Abdullah’s Throne Is Solid, but Does Nothing to Console Broke Jordanians

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Jordanians protesting soaring fuel prices don’t distinguish between the severe economic crisis and the widespread corruption – and the king’s foreign policy on the U.S. and Israel

 

A not-too-scintillating cartoon published on the Jordanian website Al-Raed shows someone talking on the phone with a friend who is visiting Amman. “Welcome, you light up the city. I have to see you; we’ll have coffee and talk,” he says, his face aglow.

 

“It’s not worth it,” his friend replies. “Two hours in traffic and five dinars for gas so I can see you and have coffee. Forget it, let’s visit by Zoom.”

Despite its crudeness, this cartoon contained all the elements of the harsh criticism Jordanians have aimed at the government over the last three years – and even more so at the royal palace. Traffic jams are nothing new in Amman, particularly after all the wasteful years when people took out very cheap loans to buy houses, cars, appliances and cell phones – until they weren’t able to repay them and their bank debt piled up.

According to data released in May, more than 300,000 Jordanians have defaulted on their loans and are liable for prosecution. If convicted, they could spend months in jail, depending on the size of the debt.

The government decided that those with a debt that does not exceed seven thousand dollars will not go to prison, provided they reach an acceptable settlement with the banks, but most small borrowers will have difficulty meeting even the lenient conditions of payment arrangements.

Gas prices have surged almost 10 percent since December 1, and a liter of gas now costs $1.25. That’s just over half its price in Israel – but Jordan’s minimum wage is around $360 a month, compared to $1,600 across the border.

The rise in gas prices is a particularly sensitive issue, and Prime Minister Bisher Al-Khasawneh knew he would have trouble getting through it without a reaction. First, he came under a blistering verbal assault in the parliament, which demanded that he freeze the increase due to the approaching winter – a time when citizens spend more on electricity and fuel for heating.

“The government has no money to fund the gas subsidies,” Al-Khasawneh tried to explain. Jordan’s national debt totals some $41 billion, which amounts to 117 percent of its gross domestic product, and it spent $700 million on gas subsidies just in this year alone.

But members of parliament were unconvinced and warned that the government was pushing people into the streets and provoking developments that could “threaten the public order.” The furious Al-Khasawneh stormed out of the hall, but a few days later, he had to deal with a crisis that threatened the government’s stability.

Truck and taxi drivers decided to go on strike until gas prices were reduced. Then came demonstrations in which protesters clashed with the security forces, especially in the Maan district, but also in the north, near the city of Irbid.

The climax came a week ago, when Col. Abdul Razzaq Al Dalabeh, Maan’s deputy police chief, was shot and killed. The leaders of his large tribe, the Bani Hassan, announced that they were giving the government three days to find the gunman, and if it failed, they would order the tribe’s 12 members of parliament to quit the governing coalition.

This step could have caused a deep rift between the government and all the country’s tribes, especially the southern ones. And that would have far-reaching ramifications for the delicate fabric that maintains the country’s stability and the traditional “blood brotherhood” between the royal family and the tribes, most of whose male members serve in the army.

King Abdullah immediately sent forces to the city of Maan to catch the gunman. Three officers were killed in this operation, as was the gunman, who was described as a member of a radical Islamist organization.

The funeral of a murdered police officer this week.
The funeral of a murdered police officer this week.Credit:  AFP

Afterward, the government announced that it would cut gas prices early next year and also increased the reimbursement workers receive for travel expenses. That ended most of the demonstrations, though small-scale protests continued in Maan.

The recent clashes aren’t just a result of rising prices. Many factors brought Jordanians into the streets, including the high unemployment rate – officially 20 percent, but higher in reality, and as much as 40 or 50- percent among young people.

People are suffering from the lack of economic horizons, a depleted state budget of which around 75 percent is earmarked for salaries, the constant need to scrounge around for grants and loans and widespread corruption. All this has created deep, frustrating economic insecurity.

Nor were these clashes the first to erupt over economic issues in Jordan. In January 2018, there were mass demonstrations against a new tax law in most Jordanian cities, and many protesters clashed with the security services.

Later, the government decided to raise gas prices in response to the International Monetary Fund’s demands for structural reforms to the economy and subsidy reductions. Then, too, there was international anxiety over an erosion of the royal family’s standing and fear that the kingdom might fall apart.

After that came the coronavirus, which made the economic, employment and tourism situations even worse. Jordan was forced to borrow money from international financial institutions, as well as from the Gulf States. In 2018, the latter promised $2.5 billion in aid, spread out over five years.

The case of Prince Hamzah, a son of the former King Hussein and half-brother to Abdullah, didn’t add to the kingdom’s health. Hamzah was arrested about a year ago on suspicion of plotting a coup against the royal palace and put under house arrest. He apologized, ostensibly reconciled with the king and even gave up his royal title, but the suspicions didn’t go away.

The Saudis’ ties to Hamzah and his alleged co-conspirator, Bassem Awadallah – a former senior aide to King Abdullah who later served as an adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – raised suspicions that Saudi Arabia was involved in the affair. Riyadh denied this, but there is still no love lost between the two countries’ leaders.

These days, Arab media is feasting on the fact that the Saudi ambassador to Jordan made an effort to visit the mourning tent that the Hassan tribe put up in honor of the deceased officer. However, for some reason, no official statement of support for King Abdullah was released on the ambassador’s part – or from the Saudi royal court.

 

Leaders at the conference for Iraq support this week.
Leaders at the conference for Iraq support this week.

This week, a conference on supporting Iraq was held in Jordan, at the initiative of King Abdullah, with the participation of 12 countries. The king very much wanted for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to honor the conference with his attendance – alongside French President Emmanuel Macron, Qatari ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. But Prince Mohammed instead made do with sending his foreign minister, Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, a move which some saw as a sign of the chill that characterizes ties between the two kingdoms.

There are many reasons for the cold relations between Prince Mohammed and King Abdullah, including Jordan’s refusal to join the Saudi-led coalition in the war in Yemen; its rejection of granting Riyadh permission to operate planes from inside its territory against Syria in the initial period of the civil war there; and the relationship that developed between Amman and Doha when Qatar was under a blockade and boycott imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt from 2017 through 2021.

But it seems the most incendiary bomb was set off when Saudi Arabia promoted then-President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” peace plans. Jordan was swept into the margins and was almost not even consulted on the matter – but was required, according to the plan, to absorb millions of Palestinian refugees as part of the solution to the refugee problem in return for generous economic aid. Jordan viewed the deal as a plan to eliminate the country – but even before that, Amman discovered that Riyadh was trying to replace it as custodian of the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem, and suspected that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had supported these Saudi ambitions.

Now, when Netanyahu is singing the praises of the Saudis and presents normalization not only as a vision, but as a real possibility, Jordan once again fears that it will be the one to pay the price for this Israeli-Saudi brotherly love. The abysmal relations between Netanyahu and King Abdullah are nothing new, despite the recent telephone call in which the king congratulated Netanyahu on his election victory. Diplomatic protocol is one thing, but personal relationships are something else entirely – and Abdullah is, by nature, a pragmatic person.

King Abdullah does not intend to comment on the composition of the new Netanyahu government, and similar to President Joe Biden, he will wait “vigilantly and suspiciously” to see how Netanyahu will act on matters concerning Jordan, such as the Temple Mount, settlement construction and the treatment of the Palestinians, Jordanian sources told Haaretz. The warm relationship between King Abdullah and Biden – thanks to which Jordan will receive $1.45 billion in aid a year for the next five years – and the positive attitude Biden shows toward the Palestinians as Washington’s relations with Riyadh have enter their winter phase, grant King Abdullah the feeling of international support he needs – at least for now.

Abdullah is highly respected abroad, not just in the United States, but also in France, Germany and Britain. But international backing – as strong as it may be – cannot replace the acceptance and loyalty of the Bedouin tribes in his own kingdom, on whom the backbone of the king’s rule and army rests.

This week, the Arabic language news website Khaberni published an article by Jordanian commentator Awad al-Malahama which harshly criticized the government. The author wrote: “The unfortunate thing is that the citizen sees how those responsible for managing the country’s affairs are conspiring against him. They connect with foreign organizations and represent a danger to the country… They bind the state in conspiratorial agreements with the Americans to sully the purity of the land by building… American bases, when the public does not even know who enters and who leaves them, and whether there are Zionists among them or not.”

It is unclear where al-Malahama determined this from, but the spirit of things is not foreign to anyone who follows social media in Jordan. The criticism against the royal house and against the Jordanian government does not distinguish between economic difficulties, managerial failures and deep corruption – and the king’s foreign policy, mostly concerning the country’s relations with Israel and the United States. Nevertheless, when concern over the kingdom’s stability is on the rise, it would be best to remember that over his 23 years of rule, King Abdullah has learned wisely how to successfully evade the political and diplomatic explosive traps laid for him and preserve the unity of his kingdom.

Haaretz

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