Jordan's king plays a clever hand

14 August 2014

King Abdullah’s small political concessions have calmed domestic social unrest and have prevented Jordan from plunging into crisis

Jordan is experiencing a growing sense of anxiety about events in its neighbours, Iraq and Syria. Just as it largely sidestepped the violence of the Arab Uprisings, so far at least, it has not been touched by the advance of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) jihadists.

But that does not leave any room for complacency. King Abdullah II’s generally astute reading of domestic and regional political dynamics would leave him in no doubt that Jordan too could ultimately find itself challenged by Isis.

The security forces are certainly taking no chances, arresting 20 members of the Jordanian Salafist movement over suspected ties to Isis in late July and early August, mainly militants from the Amman and Zarqa areas.

The men were reportedly held over their alleged support for the movement and participation in a pro-Isis rally in Zarqa, an Islamist stronghold and the birthplace of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the notorious former leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, who was assassinated by US forces in 2006. At the rally, the protesters were alleged to have urged Jordanians to “submit to the caliphate”.

Isis support

Zarqa is not the only Jordanian town to have witnessed such scenes. Maan, 220 kilometres south of Amman and long regarded as a hotbed of anti-monarchy sentiment, has frequently played host to violent protests and is reported to have attracted several Isis militants.

In late June, Jordanian Salafists protested against perceived heavy-handed security measures introduced in the city, drawing a strong response from those forces. 

Up to 2,000 Jordanians are estimated to have joined Isis or its rival jihadist faction, Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra Front), in Syria. The prospect of returning fighters fomenting trouble back home is also a cause of deep concern for the authorities. King Abdullah is aware many Jordanians will feel kinship with Isis, particularly in light of the movement’s stunning gains against the embattled Iraqi government, which was led, at the time, by Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was governing in an overly sectarian manner.

Neither has the king’s studious policy of disassociation with the Syrian conflict enamoured him to Jordan’s Islamist movement, which has pushed for a tougher line against the regime in Damascus. The country’s intelligence and military leaderships are believed to view the rise of Syrian jihadist rebel groups with greater concern than the survival of the Baathist regime in Damascus.

Jordan ought to have been in a crisis, but the leadership is very astute at balancing out its interests domestically

Neil Quilliam, Chatham House

The issue of the refugee influx is foremost in officials’ minds. Estimates put the number of Syrians in Jordan at up to 1.3 million, nearly 15 per cent of the total population. Most of these are dispersed across the country, leaving some northern cities containing more Syrians than Jordanians. They are also fiercely antagonistic to the Al-Assad regime.

Despite all this, among senior ranks, there is quiet optimism about their ability to obstruct any Isis incursions. Jordanian special operations forces are already reported to have attempted to halt Isis with pinpoint strikes launched in western Iraqi territory.

Militarily, Jordan can operate on two fronts, says Neil Quilliam, a senior research fellow at UK think-tank Chatham House. “The special operations groups are already out in the field, and there are elements active in black ops [clandestine activities]. And in terms of national armed forces, in Jordan these are still largely Bedouin-based and their primary loyalty is to the ruling family.”

That means their loyalty is unlikely to be compromised in the same way that the Iraqi army was in Mosul in early June, when it collapsed in the face of Isis’ advance. 

Regional support

Jordan can also count on the support – tacit or otherwise – of the region’s most powerful military entity, Israel, which views the kingdom as a strategic bulwark. Tel Aviv is already reported to have provided overhead image surveillance technologies to Amman to help track Isis movements on the Iraqi border, and would likely step up support in the face of any significant advance.

“If there was an incursion by Isis, then the Israelis would be there in some capacity to support Jordan as it’s in not in their interests for the country to fall,” says Quilliam.

The other strategy for combating an Islamist insurgency is to deepen reforms and address the cause of alienation felt by Jordanians, which has fed the rise of militancy. Unemployment, poverty and political disenfranchisement have all combined to fuel extremism in the country. 

This is an enduring issue that precedes the recent crisis and which came to a head in 2011, when much of the region was engulfed in civil unrest. In November 2012, large parts of Jordan were hit by some of the country’s worst-ever rioting, following the government’s removal of fuel subsidies.

King Abdullah’s response has been to initiate a series of reforms aimed at meeting protesters’ demands for broader participation in the political process. He ordered a review of the constitution and accepted some diminution in his own powers, such as handing over to parliament the authority to appoint prime ministers. A constitutional court has been created, as well as an independent commission with oversight of elections.

Public distrust

This tinkering with the constitution has yet to convince many Jordanians, and the rather low turnout for the January 2013 parliamentary elections (56.7 per cent of registered voters) appeared to reflect a belief that the changes are largely cosmetic and unlikely to seriously erode the king’s monopoly on power. This was despite the elections being held under an amended electoral law that increased the presence of women and resulted in 27 of the 150 seats in parliament being allocated to national lists, intended to broaden parties’ participation.

For all the changes, the electoral system is still seen as weighted towards rural and tribal constituencies, which are the ruling family’s core support base, rather than the urban-based parties that are supported by Jordan’s many resident Palestinians, such as the Muslim Brotherhood-associated Islamic Action Front.

Broader buy-in for the reform process will depend on Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour making progress in amending the electoral system. In June 2013, Ensour promised to abolish the existing electoral system and look at bolstering the national list system to ensure a broader engagement of political parties in parliament.

There has been some further progress. A directive issued by King Abdullah in September aimed at curtailing the power of the State Security Court, was well received by his critics. This may prefigure a move to enhance the powers of civilian courts and help ensure trials are in conformity with the constitution.

A cabinet reshuffle last August gave another boost to pro-reformists, with former political activists named as ministers. Khaled Kalaldeh, secretary-general of the Social Leftist Movement, was made political and parliamentary affairs minister, while a former Muslim Brotherhood official, Mohammed Thneibat, was appointed education minister.

None of this means King Abdullah’s reform instincts are winning out over a natural caution typical of Middle Eastern monarchs. “They say nice things, but are very reluctant to advance that agenda in any meaningful way,” says Quilliam. “While Western governments are happy to encourage the king to undertake further reforms, he himself is very happy to push back against that.” Despite pressure from the West to up the pace of political change, King Abdullah appears to judge it as not the right time for a bolder reform programme to be initiated.   

A complicating factor here is the closer embrace between the GCC countries and Jordan. The six GCC states determined in late 2011 to establish a five-year, $5bn grant, that would finance a range of development projects in Jordan. The first allocations from the fund began arriving in 2013, with $1.25bn received by the central bank.

Yet rather than hasten reform, the GCC influence is more likely to act as a drag, reflecting the innate suspicion of Gulf monarchs of political openings, particularly one in such a strategically crucial partner as Jordan.

This means King Abdullah is now in a position where he can resist moves from Western governments that call upon him to carry out reform. The economic security blanket effectively handed him by the GCC states is not intended to trigger faster political reform.

“The Gulf states don’t want Jordan to be the first monarchy to succumb to the Arab uprisings,” says Quilliam. “Despite the loops they make the Jordanians jump through, they are happy to do it as they know there is no political conditionality attached to it.”

Talk of Jordan actually joining the GCC (along with Morocco) as a full member has died down in the past year, but the bloc still views Jordan as a critical ally. There are, however, practical problems associated with the financial support to Jordan. As one development bank economist tells MEED, there is little coordination of GCC aid to Jordan, while the festering Saudi-Qatari diplomatic dispute has also affected the amount of financial support Doha is prepared to give. 

Astute leadership

But this is unlikely to ruffle Jordan’s king. Like his fellow Sunni Gulf leaders, King Abdullah has learned the art of long-term survival, matching patronage with an iron fist where necessary. The approach he uses to deal with issues is similar to the tactics used by his GCC counterparts; an initial harsh response, with state security forces going in with mass arrests, followed by a high-profile royal visit and the announcement of major infrastructure projects.

This technique has proved successful at keeping Jordan insulated from regional tumult. “If you look over the past 20 years, Jordan ought really to have been in a crisis, but the leadership is very astute at balancing out its interests domestically,” says Quilliam.

Jordan is not exactly flourishing economically, but its leadership has played its hand well. So long as it remains viewed as a strategically pivotal state, it will not be in want of international support.

Key fact

In order to placate domestic protesters, King Abdullah has accepted some diminution in his own powers

Source: MEED

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