King Abdullah's Wish List

With neighbors falling apart, the Jordanian monarch grows uneasy.

His majesty, King Abdullah II of Jordan, hosted U.S. President Barack Hussein Obama on Friday, March 22, 2013, following Obama’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.  According to the Jordan Times (March 18, 2013) the Minister of State for Media Affairs and Communications and government spokesperson Samih Maaytah expressed hope that Obama’s visit “would give real momentum to the Palestinian peace process, noting that a just, viable and comprehensive peace, based on international resolutions is important for the Palestinians and the Israelis, as well as the entire region.”

For King Abdullah, however, troubles to his north in Syria represents a more pressing matter.  Jordan has absorbed more than 455,000 Syrians since the onset of the Syrian conflict in March, 2011, and the number is expected to surpass one million before the end of this year.  King Abdullah is hoping that the Obama administration will push for a political solution that ends the crisis in Syria.  At the same time though, he is expecting the U.S. to increase its aid to Jordan, in order to enable the Kingdom to deal with the economic challenges caused by the recent influx of Syrians and previously, by Iraqi refugees.

Jordan and Israel share a common security concern regarding the flow of Syrian chemical weapons to terrorists, and the spillover of the Syrian chaos into their countries.  The chemical weapons issue will undoubtedly be raised by Abdullah in his meeting with Obama.  In an interview with AP, Abdullah pointed out that the most worrisome factors in the Syrian conflict relate to the spread of chemical weapons, and the emergence of a Jihadist state in Syria.

Thus far, Jordan’s leader has been spared the fate of those of other regimes, who have fallen victim to the so-called “Arab Spring.”  Notable among them are Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who held power for 30-years (1981-2011), Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, having ruled in Tunis for 24-years (1987-2011) and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, not exactly pro-western, ran Libya for 42 years (1969-2011).  Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen was another casualty of the “Arab Spring.”  Although he did not have to escape the wrath of his people like Ben Ali, nor was he humiliated the way Mubarak was, or murdered as Gaddafi was, Saleh had to step down and pave the way for his Vice President to take over after 34-years in power (1978-1990 as president of North Yemen, and from 1990 after unification with South Yemen as President of Yemen until 2012.)

Bashar Assad and King Abdullah succeeded their fathers as rulers of their respective countries (Syria and Jordan) almost at the same time.  Abdullah ascended to the throne in 1999 and Basher took over the presidency in 2000.  Both were thought to be young reformers given their long exposure to the West (Assad in Britain, and Abdullah in the U.S.).  Soon however it became clear that Bashar Assad, (a member of the Alawite minority despised by the Sunni majority) reverted to his father repressive ways.  Jordan’s Hashemite rulers, on the other hand, were respected by the majority of Jordanians, and especially the East Bank Bedouin tribesmen, as descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.

The current U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the Obama administration in general, heaped praise on Bashar Assad as a “generous man,” and as a reformer. Yet, Syria’s human rights record has been abysmal, and its economy was stagnant long before the current civil war began.

Although both Bashar Assad and King Abdullah had to deal with the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), there has been a marked difference in their approach, and in the apparent results.  The elder Assad (Hafez) bombed the Muslim Brotherhood stronghold in Hama and killed 20,000.  Bashar, fighting the Syrian opposition (comprised of a great many MB members) has killed an even greater number, but is now facing an uncertain end.  Conversely, King Abdullah outmaneuvered the MB and scored a tactical victory over the most serious political challenge to his rule – doing so without firing a shot.

Prior to the January, 2013, elections for the lower house of Parliament, the MB and its affiliates fomented protests against the monarchy.  Jordanian voters nevertheless ignored the MB call for an election boycott.  The outcome was a clear victory for Abdullah.  Unlike Assad, Abdullah is committed to reforming the political system in Jordan, hoping to enfranchise evermore Jordanian-Palestinians, including women.  He is also encouraging the creation of genuine secular and democratic political parties with serious platforms for change.  The high participation (56%) in the elections was followed by Abdullah’s promise to consult Parliament in choosing a new prime minister.  Jordanians hope that this will lead to a more open political system.

In an address at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in mid-January, Abdullah, according to the NY Times (January 30, 2013), “promised to reach out to the MB in Jordan” suggesting that the MB was “not a serious problem, and had the weakest standing of any other MB organization in the Middle East.” While Jordan is not currently faced with a civil war or violent disturbances like those in Egypt under MB President Muhammad Morsi, it is facing a budget deficit projected to reach about $3 billion.  This would require austerity measures and price increases that might cause upheaval in the Kingdom with unknown consequences.  In addition, the influx of Syrian refugees has further strained Jordan’s limited resources, and might aggravate the already high youth unemployment estimated to be about 26%.

The domestic economic situation and trouble on its northern border with Syria notwithstanding, Jordan’s other concern is uncertainty on its western border with Israel.  It is a peaceful and productive border by all measures but Abdullah wants more.  In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic (March 18, 2013), Abdullah said, “I don’t want a government to come in and say, ‘We repudiate the peace treaty with Israel ” (referring to the peace treaty signed in 1994 between King Hussein and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin). “ Israel,” writes Goldberg, “is Jordan’s most important ally.” Asked about whether he believed Obama wants to work on a Middle East peace, Abdullah answered, “That is the million-dollar question,” but he was certain that John Kerry does.  Abdullah said that only a second term president has the maneuverability and the experience to oversee an effective peace process.  For Abdullah, a two-state solution is still the best hope.

It remains to be seen whether Obama will implement what he has heard in Jerusalem and Amman.  For King Abdullah II, however, increased American aid to Jordan to save it from financial catastrophe, along with a thoughtful American peace initiative on a two-state solution, and the U.S. preventing a jihadist state in Damascus will be the ultimate answer to his wishes.

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