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Foreign Policy Garvan Walshe

Garvan Walshe: The strange survival of Jordan's King Abdullah

Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008. Follow Garvan on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-08-12 at 17.50.08Jordan was supposed to be in trouble. Its King, concluded the Economist, was “as beleaguered as ever.” After Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, Jordan would surely be the next old-style regime to fall.  Its survival, like the inactivity of the dog referred to by Sherlock Holmes in the Silver Blaze, is most curious.

Amman, ruled by an absolute monarchy from an Arabian dynasty seems ripe for political crisis. Strictly speaking, the Hashemites claim to run a constitutional regime, but its charter invests the King with absolute authority, while the elected parliament is essentially for show. Where Walter Bagehot described the governing arrangements of Victorian Britain as ones where the “dignified” monarchy gave lustre to the “efficient” parliamentary administration, in Jordan the roles are reversed.

A majority of its population is Palestinian, yet state institutions remain firmly in the hands of the indigenous minority that crushed a Palestinian uprising in 1970.  With a national income per head just shy of $5,000, Jordan is classified as an “upper middle-income country,” but its growth rate has lagged its peers since 2004.  Youth unemployment stands at 30 per cent.  And, the Hashemite monarchy has refused to distract its people with Arab nationalist populism, choosing instead to build a solid security relationship with the West, and Israel. If absorbing Palestinian refugees was not enough, it has also had to host hundreds of thousands more who have fled wars first in Iraq and now Syria.  It’s hardly surprising that the International Crisis Group warned that should the regime give in to the “temptation...to wait and to postpone” it “could portend a new chapter in the Arab uprisings’ unfolding drama.”

Yet, waiting and postponing is precisely what the King has done. The elections were managed in a manner of which Elbridge Gerry would have approved. His allies maintained control of the toothless parliament. A popular theory of his quandary had been doing the rounds: that as the Islamists of the Islamic Action Front (as Jordan’s branch of the Muslim Broterhood is known) got more powerful, they would force the king to clip the wings of the indigenous East Bankers who dominate the state’s military and security agencies, undermining his own power base and forcing him to grant reforms.

But the once rampant Brotherhood-style Islamists are now very much on the back foot. Libya’s were defeated in elections. Tunisia’s are embroiled (article in Spanish) in a constitutional crisis, following the assassination of Mohammed Brahmi, a secular leader the opposition accuses the Government of failing to protect. Hamas were first militarily outwitted by Israel’s anti-missile defences, and then diplomatically outmaneuvered by Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Meanwhile, Mohamed Morsi has been deposed and moulders under arrest together with other leaders of Egypt’s Brotherhood, its sit-ins now subject to the largest kettling operation ever assembled. The IAF itself has  apparently split.

Jordan has become a kind of enchanted winter kingdom, immune to the Arab Spring’s thaw. To domestic opponents, or foreigners pressing for reform, King Abdullah just needs to point to his neighbours, for by the standards of the region he can claim to preside over a relatively stable kind of autocracy. Though hardly models of democratic best practice (few other prisoners will share Abu Qatada’s guarantees against torture), his security forces are not as brutal as those across run from Damascus. Corruption may be common, yet Transparency Intentional lists Jordan as cleaner than four members of the EU. Some worry, it seems, that Abdullah might not be tough enough.

More than that, his is a useful kind of enchanted kingdom. His realm hosts American soldiers training on the Syrian border; transmits funds from the Gulf to Syrian refugees that find their way to the rebels; and helps Israel locate advanced Russian weaponry on the way to Syria. If Bashar Assad plays C.S. Lewis’s evil White Queen, is Abdullah more like the Empress from the Never Ending Story, clinging to a kind of government that will only last as long as the outside world is willing to believe in it - that is, pay its way?


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