How Serious Is the Threat to Jordanian King Abdullah's Rule?

By Daniel Wagner & Giorgio Cafiero

Calls for change have returned to Jordan, with large crowds demanding social, economic and political reform and objecting to the rising cost of living, high levels of unemployment, corruption and autocracy. As the Arab Awakening enters its third year, the resilience of King Abdullah's regime is being tested as never before. Its ability to successfully exploit division among the political opposition, continue to receive economic assistance from the Gulf Cooperation Council and sell its reform agenda to the Jordanian public will ultimately determine its fate.

The Jordanian government has tolerated a "loyal opposition" for decades. The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood - founded in 1945 by merchants committed to waging Jihad against Zionists in the British Mandate of Palestine - has for many years constituted the center of this opposition. The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood's political wing -- the Islamic Action Front (IAF) -- has called for nullification of the peace treaty with Israel and transforming Jordan into a constitutional monarchy. Historically, the movement has worked within the system and cooperated with the monarch on a host of issues, such as oppressing communists and promoting literacy campaigns. However the opposition has not previously staged protests deviating from a well-defined script. The size of such demonstrations have rarely exceeded several hundred, and no direct challenges to the King were made.

The nature of the protests that began last year suggest that the government may be losing control over what was once 'confined' opposition. The size and scope of recent protests, direct challenges to the King, and the regional context are all unprecedented. These new dynamics imply that King Abdullah's regime is highly vulnerable to the forces that brought down the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. In absence of significant change - not only in terms of how the government represents the people and governs, but also how effective or ineffective it is in raising living standards going forward - King Abdullah faces the very real possibility of being overthrown.

The issue that most united the protestors last November was the decision to cut fuel subsidies, which adversely affecting low-income Jordanians who have suffered the most from the rise in living costs. The government defended the spending cut on the grounds that they were necessary to reduce the deficit, which has surpassed 10 percent of government spending, and in order to receive a loan from the IMF. Furthermore, since the natural gas pipeline in the Sinai - which Jordan depends on for the importation of inexpensive natural gas - has been attacked more than a dozen times following the Egyptian uprising, Jordan has been compelled to import more expensive sources of energy from Saudi Arabia, exacerbating its energy dilemma. Many recent protests have also focused on perceived corruption, with objections being raised in particular to the glamorous lifestyle of King Abdullah's Palestinian wife, Queen Rania.

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What has limited the impact of the rallies thus far is the opposition's lack of unity. While some quarters advocate a constitutional monarchy and call for King Abdullah to step down, others would like the King to remain in power but do more to address the nation's problems. The monarchy retains varying degrees of legitimacy within certain conservative opposition factions. Violent outbreaks between the King's supporters and opponents in recent months highlight how loyal certain circles remain to the King. Tensions between trans-Jordanian nationalists (often referred to as "East Bankers") and Islamist Palestinians further divide Jordan. Proposals that a more representative parliament be adopted are not popular with many trans-Jordanians, as such reform would further empower Jordanians of Palestinian origin, the Muslim Brotherhood's largest base of support. The Brotherhood and other opposition groups frequently argue that a more representative system of government would rein in corruption and require greater accountability.

The Syrian crisis constitutes a major dilemma for King Abdullah. By training Syrian rebels inside Jordan, Amman's interests appear to be aligned with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar vis-à-vis regime change in Damascus. But the prospect that radical Islamist factions may gain the upper-hand in the Syria conflict should also trouble King Abdullah. The Jordanian monarchy's secularism, the Jordan-Israel peace treaty, and King Abdullah's historical cooperation with the U.S. military have made the King resented by many Islamic extremists.

The King must fear that his monarchy may be targeted next by militant jihadists if the Ba'athist regime in Syria falls. Moreover, the threat of chemical weapons being deployed by either side in the Syrian conflict is being taken seriously by Jordanian authorities, who have met with U.S., British and Israeli officials to discuss plans for responding to any chemical attack that threatens Jordan. Moreover, the Kingdom hosts more than a quarter million refugees from Syria, for which the financial burden will only worsen the nation's plethora of economic problems.

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Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk management consulting firm, and author of the book Managing Country Risk. Giorgio Cafiero is a research analyst with CRS. Originally published by INEGMA.

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