Jordan's King Abdullah, feeling the squeeze

King Abdullah II of Jordan. [Getty]
7 min read
23 June, 2021
Analysis: A royal crisis exposes tensions over the Palestinian issue, and pressure to normalise relations with Israel.

In a recent Washington Post piece, David Ignatius suggests that Jordan and the broader Middle East narrowly escaped massive upheaval. He argues that the tensions which led to the royal crisis in April were the result of the Trump administration's efforts to push the "Deal of the Century", normalising Israel's relations with Arab neighbours.

At the centre of the crisis were the king's half-brother and former Crown Prince Hamzah Bin Hussein, Sharif Hassan Bin Zaid a member of the royal family, and Bassem Awadallah a former confidant of King Abdullah who once served in several high-ranking government positions.

Prince Hamzah is not facing charges, but his alleged co-conspirators face charges for sedition and incitement. Given Bin Zaid and Awadallah's ties to Saudi Arabia, observers have suggested that the sedition plot was connected to a "larger plot fuelled by Jordan's closest allies."

This narrative suggests the sedition plot was provoked by King Abdullah II's refusal to cooperate with Jared Kushner's Middle East peace plan, and, in particular, his staunch refusal to cede Jordan's custodianship of the holy sites in Jerusalem. 

"The prize Trump and Kushner wanted most was Saudi Arabia - and to clear the way, they tried to muscle Jordan"

However, had Abdullah ceded the holy sites in line with the Trump administration's vision, Jordan and the broader region would have been destabilised. The Trump administration's foiled plan reflects a general trend in US regional policy to prioritise Israel's preferences over US national interest in a stable and secure Middle East. 

Based on these narratives, it is not clear to whom Jordan would have ceded custodianship, but Saudi Arabia was a possible candidate. As Ignatius explains, "the prize Trump and Kushner wanted most was Saudi Arabia - and to clear the way, they tried to muscle Jordan." 

The holy sites refer to the highly contested area in the old city of Jerusalem containing the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque; it is considered a holy site in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity alike. As custodians of the Sacred Mosque in Mecca and the Mosque of the Prophet, Saudi custodianship of the al-Aqsa mosque would have expanded its role as the keeper of Islam's three holiest sites.

The stakes for Jordan under the 'deal of the century'

There were two central issues at stake for Jordan under the Trump administration's proposed peace plan: the resettlement of Palestinians and the custodianship of the holy sites in Jerusalem. 

Some analysts argue that if Jordan had accepted the terms outlined by the "deal of the century", it would have constituted "political suicide" due to the massive popular discontent that would have been unleashed. 

Jordan continues to face significant domestic pressure surrounding its relationship with Israel, from both East Bankers, or the historical inhabitants of Jordan's present territory, as well as West Bankers, or Palestinians who were displaced from their homes by the creation of the state of Israel and its subsequent expansions.

Palestinian protesters perform the Friday prayer behind national flags during a protest against the US-brokered Middle East peace plan in the Jordan Valley on January 31, 2020. [Getty]
Palestinian protesters perform the Friday prayer behind national flags during a protest against the US-brokered Middle East peace plan in the Jordan Valley on 31 January 2020. [Getty]

Historically, widespread discontent from East and West Bankers has generally followed any agreement or accord with Israel, partly due to Jordan's large Palestinian population. While West Bankers' concerns stem from their identities as Palestinians, East Bankers and tribal leaders have long feared that Jordan would become the "alternate homeland" for Palestinians.

Palestinian-Jordanians currently comprise more than half of the kingdom's population. Any agreement leading to the resettlement of Palestinians in Jordan would have produced a massive demographic shift. Given the East Bank's perception of its increasing marginalisation, this outcome could spark severe unrest and exacerbate tensions between these groups. 

The custodianship of the holy sites in Jerusalem is a significant source of religious and political legitimacy for the Hashemite monarchy. 

On their own, efforts to circumscribe King Abdullah's role as the guardian of the holy sites would generate significant domestic political upheaval. In addition to being an essential source of domestic legitimacy, Jordan's custodianship constitutes a crucial source of leverage in the region's politics, particularly in Israel-Palestine. It is conceivable that losing the custodianship would diminish the monarchy's bargaining power in this conflict and inhibit its ability to continue advocating for the Palestinian cause and render more real the longstanding dream of the Israeli Right of making Jordan the de facto Palestinian homeland. 

Moreover, Jordan's pre-existing domestic political tensions and those related to Israel are often mutually reinforcing. 

For instance, Jordanian MP Osama Al-Ajarmeh has recently become something of a folk hero after being expelled from parliament for accusing the government of intentionally producing sweeping power outages in order to deter Jordanians from taking to the streets in protest of Israel's attacks on Gaza last month. His sudden popularity speaks to the Jordanian public's frustration with the circumstances within the country as well as across its western border. 

"The Trump and Netanyahu administrations also failed to account for the threats that Jordanian instability would present to their own security and the region's stability as a whole"

Implications of instability in Jordan for the US and its allies

Undermining Jordan's stability runs counter to Washington's longstanding official policy of prioritising the kingdom's stability and longevity. 

The Trump administration's policy of prioritising Israeli and Saudi interests at Jordan's expense would have undermined broader US interests in regional stability. Moreover, both Israel and Saudi Arabia share long borders with Jordan, meaning that instability in Jordan can cause significant security concerns for both of them.

In spite of political tensions between Israel and Jordan, they have long enjoyed mutually beneficial diplomatic, economic, and security ties. Had Jordan been forced to accept the terms outlined in the "deal of the century," this could have jeopardised this relationship. Therefore, it is in Israel's interest to preserve Jordan's stability and this relationship for the sake of Israel's security in the long term. In spite of this, Netanyahu appeared willing to take that risk for what he considered to be "the opportunity of a century." 

The US has also long relied on Jordan as a destination to absorb refugees from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Palestine, and elsewhere, who have been displaced by US violence or its regional policies. Sowing instability in Jordan would have jeopardised the country's role as one of the region's most important refugee host countries. In neglecting to consider the destabilising consequences of the peace plan for Jordan, the Trump and Netanyahu administrations also failed to account for the threats that Jordanian instability would present to their own security and the region's stability as a whole. 

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Broader takeaways for US foreign policy in the region

Despite its failure, the developments surrounding "the deal of the century" represent a longstanding trend in US foreign policy toward the region. 

When it was being developed, Jordan was not even consulted, an "all-too-familiar norm for Americans developing peace plans for the conflict." While Washington claims to broadly ensure the region's stability, the shortsightedness in its approach toward its allies undermines these efforts. 

In Jordan's case, the disregard for the kingdom's domestic situation in the face of regional tensions has undermined its long-term stability. 

The kingdom has long faced domestic tensions due to its economic woes and lack of real political reform, but Hashemite control has nonetheless endured due, in important part, to steadfast US support. That support, however, has given the ruling family virtual carte blanche to avoid making crucial reforms under the guise of maintaining "stability", thus perpetuating structural weaknesses in the kingdom that threaten its future and justify the judgment of experts who often refer to the country as perennially "on the brink". 

Forcing the transfer of the custodianship of the holy sites in Jerusalem could have been the final push over the edge. 

Rosalie Rubio is a PhD candidate at George Washington University. Her scholarship examines authoritarian politics, civil-military relations, terrorism and counterterrorism, and the implications of security policy on governance in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).  She conducts policy-relevant research on counter-terrorism policymaking and enforcement, as well as on the dynamics of civil-military and state-society relations.

Follow her on Twitter: @rosalieru6io

This article was originally published by our friends at Responsible Statecraft.

Any views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The New Arab's editorial staff