran, and he decried "violent extremists who seek to divide and conquer."
"Extremism," he opined, "is a political movement under religious cover. Its adherents want nothing more than to pit us against each other, denying all that we have in common."
Why, it almost makes you want to stand up and cheer, doesn't it? Well, according to media accounts, that is precisely what happened, as those in attendance gave the king a standing ovation for his forceful words against religious bigotry.
Too bad it was all an act.
FOR IF recent events in Jordan are any indication, Abdullah's words are as empty as the vast deserts which dominate most of his homeland. Indeed, on the day before the king's memorable performance in Washington his parliament back home was busy discussing whether to tighten Jordanian law in order to ensure that no Jews could ever buy land in the kingdom.
According to the Jordan Times, a "heated debate" took place on a temporary law regulating the rental and sale of fixed assets in Jordan, with the lower house of the Jordanian parliament returning the bill to its Legal Committee to be redrafted.
"Some deputies," the paper noted, "called for the inclusion of a clause that bans selling or renting land to Jews." Jordanian Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit then sought to assuage the concerns of the lawmakers, assuring them that "there has been no sale of land to Jews or Israelis." Phew.
It's a good thing Jordan is holding the fort against extremism, isn't it? When his government is not busy discriminating against Jews on racial or religious grounds, the king's men are, of course, trying to confront the "cartoon controversy" roiling throughout the Middle East.
But while Abdullah was off in Washington extolling the virtues of freedom of the press, his regime back in Amman was unabashedly trampling on it. Just ask Jihad Momani or Hashem Khalidi, the editors of two Jordanian weeklies indicted by the king's government for republishing the Danish cartoons deemed offensive to Islam.
It doesn't seem to matter much to the Jordanians that Khalidi published the caricatures in an attempt to persuade his readers to join an anti-Danish boycott - both he and Momani now face charges of "defaming the prophet" and "insulting God," punishable by up to three years in prison.
APPARENTLY, however, not all offensive cartoons are created equal in the eyes of Jordanian authorities. As the US State Department's International Religious Freedom Report for 2005 noted, "anti-Semitic editorial cartoons, articles and opinion pieces, usually the expressions of political columnists," appeared in at least two Jordanian newspapers, but they were met "without government response."
Just another example of that moderation that Abdullah was busy touting in Washington, I guess.
Then there is the larger question of freedom and democracy, where Jordan's record clearly fails to pass muster. In its annual report on human rights, the State Department noted a series of "continuing abuses" in Abdullah's kingdom that range from arbitrary arrest and detention to denial of due process of law, to "significant restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly and association."
"Citizens," it added, "did not have the right to change their government."
None of this, however, seems to bother many in the West, who prefer to look the other way when it comes to Jordan's king, giving him a free pass because of his perceived value as a force for stability.
Not surprisingly, Abdullah has taken this as license to court even the most extreme thugs in the region. A few days ago he hosted in Amman radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militia followers have attacked US and coalition troops in Iraq.
And last week Jordan announced that it had extended a formal invitation to Hamas leaders to pay a visit to the kingdom. The visit would be part of a tour by Hamas to garner support in the face of Western threats to cut aid. In other words, Abdullah is openly lending a helping hand to the Palestinian terrorist organization.
With a track record like this Jordan deserves to be shunned, its regime worthy of pariah status, even if it is not as bad as its Syrian or Saudi neighbors.
But thanks to Abdullah's theatrical skills his country's numerous flaws remain consistently overlooked, even as it receives nearly half a billion dollars in US aid this year.
It was the great Sir Laurence Olivier who once said: "We have all, at one time or another, been performers, and many of us still are - politicians, playboys, cardinals and kings."
As Abdullah of Jordan clearly demonstrates, some of us are better at it than others.
The writer served as an aide in the Prime Minister's Office to former premier Binyamin Netanyahu.