Jordan Maneuvers in GCC Politics to Protect Its Interests

Although the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries share an interest in preserving their monarchical systems and often have similar foreign policy goals, Amman has demonstrated that it does not want to be under anyone’s thumb. Jordan’s poor economic situation and its heavy dependence on GCC states for economic aid and employment for its large workforce, however, have constrained its ability to act independently, particularly from Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, with the GCC crisis still unresolved, Jordan’s King Abdullah II has been able to restore full diplomatic ties with Doha without burning his bridges with the Saudi-led bloc in that dispute, largely because he knows that all of these countries do not want Jordan to fail politically or economically.

The current Palestinian-Israeli conflict poses a new challenge in this dynamic. Despite its close relations with Washington, Amman has been very wary of the Trump Administration’s approach to this issue, made all the more alarming by the unveiling of a plan for Palestinian-Israeli peace in late January in which the US president endorsed the idea of Israeli annexation of settlements in the occupied West Bank. Although several of the Gulf states were tacitly supportive of—or at least initially silent about—the US plan, they have come around to the Jordanian and Palestinian view of rejecting it despite their growing ties to Israel. A more common Arab approach to the Palestinian-Israeli dilemma may redound to Jordan’s favor.

Historical Ties Cutting Both Ways

During the so-called Arab Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the conservative monarchies of the Gulf––most under British control then––were often allied against what they saw as the threat from Arab nationalist-revolutionary regimes backed by the Soviet Union, like Nasser’s Egypt. Moreover, they viewed the West, first Britain, and later the United States, as their outside protector. But having shared political interests and common monarchical systems did not always carry the day over other matters.

Having shared political interests and common monarchical systems did not always carry the day over other matters.

Underlying tensions between Saudi Arabia and Jordan have their roots in tribal animosities going back to at least the 1920s. At that time, forces of Abdulaziz Al Saud, more commonly known as Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, expelled the Hashemites—who claim lineage to the Prophet Muhammad—from the Hijaz region where their leaders long held the titles of custodians of the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Although Cold War politics dampened this Saudi-Jordanian antagonism and rivalry, it resurfaced during the first Gulf War of 1990-1991, when Jordan, under King Hussein, allied with Iraq. This led the Saudis at the time to charge that the Jordanian monarch was aiming to take back the Hijaz for the Hashemites. During this acrimonious period, the Saudis cut off economic assistance to Jordan.

More recently, this rivalry for Islamic legitimacy has centered on Jerusalem. Since the late 1940s, the Hashemites have served as custodians of all Muslim and Christian holy places in Jerusalem, including Al-Aqsa Mosque/Haram al-Sharif, the third holiest site in Islam. But rumors have circulated in the region in recent years that the Saudis want this role for themselves. This competition over the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem has also been fueled by reports that Jordan’s King Abdullah and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman do not have a close relationship.

Economic Dependency

Jordan, as a resource-poor country, is heavily dependent on outside support. Overall

unemployment is about 19 percent, with youth unemployment close to 40 percent. The debt ratio to GDP is estimated at a very high 94 percent. Jordan has embarked on austerity measures in recent years in order to comply with IMF loan terms, but these policies have led to periodic anti-government demonstrations by segments of the populace, compelling Amman to scale back the easing of subsidies. Moreover, although Jordan has been fairly successful in limiting the spread of COVID-19, the pandemic, with its accompanying closures of businesses, has added to the Hashemite kingdom’s economic woes.

According to data from 2018, there were an estimated 800,000 Jordanian citizens working abroad, which constitutes more than 11 percent of the entire Jordanian population. Most of expatriate Jordanians work in the GCC countries, with Saudi Arabia having the largest share (61.3 percent), followed by the United Arab Emirates (14.1 percent), Qatar (12.5 percent), Oman (6.1 percent), Kuwait (3.7 percent), and Bahrain (2.1 percent).

Significantly, most of these Jordanian workers are from the educated middle class. About 65.4 percent have at least a Bachelor’s degree, 14.5 percent hold a Master’s degree, and 3.9 percent a PhD. Many of them work in the public sector of the GCC countries in such jobs as bureaucrats, teachers, doctors, and military advisors, though the breakdown among these professions is not publicly available. Interestingly, close to 50 percent of those with a Bachelor’s degree obtained it from a public university in Jordan, while 24 percent received theirs from a Jordanian private university, with the remainder earning their degree from abroad. The Gulf, therefore, plays an important outlet for much of the educated strata of the Jordanian population, many of whom would otherwise swell the ranks of the unemployed at home.

The Gulf plays an important outlet for much of the educated strata of the Jordanian population, many of whom would otherwise swell the ranks of the unemployed at home. 

Jordanian expatriate workers are estimated to have remitted about $3.7 billion in 2018, a crucial part of keeping the economy afloat and providing essential income to hundreds of thousands of Jordanian families. If these workers were expelled from the Gulf, such an action would have a major, destabilizing impact on Jordan.

In addition, the Gulf states, over many decades, have provided Jordan with oil (often at subsidized prices) as well as monetary grants and loans in billions of dollars. For example, in June 2018, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait pledged an economic aid package to Jordan worth $2.5 billion over five years, though some of this amount was in the form of direct loans and as guarantees for World Bank loans. To say that Jordan’s economy is dependent on the GCC is an understatement. For its part, Jordan has a security relationship with many of these states and its military officers have often served as advisors in the armed forces of the UAE and Oman. In June 2019, King Abdullah traveled to Abu Dhabi to observe joint military exercises between the Jordanian and Emirati units.

Showing Solidarity with the Gulf States but Maintaining Maneuverability

This economic dependency naturally carries political costs and limits how far Jordan may stray from the GCC on regional matters, particularly with regard to the position of Saudi Arabia. However, even though Jordan has cooperated with the GCC, it tries to retain some freedom to maneuver. The Saudis, meanwhile, have demonstrated that they are not averse to using economic levers against Jordan at times to try to ensure compliance. At the end of 2017, for example, Riyadh declined to renew a large aid package to Jordan, reportedly because of Amman’s refusal to ban the Muslim Brotherhood as well as its decision not to break diplomatic relations with Qatar, thereby not following the decision of the Saudi-led bloc (which included the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt). Jordan had only downgraded relations with Qatar as a halfway measure to stay in the good graces of the Saudis.

Another example of Jordan walking a political tightrope with the Saudis was when the latter launched “Operation Decisive Storm” against the Houthi rebels of Yemen in March 2015. The Saudis were initially able to muster a large coalition of Sunni Arab states, including Jordan, in this alliance. Although at first Jordan flew some air sorties against the Houthis—and a Jordanian official suggested it was doing so because of generous Saudi and other GCC support for the Jordanian economy—its military intervention was of short duration and it also declined to send ground troops to Yemen.

Helping Jordan to engage in this type of maneuverability is the fact that the GCC itself remains divided, principally over the Qatar issue, with Kuwait and Oman refusing to join the Saudi-led boycott. This fractured policy toward Doha and the fact that so many Jordanians work in Qatar—a country that has also invested substantially in the Hashemite kingdom—were undoubtedly factors that compelled Amman to restore full diplomatic ties with Doha in 2019.

The fractured [GCC] policy toward Doha and the fact that so many Jordanians work in Qatar were undoubtedly factors that compelled Amman to restore full diplomatic ties with Doha in 2019. 

Even on Iran, there seems to be some divergence between Jordan and the Saudi Arabia-UAE-Bahrain bloc. Although King Abdullah was the first Sunni Arab leader, in December 2004, to publicly warn of a “Shia crescent”—by which he meant that an arc was extending over the region from Iran to Iraq to Syria and Lebanon—he does not seem to share the view of the Saudi-led bloc that sees Iran as an existential threat. This is perhaps because Iran is not in his immediate neighborhood and Jordan does not have a large Shia community (chiefly only some Iraqi Shia refugees) which could possibly be enticed by Iran’s entreaties. That Abdullah in January 2020 praised the late Sultan Qaboos of Oman’s role as conduit between “Iran, the Arab world, and the international community” suggests that he does not desire a military confrontation with Iran, like some hard-line elements within the GCC. Indeed, Abdullah has said that it is necessary to return to dialogue with Iran “because any miscalculation for any side creates a problem for all of us, and all of us end up paying the price.”

At the end of the day, despite some differences in policy, Abdullah knows that the GCC states have an interest in seeing that Jordan remains a stable and friendly country. If the Hashemite monarchy were to fall, that would have reverberations in the Gulf itself. Indeed, in 2011, the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia extended an invitation to the two Arab monarchies outside the Gulf, Jordan and Morocco, to join the GCC, though that proposal never came to fruition for various reasons, including little consultation with other members about the issue. Hence, despite some periods of tension, the GCC states will continue to use their resources to shore up Jordan.

Dealing with Israel, Palestine, and the Trump Peace Plan

The most serious regional issue for the Jordanians remains the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. That is because of Jordan’s geography (being adjacent to Israel and the occupied West Bank) and its demographics (about 60 percent of the population is of Palestinian descent). Although Jordan established formal diplomatic relations with Israel in 1994, the peace treaty remains unpopular in the kingdom, particularly as Israeli right-wing governments led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have shown no willingness to meet minimal Palestinian aspirations.

Of concern to Jordan was the perception that several GCC states in recent years seemed to place the Iran matter, along with behind-the-scenes cooperation with Israel, above the Palestinian issue.

Of concern to Jordan was the perception that several GCC states in recent years seemed to place the Iran matter, along with behind-the-scenes cooperation with Israel, above the Palestinian issue. That the Trump Administration has encouraged this trend and rolled out a so-called peace proposal that supports Israeli plans to annex settlements in the West Bank, constituting 30 percent of the area (something that the new Israeli government has said will be taken up in July), has alarmed Jordan even more. Particularly disconcerting to Jordan and the Palestinians was that the ambassadors of the UAE, Bahrain, and Oman were at the White House ceremony when Trump announced his plan, giving the impression that they were lending tacit support for it. It is noteworthy that the Saudis did not initially raise objections to the plan.

King Abdullah has not been reticent in expressing his strong opposition to such annexation plans, believing it would be a death knell to the two-state solution and lead to instability in the region. In a mid-May interview with the German journal Der Spiegel, Abdullah warned that

the proposal would also lead to the demise of the Palestinian Authority. He then added ominously: “There would be more chaos and extremism in the region. If Israel really annexed the West Bank in July, it would lead to a massive conflict with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.”

The Palestinian Authority, with Jordan’s strong support, was quick to react shortly after the unveiling of the US plan by compelling the Arab League to convene a foreign ministers meeting and issue a statement rejecting Trump’s deal. More recently, the Saudi foreign minister issued a separate statement on May 20 that said Saudi Arabia was “steadfast” in its support of the Palestinian people and “its choices” and would continue to support the “establishment of an independent Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

King Abdullah and the Palestinians were thus able to persuade the leadership of several of the GCC countries to abandon their support for the Trump plan, but Abdullah was astute enough not to take credit for this change of heart or to criticize these countries’ past positions. When asked by the Der Spiegel interviewer whether the UAE was giving more importance to the Iran issue than the Palestinian one, Abdullah was careful in stating the following: “[L]et me be very fair to my dear friend Mohamed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and others: At  meetings of the Arab League, the proposal for a one-state solution is still vehemently rejected.”

Jordan, despite being a small state with a troubled economy, thus has been able to maneuver the GCC labyrinth to its advantage, both politically and economically. It remains to be seen, however, whether it will be able to dissuade Israel and the United States from pursuing detrimental policies in the peace process or if the current economic downturn in the Gulf will adversely affect its own economy and the livelihoods of its large workforce.

Gregory Aftandilian is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Gregory and read his publications click here