If there is one constant in US foreign policy in the Middle East, it is the close relationship with Jordan since the 1950s. This partnership has been strained and tested since the December 6, 2017 decision of President Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and start plans to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Vice President Mike Pence is due in Jordan on January 21 in an attempt to contain the fallout of the past four weeks.
There is anxiety in Amman that Trump might neither understand nor tolerate Jordan’s diplomatic offensive against his controversial decision, which could ultimately harm US-Jordanian relations. In fact, Jordan’s King Abdullah II is now simultaneously facing difficult relations and conflicting interests with the leaders of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.
Jordanian concerns over the US decision on Jerusalem fall into three categories that drive Amman’s reaction and factor in the cost/benefit analysis of the country’s leadership: identity politics, security challenges, and economic woes.
Identity Politics Drive Foreign Policy
In a conservative society like Jordan’s, the religious and moral role of the monarchy is paramount in assessing Amman’s reaction to the Jerusalem decision. After all, the Hashemites (Jordan’s royal family) are the custodian of Jerusalem’s Muslim and Christian holy sites—a legacy they acquired since 1924 with the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali. The king of Jordan currently funds all operations of the Jerusalem Islamic waqf, which manages the Islamic edifices on and around the Haram al-Sharif, including al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The Jordanian role in Jerusalem was recognized by Israel in the 1994 peace treaty between the two countries.
Demography is a salient factor for Jordan, most notably when it comes to Palestinians in the country. Its 2015 census data sets the number of Palestinians living in Jordan at 630,000 out of 9.5 million; however, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics notes that 2.2 million Palestinians live in Jordan. The debate around the number of Palestinians in Jordan is sensitive and challenges the country’s national identity. The king cannot afford to be seen publicly as complicit in Trump’s decision because that would anger Jordanians of Palestinian origin and potentially destabilize the kingdom.
Growing political pressure at home was also manifest through protests by hundreds of Jordanians, including parliamentarians, Islamists, and independents, in front of the US embassy in Amman in response to Trump’s Jerusalem decision. They chanted “America is the head of the snake” and “No US bases on Jordanian soil” while demanding the closure of the US embassy and the expulsion of the chargé d’affaires. The king is opting to embrace that public pressure instead of challenging it. He called the US move “dangerous” but avoided a direct rebuke of President Trump.
Security Concerns and Dependence on Israel
For decades, the peace between Palestinians and Israelis has been a Jordanian national security priority. Since assuming power in 1999, King Abdullah has often been frustrated with the lack of Israeli commitment to advance peace. In June 2008, he asserted that “the clock is ticking” and that having a two-state solution might not be possible beyond 2009.
Meanwhile, the current US Administration has been lightly playing around with the concept of a two-state solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In the alternative scenario of a one-state solution, Israel would most likely not accept the integration of West Bank Palestinians to avoid a drastic demographic change. That scenario reignites Jordan’s fears of becoming an alternative homeland to the Palestinians.
Jordan has learned to live with Israel’s lack of interest in peace since 2010. Tensions, however, have been growing between them since 2016. Last July, a guard at the Israeli embassy in Amman killed two Jordanians, which prompted the kingdom to refuse the return of the Israeli ambassador to Amman until the assailant was put on trial. After coordinating on Syria since its upheaval began in 2011, the Israeli-Jordanian synchronization also faltered last July as Israel objected to the Jordanian-sponsored US-Russian ceasefire agreement in southwestern Syria.
The recent spat over Jerusalem heightened tensions further and raised questions about the two countries’ bilateral cooperation, as the king faces domestic pressure to halt common projects while Israel uses them to influence Amman’s foreign policy. In March 2017, Israel began exporting gas to Jordan using an American oil company to bypass political sensitivities in Jordan. Israel recently threatened to withhold support to the Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project, but Amman indicated its readiness to go alone on this project, to reduce water and energy dependence on Israel. Furthermore, the Jordanian parliament voted to review the peace treaty with Israel, a move that has no impact as the king shapes the country’s foreign policy. All these constraints will make it less likely for Jordan to completely cut ties with Israel.
Economic Woes and the GCC
The Jordanian economy continues to struggle despite nearly three decades of intensive engagement by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). A slowdown strained the economy since 2016, with the unemployment rate reaching 18 percent last year. Furthermore, the Syrian refugees and the cash-strapped Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are imposing additional pressure on an aid-dependent country. According to Jordan’s foreign ministry, there are 430,000 Jordanians working in Saudi Arabia and “thousands” of them returned home in the past year as Saudi authorities have been cutting salaries, reducing foreign employment, and enforcing an expat tax since last July.
Meanwhile, the Jordanian parliament just passed a state budget that incorporated the IMF recommendations of suspending government subsidies, including for bread, which could trigger public protests in 2018. The overall debt has exceeded $36 billion and the king’s message to the Jordanians was that, “We have to rely on ourselves.” The five-year grants from the GCC, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have expired and there are no indications they will be renewed.
The current complex relationship between Amman and Riyadh is stirring unverified rumors in Jordanian media, such as chatter about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman encouraging a rebellion inside the Hashemite monarchy or overstating the deportation statistics of Jordanian expatriates working in Saudi Arabia. There also have been underlying tensions recently between the two countries, with a public spat1 between the Saudi ambassador and Jordanian parliamentarians as well as the detention and release by Saudi authorities of Palestinian-Jordanian billionaire Sabih al-Masri.
During King Salman’s visit to Amman in March 2017, a $3 billion joint investment fund for Jordan was set up; however, none of the investments have materialized yet. It is not yet clear if the delay is due to domestic Saudi reasons or the current state of bilateral relations.
In two crucial instances for Saudi foreign policy, Riyadh believes Amman was reluctant to join forces. During the crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar last June, Jordan was not part of the Saudi-led embargo and opted instead to just reduce its diplomatic representation in Doha. In January 2016, when Iranian protesters attacked Saudi missions in Iran, Amman did not sever ties with Tehran but recalled its ambassador.
Jordan’s economic dependence on the GCC led some prominent Jordanian commentators to suggest2 that Amman should emulate the United Arab Emirates’ model of not allowing the political rivalry with Iran to stand in the way of high-level bilateral trade. Iran’s ambassador to Jordan, Mojtaba Ferdosipour, publicly encouraged Jordanian authorities to renew economic cooperation and explained its benefits by arguing that “the Iranian market consists of 80 million people, while the Jordanian market is comprised of about 9 million people.” While Jordan’s lower house speaker, Atef Tarawneh, met last month with Iran’s ambassador to Amman, the Jordanian government will most likely be more cautious in engaging the Iranian regime to avoid further escalation in relations with Washington and Riyadh.
Amman’s Estrangement with Washington and Its Allies
It is not the first time, nor probably the last, that Jordan finds its national interests simultaneously unaligned with both the United States and Saudi Arabia. In 1990 and 2003, Amman did not endorse the US military solution against Iraq. After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, King Hussein was alienated by the United States and its Gulf allies until Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994. During the US invasion of Kuwait in 2003, King Abdullah drew on the lessons of his father. While publicly opposing the invasion, he allowed US Patriot batteries to be stationed along the Iraqi border but did not allow American troops to launch an invasion from Jordanian territory.
Between the two Iraq wars, Amman was central to US efforts to bring Palestinians and Israelis together and has played in the past decade a crucial role in helping Washington combat terrorism and counter Iran’s regional role. However, it has been difficult for King Abdullah to see eye to eye with the last three American presidents. He failed to persuade George W. Bush not to invade Iraq and was disappointed by his lack of commitment to push peace in 2008. King Abdullah also thought Barack Obama did not do enough to help Sunni allies in the Middle East and had pressured Jordanian authorities to undergo reforms as a precondition to aid. While the United States and Jordan agree on the approach in Syria and Iraq, President Trump’s Jerusalem declaration might lead King Abdullah to drift away from Washington.
In December, Trump threatened to cut aid to all countries, including Jordan, that voted in favor of a United Nations resolution demanding that the United States withdraw its decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The aid package Washington provided to Amman last year reached $1.3 billion. A US embassy official in Jordan noted on December 30 that Washington and Amman are currently in discussions over Jordan’s request of a new memorandum of understanding and that “we look forward to continuing our extraordinary partnership with Jordan.” Despite these assurances, there are concerns in Amman that the Trump Administration might have strings attached to providing aid.
The Jordanian king has also been critical of President Trump on other issues like the Muslim travel ban, but during his two visits to Washington last year he struck a positive tone and was upbeat about the potential of advancing the Middle East peace process. The shift came during the third visit on November 27, when King Abdullah met US Vice president Mike Pence and was quietly told about the Jerusalem decision.
The bedrock of the partnership between Washington and Jordan has been supporting a peace process between the Palestinians and Israelis, working to combat terrorism, and facilitating US policy in the Middle East. Israel also played a crucial part in advancing US aid to Jordan in recent decades, whether during the Oslo process or the early years of the recent upheaval in Syria. However, the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has significant impact on how Jordan views its regional role.
After extending its role in Syria and Iraq during the rise of the so-called Islamic State, the Jerusalem decision forced Jordan to retreat and look inward. Furthermore, potential Saudi-Israeli talks could bypass the traditional Jordanian role in the peace process. For some time, Amman has also been the back channel between Israel and Gulf countries, whereas Riyadh did not include Amman in talks with Washington about a peace plan between Palestinians and Israelis.
As Pence arrives in Amman on January 21, the prospect of cuts in US aid to Jordan is not on the horizon. Jordan might sharpen the rhetoric or push the envelope in remaking its alliances, but it will not risk losing crucial US support or the political capital the Jordanian king enjoys among policy makers in Washington. The United States also cannot lose a key ally that provides a platform for US policy in the Middle East. Hence, the message Pence will deliver during this trip is crucial. There are no expectations in Amman that Trump will revoke the Jerusalem decision. What the monarchy wants from the United States is a path forward toward peace that restores Jordan’s regional role and helps contain public anger. If Pence fails in that mission, Jordan will most probably continue its balancing act.