Bordering Israel, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Jordan is sometimes overlooked by the media and policy experts because of its peace treaty with Israel, its alliance with the United States, and its relatively liberal socio-economic system.
Underneath this façade of stability, however, is a country plagued by a number of economic and social issues that threaten to plunge it into the chaos of the “Arab Spring” upheavals.
“If…there is to be a new country in play [in the Arab Spring], it is most likely Jordan,” said Dr. Daniel Pipes, president and founder of the Middle East Forum.
Jordan was established by Great Britain from the original Palestine Mandate. In return for the support of Ali bin Hussein, leader of the Hashemite tribe from the cities of Mecca and Medina, during the British-led Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the Brits installed his sons, Abdullah and Faisal, as kings of British-controlled Transjordan (later Jordan) and Iraq.
But when Transjordan was formed in 1922, the country was largely desolate, populated by Bedouin or “East Bank” tribes. With British support, King Abdullah formed a close alliance with those tribes, an alliance that became the foundation of the modern state of Jordan.
According to Professor Asher Susser, a senior fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, it is this history that has given Jordan’s monarchy more ethnic stability and legitimacy than some of its neighbors, like Syria, that have been ravaged by the Arab Spring.
“First of all the country in religious terms has a relatively homogenous population, unlike neighboring countries like Syria, Iraq and Lebanon that are deeply divided on a sectarian basis,” said Susser. And the Jordanian monarchy “has a certain level of legitimacy as descendants from the Prophet Muhammad. Also, the idea of hereditary rule is something that is quite customary in the Middle East. These people have more legitimacy than military or republican regimes.”
Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy has been able to maintain power for nearly a century while governments in Egypt, Iraq and Syria have fallen numerous times. The stability has persisted despite the large influx of Palestinian refugees from various Arab-Israeli wars, including Jordan’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and east Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967.
Since then, the Palestinian situation has festered as a perplexing problem for Jordan’s monarchy. Unlike many neighboring Arab countries, Jordan has granted citizenship and rights to its Palestinian community. But the Palestinians have long been treated as second-class citizens and viewed with suspicion by Jordan’s tribal community, who control many important state institutions, including the military and domestic security forces.
Tensions between Jordan’s native East Bank tribal community and the urban Palestinian community have been exacerbated by economic and political reforms undertaken by King Abdullah over the past decade, as well as the instability of the Arab Spring, which has plunged Syria into chaos and resulted in a flood of Syrian refugees into Jordan.
“[The] East Bank elite relied on the government for jobs and wealth, while the Palestinians have long been disenfranchised from this system,” said Susser. “However, ironically, the Palestinians’ wealth is growing from private sector and the economic reforms. This has caused great resentment from East Bankers, many of whom feel Abdullah lacks the legitimacy of his father King Hussein. He is less trusted among East Bankers.”
The deterioration of support for the monarchy among the traditionally stalwart East Bank tribal community disturbs Pipes as well.
“The problem, from the point of view of the monarchy, is more the tribes than the Palestinians, who simply are not disruptive in the way they were in the past,” Pipes said.
The growing distrust among the East Bank tribes, coupled with an emboldened Islamist Muslim Brotherhood opposition (which draws considerable support from the Palestinian community), presents one of the most difficult challenges facing the monarchy.
Jordan faced widespread protests in November 2012 over cuts to fuel subsidies as part of a loan program from the International Monetary Fund. Many analysts at the time speculated that this would lead to a popular revolt. But after a relatively benign government crackdown (by Middle East standards), the protests quickly dissipated.
The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, boycotted Jordan’s most recent elections and continues to trouble the regime. But Susser pointed out that the Muslim Brotherhood’s initial appeal, which followed the first Arab Spring protests, has declined in Jordan due to the current chaos in Egypt and Syria.