You might be forgiven for forgetting about Jordan, or at least for thinking nothing much happens there. Bordering Israel/Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, the Hashemite Kingdom is certainly much quieter than its neighbours, but it certainly hasn’t been isolated from the changes that have swept the Middle East since 2011/12.
[Jordan] certainly hasn’t been isolated from the changes that have swept the Middle East since 2011/12.
In some ways, the reign of current king, Abdullah II, has been successful in promoting economic liberalisation and ensuring stability by making symbolic concessions to public demands. The King is popular, and generally seems to keep his ear to the ground regarding Jordanians’ concerns – notably, one of his most recent campaigns is against the corruption and favouritism that tends to define so much of the country’s politics. On the other hand, the King has also given himself more executive powers, and the country’s parliament is unable to pass legislation without consent from a royally-appointed committee. The current Prime Minister was also appointed by the Palace, and the MPs elected in September’s elections weren’t able to take up their seats until November. In their absence, the government signed a deeply unpopular deal worth $10 billion, with a US-Israeli consortium, to import gas from Israel.
Jordan imports around 95 per cent of its energy, so from an economic point of view the deal is probably sensible. The problem is that most Jordanian citizens don’t see the gas as Israeli – they see it as Palestinian gas stolen by an occupying government. The fact that Jordan and Israel have been allies since 1994 isn’t reflected in Jordanian public opinion, as a very high proportion of the population is descended from Palestinian refugees who moved there after 1948.
In many ways, being Palestinian is part of being Jordanian. Tensions between the two have died down a lot in recent years, particularly after the murder by Daesh of kidnapped pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, which felt like a personal attack on all the country’s citizens. The gas deal is made yet more controversial by the fact that it was pushed through in secret – much like the original peace treaty with Israel. The leader responsible, King Hussein, retained his popularity after seemingly selling out to the old enemy only by living for a long time and making a lot of other positive reforms. In fact, he remains more popular than his son, who faces rather different challenges as a leader.
Indeed, the controversial gas deal can be understood as a reflection of those challenges. Israel is unpopular in the country, and not without reason, but it is wealthy and comparatively stable – it would take a lot to put the gas works out of action. It also has the enthusiastic support of US president elect Donald Trump to underwrite its reliability as a political ally and business partner. This is crucial because of the massive increase in Jordan’s population since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. Jordan has, by some estimates, taken in over a million refugees from Syria, the majority of whom live in towns and cities, not the government-managed refugee camps. Although most Jordanians are sympathetic to the refugees – an attitude many in Europe would do well to emulate – there is no denying that the influx has increased competition for jobs and resources, including basics like gas and water. When interviewed by The Jordan Times just before polls opened in September, voters were most concerned with standards of living and the economy.
This gives the king and his government another reason to want to build stronger relations with Israel. While Barack Obama was much closer to King Abdullah than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Trump may need a bit more convincing to provide the country with the aid on which it relies. If this support is not forthcoming, the Jordanian government may well seek help elsewhere. It has already improved its links with Russia, which wants to help Jordan establish its first nuclear power plant. It may be that a cautious position between the two superpowers will allow the Hashemite Kingdom to bob along more or less as it is now, with standards of living just about good enough to stop people calling for major changes in the way the country is governed.
Successful participation in an anti-Daesh effort in Syria would certainly help [King Abdullah] cement his position, and also endear him to President Trump.
However, if the new parliament is seen to be as ineffective as the last one, and if Jordanians continue to feel the pinch, King Abdullah may have to tread carefully. Successful participation in an anti-Daesh effort in Syria would certainly help cement his position, and also endear him to President Trump. It remains to be seen how long the spectre of the Syrian conflict can be used to ensure only cautious political change in Jordan. You’re probably sick of hearing this, but these are interesting times.