Europe's World

Now the Pressure's Building on Jordan

Jordan’s image in European and American eyes as a “moderate” pro-western monarchy has earned it a privileged place in the region. When in 1994 Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel, becoming the second Arab country after Egypt to do so, its importance to the strategic axis in the Middle East was further enhanced. Now, with the Mubarak regime no longer in power and the region undergoing unprecedented change, the U.S. and Europe are placing greater emphasis than ever on Jordan’s ability to maintain stable relations with Israel. Whether Amman will still be able to do so in the absence of a credible peace process is now a weighty question, not least because the Jordanian monarchy is facing mounting troubles domestically.

For all that, in the absence of Egyptian leadership Jordan is seeking to take on a more significant role in pushing forward the peace process, most recently hosting Quartet talks in Amman and receiving Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in high-level discussions with King Abdullah. Whether this will facilitate the peace process in the absence of Egyptian leadership, or just deflect attention from Jordan’s domestic challenges, remains to be seen. But Jordan’s internal political situation can no longer be ignored, and urgent democratic reforms there have become crucial to western interests. They should also strengthen Jordan’s efforts to influence Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

American and European policymakers alike see Jordan as an agent for reform in the region, and some have even held the country up as evidence that moderate monarchies in the Middle East can help secure both democratic values and western strategic concerns.

Jordan has long been a key EU partner; it has enjoyed privileged trade status with Europe since 1977, and the EU is currently Jordan’s second trade partner behind Saudi Arabia. The Association Agreement signed with the EU in 1997 replaced the 20-year-old Cooperation Agreement and will incrementally establish free trade between the EU and Jordan. The EU also grants aid to Jordan through the European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI), with a budget worth some €12bn for 2007-2013.

Jordan’s relationship with the United States has been similarly strong. It is now the region’s second largest per capita recipient of American aid after Israel, with total U.S. assistance having risen from $353m in 2001 to $818m in 2010. The 2000 free trade agreement with the U.S. makes Jordan one of only five nations in the region to have such an arrangement, and in return Jordan provides intelligence information and helps to safeguard American and Israeli strategic interests in the region.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is, meanwhile, seeking to shore up Jordan with greater economic support, while also opening up the possibility of more integrated security partnerships with the well-trained Jordanian military and intelligence services. As part of this strategy, Saudi Arabia last year granted Jordan $1bn in aid. The possible expansion of the GCC to include Jordan and Morocco reflected the Gulf nations’ initial “security-first” approach to the Arab awakening. By expanding an organisation that groups monarchies in the Middle East, the GCC had hoped to ride out the wave of reform while maintaining the status quo in those countries.

Yet change has become increasingly unavoidable. The GCC has had to facilitate the transfer of power away from Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, and it has come to take a stronger stance against the autocratic reign of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It therefore appears to be increasingly unlikely that Jordan will be granted membership of the more activist GCC. Jordan is in any case more unstable than many key allies realise or are willing to acknowledge. Domestically, it has long faced internal threats that have so far not been allayed by “top-down” reforms whose eventual aim is to introduce a more representative political system.

Jordan’s King Abdullah has in his 13-year reign appointed 10 cabinets, the latest last October to quell protests against the government of Marouf al-Bakhit, who was widely seen as part of the “old guard” and thus not serious about cracking down on corruption or interested in democratic reform. King Abdullah’s commitment to introducing a constitutional monarchy, even though in 2005 he claimed that Jordan would “absolutely” pursue that path, is widely doubted, and seen by many Jordanians as little more than a rhetorical promise. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index in 2010 rated Jordan 117th out of 167 nations, placing it firmly among those labelled as “authoritarian”. The king and his new prime minister, Awm Khasawneh, have, however, repeatedly proclaimed their desire to enact reforms to make the political system more representative, with elections scheduled for later this year. Although the king may truly aspire to reform the system, implementation has been slow, making Jordanians increasingly nervous.

Jordan nevertheless continues to benefit from much unconditional western support. There has been surprisingly little mention in official U.S. or European statements of the popular protests that have been taking place in Jordan since last year, even though high-level figures like EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton visited the kingdom during the height of last June’s unrest. The western commitment to Jordan remains strong, with the U.S. signing grants for Jordan worth $360m last August, and both the EU and President Obama praising King Abdullah’s proposed reforms.

Nonetheless, Jordan’s commitment to reform remains uncertain. With an estimated 55-70% of its population of Palestinian origin, Jordan’s social cleavages also threaten its political stability. Economic inequalities have aggravated these problems as Palestinians tend to dominate the business elite while East Bank Jordanians have done less well. But the East Bankers account for much of the political elite, and often are hesitant to accept changes that would permit more representative governance because that would diminish their political power. Some East Bankers hope for political reform, but Jordan’s opposition groups are primarily Palestinian, strengthening fears that political divisions follow sectarian cleavages.

Another element that further complicates Jordan’s social composition is the large number of Palestinian refugees. UNRWA reports that 1.9m Palestinian refugees and displaced persons are now in Jordan. This population, if granted citizenship, would represent a huge bloc of voters whose interests would align with neither the East Bank population nor with Jordan’s elite Palestinians, thereby creating a new social cleavage in an already divided country.

Even among the tribal East Bank population, Jordan suffers from severe divisions. Some 40% of Jordan’s population is affiliated with one tribe or another. These have traditionally been loyal to its Hashemite monarchs, making their recent actions that much more disconcerting to the regime. In a joint statement issued early in 2011, 36 tribal figures warned that without political reform Jordan would experience similar protests to Tunisia and Egypt and demanded immediate change. “Political reform is now an urgent matter that cannot be delayed,” they said, adding that “holding the corrupt and thieves accountable and freezing their assets, prohibiting them from travelling are all part and parcel of political reform.”

It is therefore far from certain that these tribal leaders can still be seen as reliable supporters of the regime, or whether it could long survive without them. A good many analysts contend that Jordan's political elite has been able to use this tribalism as a bulwark against the increasing popularity of Islamists, and to counter the emergence of a credible liberal opposition to autocratic governance. The tribal leaders’ support could become critical at a time when King Abdullah is facing challenges from East Bank loyalists as well as Jordan’s Palestinians.

Corruption will probably be the issue that unites opposition. Popular anger at the unpunished graft of key officials and other elites has already provoked some of the biggest mass protests so far, bringing together Islamists, leftists and others. The sighting of powerful businessman Khalid Shahin in London last April when he was supposed to be undergoing medical treatment in the U.S. while serving a three-year sentence for corruption, was a major embarrassment for the Jordanian authorities, and forced the justice and health ministers to resign. Last August, the prime minister was cleared by Parliament of all charges relating to a controversial deal to set up a casino on the Dead Sea. The widespread perceptions of a “whitewash” united leftist and Islamist opposition forces against the government, including the powerful Islamic Action Front. Last May, they formed the National Front for Reform (NFR) on a platform of “fighting tyranny and corruption.” Its leader is the respected former prime minister Ahmad Obeidat, who insists that “fighting corruption starts with reforming the regime itself.”

Even after Jordan’s unpopular Bakhit government was sacked last October, with former ICC judge Awn Khasawneh coming to power, complaints about corruption have continued. In early December, protestors stepped up their rallies against government corruption, leading King Abdullah to comment publicly that “no one is above the law.” Prime Minister Khasawneh endorsed the king’s strong stance against graft, vowing that his government would back the country’s anti-corruption agencies.

The reality, however, is that Jordan’s government still operates as an absolute monarchy, despite promises of greater democratic accountability. King Abdullah’s recent promises of an elected government have done little to bridge the “trust deficit” between his words and his actions.

Europe, working with the U.S., has the ability to push for such democratic reforms. Its trade and aid relations give it considerable leverage, as do its links with Jordan’s military and security forces. In advocating reforms, Europe must no longer accept cosmetic and piecemeal efforts, because the experience of the Arab awakening so far clearly shows that if democratic reform isn’t forthcoming, Jordan risks the same chaos and instability as elsewhere in the region.

Further, Jordan is in any case far from being isolated from the effects of the uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East. As the Syrian crisis becomes increasingly violent, with King Abdullah publicly calling on Bashar al-Assad to step down, threats of spillover become all the more daunting. Change in the region, whether in North Africa or in Syria, is likely to spur Jordanians to push harder still for democratic reform at home.

Just as in Egypt, Jordan’s “western aid for peace with Israel” deal may easily be swept away. Mubarak’s ousting means Jordan is now the lynchpin in such an arrangement, but the question is how long this increasingly unstable structure can last.