Facing Pressure at Home and Abroad, Jordan’s King Shifts Strategy

As Amman prepares to weather the storm of the anticipated US peace initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jordan’s King Abdullah II is shifting his approach to domestic politics by realigning interests with the Muslim Brotherhood and clamping down on his critics. The country’s slow economic growth and persistent regional deadlock are constraining Jordan’s rentier state and the monarchy’s rule, as the kingdom continues to lose the support of its traditional allies.

In recent weeks, the Jordanian monarchy has been preparing for the Trump Administration’s announcement of the so-called “deal of the century,” expected in June. The king’s strategy in part aims to deflect growing public criticism of corruption and economic policies. There was chatter in the Arab media in April about a “dangerous” scheme in the Jordanian king’s inner circle to promote a public figure to create instability and instigate protests. On April 23, the royal palace announced new appointments1 among the king’s senior advisors. On May 1, King Abdullah sacked the director of Jordan’s security service, General Adnan al-Jundi, and replaced him with General Ahmad Husni Hassan who is of Circassian origin and loyal to the king—not to the tribes or the monarchy’s traditional base. The king’s statement2 regarding this appointment was noteworthy and confirmed the talk about a scheme against the monarchy by noting that there are groups that, in their quest for attenion, are opening themselves to exploitation by elements that aim to compromise Jordan’s security and stability.

On May 9, Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz’s government was reshuffled a third time in less than a year. A veteran like former interior minister Salameh Hammad returned to the interior ministry for the fifth time, signaling that authorities were preparing to strengthen security measures to quell public unrest against the deteriorating economic situation and following the potential announcement of Trump’s peace plan. Within one day after Hammad’s appointment, activists from the Hirak movement were arrested in central Jordan. Members of the Beni Hassan tribe, the largest tribe in Jordan, burned tires3 and closed the road that leads to the petroleum refinery in Zarqa province, while chanting slogans critical of the monarchy. They were protesting the arrest of 19 activists from the area who either participated in protests or posted their opposition on social media. Jordanian activists fear that the cabinet reshuffle and recent appointments might mean a security backlash against them down the road. Moreover, the Jordanian government is advancing a nationalist agenda by cracking down on illegal immigration; authorities said4 that 6,000 foreign workers were deported in the past five months.

The kingdom is once again facing a pivotal moment, forcing the monarchy to initiate a policy shift and to redefine its geopolitical role.

The kingdom is once again facing a pivotal moment, forcing the monarchy to initiate a policy shift and to redefine its geopolitical role. There are three tracks that will determine how Jordan and the monarchy will deal with these myriad challenges at home and abroad.

  1. Persistent Regional and Economic Challenges

This year was expected to be one of transition in Jordan, from economic inactivity and regional wars to new dynamics addressing the structural challenges that inspired protesters to take to the streets in June 2018. Compared to 2018, Jordan is now showing signs of recovery with a budget deficit decreasing5 by 34 percent in the first quarter of 2019, according to the finance ministry’s statistics. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) also announced that so far in 2019, there have been positive signs of higher revenues for the tourism sector, expats’ remittances, and exports to Iraq and some Gulf countries. However, the lack of structural reforms and persistent regional challenges continue to limit Jordan’s road to recovery. In March, the net public debt reached 90 percent of GDP (with 50.5 percent domestic debt) as the government struggled to address the budget deficit, the water authority deficit, and National Electric Power loans and debt service. Jordan is in talks with the World Bank to receive $1.9 billion in loans over the next two years to fund development projects and lower the country’s mounting national debt. This forecast for 2019 was primarily based on anticipated improvement in the geopolitical map of Jordan’s neighborhood; however, this has not been the case so far, most notably in the country’s land borders with Syria and Iraq.

On Jordan’s northern border, the end of hostilities in Syria’s south did not translate into restoring trade ties nor a significant trend of Syrian refugees’ return to their home country. The Nasib-Jaber border crossing on the Jordanian-Syrian border that reopened in October 2018 was expected to help revitalize the Jordanian economy. The Nasib border crossing was crucial before 2011 when goods used to cross from Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey to reach the Gulf market via Jordan. However, this crossing remains inactive, partially due to differences6 in customs policies between Amman and Damascus but most importantly because of US pressure.7 The Trump Administration does not want to give a lifeline to the Syrian regime before making tangible concessions in the country’s peace talks. Moreover, since the opening of the Nasib-Jaber border crossing, only 16,700 Syrians returned to their home country out of more than one million documented and undocumented Syrian refugees. The Jordanian government was hoping the pace of return would be faster and the number of returnees higher, but this has not been the case.

On Jordan’s northern border, the end of hostilities in Syria’s south did not translate into restoring trade ties nor a significant trend of Syrian refugees’ return to their home country.

Jordan’s recent overture to the Syrian regime has also reached a deadlock. In January, Amman upgraded its diplomatic representation in Damascus and appointed a chargé d’affaires. Jordanian business and parliamentary delegations have visited Damascus, and Syria’s parliament speaker was invited to Amman in March to take part in the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union. However, no official visits have been exchanged yet at any level of the executive branch. Syria seems to want a higher level of engagement from Amman to facilitate Jordanian interests on its border. More recently, tensions grew between the two governments over a missing Jordanian couple who were eventually released.

Similarly, on the northeastern border with Iraq, trade ties are not advancing as expected. Jordanian exporters are complaining8 about the inactivity of the Turaibil border crossing with Iraq that opened last August as much as they are complaining about the Nasib crossing. Moreover, the plans to build an oil pipeline that links Basra in southern Iraq to Aqaba in southern Jordan have stalled. Constructing this 1,700-kilometer pipeline9 at an estimated cost of $17 billion still requires final authorization from Baghdad and would transfer 150,000 oil barrels per day. Meanwhile, this week Iraq is expected10 to begin transferring oil to Jordan at a rate of 50 tanks per day by trucks that will depart from the Baiji oil refinery in northern Iraq and passing through Karameh border crossing to reach the petroleum refinery in Zarqa. Jordan will subsequently continue to face an energy problem down the road.

  1. The “Deal of the Century”

The Jordanian monarchy has found itself in a difficult spot when it comes to relations with the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel because of the Trump Administration’s peace initiative. After White House senior advisor Jared Kushner’s Middle East tour in late February to promote the peace plan excluded Amman, Jordan’s King Abdullah flew to Washington and met on March 11 with Vice President Mike Pence instead of the US president. The White House readout did not refer to the US initiative to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which is at the core of Jordanian concerns. Upon his return to Amman, King Abdullah affirmed in an assertive speech on March 20: “To me, Jerusalem is a red line, all my people are with me.”

The Jordanian monarchy has found itself in a difficult spot when it comes to relations with the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel because of the Trump Administration’s peace initiative.

On April 24, US envoy Jason Greenblatt sought to reassure King Abdullah by tweeting that rumors that the deal includes a confederation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and that it is “incorrect” that it says that Jordan would become the homeland for Palestinians. However, this might not be enough to calm the monarchy’s apprehensions, given the growing sense that there is a looming deal to offer Jordanians a large amount of money to address the fiscal crisis in return for settling millions of Palestinians. These concerns are making Amman take a distance from the United States, Israel, and all Gulf allies.

The southern border with Saudi Arabia has remained a stable outlet for Jordan in the past two decades, though it has also changed with the emergence of a rather different Saudi foreign policy under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). After the Gulf crisis in the summer of 2017, Jordan took sides and withdrew its ambassador from Doha. However, Amman has recently taken steps to engage Qatar short of resending the Jordanian ambassador to Doha. On April 17, the two countries signed11 military agreements that included the exchange of military knowledge and they are in talks to expand12 the number of Jordanians working in Qatar. Amman and Doha are also studying plans to establish a direct maritime transport line to boost the movement of bilateral trade.

After the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, there was a crucial development in Riyadh when King Salman asserted control over the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio. This shift reassured the Jordanian king and eased subtle tensions between Amman and Riyadh, which came from a Jordanian belief that MBS was bypassing Amman’s traditional role on the Palestinian issue by opening direct communication lines with Kushner. However, this shift is not translating into direct assistance. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates deposited over $1 billion to Jordan’s Central Bank in October 2018 to shore up the kingdom’s struggling economy—but obviously it was not enough. Saudi help moving forward seems focused on going through the World Bank in term of loans instead of direct aid.

  1. Domestic Politics and the Muslim Brotherhood

Under pressure at home and abroad, the Jordanian king is shifting his approach toward the Muslim Brotherhood from a subtle deal of keeping them away from politics, in return for protection, to a direct dialogue that is slowly bringing the Islamist movement to the forefront of Jordanian politics. The Muslim Brotherhood sent signals of support that the king later pursued. On April 10, it announced in a letter its full support of the king’s stance on Jerusalem. On April 20, King Abdullah received13 the Islah parliamentary bloc that is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood for the first time in ten years. While Jordanian authorities do not recognize the Muslim Brotherhood as a political party, they also do not consider it a terrorist organization; indeed, the Islamists in Jordan remained neutral and quiescent in the period following the Arab Spring. This meeting came two weeks before the New York Times reported that the Trump Administration was considering labeling the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

Ahead of the unveiling of the US peace initiative, the Jordanian king found a common issue with the Muslim Brotherhood to strengthen his position at home.

Ahead of the unveiling of the US peace initiative, the Jordanian king found a common issue with the Muslim Brotherhood to strengthen his position at home. Islamists attending the meeting with him noted that King Abdullah asserted14 that the so-called “deal of the century” has “no value” for him. Nearly one week later, the Islamic Movement (which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood) held a rally in the Dead Sea area to protest the impending US peace proposal. The rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood might have an impact on Jordanian-Israeli relations, as the Islamists reportedly15 conveyed their concerns regarding the deal to export Israeli gas to Jordan. The King responded that it is under review, saying “let me deal with it.” Indeed, Amman is now reportedly seeking changes to the $10 billion gas deal with Israel.

The Muslim Brotherhood is winning16 in Jordanian unions and universities, and there were potential talks17 for them to join the government. They also condemned18 the Houthis’ attack on Saudi Arabia this month, which seems as an attempt to assure Riyadh that Islamists in Jordan are supportive of the Saudi regional agenda. However, on May 13, the Muslim Brotherhood urged Jordanian authorities to release all political detainees and embark on a national dialogue to deal with the challenges of the US peace deal instead of “the security grip” in handling protests demanding reform. This statement shows that the rapprochement between the monarchy and the Muslim Brotherhood still faces obstacles.

The monarchy’s policies do not seem to be driven by regional politics and alignment with Turkey and Qatar but rather by domestic politics and the implications of the US peace plan, since the Islamist movement is comprised mainly of Jordanians of Palestinian origin. King Abdullah’s overture toward the Muslim Brotherhood also serves the interests of the monarchy by securing new allies as Jordanian authorities, including the king, face increasing criticism. For instance, a public letter by former minister Amjad Hazza al-Majali, who once advised the late King Hussein, was widely circulated on social media last February. Al-Majali told King Abdullah: “You keep sponsoring political and economic models which are based on corruption and autocracy.” He added: “We demand that you make practical and effective arrangements to tackle corruption and hunt corrupt individuals, including the corrupt circle that is close to you.”

The monarchy’s traditional base among East Bank Jordanians is refusing further taxes on their income or cutting the size of the public sector that employs them; hence they are calling on the monarchy to tackle corruption and improve public services before asking them to pay more taxes. After forming the Razzaz government, Jordanian authorities got some breathing space to address socioeconomic problems, which are now intertwined with the challenges emanating from the American peace deal. To be sure, they seem more invested in restructuring debt than tangible fiscal reforms, and in managing the crisis than addressing the roots of the country’s socioeconomic problems.

On May 18, the headline of a Jerusalem Post opinion read, “Jordan’s King is left isolated and weak, at our peril.” It is clear that the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel are marginalizing the role of Jordan’s king in the peace process, leaving him with no option but to shift strategy—short of breaking ties with Jordan’s traditional allies in Washington and Riyadh. By challenging the US plan and engaging the Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan stands at a crossroads as the monarchy continues the search for new allies, while facing a looming socioeconomic crisis at home. By isolating Jordan and thus pushing it to fight its own battle, the United States risks losing both the “deal of the century” and a strategic ally.

Joe Macaron is a Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Joe and read his previous publications click here

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