Home inFocus A Year of Arab Upheaval (Winter 2011) Jordan’s Trials: Is Spring or Autumn in the Air?

Jordan’s Trials: Is Spring or Autumn in the Air?

Asher Susser Winter 2011

Jordan’s history has been marked by numerous serious political crises. Observers in the past were often too hasty to predict the imminent downfall of the Hashemite monarchy, or even the disappearance of Jordan, because of its ostensibly artificial origins. The pundits were invariably wrong. Jordan weathered its crises and pulled through, whether in the case of the Nasserist onslaught in the mid-1950s; or the “Black September” civil war with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its supporters in 1970; or the severe economic crisis following the 1991 Gulf War when King Husayn clashed with the U.S. and Jordan’s traditional allies in the Gulf over their war against Iraq. Jordan pulled through all these crises thanks largely to three critical factors: the cohesion of the Jordanian East Banker political elite; the loyalty of the armed forces and other security services; and the consistent external support for the Kingdom because of its geopolitical centrality and its consequent contribution to regional stability.

Roots of the Current Crisis

Contrary to past experience, the present crisis in Jordan has revealed a certain cleavage between important parts of the East Banker elite and the monarchy under King Abdallah II. This is a new phenomenon and it should not be taken lightly. It did not begin with the “Arab Spring” and it does not depend on the “Arab Spring” for its outcome, though the regional shake-up has naturally had an effect on Jordan and has contributed to the more tense atmosphere in the country. The root of all evil in this case is the economic crisis that struck Jordan in the late 1980s from which the Kingdom has never fully recovered. The last years of King Husayn’s reign were deeply influenced by the impact of this crisis, and his decision to make peace with Israel was largely driven by the assumption that peace would help Jordan extricate itself from its economic woes. The peace dividend proved disappointing to the Jordanians, but it certainly assisted Husayn to muddle through the economic crisis without having to upset the applecart.

The reign of King Abdallah II launched a new era in Jordan. This is the critical turning point from which to understand the present crisis, more than the ramifications of the “Arab Spring.” From the very outset Abdallah believed in the need for far-reaching reform in Jordan’s economy and in its socio-political norms as well. He subscribed to the neo-liberal school of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which tended to recommend reduced government spending and widespread privatization of formerly state-owned enterprises. These principles were highlighted in the “National Agenda,” which was a plan for reform initiated by the king in early 2005. The plan also included steps for the greater integration of Jordanians of Palestinian origin into the upper echelons of the decision-making elite, on the basis of merit rather than just loyalty that had hitherto preferred East Bankers almost exclusively.

The National Agenda, however, was nipped in the bud because of fierce opposition from the old guard of East Banker regime supporters, who saw the plan as a direct threat to their traditionally privileged status. Ever since the early 1970s, after the Black September civil war between the regime and the PLO forces in the country, the state executed a deliberately calculated policy of “Jordanization,” which meant weeding out Palestinians, who were deemed potentially disloyal, from the government bureaucracy and the security forces in the name of state security. Thus came into being a functional cleavage whereby the government bureaucracy, the military, and the security services became the domain almost exclusively of the East Bankers and their descendants for generations—the “bedoucracy” as it was referred to at times.

On the other hand, the Palestinians in the Kingdom gradually assumed control of the private sector and the professions. An unwritten social contract was created between the East Banker elite and the monarchy, according to which the unswerving loyalty of the East Bankers to the existing political order would be compensated by the largesse of the state. The state would see to their welfare by the generous distribution of jobs in government service and other forms of direct and indirect financial benefits.

Despite the fact that the National Agenda was not implemented, some elements of the plan were in fact carried out by the reduction of government spending, the privatization of state enterprises, and the incorporation of Palestinians in senior positions of government. East Bankers were the first to suffer from these policies. It should be noted that these policies were initially put in place by King Husayn and they aroused much disaffection then, too. But in the early beginnings of reform Husayn moved with great caution. Abdallah took economic reform to another level. Even though one could argue that, objectively, he was doing the right thing for the Kingdom and its long term stability and well-being, the negative reaction was swift and severe as important segments of the East Banker elite castigated the monarchy with unprecedented condemnation.

For these East Bankers, their unwritten social contract was being undone right before their eyes. Economic policies such as privatization and the reduction of government spending seemed to be preferential to the private sector, and thus to the Palestinians in the main, while they hurt those who were more dependent on the largesse of the government—that is the East Bankers. In their minds, they were being punished despite long years of unswerving loyalty to the Hashemites. One of the most representative of these complaints was a public statement issued in May 2010 by the organization of retired members of the armed forces, the cream of the East Banker elite. In their statement, the retired officers criticized the monarchy for allowing too much Palestinian influence in the Kingdom, and for not doing enough to prevent Israel from implementing its “plot” to expel the Palestinians to Jordan to create an “an alternative homeland” for them at Jordan’s expense.

Jordan’s “Arab Spring”

The protest resurfaced and gained further momentum with the outbreak of the “Arab Spring” in early 2011. Demands for political reform were raised both by the Islamist opposition and by representatives of the East Banker elite. Though they did not cooperate and did not share common interests, both groups raised demands for greater democratization and for the restriction of the power of the monarchy. Much of the protest in Amman was led by the Muslim Brotherhood and included many Palestinians. But in the periphery, especially south of the capital, the protest was entirely the work of East Bankers, and in some cases expressing even more extreme hostility towards King Abdallah. The Jordanian periphery has suffered from under-development and economic deprivation for many years, and it is there that the people have been hit hardest by Jordan’s economic troubles, more so than the population in the capital. Since the Palestinians are concentrated in Jordan’s main urban centers—Amman, Zarqa, and Irbid—the suffering of the East Bankers in the periphery is both more severe and more noticeable. This reality fuels a powerful sense of disaffection and even discrimination amongst East Bankers, who genuinely believe that the regime is actually favoring the Palestinians at their expense.

Abdallah is somewhat aloof and distant, having been brought up and educated mostly abroad. He is said to be uncomfortable with the tribes and their ways, as opposed to the instinctive intimacy that his father had cultivated with them. Abdallah is perceived by many of his subjects as an outsider and a certain sense of alienation has developed towards the king. During a royal visit to the southern town of Tafila in June 2011 his motorcade was stoned by angry residents. At demonstrations in Amman and elsewhere, men of the tribes hurl abuse at Abdallah and his Palestinian wife Queen Rania in a manner that would have been unthinkable in the days of King Husayn.

In this atmosphere of protest, Abdallah is promoting a model of gradual reform that includes amendments to the constitution and to legislation that governs elections and the formation of political parties. His declared intention is to create a more balanced constitutional order between parliament and the monarchy in a Jordanian future model of Western-style constitutional monarchy. These are reforms that still await implementation and in the meantime tensions continue to prevail. At the same time, however, the situation is not unbearable and there does not appear to be any immediate threat to the monarchy.

Jordan is not like Syria or Iraq, where sectarian strife dominates politics and society. Jordan is not even similar to Egypt where rising tensions between Muslims and Copts have recently turned into occasional violence. In Jordan there is palpable tension between Jordanians and Palestinians, but this rivalry is not as fierce nor is it shaped by the millennial historical depth of the sectarian strife that plagues other countries. Jordan is actually a far more homogeneous society in terms of religion and sect than most others and virtually all of its citizens are Sunni Muslim Arabs (except for very small minorities)—a factor that generally contributes to the Kingdom’s relative stability. For the most part the demands of the protestors in Jordan have focused on the need to reform, rather than to overthrow, the monarchy. Despite the unprecedented harsh criticism of the king by East Bankers, the critics, thus far, have suggested no alternatives to the Hashemite regime.

A Challenging Time

As Islamist forces rise to the fore in the wake of the “Arab Spring” in Egypt and elsewhere, the regime in Jordan, in its hour of crisis, is seeking out the Muslim Brotherhood, the most effective and best organized opposition in the country, as partners for a compromise of sorts—thus the recent contacts with Hamas. This choice, however, is also indicative of the severity of the crisis with the East Banker elite that the monarchy needs the Brotherhood to calm down the domestic situation. Simultaneously, the Jordanians have made a special effort to urge Israel and the Palestinian Authority to resume their negotiations in the hope that they will be able to forestall a violent clash between Israelis and Palestinians that the Jordanians fear might have destabilizing effects on the Kingdom. Salvation, however, will probably not come from Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. In the meantime the Jordanians can count on generous assistance from Saudi Arabia, which sees Jordan as an essential barrier to the spread of the negative democratizing fallout of the “Arab Spring.” The Saudis provide the Jordanians with over a billion dollars a year, which is a financial lifesaver for the Kingdom and more than the annual aid that Jordan receives from the U.S. at $800 million.

As in the past, the stability of the Kingdom depends on the following three factors: 1) The leadership qualities of the king and the measure of elite cohesion in his support, which, contrary to the past, has been eroded somewhat; 2) The loyalty of the military and the various security services, which, thus far, have shown no signs of declining resolve or disloyalty; and 3) The consistency of external support at a time when Jordan is less confident of the solid backing of the U.S. (after President Obama gave the protestors in Egypt a shot in the arm by publicly urging Mubarak to step down), and is more dependent on the Kingdom’s not always reliable allies in the Gulf.

Though the pundits should not rush to predict the downfall of the Hashemites as they have done so often in the past, one ought to recognize the new reality, in which the Kingdom faces challenges unlike any it has previously encountered. In Jordan not all is well.

Professor Asher Susser is a senior fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University.