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Background and Concept Paper :Jordan in a Changing Regional and International Environment: The Upcoming Scenarios

Writer : Oraib Al-Rantawi, Director o f Al-Quds Center for Political Studies

Jordanian observers agree that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is experiencing one of the most difficult times it has seen in the past two decades, where a combination of internal and external factors are creating a “state of uncertainty” regarding the future. Questions and concerns abound about how the state, with its various institutions, will address the challenges and threats facing Jordan and Jordanians.

Domestically, reports and studies show that there is no short-term solution to the country’s economic crisis, which has led to a series of social crises. Despite Jordan’s endorsement of the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) recommendations, the national economy still suffers from very weak growth rates, a rise in the national debt to about 95% of the gross domestic product (GDP), and an ever-growing deficit in the state’s budget. These challenges persist in spite of new tax laws, imposed in 2018, that triggered a wave of popular and youth protests that led to the dismissal of the government of Prime Minister Hani Al-Mulki and the appointment of a new government led by Prime Minister Omar Al-Razzaz. These protests continue to this day, albeit in new forms involving new social forces, such as the School Teachers’ Union, which has led an unprecedented strike in the kingdom’s history in terms of its inclusiveness and duration, as well as the growing labor protest movements across different segments of Jordan’s population.

With more than one million Jordanians living below the poverty line (out of a total population of 6.5 million citizens), economic adjustment programs have failed to spur growth and attract investment, leading to increased unemployment rates of almost 20%. Unemployment is over 41% among young people and fresh graduates, with the private sector unable to provide employment while the public sector is seemingly overwhelmed by large numbers of redundant employees.

Successive Jordanian governments have attributed the economic crisis to aggravating regional crises around Jordan and intensifying clashes among conflicting regional and international axes. Such arguments have a degree of merit; in one case, Jordan’s northern border with Syria has been closed for years, and trade with its northerly neighbor is subject to strict US-European sanctions. In another case, the Kingdom’s eastern border with Iraq was closed after the Islamic State’s takeover of western Iraq, and though trade and economic exchanges have been recently resumed, they remain insignificant. In yet another case, the volatile security situation in Egypt’s Sinai over the past years has also hit Egypt’s previously stable and cheap gas supply to Jordan, raising production costs for electricity and increasing the public debt. Furthermore, not insignificant is the large number of Syrian refugees in Jordan, which the government sets at 1.3 million and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) sets at less than 700,000. The refugee crisis imposes additional challenges on the weak national economy, given the scarcity of resources, weak infrastructure and worsening economic and social crises in the country.

It is worth noting, however, that many observers and analysts believe that external factors alone cannot be held responsible for the aggravation of socio-economic crises. They attribute many reasons to the failure of economic and financial policies of successive governments, including the state’s mismanagement of crises, a bloated state bureaucracy, and the spread of corruption in the absence of a transparent and effective system of public accountability. Such observers and analysts point in particular here to recent declines in public freedoms and the state’s reluctance to push forward the democratic transition; various pretexts thereto have been cited, chief amongst which is the growth of the terrorist threat.

External Challenges and Threats
For the first time since the Second Gulf War (nearly three decades ago), Jordan’s relations with its strategic allies – namely, the United States and key Gulf Arab states (Saudi Arabia in particular) – are experiencing a “state of uncertainty,” and it remains to be seen how these relations will evolve in the upcoming stage. In this context, many observers have begun to argue that the most prominent challenges facing Jordan in the current and future stages come from its allies and friends as opposed to its traditional adversaries.

When Anxiety Is Caused by the Biggest Ally
It is true that the United States continues to top the list of donor states to Jordan (both economically and militarily), that levels of coordination between the two countries remain the same, and that they have a joint agenda in the war on terrorism in particular. However, it is also true that the Trump administration’s conception of the final solution to the Palestinian cause, known as the “Deal of the Century,” carries three threats to Jordan’s security, stability and national identity:

The first threat is related to the fate of Palestinian refugees residing in Jordan, whose total number is close to 4.4 million, according to official Palestinian statistics. Palestinian refugees in Jordan fall into various legal categories, with at least one third not holding Jordanian citizenship. The Trump administration’s new move to redefine the Palestinian refugee restricts the term to the first generation of refugees who left their cities and towns due to the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The numbers of these refugees worldwide range between 35,000 and 40,000 refugees; the youngest of this group is 71 years old, and most of them live in a country with an average age of 74.

Such a redefinition of terms not only eliminates the rights to return and compensation for millions of Palestinians and the right of host states to compensation, but also opens the door to placing Jordan under pressure to formally integrate its one million non-citizen Palestinian refugees into political and public life and grant them Jordanian citizenship. Such an event will bring about a demographic upheaval that will exacerbate extant identity conflicts and bring Jordan closer to becoming home to more than one third of the global Palestinian population.

It is feared that such a scenario could lead to instability, threaten the country’s security and social peace, and turn the Palestinian-Israeli conflict into a Palestinian-Jordanian conflict. This fear is heightened by the likely reluctance on the part of the international community’s to provide economic and financial assistance to Jordan to enable it to cope with the consequences of such a challenge. The Manama Workshop, where the economic part of the “Deal of the Century” was presented, revealed that seven billion dollars in assistance are foreseen for Jordan in the next decade; this amount, however, would almost certainly prove insufficient and reflects the US’s lack of concern for the impact such a population burden would have, especially when it is taken into consideration that only half of this amount would supposedly be paid in aid while the other half would take the form of soft loans.

Jordan is fiercely resisting – both politically and diplomatically – attempts to end the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). These attempts are led by the Trump administration with encouragement from the right-wing government in Israel. UNRWA’s continued work relieves Jordan, with its fragile budget, from a huge financial burden. In addition, the termination of UNRWA’s work means that, among other things, the enflamed “refugee ball” is put into Jordan’s court, almost exclusively.

The second threat is related to the fate of the Hashemite custodianship of Al-Aqsa Mosque and Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem. This custodianship has been in place for nearly a century and has constituted a source of religious legitimacy for the Jordanian political system. Israeli violations of these holy sites, often under the auspices of senior government, parliamentary, partisan, and security officials, have multiplied in a provocation to the Jordanian monarch, the Hashemite family, and even to the Jordanian public in general. Jordanian custodianship of the holy sites is becoming a very difficult, not to say an impossible, task.

Jordanians are increasingly worried when supposed leaks come from Israeli sources, indicating the Israeli government’s willingness to consider expanding the custodianship by incorporating into it other states such as Saudi Arabia, whose relations with Israel have recently grown, particularly since the Saudi Crown Prince assumed power four years ago. Such a scenario not only harms Jordanian-Israeli relations but also weakens relations between Riyadh and Amman.

The third threat stems from the position of the United States and Israel regarding the final solution of the Palestinian issue, which seems to include such elements as: no independent and viable Palestinian state, an entity less than a state but more than an authority, and confiscation of large parts of the West Bank following the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. A last chapter of this scenario could include the formal annexation of the Jordan Valley, the northern Dead Sea and the settlements (that is, 30% of the West Bank), as Netanyahu threatened to do during his recent campaign for reelection as Israeli prime minister.

Jordan believes that any solution to the Palestinian cause that is not based on the classically understood two-state solution not only undermines the legitimate national rights of the Palestinian people but also opens the door to undesired Jordanian roles in maintaining such a solution’s viability. There are five million Palestinians in the occupied territories, and if they do not have an independent and viable state, Jordan might well be subject to pressure from Israel, the international community, and perhaps from some Arab states to provide elements of permanence to the non-viable Palestinian entity. Here, the door may remain open for scenarios such as federation, confederation, the Jordanian option, functional sharing, etc. These are scenarios in which Jordan sees roles dictated to it by others that it does not want to play and in which it has no interest; such roles may lead to an endangerment of Jordan’s security, stability, and national identity. As previously mentioned, a demographic upheaval would take place if pressure is exerted on Jordan to naturalize the more than one million non-citizen Palestinians now residing in the kingdom; a second demographic upheaval would occur if an alternate solution to the Palestinian-Israeli issue is sought in that it would greatly exacerbate the risk to the integrity of Jordan’s social fabric.

Though Palestinians in Jordan are concerned because their rights to return and compensation would be at risk even under Clinton-era conceptions of what peace may look like, Jordanians of “East Jordanian” origin are equally or perhaps even more concerned, as they feel they would become a “minority in their homeland.” This minority may even shrink further if Jordan is forced to accept roles related to the future of Palestinians in the West Bank or what would remain of it.

The Jordanian political system is well aware of what a “deal” of this kind might entail, but the biggest challenge for Jordan is that it does not have many options to confront or undermine such a “deal,” especially given the great dependence that characterizes Amman’s relations with Washington in strategic, military, security, economic, and financial fields.

Israel Has Changed
Most Jordanians, both in decision-making institutions and as part of the Jordanian public opinion, are convinced that Israel, with which Jordan signed a peace treaty a quarter of a century ago, is no longer the same today. Indeed, much has changed: Israeli society continues to shift towards the religious and nationalist right, while the peace camp holds less than a dozen seats in the far-left wing of the Israeli Knesset.

It is true that the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty still holds a quarter of a century after it was signed by the two parties, but it is also true that the peace is very cold due to the stalemate of the peace process on the Palestinian track and the Israeli government’s provocative management of some differences and crises that arose in Jordanian-Israeli relations; examples include the incident at the Israeli Embassy in Amman and the killing of the Jordanian lawyer Raed Zuaiter at a border bridge by Israeli border guards. More important are Israel’s violations of the Hashemite custodianship of the holy sites, as well as reports that Israel is delaying in handing over the Ghomar and Baqoura areas (which Israel leased from Jordan as part of the peace treaty) after the Jordanian authorities refused to renew the lease.

The relations between the two states’ leadership “lacks chemistry,” so to speak, starting with the Israeli Mossad’s attempt to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Amman in 1997. A series of crises since then has caused King Abdullah II lose confidence in Prime Minister Netanyahu and the leaders of the right-wing government. Consequently, it is widely believed in Amman that the right-wing “ruling elite” in Israel no longer prioritizes developing relations with Jordan, that it views peace with Jordan as a one-way street, and that it pursues its policies of “Israelizing” Jerusalem, expanding settlements in the West Bank, and signaling the annexation of the Jordan Valley with indifference to the impact of such policies on Jordan’s role, status, and interests.

Amman is also following up with concern Israel’s interest in normalizing its ties with some Gulf states rather than with Jordan. Israel and these Gulf states have a common starting point in that they see Iran as the “greatest enemy;” consequently, Israel looks for common ground with these Gulf states based on this perspective. For its part, Jordan believes that this approach pushes the Palestinian cause and the kingdom’s interest in its resolution to the lowest level of regional and international priorities.

Relations between Jordan and Israel may be at their worst, despite continued activity and coordination in intelligence and security back-channels. Peace did not lead to prosperity although a quarter of a century passed since the peace agreement was signed, and peace between the two states did not bring about peace between the two peoples. On the contrary, campaigns against normalization with Israel in Jordan are gaining new supporters, even within the government and the state, while resentment toward Arabs in Israel is growing as “ultraorthodox” and nationalist forces gain further ground in Israel’s society and state.

Not surprisingly, for the first time since the assassination attempt against Khaled Meshaal, King Abdullah II and senior state officials have signaled that Jordan’s peace with Israel should not be a one-way street, and that developments on the Palestinian track affect peace between Jordan and Israel and the treaty signed by the two states. Perhaps these stances, which enjoy popular support, were not only a reaction to the threat to annex the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea to Israel, but also a Jordanian objection, voiced at the highest level, to Israel’s assumption that the Palestinian track can be isolated from peace and normalization processes between Israel on the one hand and Jordan, Egypt, and other Arab states on the other.

Jordan and the Gulf: Different Priorities
At least three Gulf states (namely, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain) view Iran as an existential threat to their security, stability, and territorial and social integrity. These states see Israel as a “potential ally” in the face of the Iranian threat. For this reason in particular, relations between these states and Israel witnessed a qualitative breakthrough in the past few years. At the same time, this rapprochement has enjoyed patronage and encouragement from the Trump administration, which has sought a Middle Eastern alliance and a so-called “Arab NATO” to be formed against Iran and perceived the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a small “detail” within the bigger picture.

Historically, Jordan has drawn strength for its relations with its Gulf neighbors from three powerful roles it has always played and used well to create balance in the relations between a small country with limited resources and wealthy neighboring states with good regional and international influence. Today, these roles are losing their relative value:

First, Jordan used its geopolitical position in the past as a buffer zone between Israel and the oil wells. This role is no longer required by most, if not all, wealthy Gulf states, which are racing to forge secret and public security, military, intelligence, and economic relations with Israel and are coordinating their efforts to win Washington’s support against Iran. Instead of secret meetings that were organized with caution in Amman and Aqaba, direct contacts and mutual visits between these states and Israel are becoming systematic, frequent, and are taking place under the eyes of the media. The Trump administration’s reliance on Saudi Arabia and the UAE to provide a regional framework for the so-called “Deal of the Century” pushed Jordan and Egypt, the two states that have long provided this framework, out as key players and weakened their regional standing.

Second, Jordan played an important security and military role in maintaining domestic Gulf security and defending the region’s states against Cold War threats and challenges (including the Yemen War, the Oman rebellion, and supporting Bahrain and Saudi Arabia). The Jordanian armed forces and security agencies also played a prominent role in building the emerging military and security organs of the Gulf states in the 1960s and 1970s. It seems, however, that this role is no longer required, as these states have been able to obtain the most advanced weaponry, training and equipment from major Western states, which in turn maintain military and security presences and bases on the grounds and territorial waters of these states.

Starting with the Second Gulf War, Jordan has opted for a more cautious policy towards Gulf crises. To begin with, it avoided participation in the Desert Storm coalition against Saddam Hussein’s regime. More recently, it provided only political and “moral” support for the “Decisive Storm,” the name given by the Saudi Crown Prince to the war in Yemen, believing that “this war is not our war,” “it is not necessary,” and that it would turn into a quagmire for everyone involved. This distance deepened the sense of mistrust between Jordan and Gulf states and added some coldness to bilateral relations between Amman and Riyadh, which has been reflected in diminished interest in supporting Jordan economically and financially.

Third, Jordan has long been known for employing soft power tools in its relations with emerging Gulf states, relying, in previous times, on skilled labor and the graduates of its most developed universities. The decline in Jordan’s educational system has coincided with an interest in the Gulf in developing national universities, hosting branches of prestigious universities and research centers from around the globe, and a localization of labor sources by Gulf states to reduce dependence on foreign workers. This shift has led to a decrease in the number of Jordanians in the Gulf and a relative decline in hard currency remittances, which in turn contributed to an increase in unemployment rates in Jordan, commonly cited as one reason for the kingdom's current economic distress. This trend has furthermore been accompanied by a decrease in Gulf economic and financial assistance to Jordan.

In conclusion, recent developments related to Jordan’s traditional roles in its relationships with the Gulf states has meant that Jordan’s standing from the perspective of Arab Gulf States has been declining and eroding in recent years. It is true that Jordan’s security and stability is still important from the perspective of these states and that Jordan is still part the “Gulf Sphere,” but it is also true that power equations and balances in Jordanian-Gulf relations are no longer the same as before.

Where to from here?
In the face of the numerous qualitative and strategic developments and transformations we outlined above, Jordan does not seem to have an alternative strategy or a comprehensive, long-term vision of what it must do to protect and maximize its interests in a changing regional and international environment which does not seem conducive thereto. Herein lies the root of the “state of uncertainty” that dominates the Jordanian scene. Nevertheless, Jordan’s foreign policy has obviously begun to adopt new tactics. These tactics, the eventual impacts of which are hard to anticipate, include the following: firstly, Jordan is diversifying its relations with regional states to overcome dependence on a certain axis or camp. Here, one can see the tangible development of Jordan’s relations with Qatar and Turkey, despite the crisis witnessed in the relations between these two states on one hand and Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other. Secondly, Jordan is also pursuing a renormalization of its ties with Iraq and Syria. It is, furthermore, preoccupied with the development of what can be described as a “third regional axis,” including both Egypt and Iraq alongside Jordan. Thirdly, the kingdom is trying to be less dependent (in energy, trade and employment) on Gulf markets. Fourthly, there is growing talk about “diversifying” Jordan’s international relations and opening up more to Russia, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa (BRICS states) and other global players without clashing with Washington and without such relations necessarily substituting Jordan’s ties with a strategic ally such as the United States. Lastly, Jordan is getting verbally tougher with Israel and is signaling unexpected choices in terms of its relations with it, including announcing Jerusalem a red line, positing three noes in the face of the so-called “Deal of the Century,” refusing to renew the lease of Ghomar and Baqoura, reviewing the gas agreement without making a final decision yet, and signaling that peace between the two states will be influenced by the consequences of Israeli policies in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

However, observers fear that such sporadic positions may not amount to a new strategy or a “Plan B” after the increasingly likely failure of “Plan A” (the “two-state solution,” a consequent and agreed solution to the refugee issue). It is the aim of this conference to provide a platform for in-depth analysis and discussion in order to advance discourse on the numerous strategic challenges and scenarios facing Jordan as a result of its rapidly changing regional and international environments.

Conference Themes:
First Theme: Jordan in a Changing Regional and International Environment
• Has Jordan’s strategic standing declined? Why and how?
• Can it restore its lead and strategic position? How and via what approach?

Second Theme: Jordan and the United States
• This is a difficult equation: How can Jordan reconcile the US standing as the largest backer, ally and supporter of Jordan, and the US policy towards the Palestinian cause with the challenges it poses to Jordan and threats it raises to its national security, social peace and national identity?
• Does Jordan have effective options and alternatives in terms of its international relations in a multi-polar world?
• Can Europe compensate for any decline in Jordanian-US relations? What about Russia, China, and emerging international players?

Third Theme: Jordan and Israel 25 Years after the Peace Treaty
• How does Jordan deal with Israel’s shift towards religious and nationalist rightwing forces?
• Is Jordanian-Israeli peace a one-way street? In terms of theories on “inseparable or separable Palestinian and Jordanian tracks,” can Israel succeed in separating the Palestinian track from the rest of peacemaking and normalization tracks with Jordan, Egypt, and the Arab world?
• Might theories about “Jordan’s security and stability is part of Israel’s security and stability” be subjected to review and reconsideration in light of profound changes in Israel’s society and state (with settlement, expansion and annexation of occupied territories being on top of any other topic in Israel’s agenda)?

Fourth Theme: Jordan and the Gulf
• How can Jordan’s strategic position be restored from the Gulf perspective? Is this a possible task?
• How will these relations develop in the medium and long term, given the decline of oil’s strategic standing in the global energy market? Can Jordan keep up with Gulf states in their direct wars and “proxy wars” with Iran?
• What aspects of Jordan’s relations with the Gulf might be reviewed and what aspects should be sustained?

Fifth Theme: Jordan and Regional Powers (Iran, Turkey)
• How should Jordan’s relations be with conflicting regional axes: Turkey and Iran and, by extrapolation, Qatar, Syria, Iraq and non-state actors supported by Ankara (the Muslim Brotherhood) or Tehran (the Houthis, Hezbollah, Popular Mobilization Forces)?
• What are the limits of these relations and where can they lead to? What are the opportunities and challenges inherent in these relations? Is the role of a “balancer” in regional relations an applicable formula?