International attention over the Arab uprisings has been naturally drawn in recent weeks to Egypt and especially Syria. Yet, Jordan is clearly the Arab state whose internal stability affects Israel’s security most directly. From a purely geographic standpoint, Israel’s border with Jordan is its longest international boundary. King Abdullah has managed to assure his kingdom’s security and avoid the kind of internal disruptions that have afflicted most of his neighbors though he had to deal with a wave of protests in the spring of 2011. The Jordanian protests were analyzed several months ago in a study by the International Crisis Group.
What was striking was the fact that these did not only involve Jordanians of Palestinian origin but also East Bank Jordanian tribes that had always been one of the main pillars of support for the Hashemite throne. A process of alienation among some of this tribal population in Jordan has been going on for several decades. Under King Hussein, many East Bank Jordanians were rewarded for their loyalty with civil service jobs or positions in the security apparatus from which the Palestinians were excluded. The Palestinians increasingly were drawn to the private sector. But in the 1990s, Jordan cut back public spending and privatized many public services, which hurt the East Bank Jordanians disproportionately. Recently, there have been East Bank Jordanians who have even complained about increasing poverty.
Given this analysis, anyone studying Jordan should not be surprised to find at that time some Jordanians from the East Bank tribes became attracted to jihadist doctrines and even went to fight in Afghanistan. There is the famous case of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who came from the Bani Hassan tribe, known for its loyalty to the Hashemites, who would become the commander of al-Qaida in Iraq. Lately, jihadist networks have been found in Irbid, near the Jordanian-Syrian border.
In February 2011, 36 tribal leaders of the East Bank bedouin warned King Abdullah that unless Jordan underwent serious reform, he risked a popular revolt. It appears that King Abdullah has to juggle between two parts of the Jordanian population: the East Bank bedouin who feel economically deprived and want reform that gives them more resources and the Palestinians who want more political power.
This year Jordan faced two additional challenges, which makes King Abdullah’s balancing act even more difficult. The repeated attacks of al-Qaida against the Egyptian gas pipeline caused a serious problem for Jordan, and not just Israel. At the same time the Syrian uprising has produced tens of thousand of refugees who have come to Jordan, thereby straining its already limited resources. Over the years Jordan has taken in different waves of Palestinian refugees and also nearly a million refugees from Iraq. Now the Jordanian government is estimating that up to 150,000 Syrian refugees have also entered the kingdom.
What is to be done? At the beginning of August, the International Monetary Fund approved a $2.06 billion loan to Jordan. These kinds of measures will be necessary to help the Jordanians get through the period ahead. In the longer term, Jordan also needs to improve its ties with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The Saudis provided $1.4 billion in aid to Amman last year and invited Jordan to join the Gulf Cooperation Council, the organization of the oil-rich Gulf States, led by Saudi Arabia. But then Saudi relations with Jordan soured and no new aid has been forthcoming. Talks about giving Jordan an association with the GCC were frozen.
It should be stressed that Jordan will be playing an increasingly critical role in containing the Iranian expansionism. It borders Iraq, whose prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, serves Tehran’s regional interests. Already, Jordan has dispatched forces to Bahrain, which was facing a pro-Iranian insurrection. It has offered to train the Yemeni army which is also fighting pro-Iranian Shiite forces. The U.S. and its allies must have a strategic interest in protecting Jordan’s economic stability and in assuring that it has the full support of the Gulf states, which together are ultimately facing the very same threat from the east.