Jordan looking to weather new challenges

Risks from Middle Eastern conflicts, Tehran and the scourge of drug trafficking have put Amman on alert.

King Abdullah II visited the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Centre in Amman to observe joint Jordanian-Belgian military exercises.
June 14, 2023: King Abdullah II of Jordan visited the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center (KASOTC) in Amman to observe joint Jordanian-Belgian military exercises. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Jordan strives to maintain stability despite Middle Eastern tensions and a surge in drug trafficking
  • The monarchy’s balancing of relations with Israel, Palestinians and regional powers has limits
  • Iranian influence, Palestinian refugee influx and domestic strains weigh on Amman

The Jordanian monarchy endures as an island of stability at the epicenter of an unstable and unpredictable Middle East by making sure opposites can coexist. Jordan’s latest test is managing worsening regional tensions and the marked growth in illicit drug trafficking.

Through its efforts, the diversity of its Arab, Palestinian, Bedouin and Circassian populations, as well as tribal leaders, have lived in relative harmony under the monarchy.

On the international stage, Amman has struck the most unlikely of balances, maintaining contact with Israel despite well-known antagonisms between the two states and despite Palestinian refugees living in Jordan even after the dark hours of Black September in 1970. And in this spirit of balance, King Abdullah II agreed to host 1.3 million Syrians fleeing the despotic regime of Bashar al-Assad, granting them 350,000 work permits and encouraging Damascus to return to the Arab League to ease tensions.

Modern-day scourge from abroad

As a guarantor of regional stability, Jordanian authorities are concerned about the growing illicit drug economy flourishing in Syria, as it has the potential to lead to crime and decay throughout the region. Jordanian security services are working along the 375-kilometer border with Syria to prevent traffickers from moving drugs into and through the kingdom.

Drug trafficking is a real threat. In February 2024, the Jordanian Public Security Directorate announced the arrest of 23 drug traffickers, as well as the seizure of weapons and a large quantity of narcotics. This type of operation has become commonplace in Jordan, which is facing an influx of Captagon, ecstasy, fentanyl, crystal meth, tramadol, hashish and more. Some of these drugs are used by Islamic militants to bolster their courage ahead of jihadist strikes, and affluent youth in Gulf states are turning to recreational drug use.

In the space of five years, trafficking has undergone a transformation, advancing from small-scale production to industrial sites capable of exporting entire shipping containers full of pills. Although figures are scarce and difficult to verify, a reported 370 million tablets marketed under the brand name Captagon were seized at the Syrian-Jordanian border in 2022.

Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, has repeatedly stated that drug production is intensifying in the Middle East and North Africa regions. The Jordanian army has increased its countermeasures and now conducts military operations against traffickers, including air strikes and the destruction of production sites and laboratories. The rules of engagement have changed in response to the presence of armed groups protecting the traffickers and due to the increasingly widespread prevalence of mind-altering substances in the Middle East.


Facts & figures

Jordan’s place in a turbulent region

Jordan faces multiple threats. Illicit drugs smuggled from Syria, namely Captagon, move through Jordan and into Iraq, the Gulf states, North Africa and Saudia Arabia, among trafficking routes. A drone linked to Iran landed in Irbid in northwestern Jordan, while the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, backed by Iran, attacked an American air base in the northeastern corner of the country. Refugees have come from Syria and refugee risks emanate from Gaza. © GIS

The kingdom’s aim is to fend off traffickers who try to take advantage of the country’s location and threaten its delicate harmony. Sitting at the crossroads of the Levant and the Persian Gulf, Jordan lies on the route between production in Syria, and Saudi Arabia and Iraq, through which the illegal goods are re-exported. Riyadh is aware of the security implications and has stepped up border surveillance to avoid becoming a new hub for illicit drugs.

King Abdullah II is also trying to strike a balance on the issue of Jordan’s security. At the Middle East Global Summit in New York in September 2023, he expressed his concern that Damascus does not control all of its territory and that the Syrian administration is corrupt. He is nonetheless maintaining the “Jordanian-Syrian Joint Committee.”

Strategy of balance

Jordan’s diplomatic tradition is based on reaching and maintaining balances, however precarious or fragile they may be, and on a determination not to adopt dogmatic positions – remaining as flexible as possible. The kingdom works with a wide range of security partners and routinely hosts joint military exercises on Jordanian soil to ensure security readiness.

On the domestic front, its main concern is corruption. Drug trafficking is an accelerator pumping dirty money into the underground black market and indirectly into the state administration. The Jordanian Minister of the Interior, Ayman al-Faraya, has taken up the issue, mobilizing his services and creating a liaison unit with Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.

Read more on Middle Eastern developments

Challenges emerging from Gaza

On the external front, a challenge today is preventing humanitarian crises and managing the Palestinian issue, which is an integral part of Jordan’s contemporary history. Amman fears a massive influx of refugees due to the war in Gaza. In addition to the 1.3 million Syrian refugees, Jordan already hosts 2.2 million Palestinians from the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars.

A new refugee influx would be an “act of war,” warned Foreign Minister Safadi. King Abdullah II had some very strong words to say at the end of a meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin in October 2023: “The whole region is on the verge of sinking into the abyss that this new cycle of death and destruction is pushing us toward.”

Jordan aims to protect itself from Hamas, which might be tempted to turn its military defeat at the hands of Israel into a political victory by attempting to rebuild an armed force outside Gaza to continue the fight. The Islamic Action Front (Jabhat al-’Amal al-Islami), which holds 13 of the 130 seats in Jordan’s parliament, has already demonstrated in solidarity with Hamas in the Tafila district of Amman.

Jordan’s vigilance is enhanced due to its long history of fighting radical movements and Islamist militants, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi or Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and it is attentive to potential problems. For example, Khaled Meshaal, a Palestinian politician and former leader of Hamas, issued a message in October calling on tribes within Jordan to support the Hamas cause. Several tribal leaders, including of the Bani Sakhr, said they approved of the move to link the fates of Jordanians and Palestinians.

Jordan aims to protect itself from Hamas, which might be attempting to rebuild an armed force outside Gaza to continue the fight.

Amman’s containment strategy is based on making a clear distinction between the Jordanian population, the refugees in the camps and the specific case of the Palestinian enclave of Gaza. The aim is preventing confusion to guarantee security on Jordanian territory.

Tehran fanning regional flames

Another area of concern is the regional impact of intensifying Iranian meddling. So far, regional crises, as numerous as they have been, have very rarely affected the territorial sovereignty of the Hashemite Kingdom. However, the situation has become more tense since the Jordanian territory came under attack earlier this year.

On January 28, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, backed by Iran, attacked the American Tower 22 base in the Jordanian desert governorate of al-Mafraq. Three soldiers were killed. The incident was carried out by non-state actors from outside Jordan, in this case by a group linked to Iran.

Pro-Iranian militias have used Jordanian airspace to target Israel on three occasions, according to Marie Maher, a researcher at the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies. In mid-March, a drone mysteriously crashed near the northern city of Irbid without anyone knowing where it came from. Jordanian forces now regularly seize automatic weapons, assault rifles, landmines, explosives and anti-tank missiles of foreign origin. One way to understand this trend is that Tehran is working to slowly destabilize Jordan.

Cooperating with allies for stability

King Abdullah II visited the White House on February 12, 2024 to celebrate 75 years of the Jordanian-American strategic partnership. No doubt all these issues (drugs, Hamas and the threat of pro-Iranian militias) were discussed with President Joe Biden.

Cooperation between the two countries remains solid. Washington is providing an annual budget of $1.45 billion through to 2029 to help Amman maintain itself as an island of stability, while the two nations (alongside others) hold military exercises to exchange expertise and improve interoperability among partner nations.

As part of its outreach, the Hashemite Kingdom diplomatically engages the European Union, Egypt and Saudi Arabia as well as the Vatican and Asian powers to remain the regional exception: the country that withstands Middle Eastern geopolitical storms.



The future of Jordan is likely one of continued stability despite the challenges, while the intensity and duration of regional conflict will influence the options available to the kingdom.

Most likely: Resilience prevails with global support

By making Jordanian stability a national and international cause, King Abdullah II can maintain the country’s cohesion. Through proactive steps to engage stakeholders at home and abroad, Amman is able to ward off economic deterioration and the growing burden of refugee camps.

The Jordanian security forces are containing border incidents: insecurity caused by pro-Iranian militias, drone incursions and attempts by smugglers to infiltrate the country. Amman manages to weather the current difficult period thanks to continued American and European support. In addition to the annual budget, Washington provided a new supplementary grant of $845 million in late 2023 to bolster the kingdom’s finances. The EU supports Amman through investments and support packages to the country. The key takeaway is that, barring Iran, external actors seek Jordanian stability.

Possible: Deterioration of stability in Jordan and within the Middle East

Despite the mobilization of the Jordanian authorities and the country’s international support, the situation may yet deteriorate, leading to an erosion of national prosperity, but to nothing near the collapse of the Jordanian state.

First, on the social front, three factors are simultaneously at work against Jordan’s immediate prosperity: operations at Jordan’s sole port of Aqaba, and its role as an economic engine, may be affected by insecurity in the Red Sea; the suspension of the water-for-energy agreement with Israel; and the decline in tourism.

Second, on the political level, Islamist parties, especially the Islamic Action Front, are trying to capitalize on social anger by constantly denouncing the presence of American bases on Jordanian soil. The challenge for the authorities here is to mount a political campaign that will limit the growing radical Islamist vote in the September 2024 parliamentary elections.

So far, the Islamist vote has never won more than 20 seats in the lower house of parliament, which has 130 seats total. Given the context, it is foreseeable that there will be an increase in the Islamist vote overall, but well short of a tidal wave.

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