Jordan: Still Stable, but Less So

May 7, 2021
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On April 3, teams of masked gunmen, emerging from tinted-windowed sport utility vehicles, grabbed 18 highly placed Jordanians at their homes, their farms, and on the street. Those seized — including Bassem Awadallah, a former chief of the royal court and finance minister — were jailed for promoting sedition and conspiring with foreign powers. King Abdullah II’s half-brother Prince Hamza was instructed to restrict contact outside his immediate family and to not use social media. His security team was reportedly replaced. This event was unparalleled in the past 50 years of Jordanian history.

The regime has been careful not to speak of a “coup,” and no military or security personnel have been reported arrested. Its actions seem more about prevention and deterrence than about disruption of actual activity or plans. The extremely rare and open tension in the royal family was papered over by Hamza’s swearing fealty to the king and by submitting to intra-dynastic mediation. Sixteen of the 18 arrested, though not Awadallah, were released pending further investigation.

 

 

These developments have brought the Hashemite Kingdom to the forefront of international attention after a lengthy period flying under the radar. They illustrate significant developments and challenges in Jordan’s domestic and foreign affairs over the past year or so. They have led to the second most difficult period — after the Arab uprisings of 2011-2012 — in Abdullah’s 22-year reign, though they are not to a major threat to regime survival.

It is ironic that these developments came a week before April 11 — the official holiday marking the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Hashemite Kingdom by King Abdullah I.

Jordan’s fragility has in fact been a source of strength for its rulers. Unlike the leaders of the other Arab states who had a rude awakening in 2011, the Hashemites have never been complacent and have always slept with one eye open. They have been exquisitely attuned to public sentiment and to the slightest hints of unrest, and they have used a complex mix of cooptation, rewards, pervasive surveillance, carefully calibrated and rarely excessive use of force, and creation of a distinctive national identity and patriotism to disarm or quash potential threats. They have also alchemized their kingdom’s strategic, social, and economic weaknesses into a source of strength on the regional and international scene. They did this by stressing the threats to the kingdom’s stability while proving its value and reliability as a regional ally, thereby securing close, protective, and generous strategic relationships with the United States and the West, including Israel.

What should observers make of the most recent set of challenges? Most likely, that Jordan remains stable but less so than it used to be.

Domestic Challenges

Jordan was widely commended both abroad and at home for its early and seemingly effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the economic effects of some of the most stringent measures in the world — including lengthy lockdowns and nighttime and weekend curfews supervised by the military and enforced with thousands of arrests — and, more importantly, a surge of cases in subsequent waves, have muddied this image and exacerbated social discord.

The kingdom has had more than 700,000 cases of COVID-19 thus far, with some 2,000 new cases and more than 30 deaths daily, and with 9,000 total fatalities. While the government has begun a vaccination campaign, the number of vaccines obtained, and therefore of citizens vaccinated, has so far been low: Out of a population of some 10 million, only 800,000 or so have received the first dose and close to 300,000 the second. The government claims that it has contracted for millions of vaccines, and that starting in May it will vaccinate 150,000 people a day.

Unemployment is high: officially 23.9 percent, with 55 to 60 percent youth unemployment. Many workers, including refugees, in the large informal sector are uncounted. Debt increased to 115 percent of GDP at the end of 2020, GDP declined by 5 percent in 2020), and government revenues, income from tourism, and remittances from Jordanians abroad are all down.

The regime is widely perceived as using the pandemic as a cover for further restricting already limited freedom of expression and of protest through a series of defense orders (29 so far). Steps included the arrests of journalists charged with “spreading misinformation” as well as the banning of the Teachers’ Syndicate and the arrests of its leaders and of many teachers in July-August 2020 due to threatened protests. In addition to regularly issued gag orders regarding developments such as protests, internet services and social media have reportedly been intentionally disrupted during periods of tension. This is highly significant since there is widespread reliance on online and especially foreign sources and social media for news. Traditional media is widely distrusted.

Protest and Response

Amman and other cities saw several days of street protests following the deaths in March of nine COVID-19 patients in a government hospital in Salt after its oxygen supply ran out. Protesters called for the emergency laws to be scrapped, the government dismissed, and parliament dissolved. Hirak movement activists called for demonstrations throughout the country on March 24, the 10th anniversary of Arab Spring protests, demanding reforms, including rolling back the constitutional amendments of 2014 and 2016, which strengthened the king’s power, a constitutional monarchy, an elected parliamentary government, and amendment of the election law. Security forces thwarted them through large-scale preemptive arrests and disruption activity.

The king’s response met a well-known pattern. It included high-profile acts of identification with the public by, for example, arriving at the Salt hospital immediately after the incident and firing its director, expression of ire and shifting blame to ministers — two of whom were dismissed in February for violating social distancing regulations while the health minister was dismissed in the wake of the Salt oxygen scandal — and the bureaucracy, and issuing statements initiating vague dialogue on reforms. On March 15, the king said that he would hold accountable anyone who fails to work and protect the lives of Jordanians. He also rejected the argument that neglect or corruption were part of Jordanian culture, as well as the mentality that “we want to combat corruption and favoritism, but when it comes to us, this is a red line.” On Jan. 30, he had stated the need to “revisit laws regulating political life, such as the election, political parties, and local administration laws … Our goal for many years has been to reach a platform-based political party scene that reflects the ideology and leanings of Jordanians.”

These “carrots” of promised reform have been accompanied by the display of a “stick” of repression. Jordan has not been a fierce, predatory security state like Syria or Egypt. However, limitations on press and social media freedom, arrests of demonstrators, and most significantly, the recent arrests and steps against Prince Hamza show an extremely limited tolerance for dissent. In the past decade, unhappiness with government policies, especially neoliberal policies leading to privatization and economic dislocation, has led to criticism of regime policy among East Bankers (Jordanians whose origins trace back to the indigenous clans and tribes of Transjordan) and a breakdown of the perceived “social compact” between them and the regime. East Bankers often refer to themselves as “Jordanian Jordanians” and are historically considered the main power center of the Hashemites. In recent years, there has been occasional open criticism among disaffected East Bankers of the king and especially of his wife, who is of Palestinian origin. This has also found expression as support for Hamzaas an alternate ruler for being more “authentic,” and who is regarded as the true choice of his father King Hussein. (King Hussein directed Abdullah to name Hamza as crown prince, but Abdullah replaced him in 2004 with his own son, Hussein). Hamza’s reported recent meetings with unhappy sector and clan representatives appear to have been a red line for the regime, leading to the crackdown. However, it is reported that the prince’s popularity has only increased since the arrests, which the public believes were poorly handled.

In another familiar trend, the king has continued to militarize the response to the pandemic challenge. The military is prominent and unifying in the national ethos and is held in very high regard by the public relative to other institutions. The security forces are also loyal to the monarch and the dynasty. The earliest official reports of Hamza’s restrictions were of a meeting with him by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who ordered him to cease “movements and activities that are used to target the security and stability of Jordan” and noted that “no one is above the law.”

Abdullah has in recent years depended more on the military, where he pursued a career before ascending to the throne, and on the Public Security Department, which has been significantly strengthened in recent years, than on the General Intelligence Directorate, in the past the most powerful security player. In a letter written on Feb. 20 to the director of intelligence directorate, Gen. Ahmed Husni, the king defined a new framework for its work, thanking it for taking missions in the past outside its mandate “due to the lack of appropriate institutions,” and limiting its mission today to intelligence focusing on terrorism and national security threats. This seems to be another step in the king’s longtime effort to reduce the intervention of the intelligence service in political, legislative, media and economic affairs. One Jordanian analyst terms it a “white coup and a 180-degree change.”

Challenges and Opportunities From Without

Jordan engaged in a flurry of diplomatic activity ahead of and since President Joe Biden’s inauguration in an effort to regain centrality in U.S. regional policy. For years, it was sidelined by the Trump administration in favor of Israel and the Gulf states. In this context, it signed a domestically controversial agreement that allows the United States to post armed troops, aircraft and vehicles in bases in Jordan and to use them for training and transit.

The Gulf Cooperation Council’s Al-Ula summit in January, which encompassed the end of the embargo on Qatar, released Amman from the complications involved in juggling warm relations with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, both of which are significant economic partners. Relations with Saudi Arabia, home to half a million Jordanian expatriates, also seem to be improving, with Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi visiting Riyadh in January and with the king himself visiting there in March. However, the arrest of Awadallah, a close associate of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s, and reported efforts by Riyadh to secure his release, have precipitated allegations — seemingly fed by regime leaks — of Saudi involvement in the purported sedition.

Relations between Israel and Jordan have been at a low point since at least 2017, when an Israeli security officer in Amman killed two Jordanians — an attacker and an innocent bystander — in the process of foiling an attack, and continued to decline throughout the Trump administration and throughout the extended election season in Israel over the last two years. Jordan felt that the diplomatic efforts that led to the abortive Trump peace plan in February 2020, which included planned annexation of the Jordan River Valley, and to the Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, were carried out without consulting Amman or taking its interests into account. Jordan is reported to have rejected requests by Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu to meet with King Abdullah, though contacts have continued at working and ministerial levels.

These tensions sharpened significantly in recent months. Crown Prince Hussein announced his desire to visit the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on March 10, less than two weeks before Israel’s elections. Israel agreed but then cancelled at the last moment, with the Jordanians blaming what it called draconian Israeli security demands and the Israelis accusing the Jordanians of staging a provocation. The next day, Jordan refused to let Netanyahu use Jordanian airspace to fly to Abu Dhabi, forcing him to cancel a planned visit. Netanyahu is reported to have responded by ordering, then rescinding, the closure of Israeli airspace to all flights to and from Jordan. On March 26, Israeli newspapers reported that Netanyahu had refused a Jordanian request to provide water over the amount agreed to in the peace treaty,  to help alleviate Jordan’s chronic water shortages, as has been routine in recent years; he apparently relented after U.S. intervention. It is worth noting that the peace treaty has always been extremely unpopular domestically, and recent overt tension with Israel may be partly a regime strategy for bolstering public legitimacy, just as initial regime hints of Israeli involvement with Hamza may have been aimed at tarnishing his image.

Another significant development in Jordanian external relations in the past two years has been a closer relationship with Egypt and Iraq. The fourth summit meeting between the leaders of the three states since March 2019 is being planned in Baghdad. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited Jordan in January. The period since the last trilateral summit in Amman in August 2020 has seen a slew of bilateral ministerial visits, trilateral ministerial meetings, and governmental and sectoral working groups. The rationale for the new axis is both economic and strategic. The three states see potential for significant trade, energy and infrastructure collaboration, with Jordan being to a large degree the linchpin of the alignment by dint of its geographical position linking the other two. Egypt and Jordan also wish to be involved in the lucrative reconstruction of Iraq. The three countries are also seeking to develop a regional axis to allow them to regain influence and support outside their sub-regions and reclaim their former weight in the regional and international arena. The strategic agenda and leadership of the Arab world has been concentrated — unnaturally, in their shared view — for much of the past decade in the hands of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while Egypt and Iraq have been roiled by internal issues.

Conclusion

Externally, Jordan continues to try to play a weak hand of cards well. A stable, pro-Western, moderate Jordan has been a key element in the American and Israeli security concepts for the region for over half a century, and these ties have in turn helped Jordan preserve its security in a complicated regional context. However, its access to Syria and Iraq is less crucial to the West now that these theaters are being de-emphasized. Saudi Arabia and the UAE consider it of secondary importance. It has no real alternative to the security alliance with Israel, despite tensions on the political and diplomatic level; no other player has the level of vital national interest, long-term commitment, and resources to help keep the Hashemites safe and Israel’s longest border quiet. The trilateral combination with Egypt and Iraq might create greater leverage and “strategic depth” vis-à-vis extra-regional powers and the Gulf states. However, in the end, all three countries are poor and dependent on more wealthy partners. None of them has the potential to finance the more grandiose project concepts, and therefore,  their regional aspirations and strategies will be limited by their need to adapt their ways and ends to their means.

Descriptions of the situation of the Hashemites as precarious and predictions of their imminent decline have been stock currency since at least the 1950s, the days of King Hussein as the “Plucky Little King” or the “Brave Young King” (BYK in cable-ese). Jordan was a majority-minority “artificial” state, surrounded by hostile and more powerful neighbors, with no resources. Such prophecies continued after the Six Day War and the events leading up to Black September in 1970. I heard such dire predictions in 1989 during the East Banker riots in the South; in 1991 in the wake of King Hussein’s support for Saddam Hussein; after King Hussein’s death and the rather sudden ascension to the throne of the relatively unknown Abdallah in 1999; after 9/11 and the unleashing of chaos and civil war in Iraq; during the jihadi war against the regime in the mid-2000s; the Arab Uprisings in 2011; the Syrian Civil War; and the rise of the Islamic State. Yet Hashemite Jordan has consistently proved more robust and resilient than observers expected.

The fact that the Hashemites in Jordan have made it through their first 100 years, does not of course mean that they will last forever. Human constructs can look eternal until they do not. King Abdullah II was able to ride out the Arab Uprisings partly because he presented a vision for greater freedom and participation, leading to a constitutional monarchy, though this is widely perceived as having been rolled back since then. The easing of the immediacy of severe security threats such as the relative pacification in Iraq and Syria and the decreased jihadist threat has to an extent removed a unifying element and has made domestic and quality of life issues more important for the public. The COVID-19 crisis has only increased that.

As Abdullah said in a letter to the people on April 8, “The challenge over the past few days was not the most difficult or dangerous to the stability of our nation, but to me, it was the most painful.” The current situation does not seem to pose a short- to medium-term threat to the stability of the Hashemite monarchy because the population is still patriotic and largely (though perhaps less than in the past) loyal to the dynasty, even if it is not to its bureaucracy and policies. Jordanians also recognize that the region is rife with instructive examples of the negative results of popular uprisings and fear the chaos they saw in Iraq and Syria.

But perhaps most importantly, dissatisfaction with the government is diffuse, and there is no competing, alternative power center. This may be the significance of the Hamza episode: His contacts with various tribal leaders and open criticism of the government and indirectly of the king led to the perceived need to nip in the bud any sign of a challenge from within the ruling elites. If so, it would be unprecedented in Jordan, but certainly not in other Arab monarchies.

In the language of U.S. intelligence analysis, the chance of the regime’s finishing the decade with no major change in its near-absolute nature has in my assessment gone from the upper range of “probable” (55 to 80 percent) to “roughly even” (45 to 55 percent), with the chance of regime change still “remote” (0 to 5 percent).

 

 

Joshua Krasna is a retired senior analyst for the Israeli government with 30 years of service, who inter alia served in the Israeli Embassy in Jordan from 2005 to 2007 and was an instructor and team leader at the Israeli National Defence College from 2015 to 2017. He is a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies in Tel Aviv, a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and teaches in graduate programs at New York University and the Hebrew University. He researches and writes widely on Middle East political and strategic issues, Jordan, and Israel.