Jordan’s King Abdullah bin Hussein’s great-grandfather and namesake was murdered by a Palestinian while attending Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in 1951. His father escaped several assassination attempts by Syrians and Palestinians. Not surprisingly, it is virtually axiomatic that the king’s overriding priority is the survival of his regime, his family and his own. He has been in power for twenty-one years, but the challenges he faces now are greater than ever. How he deals with President Trump’s “Peace and Prosperity” Middle East plan, and more specifically with Israel’s possible application of sovereignty to parts of what used to be Jordan’s West Bank prior to the Six Day War, may involve fateful decisions. What are the main factors that he will have to consider?
The major threat to the Hashemite Kingdom is poverty. While never low, it has been gradually worsening over the past decade due to the influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, global warming, water scarcity (Jordan ranks as the world’s second poorest country in terms of water availability), the disruption of gas supplies from Egypt (thousands of Jordanians protested the increase in gas prices in 2018), as well as the failure of the Saudis, Kuwaitis and Emiratis to deliver much needed aid following Jordan’s withdrawal from the war in Yemen and refusal to sever ties with Qatar. Unemployment reached close to 20% even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Political instability is instigated by the Muslim Brotherhood and the burgeoning Salafist movement. Most concerning, however, is that the rampant governmental and royal corruption and the slow pace of promised constitutional reforms have been fomenting dissatisfaction among the regime’s traditional East Bank supporters, who constitute the bulk of the armed forces and security services. Last year King Abdullah deemed it necessary to replace the head of his intelligence service with a Circassian officer (Circassians, descendants of refugees that fled the Russian and Ottoman Empires over a century ago, have formed the royal guard of all Jordanian kings and are considered the most loyal followers of the monarchy).
About two-thirds of the Jordanian population is Palestinian, and despite the quarter-century-old peace treaty between Jordan and Israel, anti-Israel sentiment is widely prevalent. As such, the king has found it convenient to denounce Israel countless times in the media and various international organizations, notwithstanding the close security relationship between the two countries. He has resorted to recalling the Jordanian ambassador from Tel-Aviv on a number of occasions, in one instance only allowing his return after a four-year absence.
King Abdullah has consistently rejected the popular and parliamentarian pressure to cancel the treaty, and for good reason. To do so would put at risk a series of important benefits that emanate directly and indirectly from it: the vital water transfers from the Yarmouk and the Jordan rivers, the supply of Israeli gas at a discount (which may generate annual savings of over $500 million), the more than $1 billion that Israel committed to help finance the Red Sea-Dead Sea canal project (which would include a desalination plant for Jordan, the production of green energy through use of water turbines and the delivery of leftover brine to replenish the fast-shrinking lake), Jordan’s trade with Turkey via the Haifa port (which used to be conducted via Syria prior to its civil war), the more than $100 million the Kingdom receives every month from the United States, the Jordan Free Trade Agreement and potentially even Jordan’s “special role” in the Muslim Holy shrines in Jerusalem (Israel and Saudi Arabia have even been reportedly engaged in secret talks regarding the Islamic Waqf).
King Abdullah’s statements in a widely publicized interview in Der Spiegel – “I don’t want to make threats and create a loggerheads atmosphere” but “if Israel really annexes the West Bank … it would lead to a massive conflict with the Hashemite Kingdom”– point to his realization that the retaliatory measures he has employed in the past may not suffice this time around. He has already canceled two annexes of the Peace Treaty with Israel that allowed Israel to lease the Naharayim/Baqura and Zofar/Al-Ghamr border areas. Could he cancel the Treaty altogether? On the one hand, the absence of a peace treaty did not stop Israel from saving the Hashemite regime from a Syrian invasion in 1970 at the behest of the United States. On the other hand, while terminating the treaty might answer his short-term need of pleasing the street, it would only aggravate the medium and long-term menace of poverty.
Last January, Jordan’s parliament unanimously approved a draft law to ban imports of Israeli gas. Protesters carried placards with the words “The gas of the enemy is an occupation. Down with the gas deal.” Yet the gas continues to flow in from Israel. King Abdullah’s decision to prioritize the economic health of his subjects over their emotional gratification strongly suggests that, in addition to trenchant criticism and the recalling of his ambassador, he may suspend for a certain period of time, but will not cancel, the peace treaty with Israel.