by Eleanor Beevor
- With Saudi Arabia prioritizing American relations above the status of Palestine, Jordan must now declare its position
- It has internal pressures to take a stand against Trump, though risks a lot by alienating America
- Turkey is ready to take on the ideological defence of Palestine with Jordan at its side
- But what risks does this present for Jordan?
Trump’s Jerusalem announcement is recalibrating alliances across the Middle East to a degree that cannot have been envisaged by Washington. For it is not only politics that is at stake after Jerusalem, but a stage on which Middle Eastern rulers demonstrate their commitment to one of the most important questions in contemporary Islam, the status of Palestine.
By extension, they have the opportunity to showcase their potential for leadership within the Muslim world. Arab nations are now forced to decide what America means to them, and whether they can afford to alienate Trump, or equally, whether they can afford not to. And Jordan, previously America’s most reliable Arab ally, is now signalling that its friendship with America is far from unconditional.
Whilst Trump’s decision drew unanimous condemnation from Arab leaders, some nations have decided that solidarity with Palestine cannot overtake more immediate concerns. One perhaps surprising member of these ranks is Saudi Arabia. Whilst it is the site of Islam’s most important historical landmarks and sees itself as a guardian of conservative Muslim values, it has done little more than verbally rebuke Trump’s decision.
The talks also covered the Syrian crisis and its repercussions on Jordan, which needs more support from the international community. (AFP/File)
Whether it likes to admit it or not, it shares security interests with Israel and the United States, and is unwilling to let those be compromised by the matter of Palestine. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has used a strong-arm approach to try and persuade Arab states to agree to a U.S.-led peace process, with Jordan being a particular target of these efforts.
Conversely, a different alliance seemed to be forming between Jordan and Turkey. Dec. 6 2017, the day of Trump’s announcement recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, was also the seventieth anniversary of the start of diplomatic relations between Jordan and Turkey.
As a result, King Abdullah of Jordan was in Ankara at the time. And when Turkish President Erdogan responded to Trump’s announcement with a vociferous condemnation and a call for an emergency meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Abdullah lent his support in a joint statement. He further defied Saudi attempts to persuade him not to attend that meeting.
This rapprochement with Turkey and distancing from Saudi Arabia is a significant shift for Jordan. Despite their celebration of the seventieth anniversary of relations between the two countries, the previous few years had been marked by Jordanian-Turkish tension rather than fraternity. Indeed, there had been no state visits between the two between 2013 and 2016. That tension was largely down to a split between the two leaders’ visions of governance.
King Abdullah, an American educated, pro-Western figure with plans to liberalize the Jordanian political system, had a distinct distrust of Erdogan’s strongman politics. More disturbing to Abdullah are Erdogan’s flirtations with Islamism, not only in Turkish governance, but in his support for Islamist movements throughout the region, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. Jordan’s principle opposition party, the Islamic Action Front, is the political wing of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood. Towards them, Abdullah’s proclaimed liberalism falters.
Jordanian King Abdullah II reviews Kosovo’s Security Force honor guard during a welcoming ceremony as part of Abdullah’s official visit to Kosovo in Pristina on November 17, 2015. (AFP/File/Armend Nimani)
He has described them as a “cult” and placed tight restrictions on their public events, and the Islamic Action Front have several times boycotted elections due to what they see as Abdullah’s unwillingness to reform. Erdogan, meanwhile, is not only a political and ideological supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, but also of Hamas, contrary to Abdullah’s preferred more moderate Palestinian partner Fatah.
While there is no shortage of ideological difference between the two leaders, it is too simplistic to label them the Islamist and the moderate. Erdogan has stoked a new phase of Turkish nationalism and edged towards the authoritarian, but despite a lot of public support for some of his controversial moves, Turks are not seeking an Islamist strongman.
A recent Center for American Progress survey of Turkish political opinions concluded that, while Islam is increasingly important to national identity, support for democracy remains a core tenet of that identity as well. And despite much furore around Erdogan’s supposed ambitions for a new Ottoman Empire, this may be more talk than concrete strategy.
Max Hoffman, the associate director of National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress, told Al Bawaba:
“Erdogan—and Turkish nationalists generally—want to see a strong, independent Turkey with sway over the region, but that does not necessarily translate into true neo-Ottoman imperialist ambition. It is more a domestic rallying cry to “make Turkey great again” without much in the way of detailed goals.”
That said, there is one tenet of this new, Erdogan-driven Turkish nationalism that will expose Jordan to rougher winds. That is its opposition to Western powers in general, and to America in particular. 83% of people in the above survey had an unfavourable view of America, and there was strong support for being more confrontational towards America, particularly among supporters of Erdogan’s AKP party. Max Hoffman elaborated: “The country feels that its traditional Western partners, especially the U.S., have let it down in the face of persistent security threats, particularly emanating from Syria. This has translated into increased anti-Western sentiment, further stirred by Erdoğan for domestic political gain, and a strong desire among the public for a go-it-alone attitude and an aggressive, unilateral approach to foreign and security policy.”
If Erdogan sees rebuffing American influence and courting controversy in the west as a source of popularity, then allying with Turkey invites certain risks for Jordan. So far it has been able to balance the relationship; U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson committed to $6 billion a year in aid to Jordan in mid-February, despite Amman’s opposition to the Jerusalem decision. Indeed, America is now the only bilateral donor that has committed to supporting the kingdom.
This is a lifeline the kingdom cannot afford to lose. The Jordanian economy is in dire straits, and protests erupted in the past few days over increased taxes on basic foodstuffs as the kingdom tries to plug its massive budget deficit. Given President Trump’s volatile disposition and his tendency to threaten disobedient nations with a loss of aid, Jordan will have to tread carefully.
Yet there is also too much for the Jordanian monarchy to lose if it fails to express the requisite anger towards Trump. It seems unlikely that the architects of the Jerusalem decision in Washington understood the significance of Palestine to the Jordanians. At least half of Jordan’s current population is of Palestinian heritage, owing to the vast numbers of Palestinian refugees that fled there after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the Six Day War in 1967. Many more Palestinian refugees have arrived since.
King Abdullah’s own Hashemite royal dynasty has a custodial duty to guard both Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem. If the Jordanian monarchy is seen to relinquish any of its influence in Jerusalem it risks its own legitimacy. And any concession it makes to Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will be met with fury by his own already-strained population.
Attempts to coerce Jordanian leadership into accepting Trump’s decision risk upsetting one of the few reliably diplomatic, and for now stable powers in a turbulent region. So far, Jordan has managed to retain American cooperation and aid without conceding ground on Jerusalem, although with Trump at the helm there is no guarantee that will remain so.
Given Saudi Arabia’s willingness to not only overlook the matter of Jerusalem in favour of an American relationship, but to try and enact pressure on Amman to do the same, Jordan certainly needs friends now. But its new friend’s ambitions are much greater than just surviving, even if their ability to reach those ambitions is questionable.
President Erdogan of Turkey slammed US support for group he compared to Islamic State (AFP)
Leader of the Muslim World
Max Hoffman of the Center for American Progress commented:
“There is a widespread conviction among Turks that Turkey remains a natural leader for the Muslim world. You see this in Turkish government rhetoric on issues like Jerusalem or the Rohingya tragedy or the Gulf crisis. But few states in the region see Turkey as a power capable of acting this idea of pan-Islamic leadership.
Ankara is seen as ineffective, consumed by internal problems, and outmaneuvered by Russia and Iran. These two countervailing trends result in Turkey taking maximalist positions on regional issues—often cornered by President Erdoğan’s grandiose rhetoric—only to find themselves unable to back those bold positions up with real influence.”
Erdogan is already appealing to nostalgia for the days of Islamic power, in Jordan and elsewhere. It is funding the restoration of the Ottoman-era Hejaz railway that carried pilgrims from its starting point in Amman across the Levant to Medina. There is an opportunity for Erdogan and others to assume the role of defenders of Islam, particularly as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf powers continue to work closely with Trump. However, whether Muslim nations are looking for a symbolic leader is open to doubt, and Turkey’s limitations will keep Erdogan’s actions, if not his theatrics in check.
But theatrics are Trump’s political language as well. As we have already seen from his face-off with Kim Jong-Un, he does not take kindly to other world leaders trying to humiliate him, and can respond to insults with rash action. Whether Erdogan will allow provocations to get the better of his still-working, if strained, American relations remains to be seen. However, Jordan will need to bear this risk in mind as it moves forward.
King Abdullah is giving the impression that he is willing to shake up the power lines in the Middle East and create a new axis of Sunni influence by allying with Turkey. Erdogan is more than happy to play along. But Jordan has maintained its precarious stability so far by avoiding hostility. It has no choice but to assert itself now, but the fine diplomatic lines it walks are only getting narrower.
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