Jordanian king marks 20 years in power with continued balancing acts

Jordan’s key allies are not as accommodating to King Abdullah as before.
Sunday 16/06/2019
Jordanian King Abdullah II (2nd-R) and Crown Prince Hussein (3rd-R) view historical battle dress as they visit the Martyrs’ Memorial museum in Amman, June 10. (Jordanian Royal Palace)
Constant challenges. Jordanian King Abdullah II (2nd-R) and Crown Prince Hussein (3rd-R) view historical battle dress as they visit the Martyrs’ Memorial museum in Amman, June 10. (Jordanian Royal Palace)

Jordanian King Abdullah II recently marked the 20th anniversary of his accession to the throne in what appears to be a continuation of a two-decade policy of balancing acts in the face of national and regional challenges.

King Abdullah’s reign began June 9, 1999. He inherited his father’s good ties with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which had been under UN sanctions since its invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Jordan was practically Iraq’s only gateway to the outside world, which benefited Amman economically. That changed following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, which toppled Saddam.

The post-2003 Iraqi rulers were suspicious of what they saw was a “Saddam-friendly” Jordan and looked eastward — towards Iran — for neighbourly ties.

Despite a fluctuating relationship between Baghdad and Amman, King Abdullah did not give up seeking to maintain economic ties with Iraq. In the past two years, Iraq has expressed its readiness to be more open to its Arab neighbours and Jordan is keen to have its share of the pie.

The Syrian uprising against the Assad regime in 2011 posed challenges for Jordan. Loss of trade with Damascus and the influx of Syrian refugees into Jordan affected the country economically. Amman sought to make up for its losses by asking for international aid but that wasn’t always forthcoming.

The brutality of the Assad regime ensured that Syrian refugees would not be going back home anytime soon, despite their poor living conditions in Jordan.

Political relations with Damascus since 2011 have fluctuated. Jordan initially backed the Syrian rebels, reportedly because of pressure from its Gulf backers and the United States, but the animosity between Amman and Damascus was never full blown. There were reports of improvement of ties between the two sides as early as 2017.

Jordan often likes to point towards the Syrian border when warning about threats of the Islamic State but the country is itself no stranger to radical groups. The worst terror attacks targeting Jordan recently — including the attack that killed 14 people in Karak in 2016 — were carried out by Jordanian nationals.

Jordan’s economic problems are increasing pressure on King Abdullah. Jordan has faced a series of anti-government mass protests in the past year. Some demonstrators openly criticised the king, a rarity that demonstrates the frustration of the Jordanian street.

King Abdullah, who has the final say in all key policies of the state, has often sought to defuse tensions by reshuffling the cabinet or firing the prime minister. However, there will come a time when that formula will cease to work.

Jordan has sought to get past its economic troubles by borrowing money from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank but such loans come with conditions unacceptable to many Jordanians. Managing public discontent with more borrowing is another balancing act that Jordan must maintain.

Jordan’s key allies are not as accommodating to King Abdullah as before. The United States, under the Trump administration, is pressing Amman to back its plans for a yet-unveiled peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.

Washington also expects Amman to back US decisions recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and cutting funding to the UN agency that is responsible for aiding Palestinian refugees.

The US measures are disastrous for Jordan politically and economically but Amman found itself unable to refuse an invitation to attend a workshop on the Palestinian economy at the end of June in Bahrain. As part of its balancing act, Jordan is likely to send a low-level delegation while reiterating its insistence on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Saudi Arabia has been a financial backer of Jordan but Riyadh is not happy with some of Amman’s policies towards countries such as Qatar and Iran or even towards the Jordanian affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Jordanian government — and court — say the Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Action Front, whose Al Islah bloc is the largest opposition group in the parliament, is not related to the Jordan’s old Muslim Brotherhood, which was licensed in 1946 and dissolved in 1953.

The relationship between the Jordanian monarchy and the Muslim Brotherhood has often fluctuated and that trend appears to continue with King Abdullah. As long as the Brotherhood is not strong enough (or willing) to threaten his reign, he will likely tolerate them.

King Abdullah knows Saudi Arabia will likely remain an ally of Jordan, despite Amman’s relations with Doha and Tehran, because all sides realise that instability in Jordan would not be confined to Jordanian borders.