While many Middle Eastern leaders are apprehensive about the incoming American administration, Jordan’s King Abdullah is pleased to see the end of the Trump administration and welcome Joe Biden. The Trump team virtually ignored Jordan and its interests for four years. Biden is a well-known player in the Hashemite Kingdom, but the relationship will need mending.
The king tried courting Trump in 2017, meeting face-to-face four times that year — including in Riyadh, when Trump traveled to the region. But they have not met since June 2018, an unusually long period of absence for Jordanian kings and American presidents. Only the hiatus between King Hussein and President George H.W. Bush after their falling out over Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait 30 years ago was as lengthy as the current freeze.
Trump pursued a regional policy that stressed Saudi and Israeli interests. Washington supported the Saudi war and blockade in Yemen, which has killed tens of thousands and starved even more in a reckless quagmire. It is very unpopular in Jordan, which sympathizes with the Yemeni people, a sentiment that is sometimes expressed in the media. Jordan did not join the Saudi blockade of Qatar, despite Saudi pressure. The king has made little secret of his disdain for Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who has been an inept leader and ordered the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul more than two years ago.
Trump’s other fan in the region is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom the Jordanians have despised since 1997 when he ordered a bungled assassination attempt against Hamas’ leader in Jordan, Khaled Mishal, in downtown Amman. I took King Hussein’s angry call to President Bill Clinton, demanding the antidote for the poison that had been used. Trump’s so-called “deal of the century” was a craven rehash of right-wing Israeli demands, including for the annexation of the Jordan River valley. King Abdullah has not met with Netanyahu in years.
Kings Hussein and Abdullah have both been ardent supporters of the Palestinians, pressing for the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Given that the majority of Jordanians are of Palestinian origin, this is both a foreign and domestic imperative for Amman. Jordan looks forward to a resumption of American dialogue with the Palestinian Authority (PA). The Jordanian intelligence chief, General Ahmed Husni, visited Ramallah last weekend to coordinate with the PA on reopening relations between the Palestinians and the incoming administration, as well as discussing plans for new elections for the authority.
Jordan, like everyone, is grappling with the pandemic. As my colleagues have detailed, it has done better than most, but is still facing high unemployment. The tourist industry is shut down, and Petra — the jewel of Nabatean archaeology — is empty. Abdullah will welcome Biden’s promise to take on the virus as his top priority.
Biden visited Jordan often in his decades as a senator, and during his eight years as vice president. He frequently stopped in Amman en route to or from Baghdad. There are over 3,000 U.S. troops in Jordan, and security relations are excellent despite the coolness of the relationship at the top in recent years. U.S. economic and military aid to Jordan began in the 1950s, and has totaled close to $25 billion since, roughly two-thirds economic assistance and one-third military aid. Jordan became a Major Non-NATO Ally in 1996, which means it has more access to sophisticated technology.
In addition to focusing on the pandemic and restoring some balance to the American approach to the Palestinian issue, King Abdullah will also seek a more coherent approach to the crisis in Syria. Abdullah’s relationship with Barack Obama soured in the latter’s second term, due to the king’s frustration with the administration’s hands-off approach to the Syrian disaster. Over 600,000 Syrian refugees are still in Jordan, and the war has put Russian and Iranian troops along Jordan’s northern security frontier. The Islamic State terror network has carried out attacks in Jordan, including on American troops. Although diminished, the group still poses a danger.
Biden should invite King Abdullah and Queen Rania for an early meeting in the White House. As the United States reassesses relations with some in the region, most notably Saudi Arabia, the president and Congress should reaffirm strong ties to the pivot of the region, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.