David Schenker, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs (2019-2021), spoke to Marilyn Stern, communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum, on May 7, 2021 in a Middle East Forum webinar about the importance of Jordan’s stability for Israel and the United States.
Schenker began by noting that the “recent coup attempt” in Jordan that dominated Western media headlines in April “wasn’t a coup attempt.” Prince Hamza bin Hussein, the late King Hussein’s son whom King Abdullah replaced as crown prince with his son, Hussein, in 2004, aired familial “dirty laundry” publicly. A displeased Abdullah acted swiftly to punish the insubordination, but the king’s position was not endangered. Although Schenker does see “serious challenges to stability in the kingdom,” these come from its ailing economy, not from drama within the royal family.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the Jordanian economy hard. Schenker said that the kingdom lost 140,000 jobs in 2020 and now suffers from an overall unemployment rate of 25% and a youth unemployment rate as high as 40%. Jordan’s economy contracted by 5% last year, and tourism revenue fell by 48%. Remittances from Jordanians working in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, another vital source of revenue, also fell dramatically. Food insecurity now affects 53% of the population, and has risen to around 20% even in the tribal heartland long favored by the monarchy. Despite receiving more than $1.5 billion in U.S. aid annually, Jordan is running a budget deficit of nearly $3 billion.
While Jordan’s ailing economy “does not mean the kingdom is unstable,” protests have erupted amid anger over the government response to the pandemic. Schenker expressed concern that “disaffected youth” may become susceptible to recruitment by violent Islamist groups.
Economic dissatisfaction aside, the Jordanian people “realize … they have stability, which counts for … [a] lot when you look around the region.” The loyalty of the military and the kingdom’s excellent intelligence capabilities appear sufficient to keep Abdullah firmly in power.
While the king is “in good shape,” he’d be in “better shape if he did more to help grow the economy,” said Schenker. On top of “structural barriers” to economic growth, Schenker listed two “cultural” problems that pose challenges. First, despite the fact that more women than men attend college in the kingdom, their workforce participation is “extremely low.” Consequently, Jordan is “losing out on some of the most talented people in the kingdom in terms of innovation and entrepreneurship.”
Second, there is a predisposition among “people from certain quarters of the population,” many of “tribal origin,” who eschew private sector employment and only want to work for the government, which employs nearly half the labor force. They “would rather take a quarter of the pay and be on the poverty line working for the government where [they] don’t have to go to work … [and] are employed for life, than work for a company where [they] can do quite well.”
Schenker emphasized that Jordan remains a vital ally of Israel. Stressors in the relationship aside, the Wadi Araba peace agreement between Israel and the Hashemite kingdom has endured since 1994. The agreement includes a provision that consecrates Jordan’s “special role in Jerusalem,” which is important to Jordan’s rulers because “part of their legitimacy … is their direct traceable lineage to the Prophet Muhammad and their former role in the Hejaz as the guardians of holy spots.”
Schenker said that Israel’s “increasing number of peace partners” as a result of the Abraham Accords does not diminish Jordan’s “critical importance to both Israel and U.S. interests in the region.” Israel and Jordan have “deep and enduring” security cooperation and intelligence sharing that far outpaces that of other Arab states. “It’s not like with Egypt, for example, where [security] ties … are only at the highest levels, sort of the tip of the spear.”
Jordan’s importance to the United States is likewise as great as ever. In a recent speech, General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., the head of CENTCOM, said that the United States is seeking to “enhance expeditionary basing in less vulnerable positions in the CENTCOM AOR [Area of Responsibility],” which Schenker interpreted to mean “further away” from Iran and Iran-backed proxy forces, which have proven adept at striking targets in the Persian Gulf region and Iraq. Jordan would be an ideal location.
King Abdullah and the Hashemites remain a “great asset of stability” for the U.S. and Israel, and both have an abiding interest in helping alleviate Jordan’s economic problems. Schenker advised Israel to move forward with promising joint economic projects, from the “Jordan Gateway” industrial park presently in the works to expanding successful Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZs) and reviving tourism between the two countries. Schenker said oil-rich Arab countries could improve Jordan’s economy by investing more in the kingdom and employing more expatriate Jordanian labor at home.
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