Riots In Jordan Put Gulf States On Edge

Will Abdullah II be the next Arab leader to fall?

The oil-rich Gulf States - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates - are not known for easily parting with their petro-dollars. But this miserly instinct dissipates when the Sheikhdoms perceive a direct threat to the stability of their respective governments. On Sunday, the three nations led by Riyadh pledged to provide Jordan with a cash infusion of $2.5 billion to help the arid kingdom prop up its free-falling economy. Separately, the European Union announced that it would provide Jordan with $23.5 million. The hefty Gulf State bailout is testament to how seriously they view the problem.

Jordan has recently experienced a spasm of popular unrest and widespread demonstrations, sparked by tax increases and painful austerity measures implemented by King Abdullah II’s prime minister, Hani Mulki, to deal with growing debt. In 2016, cash-strapped Jordan secured a $723-million loan from the International Monetary Fund. The economic reforms instituted by PM Mulki were tied to this loan but proved to be widely unpopular. 

Jordanians watched as subsidies on basic food items were eliminated and standards of living declined while taxes increased. Paychecks got smaller while everything became more expensive. This was enough to push Jordanians over the edge. As the riots spread to every province and major town, Abdullah moved quickly to quell the unrest by firing his prime minister and reversing previously implemented tax hikes and austerity measures.

The move has ameliorated tensions and demonstrations have tapered off for now but the underlying problems highlighting the monarchy’s fragility remain. Jordan is a poor, mostly desert country that produces nothing and relies principally on handouts for its existence. Unemployment hovers at a staggering 18 percent and the national debt continues to rise. 

More ominous for the kingdom is the fact that some 70 percent of the population considers itself to be “Palestinian.” Unlike the indigenous Jordanian Bedouin, most of the Palestinians are either disloyal or noncommittal to Abdullah. In addition, the monarchy has to contend with a small but growing Salafist extremist movement, which has challenged the government’s legitimacy. Adding to the kingdom’s problems is the presence of some 650,000 Syrian refugees, which are both politically and economically burdensome.

Jordan borders two failed states; Syria to the north and Iraq to the east. Both Damascus and Baghdad receive their marching orders from the mullahs of the Islamic Republic. Teheran would want nothing more than to sow further discord in the Sunni world and harm its chief Muslim nemesis, Saudi Arabia, so it would not be surprising if the Iranians were found to be engaged in some form of behind-the-scenes mischief-making in Jordan.

Like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and much of the Arab world, Jordan is not immune to civil war. In September 1970, friction between Jordan’s Hashemite Kingdom and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which had encamped itself in Jordan along with 15,000 fighters, came to an explosive climax when Jordan’s King Hussein (Abdullah II’s father) unleashed his Bedouin army on the PLO. 

In what has since been referred to by the Palestinians as “Black September,” The PLO fought back tenaciously while Syrian armored forces, in an effort to help the PLO, invaded Jordan from the north. Jordan was teetering and it looked as though there was a real possibility that the monarchy would fall. At the request of the United States, the Israelis intervened on behalf of Hussein and flew a number of reconnaissance flights over the Syrian positions making it clear to the Syrians that Israel would not stand idly by in the face of Syrian aggression against Jordan. The Syrians got the message and promptly withdrew allowing Hussein’s Bedouin army to concentrate its efforts on the Palestinians. The Jordanians accomplished their goals with ruthless efficiency, killing thousands of Palestinians, civilians as well as combatants. 

There are those who believe that Israel’s intervention on behalf of Jordan was a colossal mistake. The fall of King Hussein, they argue, would have resulted in the creation of a Palestinian state in eastern Palestine thereby solving the “Palestinian question.” Regardless, the Black September clashes proved that the monarchy was vulnerable.

The so-called Arab Spring, which began in 2010 and raged through the Arab world like wildfire, sparked regime change and internecine conflict throughout the Mideast. Governments in Tunisia and Egypt were overthrown while Libya, Syria and Yemen were plunged into civil war (Iraq’s internecine conflict preceded the Arab Spring). 

Though Jordan was largely spared the chaos which gripped its neighbors, the Arab Spring exposed vulnerabilities inherent in Arab societies, which made the kingdom equally prone to instability. This includes lack of democratic institutions, rampant corruption and venality and crucially, a tendency to revert to religious extremism, ethnic hatred and tribalism. 

Jordan may have dodged the proverbial bullet for now but inherent flaws in its system of government coupled with ongoing economic woes, a large and largely disloyal Palestinian population, strains imposed by Syrian refugees along with a tendency to revert to religious fundamentalism, mean that the monarchy’s years may be numbered. The Gulf States are cognizant of this, hence their willingness to dig deep into their coffers to sustain a fellow Sunni ally.