How Jordan’s King Hangs On
The monarch studied the Arab Spring and created a savvy plan to quell demonstrators without mass violence
Protests in the Jordanian capital Amman reached a boiling point last month when thousands of demonstrators called for King Abdullah’s ouster, prompting American experts to predict the regime was headed for collapse. Shadi Hamid at the Brookings Institution, among numerous others, said the Obama Administration’s support for Amman was “not on the right side of history.” Inside Jordan itself, a prominent activist predicted the king would ape ex-dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya by violently cracking down on the protesters.
All of this was grave news for the United States and especially Israel: One of only two Arab countries to have formal relations with the Jewish state, Jordan has long provided intelligence assistance, political cover and mediation with Palestinians and other Arab states, and calm along Israel’s longest border. As Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren recently noted in these pages, the overthrow of Jordan’s monarchy would be a disaster for the Jewish state. “Jordan is what keeps Iran out of our backyard,” he said. So, Israel and the United States braced themselves for the worst.
And yet, over the past few weeks demonstrations ebbed, the king pardoned most protesters he had jailed, and the monarchy proved once more, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that reports of its death had been greatly exaggerated. What accounts for the monarchy’s survival? Interviews with current and former Jordanian security officials, activists, and mosque clerics show that the kingdom paid close attention to the revolutions of the Arab Spring and formed a clear strategy to quell the demonstrators using a softer approach. It could afford to do so only thanks to a combination of Jordan’s distinctive politics, external support from the United States, and staunch solidarity from its fellow Arab monarchies—all of which the fallen regimes lacked. The latter of the three factors exemplifies a new power dynamic in the region that Western experts would be wise to notice.
Jordan watchers have been betting against the monarchy since 1958, when British diplomat Anthony Nutting wrote of the late King Hussein, then 23, “However much one may admire the courage of this lonely young king, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion his days are numbered.” Uncannily, all of Nutting’s grounds for pessimism then have been recurring ever since: In the 1950s, the lion’s share of the 700,000 Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war who had settled in Jordan posed a threat to indigenous Bedouin and urban elites who backed the king. Two decades later, so did the 1967 refugees, many of whom fought a bloody civil war against monarchists in 1970. Concerns were more recently raised about Palestinian refugees from Kuwait in 1991, half a million Iraqi refugees after the 2003 war, and roughly 100,000 Syrians since last year. Nutting also worried, amid the Arabist military coups of the 1950s, that new juntas like Nasser’s Egypt and its Soviet backers would topple the kingdom. Later doomsayers said the same of Syria’s junta, which invaded Jordan in 1970. Just this October, Tablet noted that Syrian officials want to destabilize Jordan’s security.
But Jordan has consistently made lemonade out of lemons. Most Palestinians from ’48 and ’67 are citizens in Jordan today, fewer than one in eight lives in a refugee camp, and most “camps” have effectively become urban neighborhoods. Kuwait’s Palestinian refugees brought considerable savings and their professional and business acumen to the country, as did thousands of Iraqis who have remained in the country. The Amman-based Arab Bank, one of the largest financial institutions in the Middle East with a 2012 shareholders’ equity base of $7.7 billion, was established by a Jerusalemite family that migrated to Jordan after the 1948 war.
Since approximately 100,000 Syrians arrived last year, fleeing their own civil war, Jordan stuffed the penniless into prison-like camps in Mafraq, near the Syrian border—conditions so grating that thousands have returned to the flames back home, while wealthier Syrians have taken apartments in Amman and become fixtures in its upscale restaurants and boutiques. In other words, the monarchy has taken care to ensure that the Syrian influx does not destabilize Jordan.
As for supposed Syrian attempts to undermine Jordan’s internal security, good luck with that. “It’s wishful thinking by a desperate government and we are doing fine,” reports a mid-level official at Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate who declined to be named. The intelligence agency is staffed overwhelmingly by Bedouin and Circassian ethnics who countered Syrian saboteurs throughout the decades in which Damascus actually had the manpower to threaten Jordan; Assad has other priorities today. Among the Circassians, Majdi Kohof, who served the Jordanian agency in Moscow during the Cold War, told me the Syrian threat is “nowhere near as serious.” Concerns that fighting in Syria will spill into Jordan are also exaggerated: In my experience, it’s a relatively secure border, and American soldiers have joined local forces to safeguard it.
As demonstrations grew last month, the Muslim Brotherhood, which crucially swelled revolutionary ranks in Egypt, rejected calls for regime change. “We want systemic reform toward a constitutional monarchy,” R’hayyil Gharaybeh, the political chief of Jordan’s Brotherhood, told me. Decades ago the monarchy enlisted the Brotherhood to counter pan-Arab and pro-Soviet elements; it has since enjoyed legal status, periodic control over the education ministry, periodic dominance of the Islamic affairs ministry, and a presence in Jordan’s parliament (such as it is)—all incentives to back the system.
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