Jordan and Russia Are Getting Closer. Should That Worry the US?

Published April 22nd, 2019 - 12:22 GMT
banner image
Aqaba port (Shutterstock)

A few miles south of Jordan’s port city of Aqaba lies Tala Bay; a quiet spot for wealthy tourists to go swimming in pools or the Red Sea without having to interact with anybody, especially not the conservative population that lives in Aqaba.


Tala Bay is designed to host weddings and Russians, providing big hotel venues for celebrations and Russian-language menus on request. It’s just one of several resorts around the world that caters to rich Russian tourists.

But in Jordan, there may be more Tala Bays on the way.

Jordan and Russia are steadily inching toward one another, forging a marriage of convenience that could infuse Jordan with much-needed investment, give Russia a key regional partner, and undermine U.S. influence in the process.

Jordan and Russia are steadily inching toward one another, forging a marriage of convenience that could infuse Jordan with much-needed investment, give Russia a key regional partner, and undermine U.S. influence in the process.

Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, has made no secret of his plan to look abroad to fix his chronically stagnating economy, leveraging political influence into lucrative investment deals. Jordan, isolated by the U.S. and wracked by debt, is desperate for that kind of investment and political power.

Between a proposed special industrial zone for Russia inside Jordan, a huge spike in Russian investment, and a growing political alignment with regard to Israel and Syria, it is clear a Jordan-Russia partnership is emerging, and it could impact Syria's political status, Israel's regional ambitions, and the much-awaited Deal of the Century.
 

The Political Angle 

Jordan’s King Abdullah with Putin (AFP/FILE)

A number of push and pull factors are drawing Jordan and Russia together.

Russia’s political dealings with Jordan revolve around Syria, Jordan’s neighbor to the north. Putin has, since 2015, worked to become the main international backer of the Assad Regime.

When Assad was rapidly losing territory to rebel advances, Putin stepped in and launched a relentless campaign comprised of airstrikes to decimate rebel-held cities and ground troops to support assaults, train militia loyalists and dissuade U.S. or Israeli jets from hitting Syrian positions.

Putin’s strategy worked.

Together with Iranian support, Assad’s regime survived the war intact, and Russia got special access to the Syrian port of Tartus as a reward. But now Putin is quietly competing against Iran to be Assad’s main strategic partner and co-decision maker.

Iran offers supply routes from Tehran and Baghdad onto Beirut and beyond, but Russia may be able to offer Jordan as a counter-piece that comes complete with political ties to the Middle East and a supply route from the Red Sea via Aqaba to Damascus.

If Russia can generate sufficient political leverage over Jordan, it can integrate Syria politically back into the Arab League while giving Assad an economic lifeline to the south, where he can import goods from the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and rebuild parts of his country with Jordanian construction firms.


Syria works to slowly rebuild itself during a nearly decade-long civil war (AFP/FILE)

To gain a foothold in the region and in Syria, Russia has taken several steps to politically engage with Jordan. 

On top of regular, official visits to Amman and royal receptions in Moscow, Russia worked with Jordan to establish a so-called ‘de-escalation zone’ in Syria's south, which temporarily gave rebels a respite from a regime offensive. 

Jordan, for its part, has political incentives to align itself more closely with Russia.

Though Jordan been a reliable U.S. ally for decades, the White House’s current hard-line support for Israel has thoroughly isolated Jordan, pushing it to look eastward.

“Jordan, despite its great closeness and alliance with the United States, is also looking for risks to its interests from the Trump administration policies that are not taking into account the Jordanian interests,” explained Dr. Ahmad Awad, director of the Phenix Center, a think tank based in Amman.

Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, his support for Netanyahu, and his defunding of aid to Palestinians and his recognition of Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights have all drawn Jordan’s ire, and pushed the small nation closer to Moscow, since it backs a two-state solution and has sharply criticized Trump’s calls to grant Israel more sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

On the Palestine question, Russia is proving to be a more reliable ally than the U.S. And because Palestinians make up a plurality of Jordan’s population, dominating its private sector, the Palestine question is an existential matter of survival for Jordan’s government.

On the Palestine question, Russia is proving to be a more reliable ally than the U.S. And because Palestinians make up a plurality of Jordan’s population, dominating its private sector, the Palestine question is an existential matter of survival for Jordan’s government.

The impact of a Russian-Jordanian partnership is already being felt in the region.

In early April 2019, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Amman and reportedly got Jordan, never an ally to Assad, to provisionally agree on re-admitting Syria into the Arab League. The re-admission would formally signal that the Arab World is ready to normalize relations with Assad again, and would also likely come with future economic initiatives that would include Syria. If the readmission happens, Syria can thank Russia’s ability to influence the Arab League.

Jordan and Russia have also agreed that displaced Syrians holed up in the Rukban refugee camp should return to government-held territory, much to the U.S.’ chagrin.

The Rukban camp in Syria lies inside the borders of a U.S. military base called al-Tanf and as such, the 41,000 refugees there are primarily the responsibility of the U.S.

American officials have advocated that they stay inside the camp until the regime can guarantee their safety and the ability to return to a home. Russia and Syria have been ramping up pressure on the U.S. by blockading the zone and policing or outright blocking humanitarian shipments to the refugees inside.

In Nov 2018, Jordan formally sided with Russia and the Syrian regime with regards to the fate of the camp and its residents: “Jordan supports the Russian plan to create the conditions that allow the emptying of the camp,” Jordan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed al Qatarneh said. The stance was reiterated during the fifth session of the Russian-Arab Cooperation Forum in Moscow in April 2019.

Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi reportedly said that the “ Kingdom [of Jordan] and Russia agree that the solution lies in the return of its residents to their hometowns, as they have been liberated from Daesh.”

Emptying the camp could have implications for the U.S. to continue operating the al-Tanf base in the area: Jordan’s stance with Russia and Syria then could undercut the U.S.’ strategic interests.

The long-term viability of a Russia-Jordan partnership may ultimately boil down to money, as that is what Jordan needs most immediately.

 

A Long-Term Economic Partnership

Russian FM Sergey Lavrov (Left), with Jordanian FM Ayman Safadi in April 2019 (AFP/FILE)

Russia’s stagnating economy partially explains Putin’s desire to annex the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, intervene in Syria and expand business dealings in the Middle East, including in Jordan.

Crimea gave Putin a coveted warm deepwater port; Syria offered the Mediterranean port of Tartus plus a massive boon to the Russian arms industry. Jordan gives Russia a vitally under-developed economy through which it can cement itself regionally.

In general, Putin has been searching for opportunities around the globe to alleviate his desperate economic situation back home. Because of this, Russia has found itself expanding business ties in Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, and Saudi among others.

Russia has held a series of public and private meetings with Jordanian officials with the aim of securing a special trade relationship between the two countries. According to Dr. Awad of the Phenix Center, “Jordan [is] asking Russia, both public and private sectors, to invest in energy, infrastructure and other capital sector, in the context of which comes the establishment of Russia industrial zone.”

Russia has also held talks with Jordan to include it in the Eurasian Economic Union, which includes the states of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Russia has also held talks with Jordan to include it in the Eurasian Economic Union, which includes the states of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

In 2018, tourism from Russia to Jordan spiked, thanks in part to Jordan Tourism Board (JTB) program that paid $60 dollars for the plane ticket of Russian tourists visiting the country. 

“Our objective is to boost the number of tourists coming from Russia to Jordan through this move,” Abed Al Razzaq Arabiyat, the director of JTB, said. According to the board, the influx of Russian tourists has been on the rise since 2017, with 70,627 visiting Jordan in 2017, compared to 49,384 in 2016. Now in 2018, about 1,000 Russian tourists are arriving to Aqaba alone every week.

“We expect the numbers to keep growing,” Arabiyat said. About 12 percent of Jordan’s economy is dedicated to tourism.

Russia has also consistently pushed for Jordan to build a Russian-made nuclear power plant, though that deal has been subject to constant re-negotiations.

Many of these various economic cooperation deals have culminated in the Nov 2018 announcement that Jordan and Russia will forge a special industrial zone inside Jordan to be used by Russian firms. 

“The two sides stressed continued support for the Jordanian-Russian Business Council and mutual visits by delegations of business representatives, as well as the promotion of Jordanian and Russian products in the markets of both countries,” a report at the time said.

“Certainly, this development of economic relations and increasing Russian interests in Jordan will push Russia to put a strong foot on the Gulf of Aqaba,” Dr. Awad noted.

Even if no special zone is created, the announcement signals that Russia and Jordan are getting serious about long-term cooperation, and the numbers are beginning to reflect this fact.

Trade between Russia and Jordan rose sharply from $157 million in 2017 to $602.6 million in 2018. 

These are all welcome investments by the cash-strapped Jordan, as it is racking up debt that it can’t pay back.

As it stands, the kingdom has a debt equivalent to about 96% of its GDP. Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has pressured the government to downsize its bloated public sector by cutting spending, creating a bind for the government.


Thousands of Jordanians have taken to the streets to protest austerity measures introduced by the government in 2018-19 (AFP/FILE)

Many Jordanians have protested for the government to increase public spending and end austerity measures, while the government struggles to find the requisite cash to keep funding itself. Jordan’s private sector has been stretched to the limit and the country’s lack of natural resources meaning the country must rely on specialized and service industry jobs to keep it running.

Unemployment has remained at around 18.7 percent, while youth unemployment is over 41 percent. On top of all this, Jordan relies on international aid from the U.S. and Gulf countries to remain afloat. If this aid dried up, the economy would almost instantly contract, likely into a recession.

Jordan’s government recognizes this as an unsustainable situation and thus has openly embraced Russia as a long-term trading partner that can invest in the country in the long-term. 

In turn, Russia gets a heightened seat at the table of political negotiations in the Middle East, potentially undermining U.S. influence. All signs point to this partnership growing in the medium-to-long term.

This means the once-sleepy, insulated Tala Bay resort may become a bustling summer spot for Russian business interests, while the country hedges its bets for Moscow to be one of the region’s key power-brokers.
 


© 2000 - 2019 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

You may also like