King Abdullah II of Jordan has always been glorified by both the Western and Israeli media as a moderate monarch who seeks peace and even democracy for his country and the Middle East. But perhaps Abdullah should be understood more in the light of his recent trip to the Jordanian village of Kerak, 75 miles south of Amman, to visit the tomb of Ja’far ibn Abi Talib, a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and the brother of Ali ibn Talib, the founder of Shi’ite Islam. The Kingdom of Jordan has never opened this site to Shi’ite visitors.
Ja’far ibn Abi Talib is a holy figure among Shiites, one of the “rightly guided” caliphs, as the first four successors of the prophet are called. The majority of Muslims worldwide, and nearly all Jordanians—95% of whom are Sunni—consider visiting graves for prayer as an act of polytheism. But there was Abdullah, wearing his military uniform and performing prayers in a Shi’ite shrine with the Jordanian media and state cameras rolling.
In the past several decades, Abdullah has never had much patience for Shi’ites. There is not a single Shi’ite mosque in the kingdom. Jordanian intelligence keeps a close watch on Shi’ites in Jordan, as well as on any local Sunni Muslims who adopt elements of Shi’ite faith and practice. Jordanian authorities, for example, bar any Shi’ite-related religious ceremonies, especially Ashura, the mourning of the death of Husayn ibn Ali, the son of Ali ibn Abi Talib. Shi’ite clerics abroad claim that Jordanian intelligence has broken into private homes to prevent such observances. Abdullah’s sudden decision to publicly embrace the Shi’ite faith was as shocking as it would be if the president of the United States had himself filmed performing Islamic prayers at a mosque.
One day before his visit to Kerak, Abdullah flew to Baghdad on June 27 for a curious meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. All three men signed an agreement for a “New Levant,” ostensibly an economic deal for the three countries to cooperate in the fields of energy and electricity, agriculture, and the oil trade, with Jordan serving as a transit point for Iraqi oil to Egypt, and from there on to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. The three leaders also decided to establish a single visa for entrance into all three countries. This type of European-style border arrangement is exceptionally rare among Arab countries.
The question puzzling many in the region is why Egypt, which shares a border with neither Jordan nor Iraq, is part of such a deal. One likely possibility is that el-Sissi feels isolated in general, and in particular with regard to his struggle to prevent Ethiopia from building a mega dam that threatens Egypt with drought. With very little help from the Biden administration, and the Gulf Arab states wielding almost no leverage within the Egyptian government, el-Sissi is signaling a tilt toward Iran—short of full normalization, but steps in the direction of better ties. As the Iranian regime controls the Iraqi government, military, and intelligence service, all of which are used as puppets to help Iran avoid U.S. sanctions, Egyptian participation in the export of Iraqi oil—which is also controlled by Iran—would have been unimaginable during the Trump administration. Under Biden, who is tilting toward Iran himself, it’s close to common sense. This is the opportunity Abdullah seems keen to exploit.
Ever since the meeting in Baghdad at the end of June, Jordanian state media has not only celebrated Egypt’s participation in the Iraqi oil export deal, but has also promoted better relations with Iran: The monarchy’s media organs have called for a full normalization of ties, and even speculated about opening the country to religious tourists from Iran, including the construction of an airport in Kerak to accommodate them. Zaid Nabulsi, a close adviser of Abdullah’s, even called for Amman to ally itself with Tehran.
For Jordanians, this is more or less an act of war. The vast majority of Jordanians despise the Iranian regime, owing to the crimes of Iranian militias against Arabs and Sunnis in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and even Gaza. Sources within the Jordanian government confirmed to me that tribal leaders of Jordan’s Palestinian majority and Bedouin leaders of its East Bank minority issued a joint message and delivered it to Abdullah’s office. The message they delivered was apparently clear: The tribal leaders who live near Jordan’s Shi’ite shrines will not tolerate an influx of Shi’ite “religious tourists,” which they also see as a cover for importing Iranian state influence, and would fight it by all means necessary.
All this comes at a time when Abdullah’s regime has been significantly weakened. In April, the king’s brother, the ex-Crown Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, attempted to topple him; according to Ayman Safadi, deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, the Jordanian army was able to stop the coup only at the last minute. The whereabouts of Hamzah remain unknown. The mother of Hamzah, the American-born Lisa Halaby, also known as the former Queen Noor al-Hussein, has taken to Twitter in support of her missing son. A quick look at Halaby’s Twitter account is enough to suggest what Hamzah had in mind for the throne. Halaby has constantly praised Iran, attacked Israel and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and ridiculed President Donald Trump.
Is Abdullah attempting to save his throne by fulfilling some of the hopes of those who supported his overthrow, including by following el-Sissi in tilting toward Iran? It is unclear whether the “New Levant” agreement will help him where it actually counts: The Hashemite Kingdom’s current foreign debt stands at more than $37 billion, and Jordan suffers from severe economic hardship thanks to political corruption, failed leadership at every level of government, a lack of natural resources, and water shortages. In the first two weeks of June, a handful of tribes launched attacks on the Jordanian police in Amman that lasted six days, including attacks on the highway near the capital’s airport. The fiasco hasn’t ended, even as thousands of American soldiers returning from Afghanistan have landed in Jordan.
Jordanians themselves have seldom seen worse days. Power outages are now regular, food prices are soaring, and there are frequent shortages of fuel. An increasing number of Jordanians on social media are openly criticizing the king and calling him names, despite the risk of three years in jail per post or tweet. Jordan is increasingly a country unable to meet the needs of its citizens, even as it becomes more and more reliant on assistance and aid from foreign countries, including Israel and the Gulf monarchies. The latter are not likely to reward any moves toward open collusion with Iran, but Abdullah appears to have calculated that such moves are necessary.
Jordan was once seen as a force of calm in a region of chaos. It now appears to be a fragile kingdom with an increasingly despised monarch who would like to follow el-Sissi in opening his country to Iranian influence, a change seen as safe under the Biden regime. It would appear that Abdullah is no longer a safe bet for Israel, which should gird itself for dramatic changes in what has long been its most stable neighbor.
Dr. Edy Cohen grew up in Lebanon and served for 15 years in the Israeli intelligence community. He is a researcher at the BESA Center and specializes in inter-Arab relations, the Arab-Israeli conflict, terrorism and Jewish communities in the Arab world. He is the author of The Holocaust in the Eyes of Mahmoud Abbas (Hebrew).