With its close proximity to major regional conflicts, artificial borders dictated by imperial politics instead of geography, limited natural resources and a swelling refugee population, we sit down to discuss the geopolitics of Jordan in this episode of the Stratfor Podcast.
Stratfor analysts Emily Hawthorne and Mark Fleming-Williams take closer look at Jordan’s rich history, incredible success maintaining a stable government and both the economic challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for this Middle East kingdom.
Marking a Century of the Modern Middle East by Emily Hawthorne
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Faisel Pervaiz [00:00:00] Hello, I'm Faisel Pervaiz, a South Asia analyst here at Stratfor and this podcast is brought to you by Stratfor Worldview, our premier digital publication for objective geopolitical intelligence and analysis. Individual, team, and enterprise memberships are available at worldview.stratfor.com/subscribe.
Emily Hawthorne [00:00:32] I've heard Jordan's economy referred to as a colander, as a sieve. It's so structurally unsound that it receives a lot of money, but it just sort of trickles through. There's a lot of work to be done in reforming Jordan's economy and that's one of the big battles ahead.
Ben Sheen [00:00:51] Welcome to the Stratfor podcast. Focused on geopolitics and world affairs from stratfor.com. I'm your host, Ben Sheen. Despite artificial borders dictated by imperial politics instead of geography, limited natural resources in close proximity to regional conflicts in Iraq and Syria, the kingdom of Jordan has managed to remain quite stable since its founding in 1946. Today, Jordan also plays host to nearly three quarters of a million refugees, according to the United Nations. And 90% of them are fleeing the ongoing conflict in Syria. For a closer look at the delicate balance the nation has struck so far, and the geographical constraints it faces going forward, we're joined by Middle East and North Africa analyst, Emily Hawthorne and senior analyst, Mark Fleming-Williams for discussion about the geopolitics of Jordan in this episode of the Stratfor podcast.
Mark Flemming-Williams [00:01:41] My name is Mark Fleming-Williams. I'm a Ssenior Economy Analyst here at Stratfor and today I'm joined by Emily Hawthorne who is our MENA Analyst. Emily, today we're going to talk about Jordan and I want to be very open and clear and up front about it, but the Middle East and Jordan is not an area I know. It's not one of my fortes, so I'm going to be asking you questions to which I probably don't know the answer. Hopefully that's going to be the case for our listeners as well and we can all learn at once. Looking at the map of Jordan, which I don't think necessarily our listeners will be doing at the same time, could you just start by just giving us a little tour of where Jordan is? Just a little introduction to its geography, who its neighbors are, that kind of thing.
Emily Hawthorne [00:02:23] Jordan is really in the core of the region of the Middle East that is called the Levant. It is surrounded by Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq. It has a little bit of coastline on the Red Sea. It's really, pretty landlocked. It does have a very fertile east bank, the Jordan River of biblical fame runs along its western border. That river is really important for Jordan's agricultural production especially because the vast majority of the country is desert. Those deserts are known as the Syrian and Northern Arabian Deserts. These deserts just open up into these vast expanses where there really is no population there. There's no arable, agricultural production there. Jordan, while it does have that important river on the west side, it doesn't have a lot of resources. It has to import a lot of resources for domestic energy and to supply its population. Jordan doesn't have an ideal picture in terms of resources and in terms of being in the crux of an area that is prone to, certainly right now in the 21st century, prone to a lot of instability. Jordan is not well located. It does get pulled into a lot of conflict that way.
Mark Flemming-Williams [00:03:34] Interesting. Jordan and a lot of the Middle East has been, the borders have been drawn in a manner which isn't necessarily organic or natural. The borders were largely drawn by colonial powers in the past. Could you just paint the picture a little bit as to kind of where Jordan comes from and how it came into being?
Emily Hawthorne [00:03:52] This is interesting because you are absolutely correct that the 20th century Jordan were drawn after World War One. But this area that Jordan was in, it was referred to as Jordan and the capital was referred to as Amman which it's still known as today as far as back as the Umayyad Empire which is 600, 700s AD. This area has been a crossing point, that's what the Levant is known for, sort of a crossing point of trade, a low lying area that is easy to invade, easy to cross and that's what Jordan and Syria and Iraq, together, their borders together, that desert throughout history has become part of so many different empires and subject to a lot of trade activity and war and sort of flip flopping of different capitals. Jordan was really important during the Umayyad Empire because of the importance of Damascus at that time. When the capital of the Muslim dynasty, the muslim world, moved to Baghdad, Jordan and Amman became a little bit less important at that time.
Mark Flemming-Williams [00:04:57] It moved to Baghdad from Cairo, from Egypt?
Emily Hawthorne [00:05:01] No it was from Damascus. Syria which is, if you look at a map of the Middle East, one thing that strikes people if you haven't looked at a map of the Middle East, is just how close a lot of these capitals in the Levant are. If you look at the distance between Damascus and Beirut and Jerusalem and Amman, they're all very, very close. You have all these national borders and intense border security now, but before the Ottomans swept through the area and even during the Ottoman period, these were really commonly used trade routes.
Mark Flemming-Williams [00:05:31] Bring it forward to the 20th century, how did today's Jordan come about?
Emily Hawthorne [00:05:35] You have of course a long period, centuries when the Ottomans, after the beginning of the 1500s when Ottoman forces invaded, Jordan was part of that. Then at the end of the era, the Ottoman era, it's well known that there of course was this breakup of a lot of the former Ottoman territories to a lot of the imperial powers. There was a ceding of those areas to the control of certain local allies that had worked alongside the imperial powers. When you look at Jordan, it was actually not a very desirable area. You had the mandate of Syria, which the French took control of. You had the Palestine mandate which the British took control of. And the Transjordan was a part of that. Actually, the local ruler that was given control over this area, he really didn't want it. It was not viewed as strategic. Abdullah became the Emir of Transjordan in 1921. Eventually, Jordan did declare its independence in 1946. Abdullah became the king of Jordan. Then his descendants still rule over the kingdom today. It's still the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Mark Flemming-Williams [00:06:42] We've got the Hashemite Kingdom and that, as you say, the continuity runs all the way through the 20th century. We've still got the Hashemites in control. If you could just introduce them a little bit. Who are they? And also how do they relate to neighboring states? Because a lot of these tribes, have got connections and relations, haven't they?
Emily Hawthorne [00:07:00] Yes, and the Hashemites trace their lineage back to a close of relative of the prophet Muhammad that was living in what is now modern day Saudi Arabia. The connection to Jordan comes when you had a leader named Sharif Hussein. He was appointed the Sharif and Emir of Mecca in 1908 by the Ottoman ruler at the time. Of course this is just before the Ottoman Empire broke up but he helped the British, some of the imperial forces in the Arab revolt against the Ottomans in 1916.
Mark Flemming-Williams [00:07:27] We're talking Lawrence of Arabia time now?
Emily Hawthorne [00:07:28] Exactly. We're talking this period of time when some of the local Bedouin tribes, some of the local Bedouin forces, and the different Arab tribes united under Sharif Hussein. He was sort of named king of the Arab lands, king of the Hejaz, which is that region of Saudi Arabia. He was rewarded for his work in this by, his sons were given leadership over what is now Jordan and what is now Iraq and that happened in 1921. His son Abdullah, the leadership then went to Talal, and then it went to Hussein. Then it went to Abdullah the second, who is king today. It's a very clear lineage but because the Hashemites have that connection to those original companions of the prophet Muhammad in Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia and the royal family there has a strong connection with the royal family in Jordan. Really any the Arab tribes that can trace lineage back to those original companions of the prophet, they have a connection to the Hashemites as well. This has been a part of Jordan's ability to have a strong bit of legitimacy in the Islamic world and in the Arab world at large.
Ben Sheen [00:08:34] We'll get back to our conversion on the geopolitics of Jordan in just one moment. But if you're interested in exploring the geopolitical realities and constraints facing nations and how that continues to shake their actions, be sure to visit us at Stratfor Worldview. This intersection of history, politics, and geography is at the core of all our work and the foundation of Stratfor's unique methodology. It drives the analysis and forecasting we produce each and every day to help make sense of an increasingly complex world. If you're not already a Stratfor Worldview member, you can learn more about individual, team, and enterprise access at worldview.stratfor.com/subscribe. While you're there be sure to check out our series of short geographic challenge videos. That's where our team uses animated maps and graphics to outline the primary geopolitical constraints and opportunities facing nations. We'll include some links in the show notes. Now to part two of our conversation on the geopolitics of Jordan, and Stratfor's Emily Hawthorne and Mark Fleming-Williams.
Mark Flemming-Williams [00:09:32] Looking at the map, we've got Jordan, it's situated in a very hot area. We've got Syria and Iraq on two borders. We've got Israel on another border. And yet, Jordan has had the same family in charge for a 100 years. How are those two things possible?
Emily Hawthorne [00:09:51] This is a question that people ask about Jordan all the time. It's a really important question because it defies logic somewhat that under so much pressure, Jordan has not seen the type of conflict over the last decades that many of its neighbors have seen. This doesn't mean that Jordan is immune to conflict or instability. Jordan does struggle with the development of terrorist organizations within its borders, but it has a very strong military and security forces that help suss out plots before they can metastasize. That's one thing, is that Jordan has built up its security forces in a very profound way. Another thing is that Jordan does have a varied ethnic makeup. A lot of Jordan is comprised of different waves of refugees and migrants that have come to settle in Jordan over the decades. Jordan became an independent kingdom in 1946. In 1948 you had the Nakba, the west bank, and Israel claimed a lot of Jerusalem, prompting thousands and thousands of Palestinians to move across the Jordan river into Jordan. Most of these Palestinians have not left. Then you have other waves of immigration from Iraq. Now in the last seven years, we've had incredible waves of migration from Syria. That said, the royal family and the government, they try to keep on top of all these different groups by really making sure that they have enough foreign aid to keep refugee camps running and providing services. That's one thing we can talk about is those foreign relationships.
Mark Flemming-Williams [00:11:15] It seems to me, what you're telling me, is that Jordan is like the spare room of the Middle East. It seems to be that anyone who is leaving the neighboring countries ends up kind of stumbling into Jordan and finding a room for the night. Does that mean that Jordan in a way is not really an active player, an agent of its own destiny in the Middle East? Is it more a recipient of what other people want?
Emily Hawthorne [00:11:35] That is an apt way of looking at Jordan historically. Because it has been so stable, it's emerging now as more and more of a strategic actor in the Middle East but it still is not a major power because it doesn't have its own sources of wealth generation. There's a really interesting way to look at what those waves of Palestinian migration to Jordan have given to it over the years. They've comprised over half of the population. These Palestinians, especially from the first waves of migration, they call themselves Jordanians but they will proudly identify as Palestinian as well. But they're part of Jordan. They've become part of the national fabric. Even though these borders famously were drawn because of the Sykes-Picot agreement, Jordanians of all different nationalities originally have really fleshed out those borders and have built of this narrative. That's one thing is that the royal family over the years, especially King Hussein who was king for decades up until 1999, really told a good narrative that Jordanians could be a part of. The Palestinian migration, the Palestinian issue in the enduring, unsolved conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, this is a great thorn in the side of Middle East peace. All the other Arab states feel similarly about the Palestinian cause and that they want them to be able to return home and have their own state. Well Jordan has become a place for them to live supposedly temporarily and that has given Jordan sort of a vaulted status of hosting a whole generation of Palestinians. This is valuable for the rest of the Middle East
Emily Hawthorne [00:13:07] in that they've sort of served as their home.
Mark Flemming-Williams [00:13:10] How would you characterize Jordan's role in the region? Obviously, it's a bit involved in invasions, Arab invasions against Israel in the past. It doesn't feel to me like the leader. How does Jordan manage the tension surrounding it?
Emily Hawthorne [00:13:23] Well one, Jordan doesn't get deeply involved in a lot of the conflicts in the Middle East any more than it has to just to secure its own security. For example, Jordan has very capable security forces. Part of that is thanks to decades of agreements with the United States and with the U.K. to train up Jordan security forces. But they use them to directly protect Jordan. They don't use them to deploy abroad and conduct an intervention. Egypt in the 60s deployed Egyptian troops to Yemen. That's not something that Jordan has done unless it's alongside a much broader Arab League mission. Jordan, for example, has been active in the Syrian civil war but really has only worked alongside Syrian rebels in the area just adjacent to Jordan. It tries not to get involved in too many of the conflicts in the region. It also has a strategic peace agreement with Israel that was sort of worked by Hussein in the 90s. That has given Jordan something that a lot of the Arab states don't have which is this ability to work proactively with Israel and to benefit from having an open relationship with them and share intelligence. That's another thing, is that Jordan is known to have capable intelligence services. They're in a strategic neighborhood, a hot neighborhood. They do have a lot to share in terms of intelligence and they use that to their advantage in agreements with regional players and with outside players as well. Really, Jordan wants to be everyone's friend. With Russia, with the U.K., with the E.U, with the United States, and with all these regional powers.
Emily Hawthorne [00:14:55] It doesn't like to be forced to one side or the other and they're very good at staying on top of that balance.
Mark Flemming-Williams [00:15:00] We've got a few lines drawn in the Middle East at moment and clear alliances in place and obviously friction between the U.A.E and Saudi Arabia and Qatar and obviously the alliances being drawn up in Syria. Can we clearly say within these regional engagements that Jordan is on this side and not the other? If so, who are its friends?
Emily Hawthorne [00:15:19] If you had to lay out Jordan's allegiances, it's going to be very close with most of the Arab Gulf states. Part of that goes back to that Hashemite connection. Part of it is the fact that Jordan is overwhelming a Sunni Muslim country. It also is very closely allied with the United States and the United States' regional alliances in the region fall strongly with the Arab Gulf states and not with Iran. But at the same time, Jordan maintained an open relationship and pragmatic relationship with Syria throughout the course of the war as well as with Iraq even though they were fighting on the side of the Syrian rebels. But to keep all of Jordan's options open they try to make sure that they don't shut off any relationships. You can see that sometimes, in the wake of the GCC Qatar crisis of last June, Jordan came out in support of what the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia and Egypt were doing in trying to clamp down on Qatar's independence. But they didn't move as firmly and strongly as Egypt or some of the other close GCC allies in the region because they don't want to have to pick sides.
Mark Flemming-Williams [00:16:25] We've got a very fast moving surroundings to Jordan at the moment. We've got civil war in Syria. We've got a lot of mixing up going on in Iraq in recent years. It's still not entirely clear how the chessboard is going to settle, if it does. It's hard to talk about the future, but is there anything we can say with certainty about Jordan's future? Is there a goal that they're moving towards? Is there anything which any clarity that we can try and divine for where Jordan is headed?
Emily Hawthorne [00:16:54] One of the big variables for Jordan that will determine its future is what happens with the latest wave of refugees that have come into the country, specifically Syrians. We just were talking about how Jordan has been able to assimilate and put together a very diverse population under one government, but the newest waves of migration, Jordan is actually pretty concerned about and the king has appealed to the E.U. and to the U.N. and to others that they need more monetary help and that Jordan is sort of at the brink of what its economy can afford to do. That is a big question that Jordan has and they want to make sure that they still have a lot of international aid coming in to the country, but I've heard Jordan's economy referred to as a colander, as a sieve. It's so structurally unsound that it receives a lot of money but it just sort of trickles through. There's a lot of work to be done in reforming Jordan's economy and that's one of the big battles ahead is actually patching up a lot of those big gaping holes in sort of labor reform and tax reform and all this. All that to say, the constitutional monarchy system that they've set up, where there's a prime minister and a government that can issue a lot of rulings and laws, that kind of shields the monarchy from a lot of public dissent over the economy. It's safe to say that the monarchy still has a lot of control over making sure that Jordan stays stable and they can sort of recycle in and out prime ministers and parliament members to take some of the heat.
Emily Hawthorne [00:18:20] But the economy is something to watch. The refugees are something to watch and also how Jordan deals with the enduring threats of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and how it keeps it from forming new militant groups in its own borders. That's going to determine Jordan's ability to remain stable moving forward.
Mark Flemming-Williams [00:18:39] Basically they've had a very strong performance at managing to remain stable through a very difficult 100 years and they'll be doing extremely well if they carry on managing to remain stable through the next 100.
Emily Hawthorne [00:18:51] Yes, and there are interesting things about modern Jordan. They have a booming but small entrepreneurial tech sector. The government's nurtured that. There are some unique things about Jordan and it's diversity has given it some sort of strength and it's very open. It's very open to tourism. It's very open. It's easy to travel in Jordan. It's easy to do journalism in Jordan. This is also something that the government strategically wants to maintain because it helps it cultivate those positive relationships with outside powers that continue to support Jordan and want to keep it the way it is.
Ben Sheen [00:19:35] Thanks for joining us for our conversation on the geopolitics of Jordan with Stratfor's Emily Hawthorne and Mark Fleming-Williams. For our latest analysis related to Jordan and connected geopolitical trends today, be sure to visit our Jordan page at Stratfor Worldview. We'll include a link in the show notes. In case you're not already a Worldview member, you can learn more about individual, team, and enterprise access at worldview.stratfor.com/subscribe. Worldview members can also contribute to this conversation and engage with Stratfor's analysts and editors in our members only forum. And I'd also like to give a quick shout out to Ck08irl for their five star review on iTunes. They wrote this about the podcast, "Focused, spot on coverage of current geopolitical issues. Dives underneath the headlines to uncover the trends in regions around the world." Thanks so much for that. If you'd like to leave a review, you can do so at iTunes or wherever you listen. We really appreciate your feedback. If you have a question, or even an idea for a future episode of the podcast, email us at [email protected] For more geopolitical intelligence, analysis and forecasting that reveal the underlying significance and future implications of emerging world events, follow us on Twitter, @Stratfor.