Jordan’s admirable stability – can it last?

Map of Jordan and its neighbors
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has held steady in a region consumed by violence for decades, in part thanks to its monarch and American support (source: macpixxel for GIS)

Sandwiched between Syria to the north, Iraq to the east, Saudi Arabia to the south and Israel and the Palestinian Authority to the west, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is essentially landlocked: it has only a sliver of access to the Red Sea via the narrow Gulf of Aqaba. The country faces multiple challenges and thus far has met them with laudable success. Strong American support – both military and financial – has helped Jordan keep its borders secure and cope with the flood of refugees from the north.

The 1994 peace treaty with Israel paved the way for much-needed security cooperation, though the Jordanian population’s deep-seated antagonism toward the Jewish state frequently leads to flare-ups, as has been seen in recent weeks. Among the country’s glaring problems are a paucity of natural resources and a deeply fragmented society. Jordan remains heavily dependent on American financial assistance. King Abdullah II is perceived as pro-Western. Relations between the United States and Jordan, close for decades, deepened after peace with Israel was achieved.

American ally

Directly threatened by the turmoil in Syria, Jordan was among the first countries to join the American-led coalition against Daesh (also known as Islamic State or ISIS). Its air force regularly attacks targets in Syria and in Iraq. It did not back down after one of its pilots, captured by terrorists after his plane was downed, was burned alive in a cage – the king launched extensive reprisal raids. In contrast, the United Arab Emirates suspended air operations after the incident.

In 2015, U.S. President Barack Obama informed Congress that 2,300 American troops had been dispatched to help Jordan in its fight against Daesh. Their task is apparently to ensure proper maintenance of the coalition’s F-16 fighters, as well as operate the Patriot missile batteries deployed near the Syrian border. It was recently revealed that special forces had been sent to Jordan in 2013 to train “moderate” Syrian rebels: American ground and air forces, along with Sunni rebels, stopped Syrian troops and Iranian militias threatening At Tanf, where a small force of American instructors was based. At Tanf is situated in the Syrian desert near the border between Syria, Jordan and Iraq, astride an overland route that the Iranians are trying to open to Lebanon through Iraq and Syria.

Jordan is the only Arab state to emerge unscathed from the revolutions and wars that have plagued the Middle East

Jordan did not confirm the battle took place, since the kingdom’s official position favors a political solution in Syria. It has refrained from openly opposing President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and is engaged in a dialogue with Russia on that issue. Jordan took part in the Astana peace talks on Syria and helped designate the projected de-escalation zones, which include parts of the Daraa and Quneitra provinces on its northern border with Syria. Jordan’s army boasts well-trained troops, who along with its security services are continuously engaged in preventing Daesh from infiltrating the country and launching terror attacks. Last year, three major attempts were defeated, though there were dozens of casualties.

Stable history

So far, Jordan is the only Arab state to emerge unscathed from the revolutions and wars that have plagued the Middle East ever since Western powers redrew its borders after the fall of the Ottoman empire. The “Emirate of Transjordan” was created on the east bank of the Jordan River in 1921 by the British government, which endowed it with 90,000 square kilometers – 80 percent – of Mandatory Palestine. The country proclaimed its independence in 1946 as the Kingdom of Transjordan.

Following the Israeli war of independence in 1948-49, Jordanian armies conquered the west bank of the Jordan River and the country became the Kingdom of Jordan. However, the international community never acknowledged Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank, which had been scheduled to become part of a Palestinian state. During the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel took over that territory, but only in 1988 did Jordan relinquish its claim, while retaining its status as keeper of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. The United Kingdom gradually lost its close links with Jordan, and the U.S. took over after the 1956 Suez crisis, which greatly reduced Britain’s clout in the region.

The king relies on Bedouin tribes – whether indigenous or from the Arab Peninsula – but they barely make up a third of the population. The other two-thirds is composed of Palestinians who arrived in several waves. Some settled there in the 1920s and 1930s; many fled Israel after the war of independence. The kingdom gave Jordanian citizenship to the Palestinians of the West Bank, but after 1967 imposed restrictions to prevent massive immigration.

Powerful monarch

Jordan is a constitutional monarchy, but the king has extensive prerogatives, giving him a free hand in terms of executive power. The so-called Arab Spring led to some changes, but the monarch still chooses the prime minister, can dissolve parliament and appoints senior army officers and supreme court judges. Though there is dissatisfaction at the current economic situation, criticism for this is mainly leveled at government ministers. The king is the glue holding the country together. As a member of the Hashemite family, which claims to be descended from the Prophet Muhammad, King Abdullah II is greatly respected, even though his mother is British. He grew up speaking English, went to military academies in England and the U.S., and retains a trace of an accent when speaking Arabic.

April 5, 2017: King Abdullah II of Jordan and U.S. President Donald Trump walk along the Colonnade at the White House prior to a joint press conference in the Rose Garden
King Abdullah II (L) meets President Donald Trump in Washington in April 2017. The U.S. is a key ally that has provided billions of dollars in aid to Jordan (source: dpa)

While the Palestinians mainly work in the private sector, Bedouin tribesmen make up the bulk of the civil service and the army. Attempts at privatization and fiscal austerity a few years ago led to unemployment among Bedouins and unheard-of demonstrations against the regime. Tribal leaders warned the king that he might lose their support. The crisis was partially defused when the government overhauled the Jordanian Tourism Board in 2015, following a decline in visitors due to the conflict in Syria. Ownership and management of the country’s lucrative tourism infrastructure has also been entrusted to the Bedouins.

Nevertheless, there is a measure of radicalization among Jordan’s population due to the 40 percent unemployment rate among young men. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq killed by American forces in 2006, originated from Zarqa, a town in northern Jordan. The Muslim Brotherhood is present in the kingdom through its affiliate, the Islamic Action Front (IAF). It has representatives in the parliament but is mainly attuned to the street, threatening the stability of the country and persistently inciting against Israel.

Aid and refugees

The mainstays of Jordan’s economy are tourism and exports of phosphate, large deposits of which are found in the country’s south. The kingdom is dependent on foreign aid, mostly from the U.S., the UK and the International Monetary Fund. American assistance, which began in 1957, grew after the peace treaty with Israel and has reached a cumulative total of $19 billion. Jordan received $1.29 billion in 2016, thanks to its military efforts against Daesh. The sum includes civilian and military aid, as well as special assistance for refugees.

The IMF also chipped in last year with a $723 million, three-year loan to help the private sector. In compliance with the loan’s conditions, Jordan made budget cuts and introduced a value-added tax. Economic growth remains sluggish at about 2 percent – not enough to stem rising unemployment. An estimated 3 million refugees have put an intolerable burden on the economy and are a potential source of social and political instability. Though most Iraqi refugees have now gone back, nearly a million and a half Syrians remain. Only 660,000 are registered with the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, and therefore entitled to a measure of relief. Others wander the country in search of housing and work.

Israeli and Jordanian forces work together successfully to prevent terrorist infiltration

At Jordan’s urging, a special international committee on the refugee issue was convened in London in 2016. The participating countries decided to grant Jordan a loan at a very low interest, provided the country found work for 200,000 refugees and made schooling available to 165,000 refugee children. The European Union also promised Jordan preferred status for manufacturers whose workforce is at least 15 percent Syrian. Following a series of explosions in a refugee camp that killed seven people in June 2016, King Abdullah II – worried about infiltration by Daesh terrorists – put the northern and northeastern border regions under military administration – effectively closing them off to refugees.

Relations with Israel

Jordan’s relations with Israel have had ups and downs. The October 1994 peace treaty solved several outstanding issues – ending the state of war and delineating borders, sometimes by limited territorial swaps. It confirmed Jordan’s special role in Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem. Israel pledged to give Jordan, a desert country almost bereft of water resources, 50 million cubic meters of water each year. The hoped-for normalization between the two countries did not materialize, however, in part due to high levels of incitement from the Muslim Brotherhood and from the Palestinians, who wield considerable influence. The situation in the Israel-controlled West Bank is watched closely, and incidents there frequently lead to vigorous Jordanian protests.

Even so, the Israelis and Jordanians cooperate closely on security, since the two countries understand that they have a common interest in fighting jihadist terrorism and blocking Iran’s attempts to establish a presence in the region. Israeli and Jordanian forces work together on both sides of the Jordan River to prevent terrorist infiltration.

Despite Amman’s complaints, the strong Israeli military presence on the West Bank effectively reinforces Jordanian security. This was shown as early as September 1970, well before the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, when King Hussein (the current king’s father) was fighting an internal threat from the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad was poised to step in with an armored division to protect the Palestinians. However, after Israel massed forces in the Golan, Assad took the hint and recalled the tanks.

Israel and Jordan also understand that economic realities dictate cooperation in other fields. In September 2016, a 15-year contract was signed with the Jordanian Electric Power company for the annual delivery of 3 billion cubic meters starting from 2019. There were violent street demonstrations and parliamentary protests, but King Abdullah II stood firm. His country needs gas, which Egypt can no longer provide. The Sinai pipeline that pumped Egyptian gas to Israel and Jordan is now out of commission after repeated terrorist bombings.

The kingdom is the last barrier to Iran’s expansion

Another significant agreement was reached in November 2016. It concerned the so-called Two Seas Canal, a huge infrastructure project to divert water from the Red Sea to the slowly desiccating Dead Sea and to build a desalination plant to provide water to Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

In other words, cooperation between the two countries is possible and positive, despite the political situation – but only because of the king’s determination.

Regional linchpin

A quick look at the map suffices to show that Jordan, with its population of less than 10 million, is the linchpin of the Middle East. Should it be dislodged, the whole structure could fall apart. The kingdom is the last barrier to Iran’s expansion. If Iranian forces establish themselves in southern Syria – or northern Jordan – with Hezbollah’s help and their own popular militias, it would transform the situation and end the dream of a peaceful Middle East.

Will the king be able to stand firm and keep his country whole? There are those who doubt he can maintain a grip on the internal situation. The fact that King Abdullah II has managed so far is a good omen. He can count on overt American support, while Israel will do its utmost to help, because a strong Jordan is essential to its own security. It is worth noting that monarchies like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco have done better at resisting the onslaught of radical Islam and populism than other countries in the region.

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