Lost in all the commentary in President Obama’s visit to Israel is the fact that he will also visit Jordan. The country is often derisively referred to as the “Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom,” but it has been anything but lately. To be sure, Jeffrey Goldberg’s extraordinary interview with King Abdullah II has caused quite a stir, but that is not the only reason why Jordan is interesting. In January the Jordanians held elections, there have been a spate of protests over food prices, strong criticism of the King from some of the monarchy’s heretofore strong tribal supporters, and Jordan is now host to more than half a million Syrian refugees. The fact that Syria is in chaos, sectarian gangs rule Iraq, Egypt is in turmoil, and predictions of a 3rd Palestinian intifada abound places King Abdullah and his Kingdom in a more uncomfortable position than usual. That said, I have been assured by people who know far more about Jordan than I that expectations of instability and threats to Hashemite rule are overblown—a function of a few boisterous activists and impressionable Western journalists.
I’m willing to take assurances of Jordan’s stability at face value. I haven’t been there in some time and the country has never been much more than a passing interest of mine. The parliamentary elections and the protests are not new developments—elections have become the norm and Jordan has hardly been immune to demonstrations in the past— but they do come in the context of the regional uprisings that began in late 2010. I have also been told that while Jordanians may not be satisfied with the political system or their economic prospects they have drawn the conclusion that rapid change is too risky after looking at Syria and Egypt. If there was ever a Jordanian uprising, it is pretty well accepted that the United States and Israel would back the King’s efforts to quell unrest however he chooses to do so.
This all seems like sound reasoning, but if the arguments about stability in the region have proven to be incorrect, why should observers put tremendous faith in similar arguments when it comes to Jordan? I’m not saying Jordan will go the way of its neighbors, but there are lingering questions about its politics:
1. King Abdullah has been on the throne for fourteen years, yet he still seems to have had some trouble eliciting the loyalty of Jordanians. Jordanians obviously have not been in open revolt during this period, but the King has yet to hit on an appealing vision of the future that captures the imagination of his subjects. It is not for lack of trying. In the early years, King Abdullah positioned himself as a reformer, slipping out of the palace incognito to experience life like an average Jordanian. It was pretty cool. (Can anyone imagine the entitled Gamal Mubarak hopping into a service taxi? Not a chance.) Still, this kind of quality of life crusading had its limits. Next came “Jordan First,” which despite good intentions, it was hard to determine what it was all about. Here is the official description:
Jordan First is an attempt to define a new social accord between Jordanians, as it emphasizes the pre-eminence of Jordan’s interests above all other considerations, and reformulates the state-individual relationship. Moreover, it goes beyond being a mere concept, as it will be translated into an investment in the Jordanian people, in their education, training, health and well-being to prepare them for a future that promises prosperity, knowledge and accomplishment. Jordan First is a constructive appeal and an approach that seeks to open new doors for policies and programs in development, education, culture, communication and information. Moreover, Jordan First represents an invitation to civil society institutions and the private sector to raise their contribution in building a modern state through focusing on achieving economic, social, and political development, creating productive opportunities, fighting poverty and unemployment, and improving the standards of living of all citizens. In summary, Jordan First is a philosophy of governance. It is based on the premise of placing Jordan’s national interest at the forefront of all considerations of civil society.
Assuming one can make sense of the preceding paragraph, the question remained: Wasn’t it always Jordan first? If not Jordan first, who? To be fair, the official description includes some jargon about civil society, reform, and a modern state all of which broke some new ground, but mostly this stuff warmed the hearts of the folks over at the National Endowment for Democracy, National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute and the entire alphabet soup of Beltway civil society builders, election monitors, and democracy promoters without directly addressing the everyday challenges that Jordanians confronted. Next came democratic reform, which according to contemporaneous and historical accounts, amounted to very little. That’s where things stood until recently with a new push on democratic reform. The King and his people sound earnest and serious, but it remains entirely unclear whether Jordanians are buying this vision. It will depend, of course, on how small or wide the gap is between the principles that King Abdullah espouses and the practices of the people who have been selected to run the government. The recent elections, however, with what Curtis Ryan describes as the “extremely unequal balance of seats combined with major opposition boycotts” does not track with the King’s rhetorical commitment to democratic political change.
2. Jordan’s economy is, in a word, suffering. With instability all around, Petra, Wadi Rum, Jerash, and other places highlited in the Lonely Planet are wanting for tourists. Jordan never had much to offer foreign investors who, with few exceptions, are spooked by the region’s sudden dynamism. In addition, the Jordanians are now dealing with about one half million Syrian refugees (on top of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees). In recent months, the government has lifted subsidies on energy and is more generally, according to the International Monetary Fund, “implementing sound macroeconomic policies aimed at reducing fiscal and external imbalances in a socially acceptable way.” The Fund’s praise for the Jordanian government should be cold comfort. Despite the phrase “socially acceptable,” in order to be on the right side of the international financial institutions, the King has to be on the wrong side—at least in the short run—of his citizens. That is not a great place to be in the present political environment that pervades the region. The fact that there are rumors of palace corruption while Jordanians are suffering makes administering IMF prescriptions all the more precarious.
Ultimately, the King does not seem to be in trouble, though he does have multiple problems. The good news is that while the Jordanians have a robust capacity to use coercion and force to try to maintain control, King Abdullah has used it relatively judiciously. At least publicly and to western audiences he has portrayed himself as wanting to get ahead of the curve, yet if he is sincere, he seems profoundly unsure about how to do it exactly.