Jordan's King Walks a Fine Line Between Domestic and International Demands

8 MINS READDec 5, 2018 | 11:00 GMT
Jordan's King Abdullah II attends the opening of the country's parliament in 2016 in Amman, Jordan. As the economy founders, Jordan is facing the increasing influence of various protesters.

Jordan's King Abdullah II attends the opening of the country's parliament in 2016 in Amman, Jordan.

(JORDAN PIX/ Getty Images)
  • Jordan's economic and nationalist protest movements are both gaining strength, demanding changes to Amman's policies that will create potential clashes with the country's international donors.
  • Jordan's key contributors — including the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — will want the kingdom to pursue policies that are unpopular with its citizens.
  • The divide between international and domestic desires could create a crisis for Jordan's monarchy if the country's sponsors attempt to push Amman too far.

A rising tide of protests in Jordan has proved itself capable of exerting power over government policy. Jordan's social contract has long been held together by a combination of the monarchy's opaque placations and substantial foreign aid. But as its economy founders, the country is facing the increasing influence of various protesters. On one hand are the nationalists, who are ideologically opposed to King Abdullah II adopting policies that they believe are in the interest of key donors but not of Jordan itself. On the other hand are economically aggrieved protesters who are increasingly struggling to survive as Jordan implements economic structural reforms, especially those related to new taxes. 

Meanwhile, Jordan continues to rely on its foreign aid, meaning its key donors — The United States, Europe and the Arab Gulf states — have substantial sway over the monarchy's decisions. As the demands of these foreign powers clash with the desires of Jordan's growing protest movements, the king will be unable to please everyone, meaning Jordan will likely experience continued unrest and could potentially see internal crisis.

The Big Picture

Jordan's stability is a product of international help rather than its own economic or political strengths. But that help comes with strings attached that the country's people are increasingly starting to reject. If the country's benefactors attempt to push the kingdom into policies that its growing protest movements will oppose, the result could be a crisis.

Small But Significant Policy Changes

Jordan's monarchy has increasingly been caving to the domestic pressures of its protest movements. Most recently, nationalists succeeded in pushing Abdullah to announce that Jordan would pull out of a portion of its 1994 peace treaty with Israel that is due for renegotiation in 2019. In that section of the treaty, Jordan agreed to allow Israel the extraterritorial use of two small farms in the Jordan River valley in Baqura and Ghamr — as both a confidence-building measure and a means for Jordan to avoid paying for a handful of development projects.

The king's adherence to the peace treaty itself remains firm, so his decision did not produce a diplomatic crisis with Israel or a rush to salvage the treaty. But the move exemplifies the king's increasing attempts to appease domestic groups that oppose some of the Jordanian government's actions. Indeed, the nationalist victory came shortly after economically aggrieved protesters succeeded in forcing the cancellation of a deeply unpopular income tax bill in June. This summer's unrest in Jordan represented the largest protests in the country since the 2011 Arab Spring events that resulted in a completely new government.

That diverse street protests have propelled two notable policy shifts in Jordan points to the government's strong desire to please its citizens and avoid unrest. But this stance also risks causing a confrontation between the Jordanian monarchy and the international allies who want it to survive but also act in their interests.

For Coin and Country

During the Arab Spring, demonstrations from Jordan's nationalists and its economically aggrieved protesters aligned and combined to create a combustible environment in the kingdom. More recently, however, the two sides have focused on specific issues with little overlap. Nationalist protests forced Amman to expel the Israeli ambassador after an Israeli Embassy guard killed two Jordanian men in July 2017, and economic protests briefly shut down the country's economy in June, forcing the monarchy to cancel the unpopular income tax bill and put off austerity-driven measures for another day.

The two protest currents are issues-based and poorly organized for now, but the range of issues that animate them are multiplying as Jordan's economy continues its decline and its monarchy embarks on increasingly serious and dramatic efforts to maintain stability, including reaching out to the International Monetary Fund. And the more that relevant issues crop up, the more opportunities the protesters will have to organize. In the near future, a partially approved new tax bill and a U.S. plan for Palestinian peace will provide further opportunities for the protesters to organize against the monarchy in an effort to exert influence over policy.

Charts demonstrating Jordan's rising debt, unemployment and inflation.

Charts demonstrating Jordan's rising debt, unemployment and inflation.

Unfortunately for Jordan, recent policy victories and current demands of nationalists and economically struggling Jordanians have caused dismay for the country's foreign sponsors, who are necessary to keep the country stable. And Jordan's key donors have shown they are willing to play politics with the support Amman desperately needs.

Risking Aid

Given Jordan's demographic challenges and poor resource base, its stability is an oddity in the Middle East and North Africa. But that stability is largely because key powers — including Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Europe — see value in maintaining the kingdom's economy and filling in the gaps of its social contract. This dynamic was on display in June 2018, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar offered up a combined $1.25 billion in loans and aid to help the strained Jordanian government make it through the year. Even more recently, Israel's muted reaction to the king's decision regarding the 1994 peace treaty demonstrated Israel's continued interest in maintaining stability there.

But as Jordan's protesters continue to sway their king, the question now is what impact they will have on the actions of the international community. Nationalist politics have, in the past, pushed Jordan into policies that damaged its security. King Abdullah I was assassinated by a Palestinian nationalist in 1951 for contemplating a peace treaty with Israel. His successor, King Hussein, then fought and lost the 1967 war with Israel that cost Jordan its productive West Bank territories. Moreover, Hussein's desire to placate his country's Palestinian population made him one of the only Arab leaders to support Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. This brought Jordanian relations with the Gulf states to an all-time low, compelling Jordan to move closer to the United States by signing the 1994 treaty with Israel, America's key ally.

Jordan's protest movements and its need for foreign aid are pulling its leader in different directions and forcing the king to navigate a shrinking middle ground.

Today, nationalists threaten to challenge Abdullah over an impending U.S. peace plan for Palestine (despite its low chance of success). Few solid details are available about the plan, which is already deeply unpopular with Palestine's Fatah faction, but rumors suggest it will not assuage fears that the Palestinian people will be permanently displaced, nor will it grant them the deeply-desired right to return to Israel. The United States' decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem reinforced Palestinian fears, and recent moves to treat Gaza and the West Bank as separate entities indicate that Washington is willing to cut Fatah out of the peace process entirely.

Nationalist pressure will encourage Jordan to oppose the United States' plan, which has the support of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and a quieter backing from Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. But Jordan's backers have demonstrated their willingness to withhold aid for political reasons, such as when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates delayed renewing an aid package that expired in 2017 to push Abdullah closer to their own policy positions. They only eventually stepped in to assist Jordan once the major protests of June 2018 reached a crisis point.

Friendly Fire

Jordan's protest movements and its need for foreign aid are pulling its leader in different directions and forcing the king to navigate a shrinking middle ground. With few good options available, Abdullah will become increasingly dependent on thoughtful policy from foreign countries, which is a difficult place to be. Saudi Arabia, for example, has had erratic policies toward its allies — from its dispute with Canada to abducting Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri — and even briefly detained Jordan's wealthiest billionaire in an attempt to exert influence. A miscalculation from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or both could expose Abdullah to more major protests in his country.

The United States, moreover, could use the promise of aid to push Amman toward supporting the Palestinian peace plan, which will almost certainly be deeply unpopular in Jordan. U.S. security aid is critical for Jordan's armed forces and Amman's security partnership is key to Washington, so a true break is deeply unlikely. But the United States could choose to introduce uncertainty over its support for the king through statements, threats or even tweets, thereby exposing Abdullah to a more assertive nationalist protest movement. Israel, too, could inflame nationalist sentiments in Jordan. Another war in Gaza, Israeli support for the U.S.-led Palestinian peace plan, or even another incident similar to the embassy shooting will worsen Abdullah's position at home.

None of Jordan's allies want to dramatically destabilize the kingdom or undermine its ruler, but they have shown they could behave in ways that open the door to unrest if Jordan's monarchy diverges from their interests in order to appease protest groups. Jordanians at home are increasingly unhappy with their country's economy and its relationship with Israel, and their growing protests have increased their influence over government policy. But that assertiveness will create clashes with the interests of the outside donors Jordan relies on, since it doesn't have the resources to go it alone.

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