Last week, Jordan celebrated the centennial of its establishment. Despite watered-down ceremonies due to the pandemic — and despite a recent rift within the Hashemite Royal Court — Jordan has every right to celebrate and be proud.
Indeed, marking 100 years is a notable accomplishment for a country with limited resources (including drinking water), troublesome neighbors, a suffering economy and an overflow of refugees. Despite those challenges, Jordan has remained true to its values, staying at the forefront of the fight against terror, and being a steadfast US ally, a proponent of tolerant Islam and a crucial player in regional peace talks.
For us Saudis, our Jordanian neighbors represent a stable Arab monarchy that shares not only historical and family ties but also a large northern border and several other mutual interests. Saudis, like many Arabs, also highly value Jordan’s “buffer zone” status and admire its unique ability to absorb shocks caused by never-ending regional turmoil. That is why the debate in Riyadh these past few days has not been about an apparent rift within the Jordanian Royal Court, but more about how Western pundits have failed to grasp the bigger picture.
To be fair, the average observer would — understandably — believe the recent troubles ended with the conclusion of the Royal Court saga which saw Prince Hamzah bin Hussein signing a letter reiterating his allegiance, and King Abdullah stating the problem has now been resolved. The pair made their first joint public appearance at the centennial ceremonies.
However, this is the Middle East, and over here there is always more than meets the eye. This is why it is surprising that celebrated columnists — such as The Washington Post’s David Ignatius — and others who wrote for titles like Foreign Policy, have missed the wood for the trees on this occasion.
For instance, in Ignatius’s eyes, what took place in Amman was merely a “riveting episode in the Jordanian version of ‘The Crown’ — in which the messy family politics common to most royal dynasties are afflicting the Hashemites,” he wrote on April 6.
Based on that assertion, he offers a diagnosis and remedy for the problem: “The most worrying aspect of the Jordan flap is that (King) Abdullah may have contracted the obsession with imagined social-media enemies,” he wrote. Of course, while there is no objection to the column’s call for allowing free speech and criticism, his analysis suffers from a case of myopia. That’s because it focuses on the effects rather than the cause of Jordan’s problems, ones that could have huge regional ramifications.
Take “The Crown” analogy, for instance. A more accurate comparison between a work of drama and the true extent of Jordan’s woes and potential future challenges would be “Apocalypse Now.”
There is a deeper underlying reason for why this rift floated to the surface and why social media voices are critical of the Jordanian government — and that reason is economic crisis.
This is what the international community and a new US administration must focus on. Failing to diagnose deeper societal problems in countries like Jordan, ones that that eventually manifest themselves in a multitude of outcomes, be they leadership rifts, mass alienation or civil strife, could be one of the international community’s costliest foreign policy blunders.
Jordan, after all, neighbors the problematic Israel/Palestinian territories, a hijacked Iraq, a severely divided Syria and a deeply unstable Lebanon. Chaos in Jordan would potentially mean unprecedented waves of refugees spill across borders, and easily exacerbate existing instability in neighboring regions, creating a fresh void for extremists like Daesh to exploit.
This might all sound far fetched, but make no mistake — Jordan is undergoing a serious crisis. Unlike the US, most countries in Western Europe or the neighboring Gulf, Jordan does not have the means to offset the tremendous economic repair bill caused by the pandemic.
Their 2021 state budget bill was recently described by Jordan’s Finance Minister, Mohamad Al-Ississ as “the most difficult for Jordan ever. The coronavirus pandemic and exceptional regional circumstances have minimized growth.”
Add to that the fact that Jordan hosts nearly 1.3 million Syrians — more than half being refugees. At the height of the Syrian civil war, close to 13,000 Syrians per day poured into Jordan. To this day, Jordan, a nation of just 10 million people, has not been compensated enough for their colossal efforts in containing a global refugee crisis. Let us not forget, Jordan in the past also took in Palestinian and Iraqi refugees despite not having the means to provide for them.
Point is: The writing was on the wall for a long time. The solution to this crisis will need more than a mere phone call from the White House. King Abdullah deserves to be listened to, as opposed to be told he should stop reading criticism stemming from a national crisis his government has warned for years is coming.
For their part, regional powers have been more alert to Jordan’s (and by extension the region’s) needs. Noticing that Jordan was stretched to its limits, Saudi Arabia ordered oxygen shipments for Jordan in its battle against coronavirus and continues to send substantial amounts of aid through the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSrelief). Back in 2018, Saudi Arabia launched an economic initiative to help Jordan. Called the Makkah Summit, it was attended by Kuwait and the UAE and resulted in an aid package of $2.5 billion.
Truth is, contrary to the beliefs of conspiracy theorists out there, Riyadh has zero interest in a destabilized Jordan and only stands to benefit from supporting King Abdullah’s unique ability to navigate his people through regional storms.
However, much more is needed. And it is imperative a new US administration not be under the illusion that the recent saga in Jordan was exclusively a family matter. The economic factors that made that saga even remotely possible are growing in strength day-by-day — and we all owe it to Jordanians to support them in every way possible.