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Jordanian King seeks, finds renewed ally in Biden visit

He needs all the friends he can get, with restiveness in the palace and on the Jordanian street, and a greater power struggle in the Middle East.

Analysis | Middle East

Seventy years ago on July 20, 1951 King Abdallah was assassinated in Jerusalem. Just yesterday, his great-grandson King Abdallah bin Hussein was the first Arab leader to meet President Joe Biden in the Oval Office. The summit was a success for Jordan and the Biden administration — but the public summary of their meeting is silent on one of the most important issues they surely discussed: the falling out with his half-brother Prince Hamzah and the potential role of Saudi Arabia in it.

The King and Queen Rania have spent the last three weeks in the United States attempting to restore relations damaged by the Trump administration. It’s been a good foreign policy year for Jordan: Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, ignored the king; they barely spoke for two years. Naftali Bennet, the new Israeli Prime Minister, made his first foreign trip to Amman earlier this month. Abdallah hadn’t spoken to his predecessor, Bibi Netanyahu, for years, either.

The White House read-out of the meeting highlights the long-standing security relationship, reaffirming American support for Jordan. “You have always been there, and we will always be there for Jordan,” Biden said during an Oval Office appearance with Abdallah and his son, Crown Prince Hussein.

Jordan is the second largest recipient of American assistance in the world behind Israel at $1.5 billion annually. But that aid does not make Jordan prosperous. A quarter of Jordanians are unemployed. Tourism to Petra has slowed enormously because of the pandemic, and  hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and Iraq are in the country.

Abdallah faced an unprecedented crisis this spring. A conspiracy to destabilize the country, remove the king, and place Prince Hamzah (King Hussein’s son with Queen Noor) on the throne was reportedly uncovered by the security service. By all accounts, it was an inept plot lacking support in the military with no coherent mechanism to change monarchs.  

But it reflects unease over the economy and the lack of political reform. Abdallah has appointed a commission to recommend reforms: it remains to be seen if anything changes. The two alleged masterminds of the conspiracy have been sentenced to 15 years in prison, and Hamzah is under close scrutiny. Biden was quick to call Abdallah last spring when the plot was confirmed by CIA Director Bill Burns — that call was a strong vote of American support for the king.

Undoubtedly the two discussed the role of Saudi Arabia in encouraging the conspiracy during their visit Monday. If that’s true, it is a clear sign that Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman remains a reckless danger to American interests and allies in the region. But neither Amman nor Washington wants a public falling out with Riyadh.  Jordan fears retaliation against its emigre workers; Biden is seemingly intimidated by MBS.

The meeting this week comes as much of the administration’s Middle East policy is struggling.  The effort to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to rein in Iran’s nuclear weapons program is right now stalled. Tehran has already ruled out a dialogue about curbing its missile programs. Unlike many other states, Jordan supported the nuclear deal, and supports engagement with Tehran.

The diplomatic effort to end the war in Yemen, an early major priority for the president, is also stalled. Major battles continue as does the Saudi blockade of Houthi controlled northern Yemen — the blockade being the principle cause of the horrendous humanitarian crisis. Jordan is actively pressing for a cease fire and can help.

Jordan wants Biden to do more on the Palestinian issue. Biden has reaffirmed his commitment to the two-state solution but is not inclined to make peacemaking a priority. Abdallah is well aware of the lack of appetite in Washington for Arab-Israeli deal making.

At the time of King Abdallah's assassination in 1951, few expected the Hashemite monarchy would last a decade. Abdallah II faces serious challenges ahead, requiring opening the political space to control the dissatisfaction Hamzah underscores but it is clear from yesterday’s meeting and signs from the Biden administration that he can count on American support.

King Abdullah of Jordan speaks with U.S. President Joe Biden during a bilateral meeting inside the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, July 19, 2021. CNP/INSTARimages/Cover Images
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