Crisis-hit Jordan Faces an Uncertain Future

Ziad Hafez

Jordan faces a profound economic crisis, with corruption at the top and unreliable allies in the region. The country will either have to forge an entirely new direction or face a crisis of legitimacy at its core.

A kingdom designed by two dying empires, Jordan is today in deep economic crisis, with uncertain alliances, few natural resources, not much water, but a generous amount of corruption.

So where is Jordan heading in today’s political-economic climate? Who are its allies and where does its future lie?

The past: a prized pie and many promises

In 1916, as World War I raged on, the leaders of the UK and France sat down to slice up the highly prized pie of the Levant left behind by a defeated Ottoman Empire. The Sykes-Picot agreement, named after its British and French authors, would divide up the area, including its variously diverse Arab ethnic groups, into their very own lucrative zone of influences in the Levant Arab provinces.

It was an agreement to ensure that the political states that would arise – Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan – would always experience major upheavals in the aftermath of the creation of Israel.

Out of that setting came British promises of rewards to the Hashemite family of Hijaz in modern Saudi Arabia for services rendered during World War I. The Hashemites claimed lineage to the Prophet as justification of their eminence in Arab society. Al Sharif Hussein Bin Ali, a notable ruler of Mecca, was the rival of Ibn Saud for the control of the Land of the Two Holy Mosques.

But after the war, the British wanted out of their earlier promise to Al Sharif Hussein to establish an Arab kingdom in the Levant. The British reneged on that promise but offered instead the idea of a Kingdom of Iraq and the Emirate of Transjordan (the present Kingdom of Jordan) to the heirs of Al Sharif Hussein.

And so a family with no roots in Mesopotamia or Transjordan was imposed on the existing populations. The issue of legitimacy for such ruling entities has never been settled. In Iraq, the 1958 revolution abolished the monarchy, and in Jordan, the monarchy has had to face the onslaught of Levantine Arab nationalists who neither recognized the legitimacy of the Hashemite rule nor the artificial divisions imposed on the land by Mister Sykes and Monsieur Picot.

Today, the Arab Levant is experiencing tectonic changes that are likely to once again redefine the political map drawn in the wake of World War I. These changes reflect the changing balance of forces controlled by Western powers (first, the United Kingdom and later on, the United States) since the implementation of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Born to be a buffer

Drawn up as a de facto ‘buffer state,’ Jordan’s role was to absorb the pressure of the Levant hinterland against occupied Palestine, known today as Israel. Sharing the longest border with the newly minted Israel, Jordan’s functional role, then and now, was to make sure that Arab national sentiment would never become a direct threat to Israel.

Since its establishment, the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan has had to rely on foreign aid for economic survival. In this case, it was of course through British, then American, assistance. With no natural resources equivalent to those of Iraq or Saudi Arabia, Jordan aligned itself entirely with the Western camp in the region, fighting against the rising tide of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s to ensure the security of Israel for its benefactors.

This brief historical backdrop is essential to an understanding of the multi-front crisis facing the Jordanian state today. While the issue of Jordan’s governing legitimacy is not at the forefront of the current political crisis, it does loom in the background. Instead, the focus in Jordan is on the perpetual economic crisis, the widespread corruption that extends to the royal palace, and the polarization of regional politics between countries squarely aligned with the needs of the US and Israel and those against such an alliance.

Heavily dependent on assistance from the Gulf States, Jordan has little or no leverage in charting an independent political and economic course.

Which bitter pill to swallow?

Jordan’s economic crisis today is linked to unemployment and the deterioration of living conditions. The ‘peace dividends’ anticipated after the Wadi Araba accords (1994) that established ‘peace’ between Jordan and Israel never materialized. That agreement was and still is strongly opposed by the public and by Jordanian parliamentarians.

A controversial gas deal between the two governments is at the center of a dispute in the Jordanian parliament. There is stiff opposition by large segments of the Jordanian population to such an agreement. The Jordanian government insists that it is a deal between two companies and not two governments, and claims that the US did not pressure the Jordanian government. The latter has been quiet about the clauses of the deal, in the hopes that fuel is not added to the fire.

The current economic crisis features high unemployment rates: 19 percent in 2019 (higher in 2021 especially among the youth); and massive public debt (97 percent of GDP), compounded by a resurgence of Covid-19, and rising food prices. These factors are likely to increase widespread social unrest, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Jordan 2021.

The choices faced by Jordan are which bitter pill to choose. Either the country succumbs to the dictates of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the blackmail enforced by Gulf countries to be more deliberate in the confrontation with Iran, or it must economically, at least, align with Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Lebanon.

In the latter case, the US and the West as well as Israel and the Gulf petro-monarchies would not hesitate to destabilize Jordan and provoke a ‘regime change.’ One must not forget that in the Zionist line of thinking, Jordan could be the ‘final home’ of the Palestinians.

The combination of an unabated economic crisis with corruption at the top has already triggered an attempt at a ‘coup’ by a former heir to the throne, assisted by associates with strong links to Arab intelligence agencies.

The possibly fake/staged coup could have been a warning of things to come if Jordan ever decides to ‘misbehave.’ The US has been trying to engineer a regional group to confront Iran. A ‘New Cham Alliance’ without Syria would include Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq. The ‘alliance’ launched in September 2020 was an offshoot of a larger program launched in 2014 by a World Bank study that included Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories.

The recent Baghdad summit in which Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and France participated, would call for an economic integration of countries involved. It may provide Jordan a ‘solution’ to its economic woes. However, the inclusion of Iran, and the exclusion of Syria and Lebanon, as well as the deliberate disregard of the Palestinian issue are major shortcomings of that summit. Despite that, the side discussions that took place may be more important than the resolutions, and Jordan could benefit from the expected reduced tension between Arab petro-monarchies and Iran.

The presence of France cannot be understood except as a tacit endorsement by the US and the EU in a future need to stabilize the region in their own vision, and in the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Iraqi sources say France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who attended the Summit, was instrumental in excluding Syria from the gathering.

A destiny to ponder

The future of Jordan may lie in the evolution of the regional balance of power. The US faces an impossible situation as it tries to confront the Axis of Resistance and ensure the security of Israel.

To date, the US and its Arab allies have failed to bring about regime change in Syria or to curb the influence of the Axis of Resistance under the leadership of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Nor is the US capable of reaching an agreement with Syria and Iran that would provide some form of stability.

A withdrawal from Syria and Iraq, in the aftermath of the debacle in Afghanistan, would be additional confirmation of the strategic defeat of US presence in the region. The recent US Central Command decision to move its Qatari-based troops and hardware to Jordan may be calculated to offset these future losses.

In addition, the instability of US foreign policy demonstrated by both Trump and Biden administrations leaves allies in a quandary over the reliability of the US. To date, the scorecard of the US honoring her commitments to ‘defend’ allies is dismal.

The ruling elites of Jordan, it seems, will have much to ponder on for the future.