Jordan at the Edge

Briefing by David Schenker

Middle East Forum

September 12, 2017

The Arab world's fifth poorest country, Jordan has only a quarter of its adult population gainfully employed. Its accumulated debt represents nearly 100% of GDP and the Jordanian economy has been seriously afflicted by the arrival of 1.4 million Syrian refugees over the past few years. This, however, has not generated an overt backlash against the refugees by the indigenous population, partly because the 2015-16 terror attacks in the kingdom were perpetrated by homegrown extremists rather than by incoming refugees.

Not only have those attacks raised questions about the effectiveness of the Jordanian security forces, but the perpetrators belonging to tribes that constitute the mainstay of the regime has been a major source of concern for King Abdullah, not least since an estimated 2,500-3,000 Jordanians have joined ISIS or al-Qaeda. And while Jordan managed to prevent the conflict's spillover into its territory by establishing a de-facto buffer zone along its border with Syria, the recent U.S.-Russian ceasefire agreement has kindled fears in Amman that Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed Shiite militias will destabilize the kingdom's northern border.

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King Abdullah (left, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in January 2014) has sought to balance Jordan's vital strategic relationship with Israel with the staunchly anti-Israeli views of his subjects.

Another security concern has been the steep deterioration in Jordanian-Israeli relations as a result of the recent Temple Mount crisis. Israel's enhanced security measures on the Temple Mount and the killing of a Jordanian assailant (and an innocent bystander) by an Israeli guard at the Amman embassy both prompted public outrage. With the embassy temporarily closed and its staff relocated to Israel, the king exploited the crisis to pressure Israel for concessions on Temple Mount.

These tensions notwithstanding, there is quiet understanding in Jerusalem for Abdullah's need to strike a delicate balance between his awareness of the importance of Jordan's strategic relationship with Israel (not to mention its planned multi-billion-dollar import of Israeli natural gas) and the need to appease his staunchly anti-Israeli (and anti-American) subjects. From the Israeli perspective, the reopening of the Amman embassy is vital not only for normalizing the bilateral relationship with Jordan, but for consolidating the newly developed collaboration with the Gulf states against resurgent Iran, in which the Amman embassy has apparently served as an important backchannel.