Jordan at the Crossroads

Jordan’s economic, demographic and geographic characteristics have left the country vulnerable to mass protests and external pressure that can only be overcome by a comprehensive reform program.

Demonstrators clash with riot police during a protest in Amman, Jordan, June 2, 2018. Muhammad Hamed/Reuters

Opinions have differed over the recent unrest in Jordan. While some consider the protests to be a conspiracy orchestrated by external powers to force Jordan to accept its role in the Trump Administration’s anticipated “Deal of the Century,” others view it as the result of a social and popular movement that has been in the making for decades. Having worked as deputy to the Egyptian ambassador from 1998 to 2002 in the Jordanian  capital Amman, Jordan and its people occupy a special place in my heart.

My first observation relates to the geography of the country. Much has been written about the history of Jordan’s founding and how its borders were drawn in a way to keep it dependent on the outside world. I clearly felt this on my road trips from Amman to Damascus whenever the opportunity arose. The distance between the two cities is no more than 220 kilometers, which took  two hours and a half by car—including the time spent at the border owing to my diplomatic license plates. What caught my attention after multiple trips was how the desert extended throughout Jordanian territory ending only at the Syrian border. The landscape there goes from arid, barren land to thriving green pastures and farms. It was as if whoever had delineated the borders between the two states chose the border based on where the rain or water ended. With this shortage in natural resources and lack of oil fields or natural gas similar to some of its neighboring countries, Jordan has no alternative but to rely on itself first, and on foreign aid second.

My second observation is on the demographics of Jordan, which comprises two groups. First are the clans, which is the country’s tribes living on the East Bank of the Jordan River, known more specifically as the East Jordanians. The second group is those of Palestinian origin who came from the West Bank of the Jordan River in two waves, one after the 1948 War and the second after the 1967 War. Thus, the history, composition and development of the Jordanian population has been closely intertwined with the Palestinian cause, and the developments of the Arab-Israeli conflict more than any other Arab country. I was struck during my time there by the dreams and aspirations regarding the expected compensation for Palestinian refugees in light of what would be a final settlement plan for the Palestinians. It seems from what little information that is being circulated, that the expected Trump “Deal of the Century” does not prioritize this issue of Palestinian compensation as much as it does others, such as the Jewishness of the Israeli state, recognizing Israeli settlements and most importantly, the status of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

This leads us to my third observation: Anyone following Jordanian affairs is aware of the role played by the Hashemite kingdom in relations with Israel connected to Palestinian lands, particularly with regard to the status of Jerusalem. Jordan has continued to oversee the Islamic holy sites in the city of Jerusalem such as the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, even after Israel seized both in June 1967. One of the most important sources of legitimacy of the Hashemite royal family is Jordan’s continued role as overseer of holy sites in Jerusalem. This explains the Jordanian King Abdullah II’s apprehensions and resistance to changes of Jerusalem’s status within the Trump deal, the particulars of which began to appear with Trump’s December 2017 recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his moving the U.S. embassy there.

My fourth observation is about the extent of social and economic problems and the lack of growth to accommodate changes over the last two decades. Jordan received  large numbers of refugees from Iraq following the U.S. invasion in 2003, which led to unprecedented inflation that the Jordanian people have patiently tolerated. The next flow came from Syria when the civil war erupted. It was unprecedented in scale compared to the Palestinian and Iraqi waves. As economic conditions worsened and foreign investment and aid shrunk—a result of low oil prices, the decreasing movement of foreign investment, and low levels of international trade—the Syrian refugee crisis heightened and deepened. Noteworthy is that some government sponsored economic reform programs did not bear fruit for the Jordanian economy.

In light of such a situation, and with all the above factors combined—the recent austerity measures, including the government’s new income tax draft law—were the straws that broke the proverbial camel’s back. The size and scope of the protests were enough to force the prime minister to resign and the king to revoke any steps previously taken, vowing to take into consideration his people’s living conditions and to alleviate their economic troubles. More important was the king’s statement about Jordan being pressured on the issue of the “Deal of the Century,” which points a finger at the covert actions of the United States and Saudi Arabia. The United States has a clear pro-Israel stance which neglects Muslim and Arab sentiment when it comes to Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have lessened their aid to Jordan due to the decrease in oil revenues on one hand, and to pressure the Hashemite Kingdom into accepting the “Deal of the Century” on the other.

Recently, the Saudi King called a Saudi-Emirati-Kuwaiti-Jordanian summit in Mecca that was held  June 10 to explore means of supporting Jordan. These countries fear that the situation in Jordan could spiral out of control, thus posing a threat to the Gulf monarchies. The result of the summit was that a package of 2.5 billion U.S. dollars is to be given to Jordan to overcome the current crisis without actually solving the country’s main problems, which stem from the geographic, demographic and social characteristics of Jordan.

I want to stress that this 2.5 billion dollars is a stop-gap procedure. It is a rubber stamp but does not address the real problems of Jordan. Jordan  requires an economic and political reform program that is backed by popular support. If comprehensive, such a program would take the country out of its recurring economic crises and protect it from foreign pressure.

Alaa Elhadidi is a retired Egyptian diplomat and former ambassador to Turkey, Russia, and Romania. He served as spokesperson for the Egyptian prime minister and foreign minister respectively. He is a regular columnist for Al-Sherouk newspaper.

Translated from the Arabic by Asmaa Abdallah