Jordan’s King Abdullah to meet with Obama
AMMAN - When Jordan’s King Abdullah II visits the White House on February 24th, US President Barack Obama will hear several requests, primarily a plea to continue pounding Islamic State (ISIS) militants and to push harder for a solution to the Syrian crisis.
Equally important, Abdullah will seek additional US financial aid to support Jordanian programmes for hosting 1.6 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees and to solidify the cash-strapped country’s finances, dampened by spending on the refugees, a growing foreign debt and a record deficit.
A restart of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, which stalled years ago with no sign they will soon resume, will also figure high on the Jordanian agenda of talks, according to a statement by the Royal Hashemite Court.
But Jordanian analyst Mohammad Abu-Rumman said the refugees are Jordan’s top priority.
“Jordan’s strategy of dealing with the Syrian refugees has changed,” he said. “Today, there’s a conviction by the decision-makers, based on international studies, that Jordan’s previous stance that the refugees are only here temporarily and they will soon return home was a big mistake.
“From previous global experiences, the average stay of a refugee in a host country is 17 years and eventually only half of them end up returning home.
“Therefore, we’re now talking about absorbing, not settling, the refugees.”
That situation demands long-term strategies and programmes to incorporate the refugees into the labour market, he said.
As a first step, Abu-Rumman suggested, Jordan must create job opportunities for the newcomers, which require new investment and assistance from the international community.
Jordan, situated in a precarious corner of the volatile Middle East, feels squeezed by hotspots Israel and the Palestinian territories to its West, Iraq to its east and Syria to its north.
An influx of 1.3 million Syrian refugees — half of them under the aegis of the UN refugee agency and the rest living off state funds and services — and more than 300,000 Iraqis have strained Jordan’s meagre resources and exhausted its health care and education services. Jordan says it has spent more than $6.6 billion on Syrian refugees.
Jordan’s energy costs hit unprecedented levels, eating up much of its foreign aid assistance, swelling its international borrowing and increasing its budget deficit.
Additionally, more is being spent on border control. Special radar equipment has been installed and more Jordanian patrols were deployed to ensure that violence in Iraq and Syria would not expand across the borders and militants could not cross into Jordan.
Mounting Palestinian violence in the West Bank, lately over what is seen as Israeli provocation at a sacred Muslim shrine in traditionally Arab East Jerusalem, is also of concern to Jordan. About half of Jordan’s 6.6 million population includes Palestinian families and their descendants who fled or were driven out of their homes in the 1948 and 1967 Middle East wars.
The pro-US kingdom, one of two Arab countries after Egypt to have a signed peace treaty with Israel, is an arch-enemy of ISIS and other militants. The kingdom is an active member of two coalitions, led by the United States and Russia, pounding militant strongholds in Syria and Iraq.
Political commentator Fahd Kheitan said Abdullah’s talks with Obama will not be limited to Syrian refugees. “He will discuss the situation in Syria and the military and security options available as well as international efforts to fight Daesh and US financial aid to Jordan,” Kheitan said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
The United States is the largest aid donor to Jordan, contributing more than $1 billion annually to Amman.
At a conference on assisting Syrian refugees and countries hosting them earlier in February, donor countries pledged more than $10 billion in aid for three years starting in 2016. Jordan said it was promised billions of dollars in cash and soft loans to create jobs for refugees. It said Europe promised to ease restrictions on imports from Jordan to encourage job creation for refugees.
Nevertheless, Jordan said it hoped that donors will make good on their promises.
The palace statement said Abdullah’s talks with Obama are expected to “cover the strategic partnership between Jordan and the United States, especially in light of the kingdom’s important role in the region, including its generosity in hosting Syrian refugees”.
Abdullah and Obama will also “tackle global efforts to combat terrorism and extremism across the Middle East, Africa, and the world”, the statement said. It said both leaders would review the latest developments on efforts to “resolve the Syrian conflict through the political process”.
Discussions on how to “end the Israeli-Palestinian impasse and advance prospects for a two-state solution will also be on the meeting’s agenda”, the statement concluded.
Last year, Abdullah visited the United States where he met with senior administration officials and congressional leaders.