Jordanian stability put to the test –
Implications for Israel
By Dr. Moshe Albo | April, 2022
|Photo: CC-BY-4.0:© European Union 2019 – Source: EP|
The scope and severity of the threats faced by Jordan seem to have increased this past year: the global economic crisis in view of the pandemic and war in Ukraine; soaring energy and basic food product prices; visible cracks in royal family relations; the aggravated threat posed by the Iranian proxies on the borders; fear of escalation in the Palestinian arena that would impact Jordan's own security, and more.
The intensity of regional and international challenges is diverting Arab and western attention away from the Hashemite Kingdom; however, the latter has managed to maintain its stability by reinforcing its own sources of support, anchoring both U.S. and European endorsement, and tapping into King Abdullah's ability to navigate between constraints and complexities to form a policy that successfully preserves relative stability.
The economic crisis worsens
"Every time Jordan emerges from one economic crisis, it finds itself in another, and the current (government's) negligence is unprecedented. Jordan is grappling with complex challenges and profound distresses, and the current crisis is on all levels everywhere."
(Former Jordanian Prime Minister Faisal al-Fayez)
Jordan is suffering from a systemwide economic crisis due to ongoing fundamental issues – water, energy, unemployment, poverty, illiteracy and more, the absence of growth engines and natural resources, corruption, and cumbersome bureaucracy. Over the last several years, King Abdullah has kept his head above water by raising funds and being aided by international organizations, obtaining loans from the International Monetary Fund, and being supported by the West and Gulf states. However, he is now fighting his final battle, with direct implications on the political stability of his government, as public pressure leads the latter to frequently shapeshift.
Deficit in the Hashemite Kingdom is expected to reach 114% of its GDP by the end of 2022, according to World Bank forecasts. The estimated growth (2.2%) is more modest than the population growth rate, which stands to further increase the deficit, and challenge the regime's ability to advance reforms in view of the public's objection to additional economic decrees. Moreover, key sectors in the Jordanian economy, such as tourism, have yet to recover from the pandemic, and a rise in those areas is not expected anytime soon due to the war in Ukraine and the world financial crisis.
The rate of unemployment in the Hashemite Kingdom is 25%, and among the younger generation, it is even higher (48% among men and 25% among women). The rate of poverty is estimated at 15.7%, and expected to rise in view of soaring prices as well as the decline in government subsidies. Cautious optimism at the end of 2021 due to the anticipated increase in growth, and indications of the economy's relative recovery after two tough years grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, have met the harsh reality of the Omicron variant, world financial crisis, and war in Europe which caused energy and wheat prices to skyrocket, and prices in general to rise across the Jordanian economy.
The Jordanian government is at an impasse: if it absorbs the rise in prices, government debt will increase, preventing the regime from advancing necessary reforms, and making it difficult for funds to be obtained from international establishments. By contrast, soaring prices and subsidy cutdowns will increase the poverty rate, impact the middle class, and exacerbate public rage, particularly in view of the government's promise to refrain from raising prices prior to the outbreak of the European crisis.
Cracks in royal family relations
Prince Hamzah bin Hussein has renounced his royal title in an act of defiance, while passing harsh criticism against the Kingdom's overall policy. In a letter published on his Twitter account, he claimed that the principles instilled by King Hussein did not correspond with the general way, policies, and modern methods fostered de facto by the state institutions.
Prince Hamzah was named Crown Prince following the death of his father, King Hussein, in 1999. However, five years later, King Abdullah took away his powers as Crown Prince, and began to groom his own son, Hussein, for this position, until he was indeed officially nominated in 2009. Although Hamzah had pledged his allegiance to King Abdullah, and continued to perform his duties as a member of the Royal Family, he could not accept being demoted and losing his title.
Prince Hamzah has gained tremendous popularity among the Arab tribes in Jordan thanks to his looks and voice, which are reminiscent of the esteemed King Hussein, his military ties and status (he resigned holding the rank of Brigadier General after a significant service in the armored corps), as well as both his first and second marriages to women with high Jordanian standing. Prince Hamzah has already passed unusual judgment against the regime during a wave of public protests back in 2018 prompted by the dire economic situation in the Kingdom. In it, he blamed the financial hardship on the state establishment, claiming it had failed to properly manage the state systems and was corrupt, and therefore responsible. Hamzah's criticism was unprecedented, leading to media frenzy and leaving the Jordanian public up in arms.
Former Chief of the Royal Hashemite Court Bassem Awadallah was arrested in April 2021 along with a member of the Royal Family by the name of Hassan bin Zaid for plotting a coup d'état together with Prince Hamzah, and with the help of external parties. The two were sentenced to 15 years in prison, and Prince Hamzah was placed under house arrest. The crisis seemed to have ended last March when Hamza had apologized, and once again pledged his allegiance to the King.
However, Hamzah's unusual announcement in which he renounced his royal title indicates that the past has not been laid to rest and personal pretenses have yet to be discarded, for although the letter did not directly attack the King and Crown Prince, they were clearly being blamed. The letter unveils the cracks in royal unity, as well as the unpleasant internal rivalries.
Hamzah's critique could incite the public, and be viewed as part of the greater criticism voiced by members of the Jordanian opposition. Furthermore, the Pandora Papers revealing how the King had transferred 100 million USD to tax havens overseas, purchasing luxury real-estate in the U.S. and UK worth hundreds of millions of Dollars, have led to nationwide public outrage over the King and Royal Family. These developments are chipping away at the King's image, and could combine with the general public outcry over the difficult economic state of affairs.
The Palestinian issue and Israel
Jordan did not take part in the Arab Foreign Ministers' "Negev summit" in Israel, and its absence was noticeable. Commentary in the Jordanian press gave rise to the concern that the Hashemite Kingdom was being pushed to the sidelines in regional dynamics, and that its interests in Jerusalem as well as the Al Aqsa Mosque were at risk by the introduction of new actors, such as Morocco, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, into the arena.
Jordan's fear of unilateral Israeli steps such as annexing the West Bank and Jordan Valley, changing the status quo in Jerusalem, or setting the wheels of the "alternative homeland" idea in motion is not new, featuring time and again in official and media discourse in Amman. In fact, an important part of the process whereby Jordan had formed its modern national identity had its roots in the Kingdom's grappling with the idea of the "alternative homeland" raised by the Israel government in 1977 as a solution for the Palestinian problem. From that point onwards, the Royal Family had focused on creating a separate Jordanian identity, arguing that Jordan in its current borders has always been the Jordanian People's homeland.
Bilateral relations between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom have improve over the last 12 months, primarily in areas associated with Jordan's national security (water, energy, and defense). High-ranking public meetings have also been held (Israel's President, Minister of Defense and Minister of Foreign Affairs have met with King Abdullah), playing an important role in the enhancement of trust and coordination between the two countries' leaderships. Nevertheless, Israel's image in the Jordanian media and among its public is negative, and any escalation in the West Bank or Jerusalem directly impacts the relations between the two states.
- The Hashemite Kingdom's stability forms a key strategic interest in Israel's national security perception. Jordan is a buffer state and strategic partner in addressing the threat posed by Iran establishing its clout and military presence in Syria and Iraq, and destabilizing the Kingdom. Strategic collaboration between Israel and Jordan is essential to the establishment of security stability, and distancing threats from Israel's borders.
- The agreements signed this past year with Jordan are a positive step in the right direction, but they mostly demonstrate lost potential. Existing agreements with the Hashemite Kingdom focus on Jordan's basic needs – energy and water; the agreement doubling the water quotas provided to Jordan (October 2021), the electricity for water agreement in collaboration with the UAE (November 2021), the transfer of gas from Leviathan to the Jordanian electricity corporation (NEPCO), and the transfer of gas to Egypt via Jordan. Israel must look into expanding economic collaborations into additional sectors, such as commerce, business, and tourism, increasing the scope of overall trade.
- Israel should invest in bolstering (state and security) bilateral ties, while ensuring Jordan's status on Temple Mount, and preserving the political status quo. Jordanian paranoia with regard to Al Aqsa and the idea of the alternative homeland must be appeased, and a positive agenda of collaborations in a wide range of areas promoted. Thus, the economic crisis in Jordan presents an opportunity to deepen and expand economic-civic ties, as well as strengthen the trust between the two countries.
- A scenario whereby Jordan undergoes destabilization and turmoil will directly affect Jerusalem's national security set of priorities, undermine Israel's regional security architecture, and require vast investment in protecting the eastern flank. Israel would do well to actively bolster the Hashemite Kingdom's stability, whether via direct economic or security measures, or indirect influence over the United States and Europe so they invest in Jordan's security. Israel cannot "sit on the fence" should the Kingdom undergo destabilization for the toll it would have on its own security is simply too dear.
Authored by Dr. Moshe Albo, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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