On Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the United States was sending a small contingent of troops to Jordan in the event that the conflict in Syria spreads across the country’s border as it has with Turkey. Even if it doesn’t, the Obama Administration is right to be extremely concerned with how events in Syria might affect its longstanding and reliable Middle East ally in Amman.
Should King Abdullah II become the next Arab ruler to fall as part of the upheavals that have swept through the region now for almost two years, it will mark another major setback for the United States in the region. For Israel it’s significantly worse news. Jerusalem would lose its remaining strategic partner in the region—having already lost Turkey and Egypt—and face a possible nightmare on its longest border, exposing the country’s center to attacks from the east that might include Sunni Jihadists or Iranian-trained Iraqi agents.
The beleaguered Bashar al-Assad, longtime rival of Syria, has been doing his share to see that this scenario comes to pass: Leaked Syrian government documents show that Assad, suspicious that Amman was siding with Syria’s armed opposition, has been preemptively trying to destabilize Jordan’s security. But Abdullah’s real nightmare scenario isn’t Assad meddling in Jordanian politics—rather, it might just be Assad’s fall at the hands of Islamist rebels. A Muslim Brotherhood victory in Syria could put wind in the sails of Jordan’s own Brotherhood party, the Islamic Action Front, and perhaps inspire them to add another Arab state, along with Tunisia and Egypt, to their collection.
Protests last week in Amman organized by the Islamic Action Front suggest that popular opinion is turning ever more forcefully against Abdullah. “The turnout was much larger than the 8,000 that the government claims attended,” said Hassan Barari, a political analyst at Jordan University. “It wasn’t the 100,000 that the Islamists claimed, but something perhaps like 35,000-40,000”—a very large crowd given that Jordan’s population is only a little more than 6 million.
Abdullah’s response to the protests was to call for elections before the new year and to name a new prime minister. Given that he is tasked with the responsibility of forming the country’s fifth government in two years, this is unlikely to calm Abdullah’s critics.
“We’re in a crisis mode. The state is trying to say that the reform package is good, and the opposition is not convinced,” Barari told me. “The elections will lead to an outcome that can’t fight corruption, a parliament with spineless people, who can’t stand up to the government or the security apparatus. The king missed an opportunity to implement reforms and instead sided with the corrupt ruling elite. My concern is that with this dissatisfaction, some of the opposition may turn violent.”
Corruption, rising energy costs, and large refugee populations that have entered Jordan in the wake of the Iraq war and now the Syrian conflict are among the chief problems besetting the monarchy. The White House has pledged an aid package totaling $474 million in 2012, including $356.9 million signed over earlier this month. But U.S. aid isn’t going to solve Jordan’s fundamental problems.
First, Jordan has virtually no natural resources. For its energy needs, it depends on its neighbors, like Egypt, from where the flow of natural gas has been regularly disrupted ever since Hosni Mubarak’s exit in February 2011. “The Jordanians could get the natural gas from Israel,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The Israelis would give it to them at cut-rate discounts and there’s a short pipeline. But the political environment right now doesn’t lend itself to making deals with Israel.”
An even more serious issue is that the country’s population is divided against itself. The split here is based not on sectarian fault lines, as in Syria and Iraq, but rather on national, geographical, and historical ones. On the one hand are the Bedouins, also known as the East Bankers, who fill the ranks of the military and the security apparatus and other public sector jobs. On the other are the Palestinians who constitute a majority—anywhere from 60 to more than 80 percent—of the population.
It is this divide between the Palestinians and Bedouins that has always made Jordan seem an inherently tenuous project to skeptics. And yet the Hashemites have ruled here since 1921 when the British handed the mandate for the emirate of Transjordan over to Abdullah I, the current king’s great-grandfather. The Hashemite monarchy survived not only Abudllah I’s death at the hands of a Palestinian assassin but also the bloody 1970 war, Black September, when the well-trained Bedouin forces led by Abdullah II’s father Hussein drove Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian factions out of Jordan.
The monarchy has always depended on the Bedouins for support and its ultimate security. But it appears they may have turned against their patron, King Abdullah II. East Bankers have joined the Islamists and independent intellectuals like Barari, forming numerous hiraks, or street movements, replacing traditional patronage networks that have proved incapable of sustaining East Bank communities.
One former senior Israeli official explained that “there have been problems with the Bedouins going back at least a decade”—or roughly since Abdullah’s government moved toward privatization and so-called free zones throughout the country designed to attract foreign investment. “The Palestinians were doing well in the private sector, and there was growing resentment among the East Bankers. The Gulf states recognized the problem and tried to get more money into the Bedouin sector and were disappointed it didn’t get into their hands. Who knows how the money was spent?”
The paradox is that it is this corruption—and the subsequent popular protest movement—that appears to finally be constructing a national Jordanian identity, even as it is against the king. Still, the opposition is eventually going to find itself at cross purposes, which the regime could use to its advantage. “Everywhere else in the Middle East what people mean by reform is quite clear,” says Satloff. “But in Jordan, reform means two contradictory things. To the Palestinians, it means opening up the economy, with more room for private sector to grow. If you are an East Banker, reform means the opposite. It means more government jobs.”
Jordan’s regional problems are just as daunting as its domestic concerns. “It feels like it’s caught between an Islamist Egypt and a potentially jihadist Syria,” Satloff said. This is reminiscent of Jordan’s situation in the 1950s and ’60s when it was caught between Arab nationalist powers in Egypt and Syria constantly trying to destabilize the kingdom, typically by attacking it for its relationship with the United States and its more clandestine ties to Israel.
The Jordan-Israel relationship was further strengthened with the 1994 peace treaty, institutionalizing a significant security relationship that has benefited both countries. For Jerusalem, explained the former Israeli official, “Jordan is the most critical strategic question. Jordan’s army is smaller than Egypt’s but it faces a longer border.” And that border, if open or manned by an unfriendly Arab power, would constitute the majority of the Middle East’s access route to Israel.
Over the last two years, the Arab uprisings have posed a number of vital questions for Washington and its allies. Where should the United States step in to intervene, and on whose side? What governments and movements should we engage, and which should we isolate or punish? The reality is that there’s little the United States can do at this point to protect one of its most steadfast allies in the region. Perhaps Abdullah will prove creative enough to exploit the weaknesses of the growing protest movement, or broker a new national identity that finally binds the East Bankers and Palestinians together and leaves him on the throne. If not, American policymakers will again be scrambling for answers—and Israeli leaders may find yet another border in trouble.