What you need to know about next week's Jordan-US summit

Jordan King Abdullah in Kosovo
6 min read
Washington, D.C.
16 July, 2021
Analysis: King Abdullah II's visit to Washington next week will likely be the first step in rebuilding the close US-Jordanian partnership on issues such as refugees, aid, and security.

Jordanian King Abdullah II will be the first Arab head of state to meet at the White House with President Joe Biden next week. The visit is expected to set the tone for the new administration (which will be meeting with the Iraqi PM later in the month) and its policy in the region. 

Though not a country in conflict or crisis, Jordan is considered critical to US interests in the Middle East, including its relationship with Israel, its counterterrorism measures, and its refugee intake. For its part, Jordan benefits from $1.5bn in US aid (America is Jordan's top donor) and its allyship.

Resetting an old partnership

Under the previous US administration, Jordan was essentially side-lined. Donald Trump gave preferential treatment to Saudi Arabia in its regional policies, namely the Abraham Accords, so-called peace deals that benefited Israel and the Arab Gulf states, disregarding decades of US policy in the region.

This was compounded by Trump's cessation of US aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine refugees in the Near East, which Jordan had relied on for 70 years to help take care of its population of around 2.2 million Palestinian refugees.

"Under the previous US administration, Jordan was essentially side-lined. Donald Trump gave preferential treatment to Saudi Arabia in its regional policies"

Biden has resumed US aid to Palestinians and appears to want the US to return to its traditional relationship with Jordan, which he partook in as senator and then as vice president. The two countries are likely to both want to go back to their pre-Trump relationship.

"The shift from Trump is clear," Bessma Momani, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance and Innovation (CIGI) at the University of Waterloo, tells The New Arab. "The big thing is reaffirming his support for Jordan. Under Trump Jordan was side-lined."

A stable country in the region

Jordan is generally considered to be one of the most stable Arab countries. This reputation was tested three months after an attempted coup in which it is alleged that Saudi-connected palace insiders, including a relative of the king, attempted to seize power. The US, under Biden, was quick to stand by the Jordanian government, prompting speculation that US policy was already shifting back towards Jordan, with Saudi Arabia remaining a firm - though increasingly scrutinised - ally.

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The importance of Jordan's stability will be discussed, if not explicitly then implicitly, in terms of arms sales and aid, Catherine Warrick, a professor of political science at Villanova University, tells TNA.

"The US has backed the Jordanian monarchy partly on the grounds that it is the best, or only, available guarantor of stability in the country, and that the US needs stability in its regional allies," she says. 

"This has been part of the domestic logic for support of the monarchy, too, as it's been seen as preferable to any of the possible alternative sources of government."

Moreover, the Jordanian government was adamantly opposed to Trump's "Deal of the Century" peace plan, which it saw as destabilising, with the potential to trigger a new influx of refugees.

Syria and Iraq

Syria remains an important concern for Jordan, even if it does not appear to be a top priority for the US at this time.

Like it did with Iraq following the 2003 US-led invasion, Jordan continues to host a large population of Syrian refugees. Around 650,000 Syrians have fled to Jordan due to the 2011 uprising and ensuing conflict that continues today.

At the summit, the issue of refugee resettlement will likely be discussed, as Biden has raised the US cap on admittance to 62,500 by October. Jordan, arguably, does not have the economic or water resources to continue hosting refugees indefinitely.

"It's a strange reversion to the past when Jordan in its first post-colonial decade of independence essentially served in the same fashion under Britain's informal empire in the Middle East"

For more than a decade, Jordan has been a staging ground for US and other international forces fighting Al-Qaeda and ISIS. This would likely be the case for any future conflicts.

"Any future conflict involving Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, or even Iran will require the mobilisation of US assets in Jordan - drones and jets, if not troops and SOF's (special operating forces)," Sean Yom, associate professor of political science at Temple University, tells TNA. 

"It's a strange reversion to the past when Jordan in its first post-colonial decade of independence (1946 to 1956) essentially served in the same fashion under Britain's informal empire in the Middle East."

Importance of US support for Jordan

While Jordan remains important for the US in terms of stability and security in the region, in many ways the US is much more important to Jordan.

"The signalling here is obvious - Jordan needs the US to survive, and the US needs Jordan as a strategic client, especially increasingly on the military side," says Yom.

Clearly, both countries need one another, but I think the patron-client terminology captures this best. Jordan's need for US financing, arms, training, intelligence, and resources is existential. It would have difficulty surviving without American patronage."

Right now, it needs aid and other support as it continues to grapple with a refugee crisis, poverty, and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Around 650,000 Syrians refugees have fled to Jordan due to the 2011 uprising. [Getty]
Around 650,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Jordan due to the 2011 uprising. [Getty]

"Economic assistance seems certain to be on the agenda - Jordan reportedly seeks to extend the current aid package, especially vital in the wake of the economic impact of Covid-19," says Warrick.

"The Jordanian economy was already suffering from high unemployment and sluggish growth, and Covid-19 hit the vital tourism and service sectors really hard. Economic improvement would help stabilise the kingdom, but it's going to need to be significant, visible, and reach beyond elites to the poorest."

Moving forward

As the two countries look ahead, a return to the pre-Trump days can be expected. This means a relationship of mutual support, trust, and reliability.

"The two countries now have even closer military, intelligence, and security cooperation, so that is likely to be on the list of topics," says Curtis Ryan, professor of political science at Appalachian State University.

"The meeting with President Biden, as the first Middle East leader invited to the White House by this administration, is more symbolically important, reiterating the close relationship between the two governments"

"I think they're likely to discuss the shift in government in Israel, with the king likely to emphasise Palestinian rights. Biden, in turn, may push the issue of political reform in the kingdom."

This would not be shocking, given the importance of countries' domestic audiences in their international meetings. On substantial policies, there's not much likelihood for surprises.

"I don't think it's likely that major policy shifts will be announced from this particular meeting," says Warrick, noting that Abdullah's visit to the US is planned to be lengthy and involves talks with other government officials and investors.

She adds, "The meeting with President Biden, as the first Middle East leader invited to the White House by this administration, is more symbolically important, reiterating the close relationship between the two governments for international, regional, and Jordanian domestic audiences."

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business and culture

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews