By Eleanor Beevor
If diplomacy is becoming the lost art of foreign policy, Jordan is living proof that the art form has tremendous value. The tiny kingdom has historically maintained the best possible relations with its sparring neighbours, and was then able to leverage those relations at the behest of foreign powers.
As the once-favourite Arab broker of the United States, Jordan’s diplomatic clout was astonishingly disproportionate to its size and income. But its singular strength is also its greatest weakness. Jordan is overwhelmingly dependent on its allies for money. And as a result, Jordan’s foreign and domestic policies are hopelessly intertwined.
The small country has few valuable natural resources to its name, a shortage of arable land, and a looming water crisis. Over the past half-century, it has absorbed much of the shock of multiple refugee crisis, the exodus of Syrians fleeing the civil war being the largest yet.
This huge intake of people compounded Jordan’s economic downturn; 18.4% of Jordanians are unemployed, and many more are struggling with inflating costs of living. Jordan’s debt currently represents 96% of its GDP. Accusations of government corruption are rife.
In response, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loaned Jordan a large stimulus package in 2016, on the condition that the government would hike taxes and institute austerity measures, including the removal of wheat and fuel subsidies.
Over the past few days, protests have exploded across Jordan’s major cities in response to these measures. These triggered the resignation of the Prime Minister Hani Mulki, and King Abdullah has demanded that the new Prime Minister Omar Razzak boost job creation and tackle public debt in the least painful way possible for citizens.
Jordan’s new Prime Minister Omar Al Razzaz (Twitter)
It didn’t used to be this bad. In the not-too-distant past, both regional and international powers were ready to pay for the stability that Jordan could help to provide. Diplomacy was effectively Jordan’s most valuable export.
During the Obama administration, Jordan would be getting $1.2 billion in American economic and military assistance each year. And up until 2017, Jordan was enjoying the fruits of a $3.6 billion Saudi aid package that had been drawn out over five years.
The problem is that the new powers driving Jordan’s old friends have decided that the Hashemite Kingdom is surplus to requirements, or for some, even a thorn in the side of their plans.
This is due to a rising alignment between Israel, Saudi Arabia and America.
Saudi Arabia has calculated that a strong alliance against Iran is worth abandoning nominal support of the Palestinian cause for. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman shares Trump and Netanyahu’s view that Iran demands a hawkish response, and he has elicited Trump’s favour by tacitly supporting Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Saudi Arabia has attempted to strong-arm Jordan into accepting the Jerusalem decision as well, or to punish its refusal to do so. Its aid package to Jordan has not been renewed, something that is rumoured to be a response to Amman’s condemnation of Trump’s Jerusalem declaration.
Nightly Protests have been rife in Jordan (AFP File Photo)
But what Saudi Arabia, America and Israel are failing to acknowledge is the real risk that an explosion of Palestinian anger presents to Jordan’s stability. Over half of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian origin, and it also hosts many thousands of Palestinian refugees. Jordan has already had a brush with civil war over this. Palestinian guerrillas attacked the government in 1970 over fear that Amman would recognise Israel’s existence, a conflict that came to be known as Black September. Bluntly, if Jordan does not stand up for Palestine, it compromises its own internal stability.
And there is more at stake than that for the Hashemite monarchy, one of whose symbolic roles is to serve as guardian of the religious landmarks on the Haram Al Sharif. Kirk Sowell, the director of Utica Risk Services which consults on Middle Eastern politics, told Al Bawaba:
“Palestine, and the holy sites in Jerusalem, are a domestic rather than foreign policy issue for Jordan. The monarchy and its surrogates talk endlessly about the king's guardianship of "Islamic and Christian holy sites," emphasizing both. I get the sense that ordinary people care more about Palestine itself, and the East Bankers, care about having the Palestinians somewhere to go back to. Still this is a big part of the monarchy's legitimacy narrative.”
But while Saudi Arabia also officially supports the Palestinian position for now, it, unlike Jordan, has the means to allow for a change in its policy. Sowell continued:
“The Saudis can buy off their citizens with a comfortable living and Jordan can't. The Hashemite monarchy also has less repressive means. So shoring up the regime's legitimacy by taking a hard line - or appearing to take a hard line - on Israel is all they can do.”
But Mohammed Bin Salman’s patience for Jordan’s hard line appears to have run out. His office has reportedly asked that Jordan be excluded from any communications between Saudi Arabia and Israel. This is a damning dismissal.
Previously, Riyadh and indeed Washington had every interest in keeping Amman well-informed and on-side in all developments related to Israel. They knew they had to preserve Jordanian stability, and that they might one day need to call on Amman’s diplomatic leverage. Nnow that Saudi Arabia, Israel and Washington have each other, they seem to feel they need no one else.
And now that it is without historical allies, and in the throes of an economic crisis, Jordan has to exercise some very limited options. Amman has been flaunting what is clearly meant to look like a new alliance with Turkey’s President Erdogan.
Jordanian King Abdullah II & President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan /AFP
Erdogan, who sees himself as a symbolic leader of the Muslim world, has engaged in as many displays of Palestinian solidarity as he can muster. Shortly after the Jerusalem decision was announced, King Abdullah and Erdogan together requested emergency summits of Arab states and an Extraordinary Meeting of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation. And both King Abdullah and Erdogan have made suggestively diplomatic gestures towards Iran, suggesting that they are prepared to divide loyalty amongst the Sunni powers.
Grace Wermenbol, a specialist in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the University of Oxford, told Al Bawaba that Jordan may have more than just Palestine in mind when it showcases a possible new alliance with Turkey.
“Jordan stands to benefit substantially from better economic ties with Turkey – a particularly important point in the wake of Saudi’s refusal to renew millions of dollars’ worth of aid as part of a diplomatic retaliation move led by Mohammed Bin Salman. Despite King Abdullah’s early warning of a Shiite crescent, the show of unity between Jordan and Turkey offers a clear message to Saudi Arabia that Jordan is willing to sail in a different direction.”
However, given the economic turmoil gripping Jordan now, money is going to talk the loudest. Wermenbol continued:
“Nevertheless, in light of Jordan’s ongoing economic woes and the ensuing civil unrest, the extent of Jordan’s independent foreign policy will largely depend on the party that offers the largest financial handout.”
All powers in the region are now going to have to think hard, not only about what Jordan’s friendship is worth to them, but its stability. Even if Jordan’s economy can be stabilized before the country topples into political chaos, Jordan’s internal security will remain at risk for so long as the future of a meaningful peace for Palestine is under threat.
© 2000 - 2021 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)