Analysis: Jordan faces existential threat to royal family’s rule

These days, Jordan, more than ever, is facing a real existential threat to the royal family’s continued rule.

By Daniel Siryoti, Israel Hayom via JNS

The events of the “Arab Spring,” which have kept the Middle East off-kilter for nearly 10 years now, skipped over the kingdom of Jordan. The citizens of the Hashemite kingdom, unlike their neighbors in Syria and Iraq, were not forced to deal with bloody civil wars, unchecked immigration by Islamist terrorist operatives and the absence of a centralized, stable government.

But these days, Jordan, more than ever, is facing a real existential threat to the royal family’s continued rule. This is mainly the result of geopolitical changes in the kingdom and outside its border, as well as regional processes and demographic changes in Jordan itself, mostly having to do with the Bedouin tribes and the Palestinians in Jordan, whom many Jordanians (including the Bedouin) see as “temporary residents.”

Although the Jordanians take every opportunity to announce that a solution to the Palestinian issue is their top priority, senior officials admit in the same breath that a shared border between Jordan and a future Palestinian state – whose Palestinian side would be manned by members of the Palestinian security forces – would be the biggest threat to the stability of the kingdom of Jordan.

In addition to that, as far as the Jordanians are concerned, recognition of Palestinian sovereignty in eastern Jerusalem could lead to a Palestinian demand to improve their political status on the Temple Mount, where since 1967 the Jordanians have enjoyed a “special status” granted to them as descendants of the Prophet Mohammad and guardians of Islamic holy sites.

That concern was expressed in the Jordanian rejection of a request from a former leader of the Hamas politburo, Khaled Mashaal, to run the Hamas political wing out of an office in Jordan. Senior Jordanian intelligence officials have even said more than once in close talks that the close cooperation between Jordan and Israel’s defense and intelligence apparatuses helps them maintain stability in the kingdom.

Middle East expert Pinhas Inbari, a senior research fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, who has spent years studying changes in Jordan, argues that even though the events of the Arab Spring did not affect Jordan like they did its neighbors, the kingdom has clearly not avoided the Islamic State gaining a foothold within its borders. This has happened mostly at the kingdom’s periphery, and when the Islamic caliphate was at its heights, the Bedouin religious leadership openly declared its loyalty to ISIS and called for an ouster of the royal family.

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There are also the economic and social gaps between Amman, the capital, and Jordan’s periphery towns, as well as Jordanian officials’ frequent criticism of the royal family’s wasteful, showy lifestyle. Inbari emphasizes that the root of the problem lies in the crumbling Bedouin periphery. In the past, in the time of King Hussein, the Bedouin tribes were blindly loyal to the Hashemite crown. Today, that loyalty is seen as a vulnerability.

When it comes to the issue of the Palestinian majority in Jordan, the royal family has recently started to become concerned about the Bedouin sector’s growing strength, both in the Jordanian military – of which they form the backbone – and in the government sector, where the Bedouin fill many senior positions in administration and public security.

The Bedouin in Jordan see themselves, justifiably, as the pillar of their nation, whereas the Palestinians are considered guests. But while most of the Bedouin income comes from their public service, the Palestinians are mostly concentrated in Amman and the other large cities and do well in the private sector. The Bedouin tribes and clans continue to seethe as they watch the Palestinian “guests” flourishing and accumulating wealth and status.

The religious dimension

The inherent tension between the Bedouin and the Palestinians in Jordan is made more complicated by the religious aspect. While the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Jordan is comprised mainly of Palestinians, the Jordanian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood (which is in effect the movement that oversees Hamas) is walking a tightrope and being careful not to put Palestinians in top roles, preferring religious figures from the Bedouin sector.

According to Inbari, one reason why the kingdom has managed to remain stable through the events of the Arab Spring and the Islamic winter that followed is that it enjoyed sweeping, albeit secret, support from the Muslim Brotherhood. This was the case even as the Muslim Brotherhood in other Middle East countries, such as Egypt and Libya, were main factors in toppling the regimes there.

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It was actually the heads of Bedouin tribes in the Jordanian periphery, who identify with the Salafi-Wahabi stream of Sunni Islam, who were influenced by the spread of the Islamic State caliphate and lent their hand to spreading a call throughout the periphery to oust the royal family and replace it with an Islamist religious regime.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan aligned itself with King Abdullah and did not allow its members to carry out terrorist attacks against the kingdom. When Salafist circles began criticizing the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood for aligning itself with the king and his government, senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Jordan said that “we have no desire or need to bring Jordan down to the state of Syria, Libya, or Yemen.”

The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan’s stance alongside the royal family allowed it to express harsh criticism of the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel, and call for it to be canceled.

However, even in that case, the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan knew where the crown’s red line lay and its criticism was restricted to declarations. At the same time, the king and his men take part in the anti-Israel rhetoric, mostly when it comes to the issues of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, out of a desire to calm any possible escalation at home that could portray the rulers of the kingdom as cooperating with Israel.

In recent years, more people in Jordan have been calling to drop any sign of normalization with Israel, and Abdullah and his people are aware of their people’s growing opposition to closer ties with Israel and that warmer relations with Israel could be a catalyst that would cause the Jordanian public to boil over at the royal family. Inbari says that the economic frustration, and the good ties between Abdullah and the Palestinians in both Jordan and the West Bank these past few years, have caused the Bedouin to distance themselves from the king’s government and his officials.

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Senior Jordanian intelligence officials have even told Israel Hayom that even though the calls from some of the Bedouin tribes against the royal family are not strong enough to threaten the king’s rule, they are still a “worrying development that could become a threat to the kingdom’s stability.”

The source of the royal family’s legitimacy

Those same intelligence officials also say that recently, the king has been forced to grapple with new challenges: the Trump administration’s peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians, and what Amman perceives as the “Judaization” of the Temple Mount and a change to the status quo at the site.

The special status Israel conferred on the Jordanian kingdom, allowing it to oversee Islamic holy sites on the Temple Mount, is the main source of the Jordanian royal family’s legitimacy. Any attack to the status quo on the Temple Mount and Jordan’s status there will lead to the king and his family being accused of having betrayed their roles as guardians of the Islamic holy places in Jerusalem, and they will lose their legitimacy to rule and could even lose the kingdom itself.

Various reports claim that U.S. President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” will probably include the establishment of a pan-Arab Islamic council, led by Saudi Arabia, to manage the local Waqf – the entity that oversees the Temple Mount. For the Jordanian royal family, that means it would be booted out of its exclusive role at the holy site. According to Inbari, “that is the background [necessary] to understand why Jordan initiated the changes to the makeup of the Waqf and the resulting tension around the ‘Gate of Mercy.’ ”

Meanwhile, it appears that Jordan is still walking a narrow line, trying to maintain stability and ensure the continued existence of the kingdom, which achieved independence from Britain in 1946.