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Examining the US-Jordan relationship

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Reforms in Jordan have been a carrot on a stick, and the country is weathering what some are calling a “regional storm”. The saving grace of the King is that his time in office has so far been bloodless.

Munir Atalla
1 October 2012

A question always on the mind of Middle Easterners is “what interests are the US pursuing in the Middle East?”  A common perception amongst Arabs is that America pays lip service to the people of the Middle East while really supporting a more self-interested agenda. 

Luckily, Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney allayed all suspicion last week in a leaked video in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  He went on to show astoundingly little demographic and geographic understanding of the region by probing a hypothetical scenario where a future Palestinian State in the West Bank would somehow border Syria, and Shiite Iran would smuggle in weapons through Sunni Jordan. The banqueting governor ended by saying, “we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it”. Queue the happy conspiracy theorists whose postulations have been affirmed.  For several reasons, America’s allies in the region are shifting like pieces on a chessboard.  So many knights are dead!  The pawns have taken to the streets!  What now?

“The United States will never retreat from the world,” said President Obama in the wake of the attack on the Libyan embassy in early September.  While the President might have meant his statement as a sign of solidarity, it came across as a threat, bringing back not-too-distant memories of imperialism and colonialism to the minds of Middle Easterners.  “America is a friend,” said Obama, arguably his thesis statement.  Joseph Massad, Associate Professor at Columbia University wrote recently that “while the Americans are pressing for an American Spring in the Arab world that will only be experienced as another American-sponsored Summer drought for the majority of the people of the region, the Arab peoples are working to transform the recent uprisings into nothing short of a cold American Winter.”

Where is Jordan in this back-and-forth?  There is no doubt that America has a strategic alliance with King Abdullah II.  Historically, the Hashemites have been easy allies to justify.  King Abdullah II’s western education, familiarity with the English language, and secular standing make him an intuitive favourite in the eyes of the world media.  But viewed from the inside, his reign has been characterized by a prime minister retention rate so low it would be funny were it not so tragic.  Reforms have been a carrot on a stick, and the country is weathering what some are calling a “regional storm”. 

The saving grace of the King is that his time in office has so far been bloodless.  Despite the recent passing of an amendment limiting online freedom, Washington will stand by Jordan and continue to push (lightly) for reforms while in the public eye.  King Abdullah has adopted his father’s strategy and been faithful to the United States, and will likely continue to do so.  It is no secret that the two governments are in cahoots; a fact highlighted when a security operation gone-wrong in Afghanistan saw the death of a CIA operative and a Jordanian Intelligence officer sharing the same car.  The Jordanian Secret Police are a powerful and knowledgeable partner in the American “war on terror”, and proved instrumental in the killing of Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, one of Bin Laden’s close number twos.  Although under-the-table alliances like this are public knowledge in Jordan, most Jordanians aren’t keen on the idea.

However, the conflict does extend beyond regime versus street, a fact made clear once Saudi Arabia is factored into the equation.  The Gulf Monarchy is one of Jordan’s biggest donors, and pays large amounts of money to quell protests and stifle reform out of fear that something happening in Jordan would mean the beginning of the end for them.  This leaves King Abdullah with a difficult balancing act:  Keep the Americans happy.  Keep the money happy.  Keep the people happy.  In that order.

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