Mideast expert Heidi Huuhtanen joins inner circle of Jordanian prince
By Anu Nousiainen
"His royal highness", is how Heidi Huuhtanen Is expected to call her employer, Jordanian Prince Hassan bin Talal. Huuhtanen will start her job as the Prince's advisor in the Jordanian capital Amman next week.
Huuhtanen, 33, is a researcher at the Finnish Institute for International Affairs. Her doctoral thesis will be reviewed at the renowned Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Durham University in England.
There would be demand in Finland for this brilliant expert on Mideast politics, but Huuhtanen wanted to live in the midst of what she is studying. Furthermore, her husband is from Syria, a neighbour of Jordan.
"I looked for work in the Middle East and learned about this. Prince Hassan bin Talal knows [MP and former Foreign Minister] Erkki Tuomioja. They have been in much contact with each other through the Helsinki process", Huuhtanen explains.
Professor Anoush Ehteshami, who supervised her work on her thesis, also knows the Prince.
Huuhtanen had her job interview at the Royal Palace in Amman, where her new office will be located.
"I met the Prince, we talked in his garden, and he told me what he wanted to do. We got along well."
"He is very well educated, a real intellectual", Huuhtanen describes the Oxford-educated 60-year-old Prince.
In the West, Hassan bin Talal is known as an independent and plain-spoken influential Arab, an interesting thinker and speaker - a kind of Mideast wise man. For more than 30 years he was Crown Prince to his brother, King Hussein, until 1999, when the King gave the crown to his son Abdullah.
Now the Prince is like a former statesman with excellent contacts but no official position - kind of like and Arab version of former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari. He does not take stands on domestic politics.
Hassan bin Talal's goal is to improve cooperation among Middle Eastern countries in water, energy, and environmental matters, and in economics. He feels that water and oil can be like coal and steel once were to Europeans - the foundation on which the European Union was built.
He is also interested in supporting the development of the civil societies of the Arab countries. Currently rulers of Arab countries control their citizens in a manner similar to the former colonial powers.
"The Middle East does not have regional cooperation. It lacks a functioning railway network, for instance", Huuhtanen explains.
"The Prince sees past the old problems. It is possible to promote the human development of the area, even though there are conflicts there."
The spiral of conflicts in the Arab world has been a godsend for despotic rulers. The Palestinian problem has provided an especially convenient excuse: no reforms are undertaken before it is solved. Therefore, a strange atmosphere of stagnation prevails in the area.
Huuhtanen will be one of the few foreigners in the Prince's inner circle.
"This is an incredible opportunity to see the politics of the region from the inside.
Huuhtanen believes that she got the job because Finns are seen as neutral in the Middle East. Western experts on the region tend to be British, and the former colonial ruler Britain has completely different interests and reputation in the Arab world than Finland.
Huuhtanen already speaks enough Arabic to get by in everyday matters. "The Prince himself speaks super-elegant English, but it is a challenge to learn the nuances of behaviour in the Arab world."
When Hassan bin Talal travels, Heidi Huuhtanen will be with him in his private jet.
However, the Jordanian royals have nowhere near the level of opulence of the monarchs of the Persian Gulf, who are awash in oil money. "Jordan lives on aid from outside", Huuhtanen points out.
The topic of Huuhtanen's thesis is academically complicated. The study ponders the impact of the external security and economic policy environment on the birth of authoritarianism in the Arab countries.
To simplify the matter, Huuhtanen argues in her thesis that the Arab countries have not had to become democratic, because they have been able to finance their wars with oil.
"In Europe, the taxation of the people created a foundation for democracy. In the Middle East, taxation remains low, thanks to oil. Oil money has also been channelled in the form of aid to those countries that have been in the front lines of the struggle against Israel."
In addition to fomenting wars, the instability of the region prevents reforms. "For instance, after the war in Iraq many countries stopped implementing democratic reforms."
Could the new analyst working for the Jordanian prince give a quick analysis of the situation in the Middle East? Will there ever be peace between Israel and the Palestinians? Is she an optimist or a pessimist?
"A realist. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is an economic and political conflict, which needs to be resolved. It is difficult, because it is so hard to divide the region, and there is no clear border there."
"The best possibilities for peace will come when both Israel and the Palestinian territories are as unified as possible internally, and that moment is not at hand."
Huuhtanen laughs. "I wonder if I have ever been able to formulate it in such a diplomatic manner? I no longer represent myself, but rather the Prince."
"But", she cannot help but adding, "it is unrealistic not to care about Hamas and its supporters. The leadership of the Palestinians cannot be dictated from outside."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 9.3.2008
ANU NOUSIAINEN / Helsingin Sanomat