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May 3, 2012 | 13:23 GMT

6 mins read

Crisis for Jordan's Monarchy

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Summary

King Abdullah II of Jordan and his son, Crown Prince Hussein, recently traveled to the country's northern Badia region to meet with leaders of the Bani Khalid, Fawa'reh, Shammar, Enezah, Zbeid, Sarhan, Naeem and Berri tribes. King Abdullah rarely visits the tribes, and such visits are often unsuccessful. The visit came days before the April 26 resignation of Prime Minister Awn al-Khasawneh, who had been appointed to the post only six months earlier.

The Jordanian monarchy is surrounded by challenges. In addition to al-Khasawneh's resignation and mounting calls for reform, the monarchy has lost tribal support, the key pillar of its legitimacy and power. King Abdullah is now scrambling to reaffirm tribal ties, but with limited resources and the loss of confidence, he will be forced to renegotiate the power structure with the tribal East Bankers and the Palestinian-Jordanians.

It is not unusual for Jordanian prime ministers to have short tenures; there have been 11 prime ministers in Jordan since 1999, when King Abdullah ascended to the throne. Still, al-Khasawneh's resignation drew sharp criticism from an increasingly vocal and organized Jordanian reformist movement. Many Jordanians are frustrated with the constant changes in political leadership and are increasingly holding the king responsible for the lack of reforms.

Compounding the pressure from the reformists is the king's loss of support among tribal Jordanians, who dominate the military and intelligence services. The loss of support translates into a weakened monarchy at a time when the king is already dealing with a region in turmoil and pressure to further liberalize the economy, reduce government spending and reform the political system. 

A Bedouin State

The state of Jordan is essentially an artificial construct. The border with Israel is defined by the Jordan River, but the country itself did not exist during the Ottoman Empire era. Established in 1921, the country was created to satisfy a pledge by the British to their Hashemite allies after the British agreed to give Syria to the French. What was then Transjordan later became Jordan and ultimately served as a buffer with Syria, Iraq and Israel.

As the rulers of an artificial nation state, the imported Hashemites built on the local Bedouin identity to create a national identity while excluding the majority Palestinian population. The monarchy adopted the role of mediator, playing the Palestinians off the Bedouins and other minority groups while projecting itself as a rational, Westernized Arab state in a region rife with anti-U.S. dictators and radical Islamists. 

Bedouins, or tribal Jordanians, traditionally are the core of the Hashemite monarchy, affording it both its legitimacy and, through the security services, its primary source of power. But the current king's troubles with the tribes date back to his ascendency to the throne. The late King Hussein's brother, Hassan, was crown prince until King Hussein shifted the title to his son, Abdullah, days before he died. The tribes never fully accepted Abdullah, who was educated at Sandhurst and has a British mother, as their "paramount" sheikh. Jokes still circulate around the kingdom about his inability to speak proper Bedouin Arabic.

The 2011 Arab uprisings exposed a fissure between the monarchy and the tribes that has been growing for years. Known variously as East Bankers or Bedouins, the tribal elements of the country account for between one-third and one-half of the kingdom's 6.5 million people. Though the majority of the population is Palestinian, other minorities, including the Circassians, Christians and Iraqi refugees, number around 1 million.

Things came to a head in February 2011, when 36 tribal representatives signed a petition accusing Queen Rania, who was born in Kuwait and is of Palestinian descent, and her family of corruption. In the petition the representatives called on the king to reaffirm support for the tribes and, significantly, to return lands and farms allegedly taken by the queen's family, the al Yassins. The monarchy in recent years has turned more and more to the Palestinian-Jordanians to build up the private sector. While reducing subsidies to the tribes, it has encouraged foreign direct investment and the creation of an entrepreneurial class dominated by Palestinian-Jordanians — all while, the petitioners claim, handing out land grants and other patronage to the Palestinian elite.

Protesters at soccer matches and other arenas had earlier insulted the queen in chants and called on the king to divorce her. The incidents illustrated a well-known but until then never publicly acknowledged truth: There is widespread disapproval of the king and his rule. 

Winning Back the Sheikhs

King Abdullah's visit to the Badia region is part of an effort to counter the public's dissatisfaction and regain the support of the tribal sheikhs. That King Abdullah is following the example of his father and highlighting the trip in the Jordanian media demonstrates his realization that he cannot rely solely on the urban Palestinians for support and that the long-term survival of his monarchy — and the future of his son's — depends on tribal ties.

Visiting northern Badia, one of Jordan's poorer regions, meeting with tribal leaders and giving them an opportunity to voice their demands is key because it acknowledges their legitimacy and importance. On April 30 the king met with leaders of the Dajaa tribe in East Amman, allowing them to share their concerns and reiterating his commitment to them.

In the short- to midterm, there are several factors that will work in the king's favor. First, although the reformist movement enjoys broad support within the urban areas, no one is yet openly calling for the removal of the monarchy.

Moreover, Jordan's neighbors — Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia — would not be eager to see the monarchy fall. These states are not keen to absorb Jordan's lengthy border with Israel, especially since they are struggling with their own internal challenges. Nor would Israel want to absorb the more than 3 million Palestinians living in Jordan.

At the same time, the tribes themselves benefit from the patronage of the monarchy. They need the monarchy to maintain their internal balance; no tribe would tolerate the rise of another. Nor do they want to compete directly with the Palestinians, who are larger in numbers, better educated and have more financial resources.

Other Options

While no one has openly called for the removal of the monarchy, a new king would not be unwelcome. The king's half brother Hamza and his uncle Hassan, who is 65 years old, have each held the title of crown prince. The tribes would likely be more accepting of Hassan due to his age. At the moment, nothing suggests that either one is positioning himself as a potential replacement to the king.

Calls for reform are rising on all sides. The difficulty for King Abdullah is that different sides want different reforms. The urban Palestinians and other groups want greater political freedoms, less manipulation of the parliament to favor the tribes and more social and economic liberalization. The tribes want less patronage for the Palestinians, more subsidies and land grants and more government jobs. Even the country's largest political bloc, the Muslim Brotherhood, which combines tribal and Palestinian Jordanians, is pressuring the government for reform.

The king will be unable to completely satisfy demands on either side. He is negotiating from a position of weakness — his financial resources are limited, he lacks the support of the tribes and he is under pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups. Therefore, King Abdullah will be forced to progressively relinquish more and more power both to the tribes and to the Palestinians. Jordan is not about to immediately become a constitutional monarchy, with limited powers for the king, but the possibility — like the pressure on the king — is growing.

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