The recent crisis in Jordan, sparked by protests over IMF-backed austerity measures, may be economic. But there’s also a diplomatic twist, with Gulf rivalries and US foreign policy maneuvers, adding fuel to the fire.
Protests have erupted in Amman and other Jordanian cities in recent days over rising prices and IMF-backed austerity measures including a new tax bill aimed at reducing the country’s chronic deficits. The crisis has already seen the replacement of the country’s prime minister and a call by Jordan’s King Abdullah for a review of the controversial draft tax law.
For several decades, the resource-poor economy of the tiny Arab kingdom has relied heavily on international aid and the kindness of its traditional allies. These include the US -- which provides primarily military and security assistance -- and funds from the Gulf monarchies, mainly oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
The assistance is critical, especially since Jordan is home to more than 650,000 registered Syrian refugees, according to the UN. Local authorities however put the figure at more than a million. Home also to an older influx of Palestinian refugees, Jordan today is struggling to cope, with the official unemployment rate rising above 18 percent while growth has remained stagnant amid regional turmoil.
'Even gas prices have doubled in less than a year'
While the Sunni Gulf monarchies have been a traditional source of economic assistance to Jordan -- considered one of the only havens of stability in the region – relations have turned soured in recent years over geopolitical issues. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) -- which includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Kuwait and Oman -- has not yet renewed its assistance programme to Jordan, worth $3.6 billion, which expired in 2017.
"The various successive [Jordanian] governments in recent years and the endemic corruption [both] share responsibility for the current economic crisis. But Jordan, which depends on international aid, was dumped by its allies,” said Hassan Barari, professor of political science at the Amman-based University of Jordan, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “The kingdom is paying the price for its regional diplomatic positions, which are opposed to those in [the Saudi capital] Riyadh. In return, the Saudis are trying to put pressure on Amman by suspending their aid."
Paying the price for Yemen, Muslim Brotherhood positions
It’s an opinion shared by Antoine Basbous, director of the Paris-based Observatoire des Pays Arabes. "The Gulf countries, which financially supported Jordan, have abandoned it to its fate because they are quite unhappy that Amman did not align with their [foreign policy] positions."
The war in Yemen, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Palestinian crisis and the status of Jerusalem are some of the many disagreements between Jordan and Saudi Arabia. "By refusing to fully engage the Jordanian army in the Yemeni conflict, the [Jordanian] king has upset Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman,” said Barari, referring to the powerful Saudi crown prince who is widely known by his initials, MBS. Relations between the two countries have deteriorated since MBS took over all the levers of power in the world’s largest oil-producing nation, according to Barari.
Jordan, however, has supported the GCC on the Qatar crisis and reduced its diplomatic representation in Doha, without cutting ties with Doha. But it has refused to classify the Muslim Brotherhood – reviled and viewed as a threat by the House of Saud -- as a terrorist organisation.
While Jordan’s Hashemite royal family has sometimes had thorny relations with the Islamist group -- which was founded in Egypt in the 1920s -- Jordan remains one of the few cases where an Arab government and Islamist movement have pursued a non-confrontational political strategy over an extended period. Members of the political arm of the Islamist opposition movement currently hold seats in the Jordanian parliament as well as in a few municipalities.
"The Muslim Brotherhood is part of the Jordanian political landscape, Amman cannot go against its interests to please Saudi Arabia or Egypt," explained Barari.
US-Saudi-Israeli nexus edges out Jordan
Jordan has also strongly criticised the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy there, a move which Amman believes jeopardises the two-state solution for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. On the other hand, Saudi authorities, who have been enjoying a honeymoon of sorts with the Trump administration, merely expressed regret over the US position.
"Donald Trump boasts of being able to impose a miracle solution to resolve the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, with the support of Saudi Arabia and the Jewish state, to which it has drawn closer,” explained Barari.
With its nearly 150-kilometer border with the West Bank and a 300-kilometer frontier with Israel, Jordan views the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as a critical geostrategic issue. Jerusalem is a particularly vital issue for Jordan’s Hashemite royal family, which manages the Muslim holy sites in the city. Jordan also supports the Palestinian right of return, which is recognised by the international community, but ignored by the Israelis. The issue is particularly important in a country where nearly 65 percent of the Jordanian population is of Palestinian origin.
"Some people wonder if the era of the Hashemite monarchy is not coming to an end – which will actually benefit the Palestinians in Jordan, to enable them to install a Palestinian state there,” explained Basbous. “It’s premature now, but on a scale of 10 years, it's plausible.”
Once an essential, Western-allied negotiation partner in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Jordan is now marginalised, belonging neither to the Iran-Syria-Russia axis, nor to the one emerging between Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US.
"The top priority, from Mohammed bin Salman’s point of view, remains the Iranian threat, while for Jordan, which was nevertheless one of the first countries to warn against the expansionism of the Iranians, the existential threat comes from its Israeli neighbor,” explains Barari. “The Saudi crown prince wants the Arab world to submit to his own geopolitical agenda, even if it threatens Jordan’s stability.”
It remains to be seen whether Jordan will be able to withstand such regional and international pressure for a long time. With the economy caught between rampant corruption and strict IMF demands on the one hand, and on the other, the fallout of the Syrian conflict -- including the refugee burden and an increasing bill to secure the country’s border with Syria -- Jordan is trapped between a rock and a very hard place indeed.
<span lang="EN-US">(This piece was translated from the original in French)</span>