King Abdullah Visits Washington amid Jordan’s Woes

King Abdullah II’s upcoming meetings with President Joe Biden on July 19, and subsequently with leading members of Congress, come at a time when the Hashemite Kingdom is facing a number of political and economic crises. Jordanians are still speculating about the failed coup plot in April that reportedly involved the king’s half-brother Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, several former and current officials, and undisclosed “foreign entities.” On July 12, a state security court handed down 15-year sentences with hard labor to former Chief of the Royal Court Bassem Awadallah and Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, a second-tier royal, for their involvement in the plot. At the same time, the economy is still in a recession because of the lingering effects of the COVID-19 crisis as well as the related sharp drop in tourism, both of which have contributed to a spike in unemployment.

The Jordanian monarch hopes his long-standing friendship with Biden will yield dividends that would not only give a much-needed boost to the economy but will show Jordanian citizens, especially those in the majority who are of Palestinian descent, that he will use his influence with the US president to solidify US support for Palestinian rights. Whether he can persuade Biden to undertake a major diplomatic effort to that end, however, remains to be seen. Moreover, while the king is said to have a close relationship with Yair Lapid, the new Israeli deputy prime minister and foreign minister who is considered a centrist in Israeli politics, the same cannot be said of his relations with the current prime minister, Naftali Bennett, who—even though he secretly met with the king on a bilateral economic deal—remains staunchly opposed to a Palestinian state.

Failed Coup Plot Revealed Growing Political Unease

Although King Abdullah seems to have weathered the crisis involving the failed coup (otherwise, he would not have taken such a long, three-week visit to the United States), the problems cited by his half-brother Hamzah on social media, while he was under house arrest, continue to resonate with the Jordanian public. While detained, Hamzah pointed to problems of government mismanagement, corruption, and censorship of dissident opinion. In particular, Hamzah’s defiant declaration during this time that “I am a free Jordanian” seems to have resonated with many people, as the regime, especially since 2018 when protests started to mount, has increasingly used repression to silence its critics. The arrests of teacher activists and the lack of a genuine free press, for example, have a number of the hallmarks of an authoritarian state. That many Jordanians on social media seemed to have sided with Hamzah against Abdullah (although the king still had his share of supporters) undoubtedly made the regime very nervous and probably prompted the king to ask his uncle, Hassan bin Talal, to intervene in the matter and obtain a pledge of loyalty by Hamzah to defuse the crisis.

Mounting Economic Troubles

Resource-poor Jordan has been hard hit by the COVID-19 crisis (which has resulted in more than 750,000 cases and 9,800 deaths in the kingdom) and its economic fallout. The country is also facing a severe water crisis that impacts economic and social development. In 2020, according to World Bank data, the economy contracted by 1.6 percent. Perhaps more alarming, unemployment shot up to 24.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020, with youth unemployment reaching an astounding 50 percent. Meanwhile, worker remittances dropped by10 percent between 2019 and 2020, as some Jordanians were laid off from their jobs abroad. In addition, Jordan’s current account deficit, which had been declining (falling to 2.1 percent of GDP in 2019), increased to 8 percent of GDP in 2020.

In 2020, according to World Bank data, the economy contracted by 1.6 percent. Perhaps more alarming, unemployment shot up to 24.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020, with youth unemployment reaching an astounding 50 percent. 

The World Bank has praised Jordan for its efforts not only in implementing economic reforms but in providing social protection programs for vulnerable communities. However, western press reporting from April on the tourist sector in Petra (the top tourist destination in Jordan) reveals a much different picture. In pre-COVID years, tourism accounted for as much as 14 percent of GDP, but 2020 witnessed far fewer tourists, with Petra contributing only a quarter of what it did in 2019. One tourism sector worker complained: “Every five months, they [government officials] give you a bag of rice once … We’re living on bread and tea.” The minister of tourism, Nayef al-Fayez, said that he understands the workers’ frustrations and added that the government is going to focus on helping this sector but underscored that “our economic capabilities are limited.”

Heavy Reliance on Foreign Assistance

With its growing population of 10 million people, Jordan has been heavily dependent on foreign aid for decades. Luckily for the kingdom, regional and international actors still see the country as too important to fail for a variety of reasons. Despite occasional political problems with some Gulf Arab states, Jordan has been the recipient of grants and loans from several of these countries for many years. In addition, the United States and the EU are also major donors to the Hashemite Kingdom. In fact, Jordan has received more than $1.5 billion a year from the United States for the past several years, which includes military and economic aid as well as assistance for the care of Syrian refugees in the kingdom. In March 2020, the IMF concluded a $1.3 billion, four-year EFF (Extended Fund Facility) to Jordan. Two disbursements from this fund have already been made, and on June 30 of this year, the IMF board approved another disbursement of $206 million.

Jordan has received more than $1.5 billion a year from the United States for the past several years, which includes military and economic aid as well as assistance for the care of Syrian refugees in the kingdom. 

Jordan is also banking on the prospect of increased trade with regional states. In late June, King Abdullah and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi traveled to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi leaders. Although the meeting was geared in part to help woo Iraq away from Iran’s influence, the king also saw it as an opportunity to advocate for the idea of an oil pipeline being built from Basra in southern Iraq to the Jordanian port of Aqaba. Such a pipeline would not only reduce the transportation costs of bringing Iraqi oil into Jordan (currently being done by trucks) but would presumably allow Jordan to collect transit fees for the portion of Iraqi oil going from Aqaba onward to Egypt.

A Friend in Biden

King Abdullah is undoubtedly hoping that his friendship with Biden will pay off. The two leaders have known each other for many years, as Biden made many trips to Jordan as a US senator (including in his positions as ranking member and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) and later as vice president. Significantly, King Abdullah was among the first Arab leaders to congratulate Biden after he won the November 2020 US presidential election, and Biden was quick to issue a statement of support for the king in April 2021, followed by a personal phone call, in the aftermath of the failed coup. Although Biden has emphasized he will prioritize relations with democracies, he obviously has made an exception for the Hashemite Kingdom which on paper is a constitutional monarchy but in practice is run by the king and the royal court with help from a technocratic cabinet.

A large part of the close US-Jordanian friendship under Biden is because of a shared outlook for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as both leaders have spoken about the need for a two-state solution.

A large part of the close US-Jordanian friendship under Biden is because of a shared outlook for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as both leaders have spoken about the need for a two-state solution. Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has also told Israeli officials not to take provocative actions in Jerusalem, such as expelling Palestinian residents from neighborhoods in the city, while the king is especially sensitive about Jerusalem because, officially, he is responsible for Christian and Muslim holy sites there including Al-Asqa Mosque/Dome of the Rock, considered the third holiest site in Islam.

Although Jordan maintained relations with Israel during Benjamin Netanyahu’s long tenure as prime minister, it was no secret that the king did not get along with the Israeli leader, seeing his policies as detrimental to a true Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. Jordan was particularly upset with Netanyahu’s view, which was shared by former President Donald Trump, about Jerusalem remaining exclusively in Israeli hands and for Israel to annex as much as one-third of the occupied West Bank, including lands in the Jordan Valley. While the annexation plan was not carried out, the king saw the Trump-Netanyahu partnership as working against, not for, a genuine Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Biden’s presidential victory, therefore, brought a breath of fresh air to the situation, even though there has actually been no real movement in the peace process. There were only efforts to temporarily end the military conflict between Israel and Hamas in May and to restore US political relations with and aid to the Palestinian Authority, which had been suspended by Trump.

But Real Peace Remains Elusive

However, better atmospherics are not enough to change the Israeli-Palestinian equation. While Jordanians and Palestinians were happy that Netanyahu lost his bid to remain prime minister, the new Israeli government under the leadership of Naftali Bennett is unlikely to make the concessions necessary for peace. Bennett was not only a former chief of staff to Netanyahu (their later estrangement was more personal than ideological) but he was also once head of the Yesha Council, representing the Jewish settler movement, and is on record opposing the idea of a Palestinian state.

Although Abdullah and Bennett reportedly met in secret recently to discuss a deal involving Jordan’s purchase of Israeli-controlled water, an agreement which was concluded publicly by the Israeli and Jordanian foreign ministers on July 8, this episode revealed that Bennett wants Jordanian-Israeli bilateral relations to be on a positive track—rather than a desire on his part to be conciliatory to the Palestinians. In fact, shortly after his meeting with the king (which was reported in the Israeli press but not in Jordanian media because of political sensitivities), Bennett defiantly opposed US criticism concerning the destruction of a family home of a Palestinian-American who was accused of killing one Israeli and wounding two others.

Abdullah is probably hoping that a combination of pressure from Biden as well as members of the ruling Israeli coalition government will move Bennett to take a positive approach to the Palestinians. 

Abdullah is probably hoping that a combination of pressure from Biden as well as members of the ruling Israeli coalition government (which includes centrists and leftists as well as a Palestinian Islamist party) will move Bennett to take a positive approach to the Palestinians. Even if such pressure materializes, however, it is far from certain that Bennett would succumb to it, especially since he can play hardball with his coalition partners who know that if he and his Yamina Party bolt from the coalition, the government would likely fall. A more optimistic scenario would be when Yair Lapid takes over as prime minister in 2023 as part of the government’s power-sharing arrangement. Lapid reportedly has close relations with Abdullah and favors a two-state solution, though he has been vague about the details. However, with the coalition government having a very slim majority in the Knesset, it is questionable if this government will last until 2023. The only thing that brought these disparate political parties together was their opposition to Netanyahu, and that may not be enough to sustain the coalition going forward.

For his part, Biden seems in no rush to make a major push in the peace process. Having seen many US presidents, including Barack Obama, try hard and fail in their endeavors to bring about a peace deal, Biden may believe the time is not right to expend the political capital to make a major effort of his own. Hence, while Biden and Abdullah may see eye-to-eye on what would constitute a genuine and lasting peace settlement, the king may be disappointed by Biden’s likely reticence at this point.

The Need for Genuine Reforms amid US Support

Still, Abdullah is likely to receive pledges of support from both Biden and Congress for another five-year, $6.4 billion aid package (the current package is expiring next year). Jordan is seen on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill as a moderate, pro-western country that has kept the peace with Israel and has cooperated with the United States on many counterterrorism operations. On July 7, the White House issued a statement that the visit will “highlight the enduring and strategic partnership between the United States and Jordan.” The king, with his fluent English and understanding of American society and politics (he went to preparatory school in Massachusetts and later studied at Georgetown University) usually makes a compelling case to interlocutors about the need to support Jordan’s stability in an unstable region. He will be accompanied at the White House by his wife, Queen Rania, and their son, Crown Prince Hussein.

Biden and members of Congress should also use this visit to press the king to ease up on repression, allow for a truly free press, and crack down on corruption. The king and his advisors may believe that tightening the screws on political dissent is effective, but this is likely to be a losing strategy over the medium to long term. That the king’s half-brother was able to gain significant political traction by highlighting these problems on social media suggests that they are an explosive mix, especially at present, when the Jordanian people are under severe economic stress. Hence, some US tough-love may be required to press Abdullah to pursue these reforms, which should include changes to the judiciary as a way to help tackle corruption. On the foreign policy front, the Biden team should prepare for the day when Lapid or another centrist leader will take the reins of Israeli politics, as that may be an opportune time to restart the peace process in a meaningful way. In the meantime, they should try to shore up the Palestinian economy and continue to dissuade Israeli officials from pursuing policies aimed at isolating and weakening the Palestinians. An ultimate and fair peace deal would not only bring justice to the Palestinians but would have the added benefit of shoring up Jordan’s fragile stability.

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

* Photo credit: The Royal Hashemite Court