Jordan’s uncertain path in turbulent Mideast

Friday 01/01/2016
Staying above water. A Jordanian policeman inspects the flooded ancient Roman theatre in downtown Amman, last November.

Amman - Jordan has weathered the po­litical storm that engulfed much of the Middle East since the “Arab spring” revo­lutions in 2011 but porten­tous challenges lie ahead.

While Jordan’s relatively moder­ate political culture is a strong miti­gating factor, the risk of domestic instability is far greater heading into 2016 than at any time since a bloody civil war in 1970.

The spark could come from a re­newed influx of Syrian refugees — those already in Jordan have strained all resources — or a heavily indebted economy that came close to crashing in 2015 and is barely able to keep up with government overspending, especially on arma­ment to bolster defences.

Regionally, instability could come from Islamic State (ISIS) militants, who are across Jordan’s eastern and northern borders in Iraq and Syria, or the Palestinian territories, where fading hopes for independence and statehood are vexing Jordan’s large Palestinian population.

Indeed, 2015 will be remembered by Jordanians for many years to come. It is when ISIS burned alive in a cage a Jordanian Royal Air Force pilot whose jet crashed in Syria. In response, Jordan has taken an ac­tive part in US-led air strikes on ISIS and also joined another front, a Russian campaign that kicked off in September.

“It’s a bumpy path and it may get rougher as the Mideast as a whole is going through one of its most tur­bulent times,” Jordanian political commentator Mohammed al-Adeeb told The Arab Weekly.

“Looking around us, it’s all trou­ble spots from Libya to Yemen and from Iraq to Syria and Palestine,” he said. “We’re surrounded. We’re not living in a distant island.”

Mounting violence between Sun­ni Muslims and the Shia-Alawite sect in Syria and Iraq ripped both countries apart and effectively di­vided them along sectarian and ethnic lines. Trouble also looms elsewhere in the petroleum-rich Arab Gulf region in states with Shia communities, including Saudi Ara­bia.

Riyadh is Jordan’s largest Arab aid donor. Both countries have sim­ilar monarchical systems. Jordan’s Hashemite royal family members are said to be direct descendants of Prophet Mohammad.

Iran, which has the region’s larg­est Shia population, is flexing its muscles to exert more influence in a region long dominated by Sunnis. And, Sunni governments, especial­ly in the Gulf, have been resisting in an effort to maintain their tradi­tional clout. They even went to war to support Yemen’s government against Iran-backed Houthi forces.

Jordan fears that it will be over­taken by a tide of Shia Islam. Jor­dan’s king was the first to warn in 2004 of a “Shia crescent” stretching from Iraq to Lebanon through Syr­ia, around his small country.

For the United States, instability-driven political change that could end the Jordan’s pro-US monarchy or the spectre of an emerging anti- Western or a hard-line Islamist gov­ernment bordering Israel is out of the question.

Given Jordan’s commitment to peace with Israel and profound co­operation on counterterrorism and security matters, Washington has a strong interest in helping the king­dom get back on its feet.

“The United States has a vested interest in Jordan’s continued sta­bility,” said Mussa Ishtwei, director of the Strategic Study Centre at the University of Jordan. He pointed to Jordan being a “proper buffer” be­tween America’s key Israeli ally and the rest of the volatile Arab region to the east.

Observers insist that Jordan’s economic woes remain the biggest challenge in 2016 and beyond.

Tourism is nearly at a standstill, Jordan’s debt, spending and budget deficit have reached alarming lev­els; services such as health care and education and meagre resources such as water and electricity are over-consumed by a 20% rise in population, mainly due to an influx of 1.4 million Syria refugees.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II has said the economy was his main worry: “It keeps me up at night.”

Despite the difficulties, falling oil prices, coupled with a projected increase in international aid to the refugees, are expected to slightly shore up the national economy in 2016.

Economic expert Fahd Fanek said the real growth rate of gross domes­tic product (GDP) is expected to be nearly 2.5% in 2015 and projected that “some economic growth” will take place in 2016 but declined to specify.

Jordan is hopeful that 2016 will bring the desired stability to a re­gion free of ISIS, with trouble spots in Syria, Iraq and others pacified so that attention would be focused on resolving the lingering Palestinian- Israeli conflict — a wish that may be hard to attain.