Jordan at the Precipice
Six months ago, Jordan’s King Abdullah said that his country was “in dire straits.” I just completed a week of intensive travels and discussions throughout the country, and found that no one disagrees with this assessment. Jordan may no longer be hyper-vulnerable and under siege, as it was in decades past, but it does face problems that are likely unprecedented.
Jordan, which was created out of thin air by Winston Churchill in 1921 in order to accommodate British imperial interests, has always led a precarious existence. Particularly dangerous moments came in the 1967, when Pan-Arabist pressures led King Hussein (who ruled from 1952-99) to make war on Israel and lose the West Bank; in 1970, when a Palestinian revolt nearly toppled him; and between 1990 and 1991, when pro-Saddam Hussein sentiments pushed the King to join a hopeless and evil cause.
Today’s dangers are manifold.
ISIS lurks in Syria and Iraq, just beyond Jordan’s border, and is attractive to a small but real minority of Jordanians. Jordan’s once-robust trade with Syria and Iraq has nearly collapsed — and with it, Jordan’s lucrative transit role.
In a region that is bountiful in oil and gas, Jordan is one of the very few countries to have almost no petroleum resources. City-dwellers receive water just one day a week, and country-dwellers often even less. Tourism has declined due to the Middle East’s notorious volatility, and the king’s recent assertion of authority is alienating the people, who are demanding more democracy.
The core issue of Jordanian identity also remains unresolved. As a country of massive and repeated immigration for more than a hundred years, it has received waves of Palestinians (in 1948-49, 1967, and 1990-91), Iraqis (2003) and Syrians (since 2011). The Palestinians, most estimates find, constitute a substantial majority of the country’s population, and represent the deepest division.
It’s common to speak of “Jordanians” and “Palestinians,” even though the latter are citizens and the grandchildren of citizens. The sense of Palestinians being separate from and superior to the mostly tribal peoples of the East Bank has not diminished over time, especially not since many Palestinians have achieved economic success.
On the other hand, the country’s strengths are also formidable. Surrounded by crises, the population is realist and very wary of trouble. The king enjoys an undisputed position of authority. Intermarriages are eroding the historic division of the country between Palestinians and tribal peoples — something the influx of Iraqis and Syrians has contributed to. The population enjoys a high level of education, and Jordan enjoys a good reputation around the world.
Then there’s Israel.
“Where are the fruits of peace?” is a common refrain about Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty with Israel. Jordanian politicians and press outlet may not say so, but the answer is blindingly obvious. Whether it’s the fact that Jordan uses Haifa as an alternative to the Syrian trade route, the purchase of inexpensive water from Israel or the provision of plentiful gas (which is already being delivered), Jordan benefits directly and substantially from its ties with Israel. Despite this, a perverse social pressure against “normalization” with Israel has grown over time, intimidating absolutely everyone and preventing relations with the Jewish state from reaching their potential.
One Jordanian asked me why Israelis accept being treated like a mistress. The answer is clear: Jordan’s welfare ranks as a paramount Israeli priority, so successive Israel governments accept — even if through gritted teeth — the calumnies and lies told about it in the Jordanian press and on the streets.
On a personal note, since 2005, I have been advocating for “Jordan to the West Bank, Egypt to Gaza: The Three-State Solution” as a way to solve the Palestinian problem. On this recent trip, I asked nearly all of my 15 interlocutors (who represented a wide range of viewpoints) about a return of Jordanian sovereignty to the West Bank. I regret to report that every one of them thunderingly rejected this idea. “Why,” they all seemed to say, “would we want that headache?” Accepting their negative verdict means that Israel has no practical solution to its West Bank conundrum, and that its reluctant and unwanted sovereignty over the Palestinians will likely continue into the distant future.
Summing up my visit: Jordan has muddled through many crises, and it may do so again, but the current dangers pose an extraordinary challenge to Jordan and its many well-wishers. Will King Abdullah be able to cope with those “dire straits”?