King Abdullah’s Conundrum
Is there a storm brewing in the quiet kingdom of Jordan? In early May 2019, King Abdullah II drastically rejigged his top brass among fears of instability. A case in point was the replacement of Lieutenant General Adnan al-Jundi with Major General Ahmed Husni as the new director of the country’s General Intelligence Department (GID).
In a letter to the new Chief of Intelligence, the king has declared that the GID’s career has been a “bright and honorable one”, although the Intelligence Department “was not void of some transgressions by a small minority that placed its own interests above those of the country, which called for immediate rectification”. The sacking of the former Intelligence Chief followed recent reports regarding several senior officials, who were allegedly fomenting a plot in the Kingdom. According to the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas, the plot involved several high-level figures, among which the husband of the king’s own aunt, a’ senior official of the security services, several parliamentarians, and figures of the media. The purpose was to weaken the government of Prime Minister Omar Razzaz, to spread rumours about nepotist practices in the appointment of civil servants, and to incite members of jobless Bedouin tribes to demonstrate in front of the royal palace, which in turn could be used as evidence the regime’s lack of popularity.
This is happening at a particularly critical time for Jordan. Indeed, since 2018, the country has been marked with demonstrations and protests over extremely difficult socio-economic conditions. Public debt is at 95% of the country’s annual GDP, while youth employment has reached 41%. In May 2018, hundreds of Jordanians took to the street to express their opposition to IMF-backed austerity measures, in what has been described as the largest anti-government protests in years. This time, though, protestors did not only call out the government but also targeted the monarchy. Former Prime Minister Hani Mulki presented his resignation, but the protests did not stop there. In October 2018, hundreds of people gathered in Amman to ask for constitutional reform and inveigh against harsh economic policies and wide-spread corruption. In December, demonstrators asked the government to repeal a contentious income-tax law and a cyber-crime law which restricts the right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy.
The king is losing important support within key components of the Jordanian society, including among the tribes whose members compose most of the army and government’s administrations.
The Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab told Fanack that protests are however unlikely to lead up to a second wave of the “Arab spring”. That is, he said, because “the consequences it had in other countries of the region, such as Egypt or Syria, are a deterrent to ‘regime change’ claims.” He added: “People want reforms, but they would be hesitant to ask for a regime overthrow.”
As his popularity at home declines, the Jordanian king’s position seems also weakened in the regional arena. This may explain why he has distanced himself from the latest twists pertaining to some of the royal family’s private matters. The king’s half-sister, Princess Haya Bint-al Hussein has reportedly fled her husband with their two children to London and is seemingly seeking asylum in Germany. Her spouse is no other than the ruler of Dubai and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Despite their kinship, King Abdullah II is apparently unwilling to tackle the issue head-on, fearing negative political repercussions for the kingdom. Such an affair could exacerbate the existing tensions between Jordan and the Gulf countries. It may also compromise the status of the 200.000 nationals who are currently working in the UAE.
Jordan has not conformed with Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s line on regional matters. Although the latter have imposed sanctions on Qatar and cut off diplomatic ties, the Jordanian king has, for his part, maintained the kingdom’s relations with Doha, despite the risk of downgrading its diplomatic representation. This came with a heavy political and financial price, since Saudi Arabia did not renew its aid package to Jordan in 2017. “Jordan has never been subjected to such tremendous pressure from Saudi Arabia”, the Middle Eastern affairs analyst Lamis Andoni explained to Fanack. ”With the UAE, they interfere to the point that they even wanted Jordan to close the Al Jazeera office in Amman. So now, the channel is not fully opened. It broadcasts its programmes through the internet”, she added, referring to Jordan’s closing of the Qatar state-owned Al Jazeera channel in Amman in June 2017.
The kingdom seems to be trapped in a catch-22 situation, although any diplomatic and financial loss on the one side appears to be compensated by benefits on the other. Last August, Qatar provided a support of $500 million to the country and stated that it was willing to invest billions in the kingdom while providing more work opportunities for Jordanian nationals in Qatar.
“Jordan is a small country without any major resources such as oil. So the country’s strategy has always hinged on its ability to keep good diplomatic relations with all key stakeholders in the region”, said Kuttab. “It is true that the region is going through increased polarisation, with tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, or between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Although this is difficult, Jordan seeks to remain in good terms with all the regional actors,” he added.
The journalist also stressed that despite existing tensions, Saudi Arabia is still supporting Jordan financially. This was highlighted by the recent agreement, signed on the 4th of July between Jordan’s Minister of Planning and International Cooperation and the vice chairman of the board of directors of the Saudi Fund for Development, to pump around $50 million in the Hashemite Kingdom’s educational sector.
“Actually, it is very unlikely that Jordan and Saudi Arabia cut off ties”, Kuttab explained to Fanack. “The two kingdoms have very strong historical, economic and cultural relations. What may however grow more complex is the relation of Jordan with the United States. The latter is putting a lot of pressure on Jordan to get its support over the peace plan process.”
Jordan, which receives US aid, is indeed one of the 128 states which voted a motion rejecting Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The king of Jordan has repeatedly expressed his concerns about a peace plan that would bury the long-standing international consensus in favour of a two-state solution to resolve the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Although skeptical about what has been touted by Trump as “the deal of the century”, the king has however sent a low-level delegation to the Bahrain Conference that took place in Manama on the 26th and 27th of June to present the economic component of the American plan.
According to Israeli journalist Amos Harel, Jordan also worries that the peace plan may include a provision granting “the Saudis and the Gulf states a foothold on the Temple Mount, for instance, by managing the entrances to the Mount”. The latter, he thinks, would be “a blow to the king’s status as defender of Jerusalem’s holy places”.
For a Palestinian Authority senior official interviewed by al-Monitor in 2018, “Saudi Arabia is now setting the stage for its guardianship of these sites” and there have been attempts to engage religious and public opinion leaders from Jerusalem in a discussion with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to win support for such an idea.
Saudi Arabia benefits from its close relationship with the United States as well as from the fact that Donald Trump seeks to garner backing from Arab states for his widely decried Middle-East peace plan, which Jordan has not endorsed. The latter fears that the US plan aims eventually at either turning the country into a Palestinian state. Jordan also fears that the US plan could put a strain on the kingdom to build a confederation including the Jordanians and the Palestinians, regardless of its long-established stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its internal and regional constraints.
Loyal to its traditional diplomatic strategy, Jordan is unlikely to explicitly thwart its long-standing alliance with the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but seems rather inclined to work preventively on developing further its ties with other states, such as Russia, China, and Turkey.
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