Amid Mideast tumult, Jordan is a model of what could be

By Ben Cohen,

Following the ugly battle between the Egyptian military and Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi, resulting in Morsi’s ouster on July 3, as well as the ongoing bloodbath in Syria, the arguments for the preservation of the Jordanian model—politically moderate, more democratic than its neighbors and proudly Islamic yet amenable to good relations with western nations and with Israel—are self-evident.

When King Hussein of Jordan died in early 1999, Israel mourned him, as the veteran journalist Eric Silver pointed out at the time, “as one of its own.” Flags on public buildings flew at half-mast, memorial candles glimmered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square and newspapers carried headlines like “Shalom, King.” At the King’s funeral, an Israeli delegation that included Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the then Mossad chief, Ephraim Halevy, mingled openly and cordially with Arab leaders. 

In that short moment of remembrance, the Middle East was provided with a brief glimpse of what life would be like should a genuine peace with Israel be achieved—not a mere cessation of hostilities, but the type of friendly, cooperative peace that prevails among the countries of Europe and North America. Yet Silver—one of the most perceptive reporters to ever cover the region, who is sadly no longer with us—also observed, “Anxiety sits on the shoulder of Israel’s grief. Is it all too good to be true now that Hussein has gone, and his 37-year-old son, Abdullah, an unknown quantity, has succeeded to the throne?”

Fourteen years later, King Abdullah II remains on his throne. Only the most churlish would deny that this in itself is an achievement, given Jordan’s history of surviving, against the odds, as a sovereign state. For this small desert kingdom carved out by the British has been forced to contend with many enemies, internal and external, throughout its short existence. From the Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdul Nasser in the 1960s, through the radical Palestinian terrorist factions in the 1970s, to the Syrian butcher Bashar al-Assad today, Jordan and its ruling Hashemite monarchy has faced its fair share of close shaves.

And while the goodwill that prevailed between Israel and Jordan at the time of King Hussein’s death has dissipated somewhat, Israel’s strategic interest in stability and continuity on the East Bank has remained solid. What has changed, though, is the nature of the threat. 

The belief that Jordan would be undone by the Palestinians was once a commonplace, which partly explains why “Jordan is Palestine” used to be a popular slogan on the Israeli right. Today, the Palestinians are far from being the main challenge to Jordan’s survival, so much so that even the achievement of that elusive final agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would still leave Jordan painfully vulnerable to other dangers.

The country’s economy is in an awful state. Unlike many of its Arab neighbors, Jordan does not sit on huge oil reserves, and is completely dependent on imports to meet its energy needs. Recent cuts in food, fuel and electricity subsidies resulted in angry protests on the streets of the capital, Amman, and in other cities too. Inflation has climbed by three points in the space of a year, to 7.1 percent, while unemployment hovers at a perilously high 13 percent.

These factors have further alienated that sector of the population known as “native Jordanians”—Arabs long settled on the East Bank of the Jordan River who have traditionally been the principal source of support for the monarchy—from King Abdullah. Given the country’s already scarce resources, the enormous influx of refugees into Jordan over the past decade, as a result of regional conflicts, is another source of tension.

The 2003 war in Iraq that unseated Saddam Hussein’s regime brought thousands of Iraqi refugees into Jordan. Many of them remain, unable or unwilling to return to Iraq, and living in abject poverty. To their number we can now add the approximately 450,000 Syrians who have arrived in Jordan fleeing Assad’s massacres. Around one-third of these refugees are living in the squalid conditions of Zaatari, a makeshift refugee camp close to the Syrian border that didn’t even exist one year ago. 

From the Jordanian point of view, the worst aspect of the refugee crisis is that there is no end in sight. The bloodbath in Syria persists. And no one can rule out the possibility that worsening political conditions in Iraq or Lebanon will propel another desperate flood of refugees seeking a modicum of respite in the relative calm of Jordan.

More pressing than even the refugees, though, is the future of the Syrian conflict. Over the last few weeks, the Arab press has reported extensively on how the outcome of the civil war there will impact Jordan. Writing in the Arab News, Osama al Sharif portrayed Jordan as being caught between a rock and a hard place. 

“If the Syrian regime manages to quell the opposition and wins, it will seek reprisals against states that stood against it. Jordan, which shares hundreds of kilometers with Syria, is the most vulnerable among Damascus’ neighbors,” al Sharif wrote, referring to Assad’s ire against the jihadi fighters who have passed through Jordan on their way to Syria. He added, “If the [Syrian] regime falls, Jordan will worry about geopolitical, demographic and economic changes. The fact that there are many radical Islamists associated with the [Syrian] opposition, such as Al-Nusra Front, may bring sectarian violence closer to home.”

Jordan, then, is an emerging front in the epic struggle between Sunni and Shi’a Islam that has engulfed the Middle East. But rather than despair at the raucous unpredictability of the region, American policymakers should feel a certain relief that there is one tangible goal to pursue, in the shape of keeping Jordan alive and intact. 

After all, this is one matter upon which both Israel and the Palestinian Authority can agree. More importantly, Jordan at present is neither a prisoner of the Shi’a mullahs nor of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, and there is a pressing need—perhaps now more than ever, given the grim outlook for Egypt and Syria—to keep it that way.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for His writings have appeared in many publications including Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz and Jewish Ideas Daily.