Jordan’s King Abdullah is facing new risks—from his own friends

Jordan's King Abdullah reviews the guard of honour during a ceremony celebrating the country's 73rd Independence Day in Amman, Jordan, May 25, 2019. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed - RC122FB03AE0

In his two decades on the throne, Jordan’s King Abdullah II has faced almost constant challenges to the stability and prosperity of the kingdom, just as his father Hussein did for the half-century of his rule. Survival in a dangerous neighborhood is the quintessential characteristic strength of the Hashemites. Today, Abdullah is facing a new confluence of dangers and threats—including from traditional allies.

Abdullah ascended the throne after his father’s last-minute decision to change the line of succession, ousting his brother Hassan and naming his eldest son. Almost immediately, the crash of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at Camp David and the second intifada placed enormous pressure on Jordan’s own peace treaty with Israel. The majority of Jordan’s citizens are Palestinians (including the queen) and are intensely attuned to the developments in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The peace treaty has never been popular.

The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 added more challenges. It too was deeply unpopular with Jordanians. A surge of Iraqi refugees followed stretching the economy. Perhaps a half-million are still in Jordan. Al Qaida struck hotels in Amman, and the Islamic State remains a terrorist threat.

The civil war in Syria has led to another refugee surge. Almost 700,000 Syrians are registered with the United Nations as refugees in Jordan, more than half are very young. Eighty percent live in the country’s crowded cities. With the Assad regime achieving victory in the war, it is very unlikely that the refugees will go home. While the Syrians are reluctant to go home, the Jordanians may press them to leave, especially those living in camps along the border, to restore “normal” relations with Syria, including on trade.

The combination of these accumulated crises places enormous stress on the economy. According to The Economist, youth unemployment is 41% and public debt is 95% of GDP. Over a million Jordanians are officially poor. Demonstrations are increasingly frequent protesting the hardships. The king is usually regarded as above the fray, but now protests are aimed directly at Abdullah.

The situation is getting even more hazardous because the kingdom’s traditional allies are less committed to Abdullah than usual. Jordan gets about $1 billion in aid from the United States every year. Washington is normally Jordan’s closest friend and advocate: Every president since Eisenhower has supported the Hashemites despite some occasional strains in the relationship.

The Trump administration has been different. The administration has refused to take advice from Amman on critical decisions like moving the embassy to Jerusalem, cutting ties and aid to the Palestinians, and its so-called “deal of the century” to resolve the conflict. The king is outspoken about the need to keep the future of Jerusalem on the negotiating table. He has dynastic claims to represent the Muslim and Christian holy sites in the city, claims recognized in the peace treaty. Trump has ignored him.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are another source of financial assistance. Last year the Saudis, Kuwaitis, and Emiratis promised $2.5 billion in aid, mostly in loans. Not much has been delivered so far. The Saudis are angry that Jordan has not severed ties to Qatar and has withdrawn its support for the war in Yemen.

Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman is the driver behind both policies and is no friend of Abdullah. In fact, he is rumored to have played politics in the Hashemite royal family against Abdullah. When two of the king’s half-brothers lost their jobs in the military last year (one ran the Royal Guard and the other the Air Force), there were rumors of Muhammed bin Salman’s meddling. The Saudi Crown Prince is also suspected of seeking to replace Abdullah’s role in Jerusalem. The Saudi posture is complicated because King Salman is much more supportive about the traditional Arab position on Jerusalem than his son.

The June 25-26 American-sponsored “workshop” in Manama, Bahrain to address how to increase investment and trade in the occupied Palestinian territories and the surrounding region is another concern for Abdullah. He can’t afford to alienate Washington and Riyadh by not showing, but domestically the Manama meeting is already deeply unpopular. Jordan needs economic assistance badly, but that cannot come at the cost of abandoning the two-state solution. The American embassy in Amman was the site of demonstrations when Jared Kushner invited the king to send representatives to Bahrain meeting.

Last month, King Abdullah removed the head of his intelligence service and replaced him with a Circassian officer, Ahmad Husni, who has many years of experience. The Circassian community is comprised of refugees who fled Russia to the Ottoman Empire more than a century ago; they are the most loyal followers of the monarchy. Abdullah is circling the wagons.

The king is a master at juggling the challenges facing his country, just as was his father King Hussein. But past successes are no guarantee of future success. If it cares about stability in Jordan, the Trump administration would be wise to abandon its half-baked peace plan before it is even rolled out. With tensions rising in the Persian Gulf after the attacks on oil tankers, Jordan will be at further risk of getting in the crossfire between Washington, Riyadh, and Tehran.