Jordan’s survivor king now needs international help

Abdullah II has adeptly held onto the throne even as his neighbors fell, but the Syrian refugee crisis is causing ever heavier strain

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Over the past three years, since the beginning of the Arab Spring, many professional naysayers rushed to eulogize Jordan’s King Abdullah II. It was only a matter of time, they predicted, until the storm enveloped the Hashemite Kingdom and the king was deposed.

But reality overruled them; Abdullah has survived. Jordan was selected to hold a seat on the UN Security Council this month, a development that indicates international recognition of Abdullah’s role in maintaining regional stability.

And the king continues behaving like a king. Last weekend, the “snow storm of the century” reached Amman, and like Jerusalem, dozens of cars were stuck on the roads. A passerby with a camera happened upon the scene (or maybe it wasn’t by chance) of the king getting out of his official vehicle, red keffiyeh flapping in the wind, and helping push a citizen’s car caught in the snow.

It is hard to imagine another Arab leader doing this (with the exception of Hamas’s Gaza prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, who wasted no time throwing on surfing clothes and climbing onto one of the paddleboards involved in rescuing Gazan residents from the floods). But Abdullah, as is his wont, wants his public to see him as an accessible man of the people, in stark contrast to his allies in the Gulf.

There are several reasons behind the king’s survival. First, he enjoys the support of the Jordanian public, at least the original Jordanians. The vocal opposition to his rule in Jordan is mostly based on the Muslim Brotherhood and on the religious Palestinian community. This political alternative is not especially appealing to the Jordanians in light of the struggles the Brotherhood is facing in the region. Even at the height of the demonstrations against the king, the number of participants in the Islamist movement’s protests was small: 15,000-20,000 people showed up for a centerpiece “million-strong demonstration” in September 2011.

Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan and a senior researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) think tank, said that the joke going around at the time was that half of the protesters were actually Jordanian intelligence agents. “One of the biggest mistakes of the Muslim Brotherhood was their decision to boycott the last parliamentary elections (in January). They lost the ability to have their representatives understand which way the wind was blowing among some sectors of the country.”

In addition, the Jordanian government refrained from using lethal weapons against demonstrators, and as a result Jordan did not have the mass funerals that would have attracted more protesters.

Not only that. Arab countries, the US and Europe gave Jordan $5.5 billion dollars over the past year and a half. This placated the tribes and the royal family’s supporters.

In addition, Jordanians look to the north and the east, and are not especially envious of the fate of their Syrian neighbors.

The king also was wise enough to enact some reforms and promise more — including on election laws, and a public sector overhaul. Cosmetic changes, yes, but of the kind that were interpreted as evidence he was listening to the demands of the masses.

Still, the dangers facing Jordan must not be ignored. This week, the INSS published an article by Itamar Cohen about the burden the Syrian refugees are placing on the Jordanian economy.

According to UN estimates, next year the number of refugees will pass the one million mark — comprising around 16% of Jordan’s entire population (current estimates put the number of refugees in Jordan at 600,000).

Cohen points to the massive expenditures facing Jordan as a result of the refugees, and the consequent unemployment among Jordanians. The unemployment rate in Jordan for the final quarter of 2013 reached 14%, a five-year high. According to Cohen, Syrian refugees are flooding “the local job market and damaging the ability of many locals to put bread on the table, especially among the lower class, where most of the workers are unskilled. The refugees have increased competition for each job, raised housing prices, and lowered the salaries Jordanian employers used to pay.”

Jordan’s economic problems don’t end there: the energy supply through the Egyptian gas pipeline has ceased, increasing the government expenditure on energy, and export and import to and from Syria have been cut off, closing one of the most important channels of trade.

Thus, Cohen argues, international aid is the key to the kingdom’s stability, and Israel should consider joining efforts to raise money for Amman. Such assistance, if requested quietly and effectively, would be welcome news for the survivor king.

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