Photo: Gevorg Ghazaryan
King Abdullah’s White House visit is a chance to reset US-Jordan relations

Long-standing ties between the two countries frayed significantly under Trump.

Jordan’s King Abdullah will be the first Arab leader to meet with Joe Biden, as the president host the king on July 19 at the White House, signalling that the strained ties between the two countries during the Trump era are formally coming to an end.  

While Abdullah’s relationship with Biden as a senator and vice president was steady and substantive, Jordan’s strong ties with the United States are nearly as old as the monarchy itself. Since 1951, the United States has been the largest single provider of bilateral aid to the kingdom as its strategic location tends to serve as a stable buffer. Following the eruption of the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts, Jordan’s regional role became even more crucial, hosting  approximately 3,000 U.S. troops as a staging ground in the campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

However, the relationship became uneasy under former President Donald Trump’s administration. While U.S. aid to Jordan — which has been experiencing increased economic turmoil over the past several years — endured, and the strategic aspects of the ties were also unaffected, the kingdom’s regional role was marginalized.

In addition to undermining its traditional diplomatic role in the Middle East peace process, Trump’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which marked a shift from the traditional U.S. stance on the issue, left Amman in a difficult position. Trump made decisions regarding the conflict — such as moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and recognizing the city as the capital of Israel — which not only frustrated Amman, but also concerned Jordan about their implications for the kingdom.

The Trump administration’s step to cut off aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency also created difficulties for Jordan. While the decision would have affected 2.2 million Palestinian refugees in the kingdom who are registered with UNRWA, it also left Amman searching for alternative funding sources.

The Trump administration’s peace vision for the Middle East, which was released last year, would have left Jordan facing long-term obstacles as well. After the Palestinians, Jordan would have been the first country to suffer the consequences of the plan, as it would have meant the collapse of the two-state solution for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, if the two-state solution collapses, Jordan could face geographic, demographic, and security-related threats. The Trump vision also lacked a clear identification of Jordan’s historic role as the Custodian of the Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, which is a source of the monarchy’s legitimacy.

On the heads-of-states level, there was increasingly limited communication between the Jordanian monarch, King Abdullah II, and President Trump. While Abdullah met Trump four times in person during 2017 and once in June 2018, they never met again since, which is an unusual dynamic between the two countries’ leaders.

That’s perhaps why Amman appeared most content among Middle East leaders sighed in relief that Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election. Unlike Trump and members of his team, with whom the Jordanian monarch spent time to get to know initially, the king knows Biden and has a close relationship with him. Biden visited the kingdom often while he was a senator and then vice president, and stopped in Amman frequently when he travelled to or from Baghdad. For Jordan, Biden’s election provided the kingdom with an opportunity to regain its regional role.

The Jordanian monarch was the first Arab leader to speak with Biden following the latter’s election victory. During the call, Biden said he hoped to cooperate in supporting a two-state solution.

The king’s upcoming White House visit offers an opportunity to address the unease that existed in the Amman-Washington ties under Trump. “In the pre-Trump days, Jordan generally enjoyed priority over other Arab states in US Mideast diplomacy,” retired Ambassador Patrick Theros, who previously served as deputy chief of mission and political officer in Amman, told me. “Trump broke the norm by threatening to undermine the Hashemite responsibility for the Holy Places in Jerusalem. Biden is trying to restore it.”

“Certainly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is going to be on the table. The Jordan-Israel ties will be discussed too, especially that the new Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, will be visiting Washington DC soon,” Osama al-Sharif, a veteran Jordanian journalist and political commentator, told me. “During Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure as prime minister, the Jordan-Israel ties were at their lowest point. Now there is an opportunity to improve the Amman-Tel Aviv relations.”

As Jordan-Israel tensions increased over the past several years, the Jordanian monarch is believed to have refused to take calls from Netanyahu. In November 2019, King Abdullah II said explicitly, “The Jordanian-Israeli relationship is at an all-time low.” However, there have been signs recently, which indicate that Jordan-Israel tensions are alleviating. On July 10, the new Israeli president, Isaac Herzog, spoke with King Abdullah II, who “stressed the importance of working towards a just and comprehensive peace” between Israel and the Palestinians “on the basis of the two-state solution,” according to Jordan’s state-run Petra news agency. On his part, Herzog tweeted that he stressed “the importance of the strategic relations between our countries.”

The phone call between the two leaders came two days after the Israeli Foreign Minister, Yair Lapid, met his Jordanian counterpart, Ayman Safadi, on the Jordanian side of the Allenby Bridge. In the meeting, Israel agreed to supply Jordan with 50 million cubic meters of water, which marks a dramatic increase. The call between the king and Herzog came also soon after a reportedly secret visit that Bennet made to Amman, where he met the Jordanian monarch.

Apart from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Amman-Tel Aviv ties, there are other issues that are also expected to take place in the talks between King Abdullah and President Biden. “The U.S.-Jordan strategic relations can also be seen as another point of discussion. The United States recently shifted army basing from Qatar to Jordan. While there may not be a public announcement about this, it is something that will be discussed,” al-Sharif noted. “Syria is another topic that will be on the table too. Jordan has an important relationship with Syria, especially southern Syria. Behind the closed doors, the king will seek an American exemption from the Caesar Act, so the kingdom can trade normally with Syria. If he gets this exemption, that would be the king’s most significant achievement on the ground from his visit to the U.S. The issue of the Syrian refugees will also be discussed. The kingdom believes that the aid it gets to support the Syrian refugees is insufficient. Thus, Jordan will be seeking an increase on this matter.”

Indeed, the Caesar Act hurt Jordan economically. The kingdom hosts nearly 1.4 million refugees who fled from the Syrian war. While the Biden administration is still developing its policy on Syria, the kingdom hopes for a more coherent approach to the conflict, as the Jordanian monarch is believed to have been frustrated with President Barack Obama’s hands-off approach to the crisis.

“From the U.S. side, it is expected that the king will be privately advised to carry out some reforms in the kingdom. Washington also wants Amman to support the Iraqi government to minimise the Iran-backed militias’ influence. Publicly, the U.S. will hail Jordan’s role in counterterrorism,” al-Sharif said. “Jordan will come out from this visit as the U.S.’s closest regional partner after Israel.”

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