Veranstaltungsberichte

Jordan in a Changing Regional Environment:The Upcoming Scenarios

von Layan Ounis

Conference report

High-ranking international and Jordanian experts, researchers, officials, decision-makers and former Jordanian ministers were all invited to participate in the third annual conference, partnered with Al-Quds Centre for Political Studies, titled, ‘Jordan in a Changing Regional and International Environment-The Upcoming Scenarios”. This is to share their expert opinions, and analysis on the current political events taking place in the region, and how it directly (and indirectly) affects Jordan. This conference intended to address the changing regional and international environment through a Jordanian lens, and how these changing regional dynamics will impact Jordan in the future.

Jordan has skilful diplomacy and is a respected and reliable ally. However, Jordan is currently in a precarious position, with the newly publicized “Deal of the Century”, it’s relations with Israel and the US is currently under jeopardy. More so, whilst taking into consideration Brexit; Russia returning to the international stage; China’s increased relevance in the region; normalization of establishing relations with Israel and shifting alliances; the rise of new regional power states (Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey) and the political turmoil surrounding many countries in the region, Jordan’s security, stability and identity are at stake. So the central questions of the conference were:

  • How can Jordan preserve its role in the region in this fast-changing regional and international environment?
  • How does Jordan balance its relations and how are they being affected?
  • What can be anticipated in the future for Jordan?

The conference was conducted under the Chatham House Rule. Therefore, no names are provided in the following summary of the discussions. Any analysis and opinion displayed below does not necessarily reflect the view of individual participants, of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung or of the Al-Quds Centre.

 

Panel 1-Jordan in a Changing Regional and International Environment-Overview

 

The Middle East (ME) is witnessing drastic, shifting strategic positions which has affected Jordan’s relations and positions with some of its neighbouring countries and allies. The changes taking place in the region are neither in the interest of Jordan, nor is it enhancing its position. Because Jordan is resisting taking decisions that its allies (whether regional or non-regional) want it to take, it’s currently in conflict with some of them. Firstly, Jordan is facing much pressure from one of its biggest allies, the US, due to its leadership in resisting certain trends in the region owed also partly to internal pressures by the Jordanian population. Jordan and Israel are currently in a state of “cold peace” and the unilateral Deal of the Century (DoC) drafted by the US and Israel, and its possible implementation will have serious (existential) repercussions on Jordan (whether it opts to reject/accept it or sit on the fence about it). Secondly, GCC countries are reforming themselves and their support of Jordan (which it heavily relies on) is diminishing. Lastly, Jordan has weakened its diplomatic and trade relations with Syria and this is, according to some participants, no longer within Jordan’s interests.

 

Panel 2-Jordan and the United States

 

According to several experts present at the conference, Jordan-US relations are currently at its lowest point. The US and Jordan no longer share the same strong strategic alliance as they did before, but are still allies nevertheless. The history of their alliance has witnessed some ruptures in their relationship (but was recovered), but the state of their alliance at this moment, i.e. at the beginning of 2020, is currently at a half-rupture. Jordan and the US have had differences with regards to certain policies in the past, but the extent of these differences and the degree of hostility associated with it is completely new under the Trump administration. The revelation of the DoC is what’s currently dominating their relationship. The pressure of implementing the deal to push US motives has made Jordan collateral damage (it undermined the perspective of a two-state solution and ending the conflict via a unilateral deal may be at Jordan’s expense). Its implementation would have many implications on Jordan: The forced displacement/immigration of Palestinians in the West Bank to a country unable to absorb another influx of refugees would threaten the Jordanian demographic, identity, security and economy. Jordan may also be pressured to exert administrative control over areas in the West Bank that Israel does not want. While Jordan has openly rejected the DoC, some Jordanian politicians have, according to some observers, given up. They believe that since Jordan has no power or influence, it has to acquiesce as they cannot refuse the aid Jordan receives (and largely depends on) from the US (concerns have been raised that DoC rejection may result in cutting aid). The speakers in this panel all agreed that while the DoC has caused wide hysteria in the Middle East (especially in Jordan and Palestine), US media coverage of the DoC has been very minimal as it is currently in full-on election mode (none of the speakers believe it would be easy to reverse (if possible) Trump decisions made over the DoC or the likes if he is not re-elected). However, while Jordan may not have a listening friend in the White House, they do still have “friends” elsewhere in the US administration, and cutting aid to Jordan would not be easy for any US President as Congress would not easily allow it.

 

Panel 3-Jordan and the Gulf

 

  • Changes in the Gulf ruling system in countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia (SA) and Qatar are taking place. Family based systems are being transformed into a personal system with a central ruling body (E.g.  The one-man rule of Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) in SA is resulting in unpredictable decisions being made). For Jordan this means that its traditional allies might become less reliable
  • Gulf countries are all facing the same challenge: Finding means to diversify their economy as they enter a post-petroleum era. Oil exports (which accounted for a majority of GCC countries’ GDP) can no longer sustain government budgets (it’s also been greatly affected by international trade disputes and the coronavirus pandemic). This means that for Jordan, Gulf funding will likely decrease and if Gulf countries push a nationalist market, Jordan guest workers will be sent back to their country where unemployment is already high.
  • GCC is more focused on globalization and will work on “trade diversion” that will divert from direct relations with countries such as Jordan.
  • The notion that Jordan served as a mediator between Israel and GCC might be exaggerated. But shifts in Gulf alliances have been observed (Gulf rifts with Qatar, Iran now being perceived as a threat instead of Israel, Qatar forming relations with Iran and Turkey at the expense of its relations with other GCC countries). What this means for Jordan (and the Palestinian cause), is that GCC no longer view them as a priority and it has been thus dubbed as an “asset that has become a liability” (This sentiment however was opposed by one speaker in the panel who argued that Jordan-Saudi relations still remain strong despite disagreements).        
  • GCC countries are facing a so-called “Security Dilemma Syndrome”: GCC intergovernmental relations will continue to drift apart (Saudi/Gulf war with the Houthis in Yemen, GCC blockade on Qatar) and their governmental systems are currently regressing as it continues to face much internal conflict (overall, the regional Arab security is under threat and their systems/ideologies have failed). Jordan was subjected to a lot of pressure as the inter-governmental GCC conflicts forced it “to choose sides” but it tried to play a balancing act because if it formed alliances with one side, it will compromise its relations with the other and vice versa.

 

Panel 4-Jordan amid a “Changing World Order”-Options and Alternatives Going Forward

 

What is being witnessed today in Europe (Brexit and the EU) is, according to one of the speakers, a counter-revolution where a populist leader is taking over a universalist project. The recovery of ancient narratives and nationalist movements are resulting in a period of conflict and divisions that’s fragmenting the structures of government (Brexit and the Boris Johnson government, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany and divisions within the US administration as well). This indicates that there are some tensions within the structures of the EU which are affecting the decision-making process and policy-making made by such institutions. EU-Jordanian relationships were formerly characterized as an active economic partnership with a limited political role but that is a false distinction because in the case of Jordan, these two are intertwined. The economic relationship with Jordan is divided by “aid and trade” (but trade figures are massively skewed in EU’s favor). Jordan’s weak economic system and recent protests have underlined the fragility of Jordan’s political stability.  As such, a key determinant of Jordanian foreign policy is dependent on its pursuit of budget security to curb deficits, and a large part of this aid comes from the EU and Britain.

 

Additionally, Jordan has signed different agreements with the EU in various fields. Individual EU countries have also stepped up their political engagement in the Middle East and Jordan that supported Jordanian reform (in aspects such as human rights, rule of law, etc.). With regards to other countries such as Russia and China, Jordan can look to Russia for future cooperation that will lead to developments, opportunities and alliance diversification. However, Jordan cannot expect to receive aid from Russia as it would from the US, but it can provide Jordan with cheap and efficient equipment to help it develop its industries and ease budget burdens. Although, Jordan-Russian relations cannot reach its full potential due to US-imposed sanctions on Russia and pressures on Jordan to cancel deals, as one of the analysts warned. On a wider level, the Middle East is important to Russia for many reasons, but it would be wrong to consider that it’s a top priority. The expert argued that Russia does not seek to challenge other Western countries present in the region as “it cannot afford a full-scale confrontation”. On the other hand, Jordan shares friendly, bilateral political and economic relations with China. Under the framework of the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), several Memorandums of Understandings have been signed to promote mutual win-win agreements in numerous industries.

 

Panel 5-Jordan and Israel-25 Years after the Peace Treaty

 

According to one of the speakers, the Jordan-Israeli relationship is not a bilateral relationship, it’s a triangular relationship between Jordan, US and Israel (with Palestine intricately connected as well). One cannot negate the role of national identity and narratives as a driver of conflict. Many western powers believe that the conflict is intractable because there’s nothing anyone can do because the stakes in this conflict is one’s national identity. One of the experts argued that the Israeli narrative has shaped a prominent Israeli, nationalistic paradigm which it’s using as a base for its relationship with Jordan. Although, it is dangerous for Jordan to play into this paradigm as a basis for its foreign policy as it contains a colonial discourse. There have been mixed remarks made by ex-Israeli generals and analysts regarding annexation and its effect on Jordan.  Some believe that annexation will threaten security ties with Jordan, but some believe that Israel needs to prioritize what is strategically more important: maintaining relations with Jordan or annexing the valley? According to the presentation of one of the participant, many Israelis are betting on Jordan taking no action and believe they should start annexing immediately. Some far-right Israelis also believe that Israel has been dealing with Jordan with a “soft hand”. The DoC has created much uproar among the Palestinian/Jordanian communities, because it: 1. Rejects any reference to multinational definitions and UN resolutions; 2. Rejects the importance of history and is anchored to a religious, biblical narrative that’s used as a basis for contemporary, political sovereignty; 3. Takes away the possibility of establishing a “Palestinian Statehood” (many speakers do not believe that everything detailed for the Palestinians in the DoC will be implemented); 4. Confrontation will be fueled if there is a unilateral implementation of the plan. The Jordanian and the Palestinian streets are those that are most responsive to what is happening in the West Bank and Israel, so Jordanian-Israeli relations cannot be analyzed without examining the Palestinian “street” and how it affects the Jordanian one.

 

Panel 6-Jordan and Regional Powers (Iran and Turkey)

 

According to the presentation of one of the experts, Turkey and Jordan do share some common interests (the burden of the refugee crisis, support of the Palestinian issue and rejection of the deal, economic issues, etc.), but it’s only on a surface level. Turkish interests in the Syrian conflict are related to their regional aspirations, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an existential issue for Jordan (but not for Turkey) and the two countries’ relationship/stance with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is vastly different. But both countries have signed a free-trade agreement and polls show that the Jordanian public view of Turkey is generally positive so it’s an opportunity to mobilize relations with Turkey. However, Turkey cannot be an alternative alliance to the US or the Gulf for Jordan, as several experts agreed on. Regarding Iran, the Middle East security architecture is weak and post-Arab spring, has created a power vacuum. Iran has exploited this and some US foreign policies towards the region has further legitimized Iran’s actions in some Middle East countries. Furthermore, a major shift in the region is the perception that Israel is no longer the existential threat to many countries; Iran has now currently taken up this mantle. Looking at Syria, Syrian-Jordanian relations have been limited and its bilateral relationship was previously characterized by rivalry. With Syria’s war-torn state and harsh dictatorship, it’s difficult for Jordan to engage with it diplomatically. Jordan is also still wary of the jihadist, security threat Syria may still pose at its borders. Finally, the possibility of Syrian refugees remaining in Jordan is an argument that should be brought up because it’s a huge possibility.

 

Conclusions

 

  • Jordan-US alliance is at its weakest point, but they are nevertheless still allies. Although it’s important for Jordan to look to other countries to diversify its relations and ease some of its economic burdens via different means, none of the countries (Russia, Turkey or China) can provide the same aid to Jordan as the US.
  • Shifting priorities means shifting alliances. Jordan and the Palestinian cause is no longer considered a priority to Gulf regions. Their own inter-governmental rifts and internal conflicts (including the challenges it’s facing entering a post-petroleum era) means that Gulf aid to Jordan will likely diminish.
  • Israel and Jordan are in a state of ‘cold peace’, but Jordan no longer holds the same strategic value it did in the past. Israeli expansion of its diplomatic relations (in the Arab world and internationally) means Jordan no longer represents the channel that connects Israel with the region. Annexation efforts and the DoC is posing a threat to their peace treaty.
  • Regional conflicts have indirectly affected Jordan due to pressures from its alliances, further limiting its options. The DoC has further added fuel to the fire: How can it reject the DoC without having their aid compromised and how can it maintain relations with Qatar without threatening its ties to other Gulf countries and vice versa.
  • One should expect more protests to occur throughout the Middle East, if no active reforms are made; and some may even take a more violent turn.
  • International governments and institutions (the US, EU, Britain) are also very divided. One cannot expect concrete decisions to be made about many issues. 

 

Recommendations

 

  • Jordan needs to strengthen itself internally and introduce reforms that would adapt to the changes occurring in the region. This means that Jordan must introduce democracy, good governance, less corruption, transparency and work on bridging the gap between its leadership and population.
  • Jordan should also start working on becoming more self-dependent and rely less on foreign aid (as that may diminish). That means doubling down on what the country’s best at.
  • There have been disagreements on the “two-state solution” vs. the “one-state solution”: Some experts believe that the “one-state solution” with equality and an end to the Israeli apartheid system is the option and some believe that Jordan and Palestine should stand by the two-state solution with an independent, Palestinian state along the ’67 borders.
  • Jordan and Palestine should work on presenting alternative options to the Deal of the Century (DoC) as the DoC is unworkable. Jordan must also take action that backs up their opposing stance to the DoC.
  • Jordan must play an active role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as it can reopen negotiation channels with the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government. It should also help Palestinians change their narrative to a more positive one.
  • Jordan should not burn bridges with the US. Despite its current rather tense relationship with the White House, Jordan still has support elsewhere within the US administration. Things may also change after the elections.
  • Jordan-Gulf relations will be difficult to improve if Gulf-Gulf relations are not re-established.
  • Jordan must remain neutral to strengthen its role as a “mediator” in the region.
  • The Jordanian government must redouble its efforts to communicate (both with its population and its allies) so that they can reconnect, and understand their rationality behind their strategic position.

 

What’s being witnessed in the Middle East are multi-layered, complex, dynamic security and political issues that have been quite difficult to fully address in the conference. There is no easy way forward and the conclusions and recommendations above are some ideas (not necessarily shared by all participants and not endorsed by the organizers of the conference) that shall contribute to the further debate on Jordan and its role in the region.

 

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