The death of Jordan’s King Hussein in February 1999 not only marked the end of an era, it also highlighted regional preoccupations with looming succession crises in neighboring states, most notably Syria and Saudi Arabia. Hussein’s successor, Abdulla II, confronts a formidable task. He must maintain the institution of the monarchy in a post-modern era while governing a country beset by economic problems that render it dependent upon US and other foreign aid. Hussein’s legacy to Abdulla includes a peace treaty with Israel – unpopular with most Jordanians – that has yet to reap the much touted economic dividends promised by the late kind. Charting a court through Jordan’s current difficulties may entail Abdullah’s temporary abandonment of the tentative

Regime Legitimacy

Abdullah’s smooth accession to the throne against the background of a genuine national grief demonstrated that the Hashemites have achieved legitimacy as Jordan’s ruling family. Legitimacy as head of state, albeit through authoritarian rule, was a person achievement for the late kind, whose grandfather Abdulla I carved our Jordan as a recognizable national entity within the borders it enjoys today. Yet it was Hussein who, after a shaky start and many close calls, finally established the country as a legitimate, sovereign and independent state. The Hashemites are no longer perceived as “refugees” from the Hijaz precariously perched on shaky thrones erected by British imperialism. It is not the nature, not the fact, of Hashemite rule that is occasionally contested. The monarchy as an institution is virtually unchallenged, thanks to King Hussein’s charisma and personal relations with key power brokers within the region and beyond.

Although few doubted Abdullah’s right to accede to the throne, his unexpected designation as Hussein’s successor in place of then-Crown Prince Hassan astounded many. But this dramatic change in Jordan’s succession scenario sparked little if any opposition within the powerhouse that is the royal court. The public apparently accepted the surprising change of plans as fait accompli, the late king’s “wise choice.”

New King, Old Rules

The popular enthusiasm that greeted the announcement of Abdullah’s succession was partly a transfer of support and respect from the old monarch to the new. Yet is also represented a widespread popular expectation that a new era had dawned in Jordan.  A young, dynamic leader, unburdened by much of his late father’s political baggage, might accelerate the process of political liberalization that Hussein had initiated and then frozen. Many hoped the new monarch would spearhead a campaign against corruption in high places, tackle a faltering economy with vigor and place the rule of law and respect for human rights at the top of his agenda. In so doing, Abdullah was expected to replace the late king’s former advisers with a younger, “cleaner” and politically more palatable set of ministers and senior officials.

Those hoping for a domestic and economic reforms seem less confident that Jordan can transcend its current dependence on external (primarily US) financial support and do anything other than toe the lines defined by Western priorities, such as supporting the Middle East peace process and maintaining harsh sanctions against Iraq. Abdullah’s Jordan is hardly positioned to pursue purely Jordanian national interests.

Keeping Elites

Popular expectations of dramatic change were premature and perhaps unrealistic, given Jordan’s power structure and political organization. Although King Hussein was increasingly autocratic during the last years of his rule, he remained beholden to a small circle within the ruling elite. Hashemite rule was family rule supported by tried and trusted cronies. Hussein’s authority, however strong his personal prestige, ultimately rested on the armed forces and the intelligence apparatus. Under Abdullah, this will perforce remain the case. As a new an inexperienced ruler, Abdullah’s reliance on his late father’s closest advisers is probably unavoidable.

Abdullah must painstakingly find his way, with some guidance from the older generation of his late father’s circle. But even when he has finally established himself, it is inevitable that the next generation of advisers will come from the same narrow segment of the traditional elite. This group will continue to dominate the armed forces and intelligence structure. Twenty-first century Jordan will thus more closely resemble a genuine oligarchy than did King Hussein’s last authoritarian decade.

Democracy’s Death Throes?

This assessment, if accurate, does not bode well for significant political reforms and increased democratization or liberalization of the state’s political structure. The ruling elite will not willingly relinquish their political power and economic influence. Abdullah may be able to chip away at the margins of Jordan’s political structure, and perhaps even garner political radicals’ support, but a transfer of real power to popular forces is highly unlikely. Jordan will remain a conservative monarchical regime for the foreseeable future – albeit liberal in comparison to its closest Arab neighbors.

Jordan’s Islamist opposition initially gave the new regime the benefit of the doubt, but this proved short-lived. By late summer 1999, following a clampdown on extreme Islamist factions (particularly the Jordanian branch of Hamas), a standoff developed. Despite their differences with the regime, the Islamists praised Abdullah’s equitable handling of the 1999 municipal elections, which they characterized as free and fair. Not only did they poll up to their expectations, but by their very act of participation they returned to a constitutional fold they had abandoned by boycotting the 1997 national parliamentary elections. This signaled the Islamic opposition’s return to mainstream constitutional politics.

If external events such as further stalemates in the peace process lead to domestic criticism of Jordan’s foreign policy, pressure will build for popular participation in policy making through the parliament. The seeds of confrontation between the palace and people could quickly be sown. Given such potentially volatile circumstances, the regime is more likely to react with coercion than with further liberalization and compromise.

Dollar Ransoms?

Remaining hostage to Jordan’s political establishment will hinder Abdullah’s efforts in other areas of needed reform. The king has placed the economy at the top of his agenda. Prime Minister Abdul Ra’uf Rawabdeh told the Jordanian Parliament in May 1999 that the country had no choice but to implement tough economic reforms to revive the recession-hit economy. Jordan’s major creditors are pinning their hopes on massive debt-forgiveness. Abdullah’s first European and American tour in May 1999 focused primarily on securing relief for up to half of Jordan’s current bilateral debt of four billion US dollars.

Although some assistance may be forthcoming as a measure of support for the “new Jordan,” it will not be enough. The US is likely to remain the most generous of Jordan’s bilateral donors, though it may not match the 40 percent of total grant aid that Jordan received in 1998. Political factors clearly play a role in donor calculations and aid is conditional on Jordan’s stance as a moderate and pliable partner in the peace process. The US will also demand that Jordan keep its nose clean on Iraq. As Karen Pfeifer recently noted in these pages, [1] Jordan’s International Monetary Fund (IMF)-sponsored economic reform program has not been the total success claimed by the Fund and the Jordanian Government. Nevertheless, and in the absence of new ideas, the IMF continues to insist in its familiar formulas, which the new government continue to follow. Hence, Jordanians can expect more belt-tightening according to the traditional IMF/IBRD prescription. [2]

Thirty percent of Jordanians already live below the official poverty line, which is somewhat higher than the 25 percent periodically acknowledged by the government. Expensive social welfare benefits, which go against IMF prescriptions, must be provided if this sector of the population is to escapre further economic pummeling. The professional middle classes are already being squeezed by the IMF-mandated restructuring program Jordan has endured for a decade. Although most Jordanians are prepared to support the government in its reform attempts, further economic sacrifices will be resented and resisted unless the government shows that it is dealing equitably with all its citizens. The super-rich of suburban Amman live in ostentatious splendor, seemingly unscathed by financial stringency. Popular opinion traces the source of their wealth to unscrupulous and opportunistic land speculation and other corrupt practices. From the ranks of the super-rich come most of the ruling clique – including some senior members of the present government whose person integrity is not above reproach and whose past misdemeanors have gone unpunished because of their wasta (connections) and personal influence within the justice system. Any reform programs they initiate that exclude them and their cronies from belt-tightening measures will lack credibility.

Friends and Neighbors

King Abdullah’s prioritization of the economy has been welcomed by major donor states and, in principle, by his people. He has also received praise for his efforts to mend fences with Gulf Arab countries, which have had strained relations with the Hashemite Kingdom since the Gulf crisis of 1990-91. Arab leaders’ prominence at the late king’s funeral signaled a determination on behalf of Syria, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to begin afresh with a new monarch unburdened by his father’s regional animosities and suspicions. Since acceding to the throne, Abdullah has been in perpetual motion, visiting Arab states and taking advantage of this honeymoon period of reconciliation and cooperation.

Full diplomatic relations have been restored with Kuwait and cordiality has been established between Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Most important, the Damascus-Amman axis appears to be basking in a warmth unknown for many years. Although these developments have a greater psychological than political significance, they could herald important practical benefits for Jordan. The re-opening of the Gulf to Jordan’s skilled and surplus work force, barred from Kuwait since 1991, as well as unimpeded Jordanian access to traditional markets previously obstructed by Saudi Arabia, could be in Jordan’s economic future.

Only toward Iraq does Jordan show hesitation and uncertainty. A popular wish is to restore normal relations with Iraq, a close neighbor and Jordan’s most important trading partner. This is countered, however, by strong pressures from Washington to maintain sanctions and to use Jordan as part of an anti-Iraq coalition that might lead to an overthrow of the current regime in Baghdad. The king, like his father after the Gulf crisis, might privately favor a robust posture of confrontation with the current Ba’thist leadership, but he knows that such a policy will not play well on the Jordanian street. Abdullah is likely to remain studiously neutral in his public attitudes while discreetly encouraging efforts for a regime change in Baghdad so that Jordan can resume a normal relationship with its most important neighbor.

Peace Posturing

Despite Jordan’s diminishing role in the peace process as Israel and the Palestinians move haltingly toward final status negotiations, the Hashemite kingdom will continue to benefit from western political and economic support. Washington still perceives Jordan as strategic, though junior, partner in a crucial region. US views and preferences will continue to play an important role in strategic thinking in royal circles. This, in turn, will encourage further economic liberalization, though with little evidence of political liberalization, which could destabilize the royal elite’s stranglehold on political power. The current Jordanian parliament remains an ineffectual façade of democracy behind which the Royal Court wields actual power. Continued stability and economic progress – should they persist – will be cited by the US and the international donor community as models of good governance and political liberalization worthy of regional emulation.

Jordan must continue to engage itself closely and carefully with the emerging Palestinian entity, if only to protect its own interests. The nature of this entity, as long as it is not dominated by Islamists, is immaterial. As always, the regime must gauge the impact of development on the West Bank and Gaza on the Palestinian community in Jordan. Considering that more than 60 percent of Jordan’s citizens are Palestinian in origin and that over 1.2 million are still officially-registered refugees, Jordan ignores Palestinian politics at its peril.

King Abdullah needs to be particularly wary of attempts by other parties to the peace process to persuade Jordan to take responsibility for all Palestinian in any federal or confederal arrangement between the Palestinians, Jordan and Israel. The PLO and the PNA have indicated that they will not countenance any arrangement that resurrect the much-reviled, right wing Israeli argument that Jordan is Palestine. Furthermore, the Palestinians will be suspicious of any Jo9rdanian attempt to revive previously relinquished Hashemite claims to sovereignty in either the West Bank or over holy places in Jerusalem. Abdullah has already states that the holy places are a Palestinian responsibility and that Jordan will not participate in final status negotiations except as an observer. In return, the PLO and the PNA in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are unlikely to encourage Palestinian agitations or protest within Jordan. Relinquishing Jordanian clams of the west of the river is a small price to pay given the potential damage a hostile Palestinian citizenry could inflict on Abdullah’s new leadership.

Ironically, while a bilateral peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians could benefit Jordan, a comprehensive regional peace would not be in Jordan’s interests. Current levels of economic support from Europe, Japan and the US would probably subside in such an event. Any financial benefits from a comprehensive peace, such as Jordan’s role in filtering refugee compensation, could never compensate for the diminished levels of Western aid. Given current political and economic realities, Abdullah cannot hope to be more than a bit player. He has little if any influence on the other participants in the peace process, and the regional “superpowers” – Egypt and Syria – would not welcome Jordan’s participation unless in slavish support of their own polices. In the event of a regime change in Iraq, Jordan would inevitably lose some of its current important as pivotal player in the region.

Regardless of emerging political realities in the region in the next century, post-Hussein Jordan will lack much of the clout it enjoyed during the reign of the late king. Hussein’s political longevity, astounding by regional standards, and his close ties with the West spanning nearly half a century, gave him a special position that his successor, for reasons of global political and economic configuration more so that for reasons of person charisma, cannot aspire to. The cost of the emerging regional situation to political liberalization in Jordan have yet to be tallied.


[1] “How Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan and Even Egypt Became IMF ‘Success Stories’ in the 1990s.” Middle East Report 210 (Spring 1999) pp. 23-27.

[2] This will entail the complete removal of remaining subsidies, increased sales and other taxes, more privatization (leading to an increase in already high levels of unemployment), and less tariff protection for domestic industries as a condition for adherence to the World Trade Organization.

How to cite this article:

Peter Hinchcliffe, Beverley Milton-Edwards "Abdullah’s Jordan: New King, Old Problems," Middle East Report 213 (Winter 1999).

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