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Jordan Starts to Shake

Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters
King Abdullah and his wife Rania, Davos, Switzerland, January 2010

Such rank xenophobia makes it easy to dismiss the protesters as people bent on imposing what Adnan Abu Odeh, a one-time royal courtier of Palestinian stock who fell afoul of the King, calls “an ethnocratic irredentist regime.” While calling for parliament to be sovereign, most shun the recalibration of electoral boundaries to ensure equal rights for all Jordan’s citizens. And many protesters seem reluctant to criticize those parts of state power that are firmly in East Bank hands, most notably the Mukhabarat. Leith Shbailat, a well-known critic of the Hashemites and former parliamentarian from Tafila, sidesteps the issue. “If we can reform the King, the rest will follow,” he replies, when I ask how he would reform the security services.

The Mukhabarat has been unusually hands-off in its treatment of the protesters. Despite the occasional use of beltajia, plainclothes bully boys, to disperse rallies, only one demonstrator has been killed in nine months of protests, a most humane figure by regional standards. Some openly wonder whether the protesters and police are acting in tandem. “The security forces have not yet intervened, but if they do they will act to support us,” says a retired army general during our drive down to Tafila, revealing himself to be a republican. A prickly local journalist insists that the protesters are counterrevolutionaries serving the old forces of repression. “If the Arab Spring is about equal rights, liberty, and majority rule, then these demos have nothing to do with the Arab Spring,” a one-time royal confidante agreed.

But the East Bankers confronting the King do not fit so neatly into such stereotypes. For such a humdrum country, the debate is surprisingly febrile. In a tumbledown office where the popular committee of Madaba, a town south of Amman famed for its ancient Roman mosaics, is holding its first meeting, delegates argue over the contents of their proposed constitutional reforms. A bank manager condemns the system of royal privileges, or makarim, such as university scholarships, and insists that free education should be a constitutional right. Several want to clip the King’s prerogative to hire and fire the prime minister. The youngest delegate, a highly articulate seventeen-year-old who quotes Rousseau, wants oversight of the military budget; he says the Mukhabarat expelled him from high school because of his political activism.

On their way to another rally by minibus, the delegates practice their latest slogans, this time against the Mukhabarat. “Write Reports, and Hand them in/You won’t scare us with your Informing.” They insist on giving their names, not they say because they want jobs to silence them, but rather to puncture the stranglehold of self-censorship they claim is hobbling Jordan’s political development.

With old taboos crumbling, the King appears uncertain about how to respond. “The King has never gambled in his life. He hates gambling,” insists a one-time confidante. “But how can he rebut them? Answering the allegations would just give them credence.” Some detect signs of strain. Close-ups of the King beamed onto giant LCD screens at a recent conference revealed the royal countenance to be red, puffy, and bereft of its boyish charm. A Western diplomat called him paranoid, and suggested that the more ill-at-ease East Bankers make the King feel, the more he shuns them. When his motorcade made a rare visit to Tafila last summer, the townspeople and the King’s escort pelted each other with stones.

Abdullah’s relationship with the tribes has never been easy. I remember his faltering effort to call a convocation of the tribes to join his support for the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. Liberating Iraq meant the end of the regime from whose trade and subsidies they had greatly benefited. (Faced with a similar predicament a decade earlier after the US mobilized its forces to roll back Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, his father, King Hussein, had opted to lose his Western and Gulf funding rather than incur the wrath of the East Bank tribes.) Arriving bumpily on the back of a camel in the rose-red southern desert of Humeima, Abdullah sat on the dais behind a posse of black-garbed bodyguards who rotated their machine guns at the assembled tribesmen; he then scuttled off in a helicopter without publicly uttering a word, cutting short the tribal custom of sharing a meal.

Rather than risk further missteps, Abdullah prefers the more appreciative company of foreigners. In 2010, he reportedly spent more time out of his kingdom than in it. In the atmosphere created by the Arab awakening he has come under pressure to prune his travel expenses, and he now brings foreigners to Jordan. On the eve of Fadi Ubaydeen’s scheduled trial, he feted delegates from the Davos-based World Economic Forum with a champagne reception in his Dead Sea resort, sealing off public access for miles around the Dead Sea. The pretext for the meeting was “creating jobs,” but bankers warned of impending bankruptcy if Jordan’s wage bill was not further slashed. The complacent resplendence smacked uncomfortably, noted a doctor, of the latter years of the Shah.

Some Jordanians insist that a courageous leader could have promulgated a bill of liberties and new social charter, in which he would hand real power to the parliament. East Bankers in turn would accept a fairer redistribution of Jordan’s franchise, and West Bankers a fairer redistribution of their wealth. There were hints that King Abdullah had considered this. Earlier this year he said that future cabinets would be formed according to the results of parliamentary elections, and at the Dead Sea forum he spoke of opening “a gate of democracy for stakeholders.” But the package of measures accompanying such grandiose statements leaves the King’s powers almost entirely unchanged.

Instead he has resorted to continuously rotating advisers, which some say is a sign of indecisiveness and panic. In October he changed his government for the second time in a year, as well as his intelligence chief and head of the royal court. In place of the old prime minister, an East Bank general with a reputation as an Islamist basher, he appointed Aoun Khasawneh, a judge at the International Criminal Court, who immediately called on the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s most organized political force with a groundswell of Palestinian support, to join his government. In a bid to further bolster his legitimacy, the King also made overtures to Khalid Meshal, the leader of Hamas, whom he had banished twelve years earlier, soon after acceding to the throne. His expulsion, said Khasawneh, was a mistake, indicating that Meshal, himself a Jordanian national, might be welcome back.

Though the Muslim Brotherhood declined to join the government, the new policy has succeeded in buying their silence, at least for now. The Brotherhood has become studiously agnostic on supporting the demonstrations. Its daily newspaper, al-Sabil, publishes details of forthcoming protests on some days, not others, as if tempering its support with the concessions it can extract from the King. Zaki Bani Irshad, the head of its political wing, still sports a picture of the King in his office, albeit with a wistfully Islamist wisp of a beard. The minority of Palestinians who took to the streets when the protests first erupted in January have largely retreated indoors. (Only two hundred responded to calls for a million to march near the Israeli embassy after the ransacking of Israel’s Cairo embassy.)

Has the King prescribed the wrong medicine? Perhaps. By shifting from one camp to the next he has inflamed tensions, not calmed them, and accelerated the transition of East Bankers from prime protectors of the monarchy to prime opposition. Even before the new government had been sworn in, a crowd resumed braying outside the prime minister’s gates. Some demanded the King’s impeachment for pilfering tribal lands, and called for substituting the “royal” anthem, “Long Live the King,” with a “national” one. Rather than uphold the law against insults to the royal name, the security forces, who come from the same stock as the protesters, stood by and watched.

Yet while the King’s domestic policy inflames their sense of dissatisfaction, his foreign policy bolsters their power. To fund his rising expenditure, he has sought help from foreign backers. The United States remains a major donor. Last year it paid $818 million, making Jordan, after Israel, the largest per capita recipient of American aid. But courtiers view President Obama as an increasingly ineffectual ally—“We’ve lost hope that the US can do anything,” bemoans a royal confidante—and have begun seeking more robust alternatives. Foremost among them is Saudi Arabia and its club of fellow Arabian Peninsula kingdoms, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which is anxious to maintain the fiction that monarchies are somehow more resilient to the Arab awakening than republics. This year Saudi Arabia surpassed America’s funding with over $1 billion in aid, and invited the King to apply for GCC membership. To cement the relationship, the Saudis are close to completing a new Amman embassy that could soon exceed America’s—hitherto the largest—in size, grandeur, and visibility. “Saudi Arabia has lost Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Yemen. They can’t afford to lose Jordan too,” explains a former prime minister. Four generations after the Saudis ousted the Hashemites from the Arabian Peninsula, he mused, they are now inviting them to return.

In return Jordan is putting what it claims is the Arab world’s most professional armed force at the GCC‘s disposal. The King, say Jordanians, dispatched hundreds of security personnel to join the GCC‘s Peninsula Shield defensive to crush Bahrain’s popular rising. Some Jordanians complain they have become the Gulf’s mercenaries. But in their new guise as the Gulf’s security contractor, the East Bankers have found a new role. Jordan’s inclusion in a larger club of Bedouin tribes further enhances their status and leverage in dealing with the kingdom’s Palestinian majority.

In its increasing subservience to reactionary Gulf emirates, the kingdom could increasingly come to resemble one. As elsewhere in the Gulf, a minority of Arab Bedouin clans would rule the roost, while the nonindigenous majority would find themselves relegated to second-class citizens or guest workers. Hopes of political and economic reform will be put on ice, and Gulf largesse will relieve pressure to hold to account those parts of the state budget that are currently outside parliamentary review, like military expenditure. Already the Central Bank looks increasingly powerless to investigate allegations of high-level corruption. When the Central Bank’s governor tried last month to do just that, he was sacked and his office surrounded by the Mukhabarat to prevent him entering it. “When the state is working against those who are working against corruption, and sending thugs to attack them, where are we going?” says Leila Sharaf, the governor’s mother and long-standing legislator, who tendered her resignation in protest.

And what of beleaguered King Abdullah? Over tea, one of the Hashemite family confides that should the security establishment continue to feel alienated by the King, some might act to swap him for one more attuned to their customs and interests.

—Tafila, November 10, 2011

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