Can the U.S. save the Jordanian throne?

(Published in the San Francisco Chronicle, February 20, 2011)

WASHINGTON – Admiral Mike Mullen recently visited Jordan. The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff assured King Abdullah II of America’s commitment to the security of his kingdom. As Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel, it doesn’t really have an external security threat. A growing internal threat looms, however, to the Hashemite monarchy. The Arab revolutionary movement snowballing from Tunisia and Egypt has exacerbated that threat.

What’s likely to fuel a large-scale uprising against the Jordanian monarchy? And if that occurs, can the Pentagon help the king ride out of it?

As in other Arab states, Jordan is afflicted with a high unemployment rate (officially 13% but actually much higher), low living standards (per capita GNI $3,300) and widespread official corruption. But the biggest challenge to the throne comes from it not having local roots. The Hashemite family’s ethnic roots lie in the Muslim holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The British Empire planted the scion of that family, Abdullah bin al-Hussein, in 1923 as the king of what was called Transjordan. The state was carved out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire, which had been defeated and dismembered by the Allied Powers in World War I.

About 60 percent of Jordan’s population of 6.5 million is Palestinians. They’re mostly well-educated, urban and enjoy much higher income levels than the remaining 40 percent or so, made up largely of rural Bedouin tribes. The Palestinians and Bedouins have been estranged from each other since the inception of the state.

The Bedouin tribes have been the monarchy’s main support base, especially since 1970 when then King Hussein brutally suppressed a revolt by Palestinians. Thousands of Palestinians were slaughtered or expelled from Jordan. That was the beginning of the monarchy’s secret outreach to Israel, the nemesis of the Palestinians and other Arabs. In 1973, for example, Hussein, Abdullah’s deceased father, had a clandestine meeting with then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir during which he warned her of Egyptian preparations for war against Israel. Egypt would later attack Israel in what would be known as the Yom Kippur war. Hussein also began working secretly with then Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to conclude a peace agreement with Israel. The treaty was finally wrapped up and signed in 1994.

While the Palestinians resent the monarchy’s courtship of Israel, the Bedouins are being alienated by the current king, Abdullah, especially because of his efforts to placate the Palestinians. The outreach to the Palestinians is led by the king’s Palestinian wife, Rania. She is instrumental in providing Jordanian citizenship to a large number of Palestinian refugees, and helping Palestinians with jobs, business opportunities, and so forth.

On Feb. 7 the Bedouins staged a demonstration against the Abdullah government, a first in the history of the Hashemite-Bedouin relationship. They criticized Queen Rania’s meddling in government affairs and voiced other complaints against the regime. “The situation,” said their spokesman “has become unbearable. Corruption, nepotism and bureaucracy (sic) are widespread and the rich are becoming richer, while the poor – like many Bedouins – are becoming poorer.”
Meanwhile, the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings have triggered several mainstream opposition rallies in Jordan. The protesters demanded democratic reforms, curbing nepotism and official corruption. The Jordanians haven’t called for an end to the monarchy yet, but they could do so if the public discontent escalates into a full-scale uprising.

So what could the Obama administration do to help the Jordanian royalty stave off an Egyptian-style revolution? Whatever else it can do, sending the head of the U.S. armed forces to Amman was a mistake. Many Jordanians saw it as America’s threat to use its military might to defend one of its Arab cops against the repressed people of the state.

Moreover, a U.S. military intervention in Jordan’s political crisis would be counterproductive. Could American soldiers be shooting Arabs in one country without provoking Arab protests against the U.S. military presence and other vital interests in others?

Americans can’t really beat the brewing pan-Arab revolution in Jordan and most other countries. They should join the revolution now to preserve their vital interests in the Middle East.

▪ Mustafa Malik is a columnist and blogger, based in Washington. He conducted field research on U.S.-Arab relations in Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Yemen as a senior associate for the University of Chicago Middle East Center.

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