On this day 17 years ago, King Abdullah II inherited the throne of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan following the death of his father, King Hussein. The death of King Hussein marked the end of a 46-year reign largely spent steering his young kingdom through ups and downs of the Arab nationalist movements, the 1967 Six-Day War and the Cold War. His family, the Hashemites, has presided over Jordan since the British government set up the monarchy in 1921 and maintained their steady rule through the country's independence from the United Kingdom in 1946.
Like his father, King Abdullah has never quite fit in with other Arab rulers. In spite of Abdullah's royal family ties to the Prophet Mohammed's Quraysh tribe, his mother was British, he attended school in the United States and trained at the British Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. These alien affiliations have not endeared him to his people, but since his 1999 accession, King Abdullah has managed to sustain the flow of international assistance to maintain political order amid countless regional crises.
The king's ability to maintain domestic tranquility is no small accomplishment. Jordan is surrounded by regional hotspots: It shares land borders with Iraq, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian territories. It is also close to Egypt's restive Sinai Peninsula. And, unlike many of its neighbors, Amman cannot assuage its problems with wealth because it possesses few natural resources, no oil, scant minerals and little water. Sitting on a plateau, the country's only port is Aqabah, which is on a short stretch of the Red Sea coast.
Even the Jordan River, memorialized by the Abrahamic religions, is largely diverted for irrigation, and its outlet, the Dead Sea, is evaporating year by year. This leaves only a small fertile region. The rest of Jordan is rough and poorly watered, overlapping with the Syrian Desert in the north and the Arabian Desert to the south. This state of affairs was no historical accident: Following the Cairo Conference of 1921, the British government divided British Mandate Palestine along the Jordan River, sheering off Transjordan (the area across the Jordan River). The sharp dip in Jordan's eastern edge is attributed by legend to an arbitrary pen mark made by Winston Churchill one Sunday afternoon.
I first traveled to Jordan in 1999, months after King Abdullah took the throne, but was too young to understand how people felt about their new king. My most recent trip to the country in December revealed a country greatly transformed, beleaguered by a decade and a half of migrant and refugee inflows. Given the circumstances, I expected a tepid response to questions about the king and was not disappointed. My Kuwait-born, Palestinian-Jordanian driver summarized most of what I heard. Weighing the question carefully, he told me, "He is not the best King, but he is not the worst. We do love Queen Rania, and at least he is working to stop the Islamic State."
My driver's comment underscores the contradictions of King Abdullah's leadership and, also, the root of his legitimacy. While he may not be very popular, his ability to juggle regional and domestic problems is extraordinary. Jordan is struggling to manage the rise of the Islamic State, other jihadist threats and simmering social unrest, especially among indigenous tribal and Bedouin communities. Complicating this volatile mixture is a burgeoning refugee and immigrant population fed by inflows from across the Middle East, with a particularly high number of Palestinians, Iraqis and Syrians. By all rights, Jordan should be a mess. And yet, somehow, the country survives. This is largely thanks to King Abdullah's savvy in eliciting external diplomatic, financial and military support. The king then pours these funds into the government budget, ensuring that his massive police forces can maintain domestic stability. The influx also keeps Jordan's social welfare programs running, even amid the International Monetary Fund's austerity reforms.
King Abdullah may have inherited his father's political talents, but he was not groomed for the throne. King Hussein made a deathbed decision to appoint Abdullah to the post after preparing it for Abdullah's uncle or younger brother. With his British training, Abdullah had been a military general and helicopter pilot, leading Jordan's special forces for several years. He still makes appearances in fatigues, assisting in training drills for Jordan's sizeable armed forces. These forces are essential for Jordan; they keep the country relevant in the region and in the broader international community.
The king has worked to build up military-to-military and intelligence connections worldwide, leveraging those ties into stronger bilateral relations. Western powers, particularly the United States and United Kingdom, have given billions of dollars of military aid to build and strengthen the military. And at the moment, this aid is at an all-time high. Military and police aid from the United States to Jordan in 2016 amounted to just over $662 million. To keep aid flowing, Abdullah has successfully marketed Jordan as a friendly, cooperative oasis in a chaotic region, perfectly continuing a pattern begun by his father Hussein. Simultaneously, he has kept a tight grip on the armed forces by constantly shifting people in and out of positions of power. He has also conscripted Bedouin tribes into military service, giving key posts to their leaders as well as offering them a monopoly on parts of the tourist trade. This has helped maintain security and appease tribal unrest.
Outside Jordan, however, popular attitudes toward King Abdullah are mixed. He cannot depict himself as anything close to an Arab everyman, and he is widely ridiculed for his poor formal Arabic, a legacy of his foreign education. But powerful Sunni Arab states feel that they benefit from Jordan's stability and that they have a stake in maintaining it. Ties with Saudi Arabia already run deep for historical reasons — the Hashemite founder of the kingdom, after all, came from Saudi Arabia in 1921 at the behest of the British. Relations are also close with both Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, especially because King Abdullah is the brother-in-law of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. Following the Arab Spring, the Gulf Cooperation Council even invited Jordan to join its ranks. The king declined, but accession to the group would have made Jordan the only member state not situated on the Arabian Peninsula.
The king has even managed to maintain peace with Israel, though not without some rough patches. This is partly because Jordan acts as a pressure valve for tensions in Israel, accepting and naturalizing wave after wave of Palestinian migrants since 1948. King Abdullah's wife, Queen Rania, is Palestinian (although born in Kuwait) and her role in domestic affairs has shored up the king's legitimacy. Today the country has an enormous Palestinian population and King Abdullah manages to maintain relative calm. Jordan's role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also assuages the conscience of many Arabs across the region, as the kingdom provides a state for the stateless minority.
In spite of King Abdullah's dexterous maneuvering, Jordan is under massive strain. A full 13 percent of the population is now composed of Syrian refugees, with 1.27 million in total. The Syrian cultural influence in both the city of Amman and across the country is visible, and the country's enormous refugee camps are only growing more crowded. King Abdullah has used this issue to implore the international community to invest in the Jordanian economy, insisting that job creation is more important than the traditional direct aid. In a recent interview he said "it is the world's turn to stand with Jordan, as we have supported world countries for years... You cannot say no this time."
The king's wording is ironic. Since the founding of Jordan, the world has said "yes" time and again when the country needed help, beginning with the British Empire's initial budgetary support for the Transjordan mandate it created. This endures today, with half of national revenue coming from outside aid. As Jordan looks to regain its footing amid regional crisis, the outside world — motivated by Jordan's regional position — will be at the ready with ample financial support. And King Abdullah's tireless diplomacy will keep it that way.