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It’s time to recalibrate US-Jordan relations

The monarchy’s descent into worsening repression is in part because it’s an American client state awash with aid and arms.

For more than a week, Jordan has been roiled by palace intrigue. It began when its authoritarian regime arrested nearly two dozen officials under charges of coup-plotting. As part of this security operation, it ordered Prince Hamzah, half-brother to King Abdullah, to stop criticizing the government and meeting with sympathetic tribal leaders. Just a day later, Hamzah signed a letter of loyalty, and on Monday authorities declared the whole affair a misunderstanding.

Defying a media gag order, Jordanians are still speculating about this abrupt crisis. Some worry about rifts inside the Hashemite monarchy, particularly since the others rounded up in the alleged plot remain incommunicado. Most conclude such repression was merely a distraction to win over a cynical public. Particularly among disgruntled tribal communities — the monarchy’s traditional base — protests have become a regular occurrence, fueled by outrage over economic turmoil, endemic corruption, and unfulfilled pledges for democracy.

However, there is another important dynamic at play. Jordan’s descent into worsening repression is a consequence of being an American client state awash with aid and arms, one where Washington uncritically sponsors its pro-Western leadership. Throughout the crisis, both President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken personally spoke with King Abdullah, reaffirming his “steadfast leadership” in this vital strategic ally.

Absent in such actions was the renewed commitment to democracy and human rights promised by the administration. Yet, such behavior comports with how Washington has always treated Jordan, whose stability is deemed a geopolitical priority. The United States has never publicly criticized King Abdullah over his regime’s tendency to treat all forms of political dissent with censorship and arrests.

But now is the time for policy change. Early on, the Biden administration rightly vowed to recalibrate ties with Saudi Arabia in light of its autocratic abuses and regional misadventures. Yet of all American allies in the Middle East, Jordan is the closest to real danger — and also where the United States has the most leverage.

However, any American rethink must confront that Jordan has long been a pillar of U.S. regional strategy. With that status comes inherent resistance to altering foreign policy.

During the Cold War, Jordan was an anti-communist buffer state. After the Cold War, it inked a peace treaty with Israel and helped cement a new era of U.S. hegemony over the region. Under King Abdullah, Jordan facilitated the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and served as the linchpin for the multilateral coalition against ISIS. It remains a frontline party to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not least because the majority of its own population is of Palestinian origin. The recent defense treaty likewise means that future U.S. wars in the Middle East will pivot through the country.

Since King Abdullah’s ascent to power in 1999, calls within Washington to reconsider its treatment of Jordan seldom gained traction. Resistance came firstly from traditional fears that moderating any American support would weaken the monarchy, and precipitate its downfall. But paradoxically, reproducing the regime’s current approach of stifling internal dissent only further fans public opposition. Complicity with such repression, as the Biden administration has shown so far, paradoxically makes Jordan more vulnerable to instability.

Jordan’s fundamentals are worse than before the 2011-12 Arab Spring, when 6,600 protests rocked the country. Today, the economy is moving backwards, with the coronavirus wiping out what little growth existed and raising unemployment to 25 percent. Despite waning Islamist opposition, grassroots dissent within traditionally loyal tribes has exploded in recent years. Protests have become a regular feature of public life. Even Washington’s conservative think tanks, which long glorified Hashemite rule, concede that the status quo is untenable.

Yet the monarchy has no answers, apart from periodic repression and empty reform assurances. Social media platforms like Clubhouse feature Jordanian youths lambasting King Abdullah in bold, and technically forbidden, ways. Scandals regularly expose government ineptitude and inflame mass outrage.

For instance, in February, two ministers were forced to resign after flaunting coronavirus stay-at-home restrictions. In March, inexplicable oxygen shortages at a hospital killed six coronavirus patients. Indeed, that hospital fiasco may have catalyzed the current clampdown, as Prince Hamzah was warmly received when visiting the families of the deceased, in stark contrast with the king’s colder reception.

The second counterargument is that reversing more than 60 years of American sponsorship to Jordan is simply too drastic of a move. However, this is a straw-man response. Any rethinking of U.S.-Jordanian relations will aim at not overnight revolution, but gradually pushing the regime towards more productive policies.  

Herein lies where the Biden administration can make good on its Middle East commitments. It has several viable options. One is tying more of its mammoth foreign aid allotment — which has averaged nearly $1.5 billion for the last five years — to serious reforms, such as halting political repression and eliminating corruption. Grievances over these issues are prevailing themes that percolate among Jordan’s many protests and demonstrations, particularly in tribal communities.

Another option is inducing the regime to undertake democratic reforms. In June 2011, as the Arab Spring raged on, King Abdullah gave an astonishing speech that proposed democratizing Jordan into a true constitutional monarchy. That announcement briefly raised hope for change across the country. Yet little progress has been made, and the monarchy and its security services still rule with an iron fist.

Chipping away at these autocratic routines will require proactive diplomatic measures. It requires pressuring the regime whenever it reneges on its own promises, such as refusing to give its enfeebled parliament more oversight or halting its punishment of prominent critics — royal or otherwise. It means holding Jordan onto a course of reform that King Abdullah himself laid out.

Above all, it entails recognizing that the old approach is no longer viable. The recent crackdown is the latest reminder that if nothing changes, the Jordanian monarchy will lurch from perpetual crisis to crisis, and the U.S. will be left singlehandedly guaranteeing its survival.

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