Commentary: Jordan is at the Cross Roads

Jordan has been the oasis of stability in the otherwise turbulent region, especially in its neighbourhood of Iraq and Syria. The Jordanian economy and infrastructure, as well as the essential services, have been stressed due to the influx of millions of refugees from the war-torn zones and donor fatigue alike. – Ambassador Anil Trigunayat*

During the last weeks of the month of Ramadan, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan faced the public wrath and continued demonstrations due to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) sponsored taxation regime and a poor state of the economy and opportunity in the beleaguered country. Jordan had negotiated a $723 million Credit line in 2016 for a period of three years with the standard conditions and prescriptions. Spiralling costs of fuel, electricity bills and provisions, with the removal of subsidies, the impending steep rise in income tax and proposed economic reforms acted as an immediate trigger to a complex politico-economic conundrum in Jordan. Eventually, it led to the removal of Prime Minister Hani Mulki’s Government to assuage the protesters who were refusing to let go.

Mulki, though tough, was said to be a good administrator who meant business. But the timing was not right for him. It has been a normal practice to replace or dismiss the Government when public discontentment is witnessed at the grassroots levels. So far, more than 77 Prime Ministers have been appointed and changed. Some cabinets have served just 300 days or even less – this methodology tends to apportion the blame on the outgoing cabinet and has helped keep the lid from blowing away. However, Hani Mulki’s predecessor Prime Minister, Abdullah Ensour, perhaps served the longest in recent times, having lasted for almost four years. In the wake of the Arab Spring, four Prime Ministers were tried out.

This time also, to reverse the tide of discontent, King Abdullah II appointed a Harvard PhD holder, Omar Razzazas, the Prime Minister, who was the Education Minister in the outgoing Government. The first thing the new Prime Minister did was to withdraw the taxation bill from the parliament and to promise a new “social contract” to convey the message that he meant to give a sincere try. He perhaps has bought an interim peace and time to deliver on the King’s and the people’s expectations, although some cynics will continue to question the rationale. There is a general feeling among the people to give him a chance since he had done a good job as the Education Minister.

Jordan has been the oasis of stability in the otherwise turbulent region, especially in its neighbourhood of Iraq and Syria. The Jordanian economy and infrastructure, as well as the essential services, have been stressed due to the influx of millions of refugees from the war-torn zones and donor fatigue alike. Syrians alone account for over 1.3 million. As such, Jordan has almost sixty percent of its population of Palestinian origin which also creates a certain complexity with regard to the Palestinian issue and the Middle East peace process. Although most of them are Jordanian citizens now, they have a filial attachment to their homeland, and hence, protests against any Israeli action is almost automatic. It is not unusual that several issues could simultaneously trigger the display of public discontent which was the case this time too. The situation in Gaza, shifting of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and news and rumours from the Holy sites got clubbed with the IMF dictated economic and tax reform proposals. Though the Government has been changed, the spectre of protest has not yet gone away.

Jordan has also been facing economic hardships that have its economic and political origins. Lack of natural resources and deposits unlike its neighbours, Jordan depends largely on the bounty of Gulf countries and the USA that have also tightened their purses in the recent past in the pursuit of their political objectives and economic compulsions. Jordan’s decision not to support the Yemen war to allow for dialogue, its stance on Syria and the decision not to break diplomatic relations with Qatar in the year-long Gulf crisis has incurred the displeasure of mighty Gulf states. Similarly, the Trump Administration virtually shook the earth below the feet of the King when they declared and shifted their embassy to Jerusalem, thus undermining the little hope that the Peace Process had. King Abdullah, who is a direct descendant of Prophet Mohammed is also the Custodian of Holy Sites in Jerusalem, be it the Al Aqsa Mosque – the third holiest shrine for the Muslims, or for that matter, the Christian sites even though the Israelis read it differently. But this has placed the King in a difficult and unenviable situation. One of the Israeli diplomats once commented that “King Abdullah is riding a tiger and he does not know how to get down”.

Although there are underlying tensions in various relationships that continue to exist, there is a general consensus, be it Israel, US, West or the Gulf States, that Jordan and its Royalty have to stay afloat for the security of the region and to avoid the dominoes effect on other Sheikhdoms. Hence the Saudi King Salman called an urgent Summit at Makkah with his UAE and Kuwait counterparts and committed to an aid Package of US$ 2.5 bn to stabilise the situation. The World Bank and IMF were also asked to go slow and defer the implementation time schedules for the economic reforms. On the other hand, Qatar separately stepped out and sent its Foreign and Finance Ministers to Amman to offer US$ 500 million in infrastructure investments and aid, apart from the creation of 10000 jobs for the Jordanians in Qatar. King Salman has maintained that “Jordan’s security is Saudi Arabia’s security. What matters for Jordan is also a concern for Saudi Arabia and what hurts Jordan is also hurting the Kingdom. Security of Jordan is integral to the security of the Arab Nation“. However, several commentators, including the two outgoing Ministers in the Mulki Government, have reportedly suspected that the reason for this inadequate dole is that Saudi Arabia and UAE will now expect Jordan to play along with the Trump proposal for the Middle East – the Deal of the Century. This would be extremely difficult for Jordan to acquiesce and perhaps they miss a strong Iraq that mostly stood by them in times of hardships.

King Abdullah continues to be a very popular leader despite some tribal sections expressing their opposition. It is imperative that the Jordanian tribes continue to give their allegiance to the ruling family since they also broadly hold control in the highly proficient and smart Jordanian military and security outfits, and are crucial for the survival and security of not only Jordan but the Sunni Arab coalition. King Abdullah has been on the forefront of the fight against extremism, terrorism and the ISIS (Daesh) Takfirs, and remains a hope on the horizon. For now, the situation is under control as King Abdullah assured his people and the international community, “The problem does not lie in Jordan. Jordanians are ready to sacrifice for their country, and with their strong resolve, we will persevere and overcome these challenges, as we have surmounted others before”. But Jordan remains at crossroads.

This article was originally written for Vivekanand International Foundation

Read: Netanyahu meets King Abdullah II of Jordan in First Public Meeting Since 2014

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Ambassador Anil Trigunayat

Ambassador Anil Trigunayat is a distinguished fellow at Vivekanand International Foundation. He's a former Ambassador of India to Jordan and Libya and High Commissioner to Malta. He can be reached at || Twitter: @aniltrigunayat

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