Jordan, facing pressure at home, restores relations with Qatar
ABU DHABI - In a new twist in the Qatari crisis, Jordan took a step towards normalising ties with Doha, naming an ambassador to the country for the first time in two years.
Jordan appointed Zeid al-Lawzi, a career diplomat and Foreign Ministry secretary-general, as its ambassador to Qatar. Doha then announced Sheikh Saud bin Nasser al-Thani, a member of the Qatari royal family, as ambassador to Amman.
The development comes more than two years after Amman downgraded its diplomatic representation, a few days after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain — the Arab Quartet — cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting Islamist militants and meddling in their internal affairs.
Jordan has traditionally turned to Arab monarchies to shore up its economy. However, Gulf Arab countries have shifted their foreign policy focus to their rivalry with Iran, cutting financial support for Amman.
Threatened by persisting protests at home — on top of the declining Saudi cash subsidies that kept Jordan afloat for decades — Jordanian King Abdullah II reportedly opened talks with Turkey and Qatar, long-standing rivals of Saudi Arabia. Amman has even made subtle overtures to Iran.
“Our relations depend on our interests,” said a source close to the Jordanian government, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding: “Jordan doesn’t have any conflict with Turkey or Qatar or even Iran. What distance we have depends on the benefits to us.”
Doha, which has found itself increasingly isolated since the Arab Quartet’s boycott, has reached out to Amman, most recently when Qatari Minister of State for Defence Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah visited Amman in April and signed military cooperation accords.
Last summer, Qatar extended a $500 million aid package to Jordan days after its Gulf adversaries pledged $2.5 billion to help Jordan overcome an economic crisis after rare anti-government protests.
In recent months, Qatar has opened more jobs for Jordanian expatriates as part of the aid package, which includes project finance and job-generating investments.
Qatar, which has a large stake in Jordan’s second largest bank, has pledged to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into Jordan in what diplomats say is an attempt to drive a wedge between Amman and Riyadh.
Doha hopes that the resumption of ties with Amman would show that the quartet’s boycott has failed. Qatari media hailed the development as a victory of Doha’s “soft power diplomacy.”
However, Jordan denied that its rapprochement with Qatar was a sign it was pulling away from Saudi Arabia, Amman’s traditional Gulf ally.
“Amman will remain solidly in the Saudi-Emirati camp,” Jordanian political analyst Oraib Rantawi said.
“The decision was based on assessment of bilateral interests that Amman has with Doha. It is neither a change of alliances nor a move to bargain with other Gulf countries,” said Hasan al-Momani, professor of International Relations at the University of Jordan.
“Jordanian ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE have historically been strong at all levels, politically, economically and militarily, compared to ties between Amman and Doha.”
Momani noted that Amman has remained “clear, firm and supportive of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates when it comes to the conflict in Yemen and countering Iranian threats — a position that was repeatedly upheld by King Abdullah, who views the security of the Arab Gulf region, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as a red line.”
Despite sometimes diverging interests, Saudi Arabia and Jordan maintain close ties in many fields and Amman’s recent overture to Qatar could come at a heavy economic and diplomatic cost.
Amman’s bet on Qatar to help ease the country’s economic struggles is risky as Doha is mired in its own domestic and regional challenges. Qatar could face further hardship as its remaining allies — Iran and Turkey — come under international pressure.
Some Jordanian politicians warned that the resumption of diplomatic ties with Doha, coupled with Jordan’s relatively lenient position on the Muslim Brotherhood, which is listed as a terrorist organisation in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, would put Amman in a difficult position, especially at a time when it needs Arab support to deal with internal and external challenges.
Unlike its neighbours, Jordan has few natural resources and relies on oil imports for energy.
In the last few years, Jordan’s economic growth has slowed to an average of 2%. The country’s foreign debt increased from $19 billion in 2011 — 60% of GDP — to $35.1 billion in 2016 — 93.4% of GDP.
The economic downturn is largely due to regional instability, which has led to a decline in tourist activity and foreign investment, as well as higher military expenditures, attacks on an Egyptian pipeline supplying the kingdom with gas, the collapse of trade with Iraq and Syria, the costs of hosting Syrian refugees and accumulated interest from outstanding loans.
In 2017, Jordan received 15% less in foreign grants, further straining the economy. This forced the government to raise prices and the income tax for the working population, triggering mass protests.
Saudi Arabia, believing that Jordan had mismanaged Riyadh’s financial support, cut its regular subsidies to Jordan.
Public unrest in Jordan is not dying down and frequent protests threaten to further destabilise the country. Alongside calls to address Jordan’s economic problems, various political forces, which include traditional opposition groups as well as tribal leaders, former regime officials and retired military officers, are demanding political reforms that include limiting the king’s powers.