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Amid the turmoil engulfing many parts of the Middle East, Jordan’s leaders like to portray their country as a beacon of calm and stability. On his website, King Abdullah II describes Jordan as ‘a quiet house in a troubled neighbourhood’.
And in some senses that is true, certainly when compared to Iraq and Syria. Jordan occupies a middle tier in global rankings of peace and stability. In the 2017 Fragile States Index, compiled by the American think tank Fund for Peace, Jordan has a score of 78.7 out of 100, putting it on an ‘elevated warning’ level and placing it between Colombia and India. It came in 95th in the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Peace Index, ranking seventh in the Middle East.
Yet the kingdom’s political situation in January 2018 remains fragile. In particular, discontent with the state of the economy and relations with Israel could become explosive. Widespread protests have already broken out over price increases, high unemployment and poverty rates, as well as a 2016 natural gas deal with Israel.
Last year, the kingdom’s relationship with Israel once again became an issue of contention after an Israeli embassy employee shot and killed two Jordanians – a Palestinian Jordanian teenager and a prominent Christian doctor – over an apparent dispute about a furniture installation. The Israelis maintained that the boy attacked the embassy employee, who fired in self-defence, hitting the doctor by accident. Jordanian officials disputed this and said the shooter should be prosecuted. Instead, the embassy employee was allowed to leave the country, along with other embassy staff, causing public outrage. However, in January 2018 a deal was reached, under which Israel apologized and agreed to compensate the families of the two victims, and the Israeli embassy, which had been closed since the incident, would resume its activities. The diplomatic crisis came as protests were erupting over Israel’s installation of metal detectors outside Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque, of which Jordan is the custodian.
As elsewhere in the Arab world, protests also erupted in Jordan in December 2017, following the United States’ (US) decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. But Jordan will be particularly affected by the outcome of the decision for Palestine. A majority of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian descent, and certain hardliners in Israel have pushed for the Palestinian population centres in the West Bank to be handed over to Jordan in lieu of a two-state solution.
Apparently, this view was shared by at least some in the US, the ostensible broker of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The book Fire and Fury on the early days of the Trump administration, which was released in January 2018, recounts former Trump advisor Steve Bannon outlining his vision for the Palestinian question, saying “Let Jordan take the West Bank, let Egypt take Gaza. Let them deal with it. Or sink trying.”
This solution would essentially cut Palestinians off from Jerusalem, and is therefore rejected by the Palestinian leadership. Neither is it popular among Jordanians of non-Palestinian origin, who see the incorporation of the West Bank’s Palestinian population as further diluting their influence in national politics.
Jordan will also be one of the countries most affected if the US follows through on its threat this month to cut its $65 million dollar annual contribution to UNRWA, the United Nations agency responsible for providing services to Palestinian refugees, both in the West Bank and Gaza and abroad.
Jordan hosts 2 million registered refugees, the largest number of any country (although most of them are also Jordanian citizens), to whom UNRWA provides education and health services. The Jordanian state, already struggling with public debt and financial deficits, is not in a position to make up for the shortfall, and the result of the cuts would almost certainly be widespread protests and unrest.
The economy is already an area of major concern for Jordanians. A nationwide poll, conducted in April 2017 by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, found that half of respondents thought Jordan was heading in the wrong direction. The top concerns cited were economic, with rising prices and unemployment being named as the biggest problems facing the country. Some 57% of respondents said their families’ economic situation had deteriorated in the past 12 months.
Hundreds of Jordanians took to the streets last year, demanding that the government step down over its decision to impose new taxes on fuel, internet and mobile use, and other goods.
Increasing austerity could fuel the existing problem of recruitment by extremist groups. Jordan has been among the top recruiting grounds for the Islamic State’s (IS) foreign fighters in Syria.
Discontent with the economy and government are among the factors leading to that recruitment, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace, which noted in its Global Terrorism Index report: ‘For those [Jordanians] who join the conflict in Syria and Iraq, the main motivating factors include unemployment, dissatisfaction with government, inequality, close proximity to Syria and adjacent terrorist organizations, loyalty to fellow Sunni Muslims and sectarian politics. The relative fluidity of movement across borders has meant that Jordan is now suffering the consequences of radicalized fighters returning home.’
IS claimed responsibility for a December 2016 attack in the Jordanian city of Karak, when militants overran a historic Crusader castle and killed ten people, including a Canadian tourist, in the ensuing gun battle with security forces.
In addition to the failing economy and spillover of regional unrest, domestic political reforms have foundered. King Abdullah has repeatedly replaced the prime minister and promised political reforms, but change has been virtually nonexistent, in part out of fear that democratization would empower the Jordanians of Palestinian origin at the expense of others. There has been some political liberalization: political parties were forbidden until 1990, but as of 2016, there were 50 of them. However, electoral district boundaries have been drawn to empower rural and tribal parts of the country, which traditionally support the monarchy, at the expense of other groups, including Palestinians.
So while Jordan remains an island of relative calm in the region, its fragile stability could be shattered by a number of factors, including an escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, worsening or stagnant economic conditions and a continued stalling of real political reforms.