Jordan, Saudi Arabia move closer in the face of regional upheaval
AMMAN - Jordan and Saudi Arabia are moving closer to each other, with the Sunni Muslim Arab kingdoms setting up a joint council that would identify and target investment opportunities in cash-strapped Jordan and enhance political consultations between the two neighbours.
The move is seen as part of a Saudi effort to keep Jordan stable and close while firming up a regional Sunni alliance against Shia Iran.
The formation of a Saudi-Jordanian Coordination Council was announced in Riyadh following late- April talks between King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
The council is widely seen as an investment body with executive powers that would expedite Saudi donations to Jordan through investments in certain sectors, provide job opportunities and improved services to Jordanians by means of specific projects, instead of cash contributions.
The council would enjoy enough leverage “to enhance political consultations and coordination” regarding unspecified “bilateral, regional and international issues”, according to a memorandum of understanding setting up the body co-chaired by Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
“This is Jordan’s biggest investment deal ever that would allow for billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia to be pumped into its economy,” said Bassem Awadallah, a former Jordanian deputy prime minister and a close a confidant of the king, who is credited with being the architect of the deal with the Saudis.
Awadallah said the agreement would set the stage for Saudi investments in Jordan’s nuclear and solar energy sectors as well as uranium enrichment after a huge reserve said to be of commercial quantity was discovered in areas across the country.
Investment Authority Director Thabet al-Wer said Saudi Arabia was already one of Jordan’s top five investors, with more than $10 billion spent on projects in infrastructure, transportation, energy, financial and commercial sectors as well as tourism construction.
The council’s formation followed an April 11th visit by the Saudi deputy crown prince to Jordan, where he reassured its leaders that plans to return two islands from Egypt to Saudi control and build a bridge over the Red Sea to link the Arab countries should have little repercussions on Aqaba, Jordan’s water outlet on the Red Sea.
The Saudi official said the moves were part of the country’s efforts to create a regional Sunni alliance against Shia Iran.
The joint business council with Jordan appears to reward the kingdom for its continued support of Riyadh whether in joining an Arab coalition fighting Yemen’s Houthi militias or in its active but behind-the-scenes role in the Syrian war and the international battle against Islamic State (ISIS) militants in neighbouring Syria and Iraq.
Some critics, however, saw the move as a more organised Saudi attempt, and one that could replace an earlier arrangement, to manage its historically strategic relationship with a neighbouring Muslim Arab kingdom. An arrangement floated in 2011 was to have Jordan and Morocco, in North Africa, join the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as full members.
Officials on both sides say discussions are still taking place but they cite difficulties allowing the Jordanian and Moroccan labour force access to GCC states. Some speak of geographic proximity, with Morocco being closer to France than it is to Qatar and that, if Jordan joins, the GCC will be at Israel’s border.
“The Saudis are trying to tell us something much simpler: ‘Guys, we need your military support in these difficult times. We’re spending $25 billion on the bridge near your Aqaba, don’t be upset, we’ll spend a bit on projects in Jordan to keep it stable’.” said independent researcher Mohammed Irshad.
Nevertheless, the creation of the council ensures that Jordan remains close to Saudi Arabia as the Sunni alliance is firming up.
A reliable ally of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC, Jordan has stationed thousands of security officers in the gulf region for decades — partnerships with Muslim armies that GCC states see as critical in this time of regional upheavals. For its part, Jordan needs desperately to address the fiscal deficits generated by the recent expansion of state subsidies and significant increases in civil servant wages and pensions.
Jordan’s army is considered among the most professional in the region and is seen as particularly well-trained and well-organised, partly to maintain a secure front for Israel against Islamic jihadists in the neighbourhood.
Jordan’s anti-terrorism squads, special operations units and quick mobilisation forces are among the strongest in the region. Jordanian security leaks point to the kingdom being active in fighting terrorism either alongside the United States or alone in several places, including Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq.
Jordan participated covertly in a 1,500 Saudi force that quelled a Shia uprising in Bahrain in 2011, according to the leaks.
An emerging Sunni coalition against the Iranian-led Shia alliance is becoming more visible, although transforming it into a purely military alliance could prove ineffective against Tehran and its allies.
The Sunni alliance was manifested in the Saudi-led coalition battling Iran-backed insurgent Houthi Shia militias in Yemen. It was also evident in moves by Saudi Arabia and other gulf states to crack down on Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, and in their funding of Sunni rebels fighting President Bashar Assad’s Alawite regime — a Shia offshoot — in Syria.
With Iraq, Syria and parts of Lebanon under heavy Shia Muslim influence, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are concerned that Iran’s sway will expand in a region traditionally dominated by rival Sunni governments.