To describe the last four years as challenging ones for US-Jordanian relations would be an understatement. President Donald Trump’s absolute support for Israel and cozy relationship with Saudi, Emirati, and Egyptian leaders bypassed, if not undermined, Jordan’s traditional diplomatic role in the Arab-Israeli peace process. Now that President Joe Biden’s administration is in place, the Jordanian monarchy is gradually reclaiming its regional role, though it might face recurring obstacles, including a nascent Arab-Israeli alliance and the reality of a disinterested Washington.
Biden, who visited Jordan as vice president in March 2016, has a close relationship with King Abdullah, who was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Biden on his win on November 7, 2020, and the first Arab leader who talked by phone with the US president-elect on November 23. (In contrast, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi was the first Arab leader to congratulate Trump after his election in 2016.) The president-elect’s readout of that first call highlighted King Abdullah’s “warm congratulations” and Biden’s “personal determination to strengthen the U.S.-Jordanian strategic partnership” and support “a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The language used in that statement reflected the post-Trump shift in US-Jordanian relations.
The Abdullah-Netanyahu Competition to Influence Trump
Abdullah’s relationship with Biden is indeed expected to be steadier, in contrast with the one he had with Trump, which went through two phases split by the latter’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017. Concerned with what impact Trump’s election might have on Jordan, Abdullah initially invested time to get to know Trump and members of his team, who were not household names in the Washington establishment. He met Trump for the first time in a restaurant on February 2, 2017 at a Washington, DC hotel on the sidelines of the National Prayer Breakfast. A day later, the White House said in a statement that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are “an impediment to peace” and “the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders is unadvisable.” On April 5, 2017, King Abdullah visited Trump at the White House, this time one day after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province. In a joint conference with Abdullah after their meeting, Trump said “these heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated,” before ordering—two days later—a US airstrike on Syrian regime forces.
The Trump-Abdullah relationship became difficult after the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017. Trump vowed to cut aid to foreign governments that did not back this US decision at the United Nations General Assembly, which included Jordan. However, this tense diplomatic moment did not impact the institutional aspect of US-Jordanian relations a few months later. In February 2018, former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Jordanian counterpart, Ayman al-Safadi, signed a memorandum of understanding in which the United States provides Jordan at least $1.275 billion annually in aid over five years, up from $1 billion in the previous memorandum.
Most importantly, Trump’s failure to advance the so-called “Peace to Prosperity” plan helped Amman avoid the difficult choice between going along with a deal that poses an existential challenge to Jordan or live with the potential implications of challenging Trump. In November 2019, the Trump Administration backtracked on the previous position taken after Abdullah’s meeting with Trump in February 2017 and announced it no longer considered Israeli settlements in the West Bank as “inconsistent with international law.”
After the Jordanian and Palestinian official positions rejected negotiating with Israel with no path to a two-state solution, Trump switched focus in the final stretch of his administration to the Arab-Israeli normalization process, which incidentally eased the pressure on the Jordanian monarchy. However, it also reinforced the marginalization of Amman and its regional role in the past three years.
At the core of Abdullah’s initial charm offensive in early 2017 was a competition with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to influence Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East.
The two phases of the Trump-Abdullah relationship were distinct. The two leaders met five times (four times in 2017 and once in 2018). Since then, Abdullah visited Washington twice, in November 2018 and March 2019, where he only met with former Vice President Mike Pence. At the core of Abdullah’s initial charm offensive in early 2017 was a competition with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to influence Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East. However, by the end of 2017, it was clear that Netanyahu had an absolute edge against Abdullah. This race to influence US policy has now hit a reset button after Biden’s election and Abdullah has a competitive advantage over Netanyahu.
Moreover, Abdullah secretly met with Netanyahu’s rival, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, earlier this year, which shows once again how the Jordanian monarchy is seeking to impact Netanyahu’s calculations on negotiating with the Palestinians. Israel Hayom, an Israeli newspaper close to Netanyahu, headlined an article as “Abdullah the irrelevant of Jordan,” which included that “the principal source of the longevity of the Hashemite regime is Israel.” This emerging competition between Abdullah and Netanyahu might be noteworthy moving forward.
Biden’s Impact on Jordan’s Regional Role
The mere election of Biden had a significant and immediate impact on Jordan’s foreign relations and has reshuffled inter-Arab relations. Parallel to his initial call with the US president-elect last November, Abdullah was self-empowered, and his regional diplomacy was reinvigorated once again after four years of stagnation.
Indeed, the Jordanian monarch’s schedule has been full since Biden’s election. On November 18, he travelled to Abu Dhabi for a trilateral summit with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. In the Red Sea Port of Aqaba, Abdullah hosted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on November 29, with the hope of reviving the peace process, and he affirmed in a statement that “Jordan stood with all its resources alongside Palestinians in achieving their legitimate rights to set up an independent state.” On the eve of Biden’s inauguration, January 19, Egypt’s Sisi visited Amman. On March 8, King Abdullah visited Riyadh to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite Biden’s distancing himself from the latter. Saudi Ambassador to Jordan Naif bin Bandar Al-Sudairi described this visit as one “of personal and fraternal nature beyond official protocols.”
This renewed Saudi embrace of Jordan came after two years of cold relations, as Amman was reluctant to endorse Saudi policy on the war in Yemen, the crisis with Qatar, and Trump’s peace plan. The Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council offered $2.5 billion in aid in December 2011 to help Jordan contain the social unrest of the Arab uprisings, but it did not immediately renew this package when it expired in December 2016. Amman read this delay in offering aid as a pressure tactic to leverage impact on its foreign policy. Ultimately, this package was renewed in June 2018 after two weeks of mass protests in Amman. Leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates convened in Mecca and offered $2.5 billion in aid to Jordan over a five-year period, with a sum of $1.1 billion transferred in October 2018 and $300 million in March 2019.
The Jordanian monarchy then shifted strategy in 2019 and distanced itself from the Trump Administration’s plan to build an Arab-Israeli alliance, as it was facing myriad challenges at home and abroad. Both sides have since softened their position. Jordan’s Court of Cassation has dissolved in July 2020 the legal status of the Muslim Brotherhood even though the group continues its activities in the country, which brought Amman closer to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi without significantly impacting Jordanian politics. The Saudi-Jordanian Investment Fund that was dormant since its establishment in 2017 was reactivated1 in November 2020 to invest JOD 100 million to start new Saudi investment in Jordan, and the Saudi ambassador to Amman said the capital of this fund is estimated at $3 billion.2 After a difficult economic year in 2020 coping with the implications of COVID-19, the Jordanian monarchy will have to balance between its need for Gulf aid to survive economically and its diplomatic necessity to push for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Abdullah feels confident enough under the Biden Administration to challenge the emerging Arab-Israeli alliance.
Moreover, Abdullah feels confident enough under the Biden Administration to challenge the emerging Arab-Israeli alliance. On March 11, Amman closed Jordanian airspace to Netanyahu’s planes and briefly delayed his historic trip to the UAE, as a response to Israeli security measures that compelled cancelling a planned visit by Jordan’s Crown Prince Hussein to the al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem. This symbolic move shows that Jordan will not give up its historic role in Jerusalem as Arab-Israeli normalization proceeds. Ultimately, the Emirati position hewed closer to Jordan’s and Netanyahu’s trip was cancelled by Abu Dhabi. The Emirati position was conveyed by the former foreign minister, Anwar Gargash, who referred to Netanyahu’s use of this visit for Israeli election campaign purposes and tweeted, “the UAE will not be a part in any internal electioneering in Israel, now or ever.”
The Jordanian position reflects concerns that this Arab-Israeli rapprochement could come at the expense of Amman. A potential Saudi-Israeli normalization deal, which seems elusive at this point, could impact Jordan in the long term and could close the door further on the two-state solution, hence posing a significant challenge to Jordan’s stability and demographics.
US-Jordan Relations and the Monarchy’s Challenges
Biden’s election has enabled the Jordanian monarchy to reclaim some of its role as a gateway to the dormant Palestinian-Israeli peace process. While negotiations remain elusive, Amman’s role is evolving as an Arab consensus builder on the Palestinian issue despite Arab divisions and the implications of the Arab-Israeli normalization process. However, it is not yet evident to what extent the Biden Administration will actively seek to revive the two-state solution or restrain Israel’s activities in the occupied West Bank. What is certainly clear is that it will not withdraw Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Despite this renewed sense of US-Jordanian diplomatic engagement, it is not apparent how Jordan’s regional role can remain relevant given that it is no longer the only conduit to relay messages to Israel on the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, King Abdullah is perhaps the only Arab leader today on good terms with the Biden Administration. The Jordanian monarchy even announced its intentions to advance political reforms in the country, in anticipation that this issue would be on Biden’s agenda. The relationship with Biden will serve Abdullah well as he works to rekindle relations with Gulf leaders who were closer to Trump, which will in turn restore some Gulf investment and much needed aid to Jordan. Another bargaining card for the Jordanian monarchy is the Palestinian Authority that is increasingly isolated in the Arab world and depends on Jordan for diplomacy. Hence, King Abdullah’s relationship with both the Biden Administration and the Palestinian Authority are the two primary cards for Amman. It is also important to understand that Jordanian anxiety about resolving the Palestinian issue is far from over.
The Jordanian monarchy’s challenge is to convince Arab leaders who normalized with Israel that resolving the Palestine issue is a priority, one that supersedes deterring Iran.
The Jordanian monarchy’s challenge is to convince Arab leaders who normalized with Israel that resolving the Palestine issue is a priority, one that supersedes deterring Iran. In addition, King Abdullah will face the challenge of making the Biden Administration believe that pressuring Israel and potentially clashing with the Israeli government––over illegal settlements, for example––are worthwhile goals to pursue, given the complexity of American domestic politics on this issue. Finally, Jordan’s monarch must convince Netanyahu—if the Israeli prime minister remains in power—that Jordan’s role is important in itself to heed calls for Israeli concessions, without having to rely on significant Arab and US pressure.
While the US campaign against the so-called Islamic State has been significantly reduced, the Biden Administration will continue to rely on Jordan as a key ally in the region, most notably for logistical support to al-Tanf military base in southeastern Syria, where some US troops are based. King Abdullah, who has recently shown some limited independence from the United States on foreign policy matters, will most probably move to be more in line with the Biden Administration’s policies in the Middle East.
Joe Macaron is a Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Joe and read his previous publications click here. ACW intern Bayram Furat contributed to research for this paper.