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Wanderer between the Worlds

Jordan’s relationship with the Arab Gulf States – An Essay

This is the translation from an essay published, in German, in ZENITH Magazine in November 2022.

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The British finally decided the matter. Unnerved by the Pan-Arab ambitions of the Sherif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, the exhausted Empire refused to support its longtime ally with the Royal Air Force. The future founder of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz Al Saud, who ruled over the Sultanate of Najd in Riyadh, lead thousands of tribal warriors against his rival: the Hijaz kingdom ruled by Hussein. In 1924, he marched into Mecca. The port city of Jeddah fell a year later. 
A Tumultuous History and a Noble Betrothal 
This marked the end of the centuries-old leadership of the Hashemite dynasty in the Arabian Peninsula which traces its origins back to Hashem, a great-grandfather of the Prophet Muhammad. Hussein fled to exile. The British took him first to Cyprus and later to Amman where he died in 1931. He was buried at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem - a city that will not let go of his descendants either.
Despite their loss of their homeland, the Hashemites remained involved when the Middle East was reorganized after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Hussein's son Faisal, who led the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans in World War I, proclaimed himself king of Syria in 1920. After only a few months, the French expelled him from Damascus. With British support, however, he eventually became king of Iraq.
Meanwhile, Faisal's older brother Abdullah established a new power base in Transjordan, then under a British Mandate. London appointed him Emir in 1921.
While in 1958, the Hashemite rule over Iraq came to a bloody end in a military coup, the Hashemite rule in Jordan (officially an independent kingdom since 1946) continues to this day. The great-grandson and namesake of the founder of the state has been sitting on the throne for more than 20 years: King Abdullah II.
His son, a 28-year-old Crown Prince Hussein, accompanied by almost the entire royal family headed to Riyadh in the summer of 2022 for a special occasion: He went to the estate of Saudi businessman Khalid Al-Saif to propose to his daughter Rajwa. Rajwa’s mother comes from the Al Sudairi family which is related to Saudi King Salman, whose father once expelled the Hashemites from the Arabian Peninsula.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Policy Ambitions  
A few weeks before the engagement, there had been a breakthrough in Jordanian-Saudi relations at the political level. In June 2022, the Saudi Crown Prince paid his first visit to the Hashemite Kingdom in five years, bringing with him the prospect of fresh money for the chronically cash-strapped Jordan. Particularly important for the royal family, in the joint final declaration, Saudi Arabia underlined "the importance of the historic Hashemite patronage of Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem".
Amman was suspicious of the rise of Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS) who became a strongman in Saudi Arabia after his father acceded to the throne in 2015. At the age of 29 at that time, serving as the world’s youngest defense minister and causing a stir in the region with risky foreign policy maneuvers, he seemed too impulsive and cocky to many.
The differences with the Jordanian king, who rightly enjoys a reputation for moderation and balancing in his handling of foreign affairs, went far beyond temperament and style. The Middle East policy under US President Donald Trump, who has chosen Saudi Arabia as a key partner in the region, was perceived as an existential threat to Jordan. The "deal of the century" put forward by Trump and Israel's then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to settle the Middle East conflict was quickly proved to be a non-starter. The efforts of the Americans, on the other hand, to bring Arab states closer to Israel - without insisting on progress on the Palestinian question - bore fruit. Among others, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain officially established diplomatic relations with Israel, apparently with the approval of the Saudis.
Alarm bells went off at the royal court in Amman which had not been involved in any of these steps taken by the US administration. Nothing worries the Jordanians more than being side-lined in regional policy issues, in particular when it comes to the Middle East Conflict, which is seen as an existential security issue. Another exodus of Palestinians from the West Bank to Jordan, which right-wing fanatics in Israel have long been pushing for, would unbalance the kingdom's demographics and exhaust the country's capacity.
In Amman, there were fears that Trump's Middle East advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was working with his age-mate MBS on odd future scenarios for the region. Rumors were circulated that Saudi Arabia was even going to take over the patronage of the Islamic shrines in Jerusalem from the Hashemites - as a reward for the ambitious Saudi crown prince in return for a normalization of relations with Israel.
With the removal of both Trump and Netanyahu, such horror scenarios were off the table for the Jordanians. However, the distrust remained. When a palace revolt by Prince Hamza, a half-brother of the king, was nipped in the bud in April 2021, Jordanian authorities blamed Saudi backers. A Jordanian-Saudi businessman who had close ties to the royal court in Riyadh was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment. The Saudi foreign minister pleaded personally in Amman for his release: in vain.
The last time Saudi-Jordanian relations reached such a low point was during the Second Gulf War in 1990. Jordan's then-King Hussein had advocated a negotiated settlement with Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the crisis and even then, spoke out against a US-led military intervention when Iraqi troops were already marching towards Kuwait. Hussein's miscalculation was to cost Jordan dearly. The Gulf States especially Kuwait, had 300,000 Jordanian who were working there. The Gulf stopped providing financial aid worth millions. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia even imposed an import ban on Jordanian goods.

The Rising Radiance of the Gulf 
Already at that time, it became clear how economically dependent Jordan was on the Arab Gulf monarchies. Today, around 750,000 Jordanians again live and work there, mainly in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Home transfers exceed more than three billion euros a year, and thus even the development aid that Jordan receives on a large scale. The USA and Germany are the country's most important donors. But whenever an acute crisis occurs in Jordan, as in 2011 in the context of the Arab Spring or in 2018 during protests against economic austerity measures, the Gulf States stepped in to stabilize the state budget with fresh credit lines. Jordan is now hoping for new infrastructure projects, from railway lines to solar parks, to be implemented with money from the Gulf.
And even beyond the petrodollars, the influence of the Gulf States in Jordan is becoming more noticeable. In the prosperous west of the capital Amman, the sumptuous summer residences of rich Gulf Arabs line up next to each other, and the shopping centers grow skyward in the last open spaces. Old town villas and gardens are being demolished to make way for new luxury apartment blocks.
The Jordanian middle-class dreams of well-paid jobs in the Gulf, whose lifestyle has long since found its way into the younger generation of the Jordanian upper class. While Europe is blurred behind economic crises, language barriers, and visa restrictions, Dubai has become a place of longing for Jordanian youth - and those who can afford it can now also find the consumer-driven flair of the glittering Gulf metropolises in Amman.
Above all, the rapid change in Saudi Arabia in recent years has attracted attention in Jordan. The sniffs of the liberal elite in Amman at backward and misogynistic bigots in the Arab hinterland have given way to admiration for the enthusiasm with which the young crown prince gets the country moving - with cinemas, concerts, and visionary large-scale projects such as the futuristic art city NEOM, which is to be created from scratch on the border with Jordan on the Red Sea.
The contrast with their own country is all the more striking given that the Jordanians have been hearing the same modernization phrases for 20 years: noble promises about political participation and economic prospects for the younger generation. However, the traditional leadership recycles itself and the waves of privatization accompanied by allegations of corruption have by no means made the majority of the population wealthier. On the contrary: The World Bank recently reported that every second Jordanian youth is looking for a job.

Jordan’s Cultural Legacy and its Efforts of “Modernization”   
Abdullah II recognized that his kingdom must change if it is to endure. In 2021, he set up a reform commission to develop proposals for a “modernization” of the political system. New laws have already been passed to lift parties out of their perpetual marginality and into national political actors. Some optimists see a genuine parliamentary monarchy looming on the distant horizon.
More likely is indeed a form of controlled democracy that allows for a broader engagement of the population into the political process, but under state supervision and within fixed limits. The foreign policy issues that are so sensitive for Jordan, for example, as one hears even from some reformist politicians in Amman, should rather remain in the tried and tested royal competence and not fall into the unpredictable hands of a freely elected and independent parliament. 
While Morocco is consistently referred to in Jordanian discourse as a model for a reformed system of government, Saudi- or Emirati-style political authoritarianism appears much less attractive given their relentless persecution of dissidents. Although the security authorities in Jordan have also tightened their control over the past few years and the spaces for civil society have in some cases narrowed, a critical debate about government policy was and is possible in Jordan, also in public. The Hashemite kings have always been careful to somehow involve the diverse social groups in Jordan and to balance their interests – a stark contrast to the centralized form of government that is now being practiced at the royal court in Riyadh.
Even when state and nation-building began a hundred years ago with the founding of the emirate, Jordan was a hybrid entity. It combined (1) the political and religious legitimacy and the claim to leadership of the Hashemites, (2) the will and capacity for state organization of the Arab nationalists from all over the Levant who wanted to liberate their homeland from foreign rule, (3) the local tribes, Bedouins and merchant families living and dominating the area, and last but not least (4) the old colonial power of Great Britain with its military and financial aid. Added to this were hundreds of thousands of refugees in the following decades: Palestinians, Iraqis, and Syrians. Jordan is still a fascinating mosaic of the Middle East - geographically, demographically, and historically. A wanderer between worlds that has learned to build bridges.
The small and resource-poor kingdom was always dependent on a dialogue-, compromise-, and cooperation-oriented foreign policy. Domestically, it has internalized the way it deals with societal diversity and is at least trying to move towards a more inclusive political system. Jordan has this key qualification ahead of many of its rich neighbors in the Gulf. A century after their expulsion from Mecca and Medina, and in a region plagued by war and crises that is still trying to find a new order, the Hashemites once again have the historic opportunity to lead an Arab country into the future.

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Dr. Edmund Ratka


Director Foundation Office Jordan +962 6 5929777


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