Leader Development & Education for Sustained Peace Program: Cross-Cultural, Geopolitical & Regional Education

In Review: The Latest in Jordanian-U.S. Relations

From our November LDESP Middle East News Update.

As many of the countries within the Middle East are in a moment of great turmoil, the role of the U.S. is also in flux. While Egypt is experiencing volatile regime change and tension are rising between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, relations between the U.S. and Jordan are consistently strong, especially given the latter’s unique stability. The Economist describes Jordan as “Surprisingly Stable for the Moment”:  a8_jordan_intro

“AT THE outbreak of the Arab spring few thrones looked as precarious as that of Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Squeezed between bigger, beefier and more turbulent neighbours, his resource-poor kingdom faced mounting friction at home. Trouble brewed between the numerical minority of native “East Bankers” and the relatively disenfranchised majority of Jordanians who are of Palestinian descent. Government critics, both Islamist and secular, jockeyed to exploit street-level discontent. The king’s traditional immunity from criticism had worn dangerously thin, his talk of reform belied by such enduring woes as a yawning wealth gap, corruption, an intrusive security apparatus and heavily stage-managed politics.

“No one would have bet on Jordan back then,” admits a former minister. But now, three years later, he reckons that King Abdullah is at the zenith of his power. Other observers agree. A mix of serendipity and political skill have not just helped the 51-year-old Jordanian monarch avoid the fate of other Arab autocrats. They have steered his 6.5m subjects through a period of unusual stress, worsened by such factors as a growing energy import bill and the influx of some 700,000 Syrian refugees.

Despite that extra burden, the ironic truth is that Syria’s misfortune has, so far at least, worked to King Abdullah’s benefit. Worried allies such as America and Saudi Arabia have poured in aid to bolster what they see as a vital buffer state. At the same time the devastation of Syria’s civil war, along with unrelenting violence in Iraq and enduring political divisions among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, have combined to cool Jordanian tempers. “The appetite for the kind of mobilisation that could generate real change has very much diminished,” says Mouin Rabbani, an analyst in Amman, Jordan’s capital.

Whereas ordinary Jordanians seem simply relieved that their king has kept them out of neighbouring conflicts, those troubles have driven a wedge into Jordan’s political opposition. Secular groups are fiercely divided between friends and foes of Syria’s embattled regime. The Muslim Brotherhood, long the most powerful opposition force in Jordan in its guise as the Islamic Action Front, has also split into warring camps, with the recent overthrow of Egypt’s Brotherhood president prompting some of its Jordanian adherents to argue for a less combative approach.

In a sign of declining opposition clout, street protests against cuts in food and fuel subsidies have drawn diminishing crowds. Policy changes as well as luck have helped to blunt criticism of the king. Queen Rania, whose glamorous profile riled conservatives, has largely withdrawn from the public eye. Constitutional reforms have gone part of the way to meet reformers’ demands, and high-profile anti-corruption cases have partly appeased critics of the government.

Yet the mood in the kingdom remains anxious, not merely because neighbouring troubles could still prove contagious. Further cuts in subsidies are needed to trim a perilously chronic budget deficit and some fear that, with the organised opposition in disarray, any renewed eruption of street protests would be leaderless and hard to control.

Others fear that King Abdullah, rather than taking advantage of his stronger position to enact deeper reforms, such as reining in the overweening power of his security agencies, will instead revert to his old ways. That could mean that the kingdom’s comparative stability is not a turning point but merely a reprieve.” (The Economist)

However, given Jordan’s geostrategic significance and good relations with most countries in the region, it is often balancing vastly different interests. In an article translated on Al Monitor, Yazid Sayegh explains that “Saudi-U.S. Rift Pulls Jordan in Opposite Directions”:

Image source: embassyworld.com

Image source: embassyworld.com

“Lately, those observing how the Syrian crisis is affecting neighboring countries have focused their attention on the city of Tripoli, the “capital” of north Lebanon, where there has been renewed fighting between Bab al-Tabbaneh (Sunni majority) and Jabal Mohsen (Alawite majority). Several have been killed and injured in the fighting, which came as a result of the political and security vacuum caused by the inability of the March 8 and March 14 camps to agree on a formula for a national unity government, which has been delayed seven months so far.

But the fighting also reflected the tension arising from the approaching battle in Qalamoun, along the border inside Syria, where regime and opposition forces have been massing in anticipation of a government campaign aimed at closing rebel supply lines from Lebanon.

But what is more important strategically in the coming period is the effect of the Syrian crisis on Jordan, which enjoys much better security and stability than Lebanon but faces difficult future challenges as the battle in Syria moves closer to the Jordanian border. The rebels seek to extend their control alongside the border region while regime forces try to clear opposition strongholds south of Damascus to provide a shield for the capital against a possible attack from Daraa.

An escalation in the fighting will increase the flow of opposition fighters and arms across the border toward Syria and of refugees toward Jordan. That would constitute an immediate challenge for the Jordanian government, which is already suffering from the burden of accommodating 1.3 million Syrians.

An escalation in the fighting will increase the flow of opposition fighters and arms across the border toward Syria and of refugees toward Jordan. That would constitute an immediate challenge for the Jordanian government, which is already suffering from the burden of accommodating 1.3 million Syrians.

Until recently, Jordan has tried to alleviate the impact of the Syrian crisis by adopting a neutrality policy similar to Lebanon’s dissociation policy. At certain points, King Abdullah II and his prime minister offered to mediate between President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition. But both parties refused.

In the last two months, Jordan aligned its foreign policy with that of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, thus joining what the Jordanian officials who support that move called a frank “coalition” rather than remaining in an implicit “axis.” They think that Assad’s departure is inevitable, and therefore Jordan will gain if it joins the team that is devoting its resources to reach that objective.

Others in Jordan are skeptical about whether it is wise for Jordan to be overtly taking sides. Senior security officials see the rise in Syria of armed groups linked to al-Qaeda to be the greatest danger if the Assad regime falls, and even if they stay. Those officials are concerned about the appearance of Jabhat al-Nusra on the border. They also think that using Jordanian territory to train and arm the Syrian rebels to be an additional threat. They consider such a military plan to be unrealistic.

It should be noted that such a plan involves direct military intervention in Syria, and that is unlikely to happen as long as the group of 11 inside the Friends of Syria group, which includes Jordan, recently renewed its commitment to the Geneva II framework for a political solution in Syria.

Jordan’s motives are clear. The kingdom receives aid from external sources, particularly from the Gulf states. But the recent dispute between Saudi Arabia and the United States on Syria is pulling Jordan in opposite directions. Jordan stands with Saudi Arabia, but the US insistence on holding the Geneva II conference makes Jordan uncomfortable. The success of Geneva II will solve Jordan’s dilemma. But Geneva II is unlikely to succeed because the Assad regime, the National Coalition and the rebels on the ground are hardening their positions, while the Friends of Syria are still divided on whether to accept Iran’s participation in the conference.” (Al Monitor, Al Hayat)

Nonetheless, the U.S. is doubling down its relations with and support of Jordan. Several months after U.S. President Barack Obama visited Jordan and announced a $200 million aid package to assist in its crisis with Syrian refugees, in early November, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry tried to rally countries for additional aid the kingdom. “Kerry Backs Jordan Aid Call for Syria Refugees”:

“The United States will continue to assist Jordan in dealing with the crisis of Syrian refugees,” a palace statement quoted Kerry as telling Jordan’s King Abdullah II at a meeting in Amman.

“The United States will also continue to encourage the international community to have a bigger role and face its responsibilities in this issue,” said Kerry, on a regional tour to push for Middle East peace.

Jordan is home to around 500,000 Syrian refugees — equal to eight percent of the population — including more than 100,000 at the desert Zaatari camp near the border.

The United Nations has estimated the cost of hosting the refugees in Jordan for this year and 2014 at $5.3 billion (3.9 billion euros).

Amman says the influx has placed a huge burden on already overstretched water and power supplies as well as housing and education, while unemployed Jordanians face tough competition from Syrians for jobs.

The king said on 3 November the problem is depleting Jordan of its scarce natural resources, and called for international assistance. (Global Post, AFP)

BBC Interactive Map: “Zaatari Refugee Camp: Rebuilding Lives in the Desert” The BBC provides a detailed interactive map of the massive Zaatari refugee camp allowing viewers to zoom in on different parts of the camp and take a virtual tour of the three-square-mile piece of desolate Jordanian desert where nearly 130,000 Syrian refugees are trying to build their lives.

BBC Interactive Map: “Zaatari Refugee Camp: Rebuilding Lives in the Desert
The BBC provides a detailed interactive map of the massive Zaatari refugee camp allowing viewers to zoom in on different parts of the camp and take a virtual tour of the three-square-mile piece of desolate Jordanian desert where nearly 130,000 Syrian refugees are trying to build their lives.

Likewise, in late October, the State Department announced that the “Government of Jordan Issues $1.25 Billion Bond with U.S. Guarantee,” thus reinforcing “the firm U.S. commitment to the people of Jordan by strengthening the Government of Jordan’s ability to maintain access to international financing, while enabling it to achieve its economic development and reform goals.” According to the press release:

“This guarantee marks the conclusion of a process that President Obama set in motion in March 2013 when he visited Jordan. During his visit, President Obama noted that a U.S. guarantee, “can help deliver the results that Jordanians deserve… to see their schools better, their roads improved, healthcare, clean water all enhanced, the training that I know a lot of Jordanians seek, particularly young people, to get a job or to turn entrepreneurial skills into a business that creates even more jobs.” That vision was further affirmed by the signing of a loan guarantee agreement in Amman on August 14, 2013.

The U.S. Government is committed to supporting Jordan’s efforts to provide critical services to its citizens as it enacts economic reforms to increase Jordan’s macroeconomic stability and hosts more than half a million refugees fleeing the violence inside Syria. This loan guarantee also reinforces Jordan’s work with other donors, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), to implement its economic reform agenda.

[This] issuance of a $1.25 billion, seven-year Jordanian sovereign bond was supported by a 100 percent guarantee of the repayment of principal and interest by the United States Government. The U.S. Congress authorized the Jordan loan guarantee program in the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2012, as applied to FY 2013 funding by the Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013. The $1.25 billion issuance was priced at a coupon rate of 2.503%.” (U.S. Department of State)

In a clear sign of wanting to raise its international profile, in mid November, Jordan announced that with Saudi Arabia’s blessing, it was seeking a bid for a seat on the U.N. Security Council, following the latter’s rejection of the position. “Jordan Seeks U.N. Security Council Seat after Saudi Rejection”:

Jordan has formally submitted a bid for a two-year seat on the U.N. Security Council, officials said on 18 November, after its ally Saudi Arabia rejected the position partly in protest over international failure to end Syria’s civil war.

Jordan, which closely follows regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia on most foreign policy issues, wants to raise its international profile and win more recognition of its role in accommodating Syrian refugees, the officials said.

Its bid follows Saudi Arabia’s surprise move last month to decline a coveted seat on the 15-member Security Council over the United Nations’ failure to halt Syria’s civil war, to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and stop nuclear proliferation in the region.

Officials made clear Jordan’s bid had the blessing of Saudi Arabia, its biggest financial backer, and of the United States.

“Jordan’s decision comes after consultations between King Abdullah II and his brothers in Saudi Arabia, as well as a number of (other) Arab leaders and other world leaders,” the state news agency quoted Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Joudeh as saying.

Jordan still needs the support of a two-thirds majority in the U.N. General Assembly to win one of the Security Council’s 10 rotating two-year seats. The United States, Russia, China, France and Britain hold the other five, permanent seats.

“RESPECT”

Diplomats said it appeared Jordan had agreed, after some hesitation, to replace Saudi Arabia on the Security Council after it dropped out of a race against Riyadh for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council. Saudi Arabia won a three-year seat on that council in early November despite concerns over its rights record.

“The Security Council seat is a prominent international position that will enable Jordan to become an influential player in international decision-making and is an indication of the world’s respect for its moderate policies,” Information Minister Mohammed al-Momani told Reuters. (Chicago Tribune, Reuters)

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