As US President Joe Biden assumes office, many governments in the Middle East are looking to Washington to see what the change in the White House will mean for them.
While some Middle Eastern states may have preferred a second term for President Donald Trump, King Abdullah II of Jordan has been among the region’s leaders most eagerly looking forward to the arrival of the new administration — he was the first Arab leader to congratulate Joe Biden on his election in November. However, for the Jordanian monarchy, one of the US’s — and the UK’s — longest-standing Arab partners, the future looks deeply uncertain, even if early 2021 brings some rays of hope.
Even for a country as accustomed to having to navigate crises and a challenging regional environment as Jordan, the past few years have been extremely difficult.
The Trump administration was not overtly hostile to Jordan, but its actions in the region, particularly with regard to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, pulled into question the Hashemite Kingdom’s most fundamental strategic interests. Even though Jordan was one of only two Arab countries that already had full relations with Israel, it was essentially sidelined from US efforts, spearheaded by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, to further bolster Israel’s position in the region and improve its relations with other Arab governments.
Jordan cautiously welcomed the Abraham Accords, in principle, but watched in dismay as Washington appeared to move further and further away from its traditional support for the two-state solution with a viable Palestinian state. The recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the cutting of US funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) and the Palestinian Authority (PA), and the presentation of the ‘Prosperity to Peace’ plan that contained provisions for the Israeli annexation of large parts of the West Bank and no right to return for Palestinian refugees, all piled pressure on Amman. Given its status as the custodian of the Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, and with a majority of Jordan’s population of Palestinian origin (including 2.1 million refugees registered with UNRWA), these issues go right to the heart of the Jordanian monarchy’s legitimacy.
Lest they jeopardise their access to US aid, King Abdullah and his government could do little except voice cautious criticism in public, plead their case behind the scenes and hope for political change in Washington. US economic support for Jordan amounted to just over $1 billion in 2020 (in addition to $425 million in military assistance aid to help deal with over 650,000 Syrian refugees still based in the country), a sizeable chunk of the Kingdom’s annual budget. Government spending for 2021 is estimated to be $13.2 billion.
Economic necessities meant that Jordan had to walk a diplomatic tightrope elsewhere, too. In the regional rift between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, Jordan could not afford to take sides. Heavily dependent on its economic relations with all the Gulf monarchies — as trade partners, providers of financial aid and hosts of hundreds of thousands of Jordanian expatriate workers — Amman had to tread carefully for over three years.
Deteriorating Economic Circumstances
And still, as 2020 came to a close, Jordan found itself in an economic hole deeper than ever, its chronic problems severely exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. While the first wave of infections was kept low, thanks to one of the world’s most draconian lockdown regimes, the second wave hit Jordan hard, with total registered cases rocketing from just over 10,000 in late September to over 300,000 in early January. Economically, Jordan just could not afford a similarly strict lockdown as in the spring and summer, and the monarchy insisted on holding parliamentary elections in early November, just as new daily cases reached their peak (the pandemic and a general sense of apathy produced a very low voter turnout of just 30%).
Jordan’s healthcare system has thus far held up, but the already ailing economy went into a tailspin. The unemployment rate reached nearly 24% in Q3 (it is likely higher among young people), the economy contracted by 5% and foreign direct investment into Jordan, particularly from the Gulf states, essentially collapsed. For 2021, the government projects a budget deficit of $2.89 billion, bringing public debt to 112% of GDP.
Jordan received $396 million in emergency assistance from the IMF in May 2020, in addition to the $1.3-billion IMF loan it secured in March. But the structural reforms Jordan is supposed to implement in return will be painful for an already suffering population and therefore politically sensitive. The last time the government tried to raise taxes, for example, in June 2018, popular protests erupted that led to the replacement of the prime minister and a shelving of the policy.
King Abdullah is an experienced crisis manager — since the death of Sultan Qaboos of Oman in January 2020, he is the Arab world’s longest-serving head of state — and there are some rays of light in early 2021. The Biden administration is likely to pay more attention to Jordan’s concerns; the Gulf monarchies have finally decided to reconcile; and the arrival of vaccines gives possible hope that the end of the pandemic is in sight — Jordan began administering the jabs on 13 January.
None of this, however, is going to ultimately resolve Jordan’s problems. In fact, even once the dust thrown up by the Trump administration, the Gulf crisis and the pandemic settles, the Kingdom has to confront new realities that bring into question both its regional role and the sustainability of its muddling-through domestic strategy.
The Biden administration may reinstate funding for Palestinian organisations and restore America’s rhetorical commitment to a two-state solution, without making it any more likely to become reality. The recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital or the expansion of settlements in the West Bank have created realities that make the establishment of a Palestinian state an ever-more distant prospect. Israeli annexation of at least parts of the West Bank is also sure to continue to loom on the horizon, particularly if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds a way to hold on to power.
The normalisation of relations between Israel and the Gulf states means that Jordan’s traditional role as a useful intermediary has become largely irrelevant, leaving it somewhat adrift in the maelstrom of regional politics. Rumours that Saudi Arabia could be given a role in the administration of the Haram Al-Sharif in Jerusalem in any future further rapprochement with the Jewish state are also unlikely to go away just because Biden sits in the Oval Office.
The Hashemite Monarchy, whose ancestors once ruled over Mecca and Medina before being ousted by Saudi Arabia’s founder Ibn Saud, traces its custodianship over the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock to 1924. It further prides itself for having also looked after some of the city’s major Christian sites (King Abdullah I is said to have personally helped to extinguish a fire in the Holy Sepulchre in 1949). Jordan directly controlled East Jerusalem (and the West Bank) from 1948–67, having occupied it during the First Arab–Israeli War. It lost the territory to Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967 and officially relinquished its claim to it in 1988, but it maintained its claim to responsibility for Jerusalem’s holy sites and the 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel recognises this ‘special role’. The mere notion that Israel could offer Saudi Arabia a role in overseeing the Haram Al-Sharif, even if it might just be speculation fueled among others by Israeli politicians, therefore touches a sensitive nerve in Amman.
Moreover, Gulf support for Jordan’s economy had already started to dry up before the pandemic and there are reasons to assume that it will not rebound any time soon. Even once (if?) the Gulf monarchies’ economies recover, their efforts to transform their domestic economies and promote their own national workforces do not bode well for the Jordanian economy’s reliance on Gulf aid and remittances from expatriate workers.
King Abdullah can continue to cycle through prime ministers and cabinets — Bisher Al-Khasawneh, appointed in October last year, is the country’s 15th prime minister since Abdullah’s coronation in 1999 — but this will not substantially reduce socioeconomic pressures at home. Serious economic reforms risk further provoking popular discontent, while some of the security measures the government has implemented to maintain control over seemingly restive elements in the population risk negating any benefits they might produce, such as a more open business environment.
It will clearly be a difficult year for Jordan. Amman will look to Washington for help — political and material — and hope that it can reclaim at least some of its former status as a useful interlocutor, whose continued stability is factored into the Biden administration’s regional policy.
Yet, there is also scope for others to play a role, not least the UK. With Brexit completed and the pandemic hopefully subsiding, it is time to define what exactly ‘Global Britain’ will look like. Jordan may not have much to offer in the way of being a lucrative trade partner, but as one of the UK’s oldest friends in the region it merits attention. While the Gulf remains the logical centre of gravity for UK policy towards the Middle East, Jordan could serve as a useful, less geopolitically crowded and sensitive base from where to engage with the monarchies on the Arabian Peninsula, the situations in Iraq and Syria, and the ever-relevant question about the future of the Palestinian territories.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Dr Tobias Borck
Research Fellow for Middle East Security Studies
International Security Studies