In a turn of fortune for Jordanian King Abdullah II, who has been facing a series of national and external crises, the 59-year-old monarch will become the first Arab leader to meet with the President of the States United, Joe Biden, when he visits the White House on Monday.
A strong ally of the United States, the king has ruled Jordan for the past 21 years, but has had difficult relations with Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, who believed he was alienating his country from regional developments.
“There was no warm relationship between Trump and the king,” he told Al Jazeera Saud al-Sharafat, a former brigadier general of Jordan’s Directorate General of Intelligence.
“[Jordan’s] political leaders felt [Trump] he was totally neglecting the Hashemite dynasty. “
In 2017 the king told Trump his decision recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel would have “dangerous repercussions on the stability and security of the region,” according to a statement from the palace.
Although Jordan established full relations with Israel in 1994, the king also opposed this offers the Trump administration intermediate in 2020 with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Morocco establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.
Analysts say the Trump administration’s figures saw the king as an obstacle to new deals.
The king expects a better relationship with Biden.
“Jordan will look at a friend of Joe Biden,” Amman-based political analyst Osama al-Sharif told Al Jazeera.
The Biden administration has said it will not move the U.S. embassy to Tel Aviv, but it will reopens its consulate general in Jerusalem, re-establishing ties with the Palestinians.
“The president will publicly acknowledge the special role of the Hashemites in East Jerusalem and restore Jordan’s role as a key interlocutor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” al-Sharif said.
“This visit puts the wind in the sails of the king who has been under a lot of pressure,” Natasha Hall, a senior member of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Al Jazeera.
In April, Jordan was shaken by one sedition plot which the authorities claim was intended to oust the monarch. Recently, a distant relative of the king and former senior adviser were sentenced to 15 years in prison for their role in the conspiracy to replace the king with his half-brother, Prince Hamzah bin al-Hussein.
Prince Hamzah was arrested at home in April and has since pledged allegiance to his brother, but not before posting videos calling for rampant corruption, a breach of governance and a lack of political freedom in the kingdom.
Complaints involving foreign powers or knowledge of the plot exposed tensions between Jordan and his ally, Saudi Arabia.
As head of the Hashemite royal family, King Abdullah is the official guardian of the Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, which Jordan ruled until its defeat by Israel in the 1967 war.
Nearly half of Jordan’s 10.6 million population is of Palestinian origin and many Jordanians have strong family ties across the border into the West Bank.
As the king prepares to visit the White House, Abdullah not only overtook Trump, but also his close ally, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he would have maintained an antagonistic relationship.
Before leaving for his trip to the United States, King Abdullah secretly met with new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet in Amman, according to various Israeli media reports. Coinciding with this meeting, the two foreign ministers of the countries agreed on an agreement that was Israel doubles its water sales in the resource-poor kingdom and allow for an increase in Jordanian exports to the West Bank.
While the palace’s intrigue and neighboring rivalries have gained much international attention, the king also faces an increase in discontent at home over corruption and the stagnant economy.
“The economy will top the discussion list,” Sharafat said. “We are in a very bad situation where all aspects of life have been affected by the economic crisis.”
Jordan’s economy has deteriorated over several years. Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita has declined more or less since 2009.
The economy simply does not grow fast enough to create enough jobs for the population to swell. Jordan has one of the lowest official labor force participation rates in the world. Legions of workers work in the informal economy, where they have no job security and benefits.
The pandemic has only made these economic challenges worse, crushing tourism, which accounts for 20 percent of GDP, and launching Gulf remittances after oil prices crashed in 2020. Towards the last quarter of last year, unemployment reached 24.7 percent.
Jordan is also facing an influx of refugees from neighboring conflicts, which hosts about 1.3 million Syrians from its war-torn neighbor.
Foreign aid is crucial to support the country. The United States is Jordan’s largest donor and contributes more than $ 1.5 billion by 2020. The level of US aid exceeds the amount provided to Egypt, another U.S. ally in the region with a population ten times the size of the United States. size of Jordan.
The king is expected to seek more support, but some analysts say there are limits to how much more the U.S. will provide. Even with relations tensions under the Trump administration, the country received an increase in aid in 2018: an additional $ 1.3 billion in five years.
“I do not see much hope for military and economic assistance. We have really achieved the maximum in terms of assistance we could receive from the US, ”Oreib Rantawi, director of the Al Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman, told Al Jazeera.
Pressure to reform
Many ordinary Jordanians say the country is plagued by high levels of corruption that have seeped into almost every aspect of life. And while external shocks have undoubtedly weighed on the economy, it has bigger structural problems to deal with.
The social contract that maintains stability in the resource-poor kingdom revolves around a broad patronage system in which Jordanian tribes support the Hashemite monarchy and, in return, are provided with public sector wages.
Even with measures taken to address public spending as part of its IMF loans, Jordan’s 2021 budget demonstrates the system’s roots. This year, 65 percent of total state spending is spent on public sector wages and pensions and 17 percent is spent on growing debt.
Hall said a possible discussion between Jordan and the Biden administration could try to link aid to political reform in a country that recently included the Freedom House index from “partially free” to “not free.”
“I don’t think it’s a confrontational approach, it will be more friend-to-friend,” he said of Washington’s possible efforts to get Jordan to address the recently stalled political reforms.
Following the sedition plot, King Abdullah appointed a 92-member reform committee, but its scope was limited to the country’s electoral laws and many critics say it is a half-hearted attempt by the government to boost talks. significant changes along the way.
“The current system is not sustainable,” Sharafat said, adding, “It may not be in the public eye, but I think the king will hear criticism from DC about the way things are handled internally.”
Rantawi said the Biden administration’s focus on human rights offers the kingdom’s reformers a chance, but stresses the need for genuine efforts.
“It shouldn’t be just to please the newcomer to Washington DC. It is our duty and it is in Jordan’s own interest to enact systemic democratic reforms, “he said.
Complaints about economic and political issues are likely to continue to affect Jordan as the U.S. focus shifts to terrorism and Washington reassesses its commitments to the region to address threats from the great powers of China and Russia.
While the last few months have seemed bleak for Jordan, the changes that are rocking the region also offer opportunities. King Abdullah II met in Baghdad with his Egyptian and Iraqi counterparts this month, while the three countries want to deepen economic and security cooperation.
“I think the U.S. will look for reliable agents to handle some files in the region and I see that Jordan is gaining more importance for the United States,” Rantawi said.
Jordan’s challenge will be to take advantage of its stability and the confidence that Western states have in it to create more opportunities for its people. If it can, the Hashemite monarchy known for its permanent power can find its solid foundation in the new Middle East.