Jordan: The Hashemite Kingdom of Apartheid?

By Samer Libdeh

In its recently published survey, Freedom House concluded that Jordan is not a "free" country. This startling finding raises serious doubts over the Hashemite regime's commitment to modernize and build a moderate, peaceful and democratic society.

Jordan is in the midst of a full-scale political and economic crisis due to the King Abdullah II's inability or unwillingness to build a modern democratic system. Indeed, contrary to the king's public pronouncements regarding his commitment to political and economic reform, it is clear that the Hashemite regime's long-term strategy is to acquire permanent status as an "emerging democracy," without the need to actually deliver on its public commitments for political reform.

In spite of the $6 billion in economic aid that Jordan has received from the US since 1991, the Hashemite regime has been unable to transform the fortunes of the ailing Jordanian economy. Indeed in 2010, Jordan's deficit doubled to 9 percent of gross domestic product and led to a steep rise in public debt to a staggering $13 billion, or 60% of GDP. Due to the failure and obvious shortcomings of the government's economic reform program, the king feared that Jordanian nationalists would try to capitalize on widespread public frustration and discontent by applying increased pressure on his fragile regime. In 2009, he dissolved parliament in a thinly disguised attempt to quash any political opposition to his regime.

TRADITIONALLY, JORDANIAN tribes have supported the Hashemite regime, as long as they have benefited from economic patronage from the state. However, when this economic support was subsequently withdrawn - due to the mismanagement of the economy, the tribes considered this a breach of the unwritten agreement it had in place with the state. Consequently, the king has sought to counter this potential conflict with the tribes by maintaining "ethnic cohesion" inside the security/military establishment. This has had the added benefit of enabling the regime to collaborate with the US Army in training troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and, most recently, in Yemen. It has also allowed the regime to secure US military aid.

As a consequence of the above policy, the king has failed to integrate the urban Palestinian-Jordanian majority into the security/military structure. Instead, the king has adopted his grandfather's 1920s policy by appointing Bani Sakher as the major tribe in control of Jordan's security affairs. The heads of military, public security as well as the minister of interior now belong to a single tribe that fought other tribes on behalf of the Hashemites before the creation of the Arab Legion.

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This policy has exacerbated ethnic tension within the kingdom, and the adoption of a policy of apartheid, clearly demonstrated by the withdrawal of the Jordanian citizenship of more than 2,700 Palestinian-Jordanian citizens. This clearly creates additional challenges for any potential resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and signals a willingness by the Jordanian nationalists to adopt hostile measures against Palestinians and Israelis.

The lack of ethnic diversity in the security establishment has raised concerns that the king may be losing legitimacy in Jordan. Accordingly, the Hashemites are reestablishing kinship ties as a way to preserve his influence in security-related decisions.

But this policy has also put the lives of Jordanians, Americans and even Afghanis at risk. The Khost attack on seven CIA officers last January in Afghanistan was the direct result of the misguided appointment of Prince Ali bin Zeid as the Jordanian case officer, who seemingly failed to convince the Jordanian al-Qaida bomber to cooperate with Jordanian intelligence.

Due to the obvious differences in their social, economic, cultural and ethnic background, the prince was unable to establish and build a relationship of trust with the Jordanian bomber, which would lead to a successful operation. Apparently, the royal family was hungry for a historical victory against al-Qaida, and perhaps huge financial rewards from the US.

AS TRIBALISM flourishes, freedom within Jordanian society will gradually erode. This has led to a weakening of state control that has already resulted in chaos and anarchy erupting in major rural towns. Almost five citizens are killed in Jordan on a weekly basis as a consequence of tribal clashes. The security forces have been unable to maintain order; fortunately, local sheikhs have stepped in to prevent further disturbances.

This is a further example of a weakened state, unable to control actors or impose the rule of law within its own borders - returning back to the Transjordanian norms that characterized the society prior to the establishment of the kingdom. Consequently, the tribes are becoming an increasingly important and active force within the state, which has been greatly assisted with the widespread availability of weapons to citizens.

Jordan's domestic policies are inconsistent with what is needed to achieve regional stability - vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict. Apparently, the effect of rising tribal-based nationalism is that it is eating into the cohesive force of citizenship and its institutional manifestations. Accompanied by the weakening structure of the state, the emergence of violent non-state actors is becoming evident. The rise of radical Transjordanian nationalism is leading to increased provocative measures being taken against, and engendering hostility toward, neighboring countries - as well as Jordanian citizens from other ethnic backgrounds.

Perhaps it is time for the international community to revise its policies toward the kingdom - taking into consideration its recent adoption of a policy of apartheid and the lack of political and economic reform within the kingdom.

The writer is a policy analyst and senior fellow at the Center for Liberty in the Middle East.

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