Jordan and other conservative Arab states are struggling with a difficult superpower ally and facing threats of regional escalation.
In the month since the Bahrain Conference, Jordan has intensified its attempts to diversify regional ties. This is due to growing tensions with its traditional allies and financiers, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), over the US peace plan, and with an eye to the next stages in the Trump Peace Plan, which Jordan fears will lead to tension with its superpower ally.
Public opinion in Jordan is strongly against American policy towards the Palestinian issue and critical of Israel’s current government. With continued economic and social unrest in the Kingdom, the King cannot be seen as “caving in” on key issues such as Palestinian statehood, Jerusalem, and “settlement” of refugees. In addition, Amman fears that the American moves will agitate Palestinians in the West Bank, with security repercussions for the Kingdom. Jordan is attempting to firm up a bloc supportive of the two-state solution, pursuant to their enhanced and close cooperation with the Palestinian Authority in recent weeks.
Amman also seeks to improve its relations with other regional players (Qatar, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt) to insure political support, economic backing, and continued access to energy sources, in the event of a crisis in its relations with the U.S. Administration and Saudi Arabia.
This Jordanian strategy fits into a larger pattern of re-positioning by several other regional Arab players, each for its own reasons, but all due to American policy and its regional repercussions, especially regarding the heightened possibility of a military confrontation in the Gulf. The meeting of the foreign ministers of Egypt, Iraq and Jordan in Baghdad on 4 August, 2019 was only one of the clearest indications of this trend. The three ministers stressed their leaders’ commitment to trilateral cooperation and coordination; to a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital; to de-escalation and political dialogue in the Gulf; and to an “Arab role” in ending the Syrian crisis.
On July 16, Jordan announced resumption of full diplomatic relations with Qatar, exchanging ambassadors after a two-year break (in which mutual representation was by lower level diplomats). Jordan downgraded the level of diplomatic relations in June 2017, under pressure by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who cut all ties with and imposed a blockade on Doha and convinced eight other Muslim and African states to do likewise. Jordan did not participate fully in the embargo, and maintained air and trade connections with Qatar, with the volume of bilateral trade close to 400 million dollars. Last summer, when Jordan faced public protests due to the economic crisis, Qatar extended it a $500 million economic package, days after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait pledged $2.5 billion. However, only a part of the latter amount, apart from a one billion dollar deposit in Jordan’s central bank, has materialized, while Qatar has ramped up its investments in Jordan, and issued thousands of work permits for Jordanians in Qatar.
In a second prong of the diplomatic campaign, the Turkish Foreign Minister visited Amman (23 July), and discussed with his Jordanian counterpart a number of ways to improve bilateral ties between the two countries, as well as regional issues. Notably, the Turkish visitor stressed the importance of the role of King Abdullah II in protecting the “Islamic and Christian Holy Sites in Jerusalem” (in contradiction of reported efforts of Turkish elements to gain influence on the Mount at Jordan’s expense). While the King may not like Erdogan’s policies, he seeks his support with regard to preserving the Hashemite custodianship of the Temple Mount. Jordan had cancelled its free trade agreement with Turkey last year, under pressure from its Gulf allies (due to their conflict with Ankara resulting from Turkish support for Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, and geopolitical competition for leadership of the “Sunni camp”). However, following his meetings in Amman, the Turkish minister tweeted that “new economic cooperation agreement to be signed very soon in Ankara will further our relations.” Diplomatic sources report that Turkey’s intelligence chief, defense minister and military chief of staff also had recent talks with senior Jordanian officials.
Turkey and Qatar are seen as significant rivals, even enemies, by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. These two wealthy states are also strong supporters of the Trump Plan, and are suspected by Jordan of collaborating with the American Administration to harm Palestinian and Jordanian interests (especially apparent Saudi efforts to displace Jordan as guardian of the holy sites in Jerusalem). Relations with Saudi Arabia are passing through “a rough period”: Jordan refused to take part in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and has resisted pressure from Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to be more open to Trump’s peace plan. The recent Jordanian moves regarding Doha and Ankara are a signal to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to not take Amman for granted, and possibly also an attempt to develop an alternative economic base, if its positions on the Trump plan and other regional issues lead to crisis. Turkey is the other major Sunni regional power, and improved relations with it could balance over-reliance on, and possible future worsening of relations with, Saudi Arabia.
As a balance to this activity, and to prevent serious damage to its existing relationships with UAE, King Abdullah visited Abu Dhabi on July 27. He met (including tete-a-tete) with Mohammad bin Zayed, the Crown Prince and the de facto leader of the UAE, and the two reaffirmed the countries’ “deep and brotherly relations.” (It is worth noting that relations with Dubai, the other strong component of the UAE, may be delicate due to the high-profile divorce case between the leader of Dubai and his sixth wife, King Abdullah’s half-sister). This visit may also be part of a change in UAE policy; a partial disengagement from Saudi Arabia and a more balanced position vis-à-vis Iran. This has been indicated by UAE’s reluctance to join the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel in directly blaming Iran for attacks on shipping in the Gulf; its calls to find a diplomatic solution to the current Gulf navigational crisis; quiet visits by Emirati officials to Iran in the past month for talks on regional developments, as well as on maritime security; and its withdrawal of most of its troops from Yemen. It remains in Southern Yemen to fight “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” and probably, to ensure its new geopolitical interests and position in the Bab el Mandeb and Red Sea, but is disengaging from the Saudi-led war with the Houthis.
The UAE, and especially Dubai as a major port and transportation hub, fear the possible direct effects of hostilities with Iran. The UAE and neutral Oman and Kuwait are physically the closest and most vulnerable of the GCC states to Iran. They also fear the indirect chilling effect of conflict on their export-based economies, including higher maritime insurance rates. All this is not surprising, considering that the UAE has slightly different priorities than its Saudi ally, being more concerned with the threat of democratizing movements in the Arab world, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Qatar-Turkey axis, than with Iran. (In 2018, UAE-Iran trade totaled $16 billion).
Maintaining and Improving Ties with Existing Friends
Jordan has also continued to highlight improved relations with Iraq. Baghdad for its part is also trying to diversify and “Arabize” its regional relations, especially with Jordan and Egypt; in its case, in order to distance itself slightly from Iran and return to relevancy in the Arab World. Jordan’s Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz met in Amman (July 18) with the Iraqi Interior Minister Yasin al-Yasiri, and said that “Jordan will remain the supporter, guarantor and lung of Iraq … the security of the two countries is indivisible.” Earlier last month, the Jordanian energy minister visited Baghdad and discussed various energy issues, including the provision to Jordan of ten thousand barrels of Iraqi crude from Kirkuk daily through the Karama border crossing, and the Iraqi cabinet’s decision (July 10) to begin building a pipeline to export one million barrels of Iraqi oil a day from the Rumeila fields near Basra through the Jordanian port of Aqaba. This project will take years to implement, but will free Iraq from dependence on transit through Turkey and the Gulf for oil exports.
All this has occurred, while Jordan is steadily tightening economic and political cooperation with Egypt. The Hashemite King visited Cairo (July 29), and met with President Abd-el-Fattah a-Sisi to signal the improvement of bilateral ties as well as coordinate the two states’ responses to the American initiative. The two countries also had a high-profile ministerial meeting early last month, with a delegation under Jordanian Prime Minister al-Razzaz visiting Cairo. At the conclusion of the King’s visit to Cairo, the two sides stated that “their countries would maintain support to the Palestinian people until they regain their legitimate right to establish an independent state along the borders of June 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital and as detailed in the two-state solution posited in the Arab Peace Initiative”. In addition, Egypt and Jordan recently reached an agreement, under which Egypt will compensate Jordan over the next fifteen years with the amount of natural gas not provided under previous agreements, due to the seven-year disruption of the pipeline connecting the two countries.
Jordan also participated, along with Lebanon and Iraq, in the recent round of intra-Syrian peace talks to be held under the Astana process, led by Russia, Iran and Turkey. This can be viewed as an additional part of its “hedging” strategy, which includes good relations with Moscow, and the improvement of their relations with Turkey, as well as being expressive of the desire to encourage the return of Syrian refugees.
To the extent that it can create a bloc, especially with Egypt, which does not support the Trump peace initiative, Jordan may somewhat inoculate itself from possible punitive responses from its major supporters. The King is also trying to straddle the intra-Sunni divide, a key element in the current strategic architecture in the Middle East. The attempted realignment described here may not be the optimal solution, and it may not provide Jordan with adequate recompense for alienation from its major supporters. However, it can be seen as a “do what we can” policy, which is better than remaining passive.
The Israeli Angle
From the point of view of Israel, there does not seem to be much it can do now to succor its neighbor and ally. Jordan and Israel currently have some significant policy differences on the Palestinian issue and regarding the Trump initiative, and their interests do not mesh on all issues. Despite the much-extended election season, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been statesmanlike and seems to be taking the long view on Israel-Jordan relations, and does not underscore various problematical aspects of Jordanian policy in recent months (such as the Temple Mount and criticism of Israeli policy in East Jerusalem, and the Jordanian decision not to renew the special status of Israeli agriculture in the enclaves of Tzofar and Naharaim, and acquiescence with a poisonous public and media atmosphere towards Israel and Israelis). This is despite the fact that a more adversarial position towards Jordan on these issues would be welcomed by a large part of Netanyahu’s right-wing base.
Cooperation between Egypt and Jordan, with the two states trying jointly to move Iraq a little out of the Iranian orbit and into the central stream in the Arab world, is probably consonant with Israel’s interests. In addition, Israel doesn’t have an interest in further promoting the intra-Sunni split (which arguably serves Iran), and a moderate Jordanian rapprochement with Qatar and Turkey does not threaten major Israeli interests. Making sure of continued active involvement by Jordan with the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, which encourages its orientation westward towards the emerging Eastern Mediterranean bloc, and not eastwards, as well as tightening its energy connection to Israel and Egypt, could both promote Israel’s interests and ease Jordanian concerns about possible isolation.
The Israeli government is not going to support the Jordanian agendas of opposing the Trump plan, promoting the two-state solution, and political engagement to defuse Gulf tension. These do not jibe with Israel’s policies and interests. However, Israel can and should reflect understanding for Jordan’s complex dilemmas relating to Saudi Arabia, UAE and especially the Trump administration.
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