Revelations in the so-called Pandora Papers about King Abdullah II’s substantial real estate acquisitions of luxury homes in the United States and United Kingdom come at a time when Jordan is becoming increasingly active in regional diplomacy. Its aim is to showcase the country as an important conduit in Arab political and economic relations.
So far, the revelations have not caused a significant backlash in the Hashemite Kingdom, but beneath the surface they may have exacerbated divisions in Jordanian society between the king’s detractors and supporters. Such tensions came to light in the spring when the king’s half-brother, Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, was implicated in a coup plot, allegedly hoping to take advantage of the public’s anger over corruption and lack of government accountability. In the meantime, it is likely that the king will continue his active regional and international diplomacy to underscore Jordan’s relevance, with the hope that the Pandora Papers story will eventually fade away.
Active in the International Arena
Over the past few months, King Abdullah has been engaged in both international and regional diplomacy. In July, he paid a successful visit to Washington and strengthened his long-standing ties to President Joe Biden and to leading members of Congress. Jordan is currently the third largest recipient of US foreign aid (after Israel and Afghanistan) and will likely emerge as the second after the United States adjusts its Afghanistan aid policy following the Taliban takeover of that country. The king enjoys a good reputation in American government circles for his moderate regional stances, his cooperation with the United States and regional powers on counterterrorism, and his relations with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Although King Abdullah is undoubtedly disappointed that President Biden remains hesitant about restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process track (something the king keenly wants), it seems that Amman would be among the first places to call if Washington decides to reengage. At least Biden, in the king’s view, understands the issues, in contrast to former President Donald Trump who seemed to be simply taking his cues from former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Under Biden, Jordan’s monarch believes his views are being taken seriously by Washington.
The king enjoys a good reputation in American government circles for his moderate regional stances, his cooperation with the United States and regional powers on counterterrorism, and his relations with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Closeness to Washington, however, has not prevented the king from reaching out to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Abdullah visited Moscow in August in what many analysts believe was a pitch to Putin to limit Iranian involvement in Syria and to discuss reintegrating Syria in the Arab world. The king has been particularly concerned about pro-Iranian militias in Syria operating near the Jordanian border and has long believed that Iran is responsible for much of the instability in the Levant. In 2004, he was the first among Arab leaders to warn of what he called a Shia “crescent” in the area, stretching from Iran to Lebanon and passing through Iraq and Syria.
Whether Putin will comply with the king’s entreaties on Syria remains to be seen. Some reports suggest that Russia and Iran, although allied in shoring up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, may be
rivals for future economic contracts in Syria. It is unlikely that, over the short term, Putin would put pressure on Iran because his relations with Tehran serve as a useful tool to keep the United States off-balance in the Middle East.
Bringing Arab Countries Back to the Fold
Related to his Russian venture, King Abdullah wants to portray himself as helping to bring Arab countries with problematic recent histories back to the Arab fold. In late June, he and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi traveled to Baghdad in part to sign economic deals between their three countries, but the visit was also to signal that Iraq, which was seen for many years in the post-2003 period as an appendage of Iran, was back as a player in the Arab world.
Although Abdullah supported some rebel groups in Syria fighting Assad, he now believes that with Assad having nearly won the civil war, it is time to warm relations with him.
In addition, on October 3rd, the king spoke on the phone with Bashar al-Assad for the first time since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011. Although Abdullah supported some rebel groups in Syria fighting Assad, he now believes that with Assad having nearly won the civil war, it is time to warm relations with him and to sponsor, with Egypt’s help, Syria’s return to the Arab League (from which it was expelled a decade ago). In September, Jordan hosted the Syrian defense minister and reopened its main border crossing with Syria. King Abdullah hopes that his outreach to Syria will boost trade, thus helping its moribund economy, and possibly will lead to the return of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Jordan who are a burden on the Hashemite Kingdom, despite the international funds the country has received for their care.
While Jordan does not have much in terms of natural resources, what it does have is an important geographic location. It is trying to establish itself as a conduit for oil and gas pipelines. One such proposed project allows Iraqi oil to be transported via a new pipeline that would run from Basra, Iraq to the Jordanian port of Aqaba and then from there on to Egypt. Another project would be a gas pipeline that would originate in Egypt, pass through Jordan and then on to Syria and Lebanon. Related to this project is a plan to transport Egyptian gas to generate electricity in Jordan for transmission to Lebanon via the Syrian power grid. Given Lebanon’s dire economic situation and energy shortfalls, and Iran’s announced desire to help Lebanon’s energy needs, the latter project has taken on more urgency.
A complicating factor is that any such type of project would violate the 2019 Caesar Act, which was passed by the US Congress to prevent regimes from doing business with Syria by sanctioning individuals in such countries engaged in commercial deals. Already, there are some voices in Congress criticizing Jordan indirectly for reaching out to Syria, but King Abdullah is counting on his friendship with Biden to circumvent these restrictions. In early October, an unnamed Biden Administration official told The New York Times that the United States would like the gas pipeline deal to go forward and to avoid triggering sanctions. This official opined that the deal would provide minimal benefit to Assad and would serve to limit Iranian influence. The Jordanian media, meanwhile, has reported that Biden gave King Abdullah explicit assurances he would not be sanctioned under the Caesar Act. However, two Republican congressmen have criticized “US partners” for “looking to normalize relations [with Syria], including through energy deals.”
The Jordanian media has reported that Biden gave King Abdullah explicit assurances he would not be sanctioned under the Caesar Act.
King Abdullah and Jordanian diplomats undoubtedly are hoping that Jordan’s favorable standing in Washington, along with the argument that the gas deal will serve as a counter to Iran’s influence, will stave off sanctions despite this criticism. Jordan would not only benefit economically from the collection of transit fees from the gas pipeline but also politically by showing it can come to the aid of a fellow, hard-pressed Arab state (Lebanon) in its time of need.
Maintaining a Balance in the Gulf
Outside of the Levant, King Abdullah has also revamped his Gulf diplomacy, traveling to Doha
on October 12th to meet with Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Although Jordan, in solidarity with the Saudi-led boycott of Qatar, cut diplomatic ties with this Gulf sheikhdom in 2017, it was lukewarm, at best, to the isolation of Doha. It is noteworthy that Jordan never severed economic links with Qatar, which hosts tens of thousands of Jordanian workers, and restored diplomatic relations with Doha in 2019, almost two years before the Saudi-led bloc did so. Besides wanting to preserve his country’s important economic links with Qatar, King Abdullah also aimed to convey that while he values his relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (which also led the boycott of Qatar with Saudi Arabia), Jordan is nobody’s proxy in the region. This ability to take independent action is also important for his standing at home at a difficult time for his monarchy.
The king’s rather successful international and regional diplomacy has been upstaged in part by the Pandora Papers, which were made public by The Washington Post and other media outlets on October 3rd based on research done by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The research revealed that over a 10-year period, King Abdullah acquired high-priced properties in Washington, DC, Malibu, California, and London, United Kingdom, that amounted to more than $106 million. Moreover, like other leaders exposed in the story, the purchases were made through offshore finance companies allegedly with the purpose of hiding the names of the actual owners.
Most of Jordan’s media organizations were silent on the Pandora Papers revelations, either because they practiced self-censorship or were pressured by Jordan’s security services.
Most of Jordan’s media organizations were silent on the Pandora Papers revelations, either because they practiced self-censorship or were pressured by Jordan’s security services—though the government denies the latter. The one online Jordanian journal that did report the scandal was told to remove the story by the security services, which it did. However, with the rise of social media platforms, it is nearly impossible for the government to prevent people, especially the computer-savvy younger generation, from gaining access to the story and commenting on it.
Although the king has his share of supporters on social media who came to his defense, his opponents were quick to jump on the story. Some Jordanian critics of the king connected
the word Pandora with the Arabic word for tomato, bandoora, prompting one of them to note sarcastically that since the king has claimed that his favorite Jordanian food is a tomato stew called qalayet bandoora, “I bet qalayet bandoora is no longer his favorite dish.”
The immediate problem for the king is that the revelations of his expensive overseas real estate acquisitions come only a few months after his half-brother, Prince Hamzah, and another relative were implicated in a botched coup plot that allegedly aimed to take advantage of the public’s anger over corruption, high unemployment (as much as 50 percent for young people, according to the World Bank), and growing poverty in the kingdom.
Damage Control amid (Temporary) Public Apathy
The royal court sharply criticized the international consortium for reporting the story, saying that it jeopardized the king’s and his family’s safety. It went on to say that “none of these expenses have been funded by the state budget or treasury.” Also quick to the king’s defense was the American law and lobbying firm DLA Piper, which was recently retained by the Jordanian government. In a written statement provided to the media, the firm said that “any implication that there is something improper about [Abdullah’s] ownership of property through companies in offshore jurisdictions is categorially denied….” It reiterated what the royal court said—that the king “has not at any point misused public monies or made any use whatsoever of the proceeds of aid or assistance intended for public use.”
The king felt compelled to meet with Jordanian tribal leaders over the issue. He reportedly told them that he had nothing to hide over these revelations.
Nevertheless, the king felt compelled to meet with Jordanian tribal leaders over the issue. He reportedly told them that he had nothing to hide over these revelations. It is noteworthy that the tribes provide most of the manpower for the Jordanian military and security services; it is certain the king wanted to reassure this important constituency. And as usual, Abdullah also ordered the Jordanian prime minister to reshuffle the cabinet, ostensibly to create a new investment ministry that will focus on tackling social and economic problems.
Despite this extensive effort at damage control, neither the king, nor the royal court, nor the firm representing the government has addressed the issue of how the king was able to amass such wealth. Luckily for the monarchy, so far there has been no public backlash outside of social media. This is because many Jordanians probably believe that all Middle Eastern leaders as well as many leaders around the world have a secret stash of funds (the late Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, for example, was rumored to have hid away about $2 billion, at a minimum). Another reason, according to Jordanian political analyst Lamis Andoni, is that the Jordanian people are worried about instability and, therefore, the revelations “will not make a big difference.” Other analysts believe there is a great deal of political apathy and cynicism in Jordan at this stage, as shown by public indifference over the recent proposals made by a royal committee for political reform that were handed to the king on October 4th.
Still, over the past several years there have been demonstrations in the kingdom by members of the educated strata, like teachers, against austerity measures and corruption. If such protests resume, and particularly if the economy does not improve, it is possible that the Pandora Papers revelations will become a much more salient issue. To head off such a possibility, the king will likely keep up his busy regional and international diplomacy to show that he has support from Arab and foreign patrons and can bring economic benefits to the kingdom. However, he will have to pay special attention to the Washington file. Even though he has Biden’s support, members of Congress are not only scrutinizing all outreach to Syria but also the practice of foreign officials using offshore financial platforms to hide their purchases in the United States.