Jordan’s King Abdullah becomes first Arab leader to visit Biden in Washington

Bilateral talks about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Jordan's economy come at a critical moment for the monarch

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US President Joe Biden on Monday held White House talks with Jordan's King Abdullah II, pledging support for the first Arab leader to meet Mr Biden in Washington since he took office in January.

“You've always been there and we will always be there for Jordan,” Mr Biden said as he welcomed the king, who faced down a challenge to his authority in April from his half-brother, Prince Hamzah.

At the start of the meeting in the White House's Oval Office, King Abdullah said he and Mr Biden “come together as always as strong partners.”

“We have many challenges in our part of the world,” the Jordanian leader said.

The two men were joined by King Abdullah's son, Crown Prince Hussein, and spoke on their long-standing ties before heading into talks on a range of regional issues.

“Many of us leaders in our part of the world will do the heavy lifting, which is what we need to do on behalf of the United States, but you can always count on me, my country and many of our colleagues in the region,” King Abdullah said.

He is the first Middle East leader to visit the Biden White House, to be followed next week by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi. US and Israeli officials are working on scheduling a meeting soon between Mr Biden and new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

Before his arrival, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the meeting would provide an “opportunity to discuss the many challenges in the Middle East and showcase Jordan’s leadership role in promoting peace and stability in the region.”

“We expect everything from Middle East peace to security in the region to Syria to be points of discussion in the meeting this afternoon,” she said.

The Crown Prince, Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister Ayman Safadi, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House Co-ordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk were among those who joined Mr Biden and King Abdullah for the talks.

The White House said Mr Biden “expressed his strong support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and respect for Jordan’s special role as custodian of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem” during their meeting.

That recommitment is important for King Abdullah. The Biden administration has the task of repairing ties with Amman that were shaken up during former president Donald Trump's tenure.

Mr Trump's “Deal of the Century” avoided pursuing a two-state solution to the conflict, moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and cut aid to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.

Mending that relationship, as well as Israel and the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, are the primary issues on the agenda, said Merissa Khurma, the programme director of the Middle East Programme at the Wilson Centre and former director of the Office of Jordan’s Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein.

Mr Biden confirmed his eagerness to hear King Abdullah's perspective on several regional issues.

“You live in a tough neighbourhood,” Mr Biden told the king. “I look forward to hearing it from His Majesty about the pressing challenges that Jordan faces.”

Professor Curtis Ryan, an expert on Jordanian politics, says that even as the page turns on both the Trump administration and the era of Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Jordanians remain sceptical of any movement towards a political environment more concerned with the Palestinian cause.

“While Jordan wants to fully restore its previous high standing with the US, it has lower expectations regarding Israel.

“Any non-Netanyahu government at least holds potential for a more positive Israeli-Jordanian relationship, but everyone in Jordan is aware that this is still a far-right new PM in Israel, and they don't necessarily expect Israel to suddenly become more supportive of Palestinian rights or Jordan's preferred two-state solution.”

President Biden and King Abdullah’s relationship dates back to the US leader's time in Congress.

“We've been hanging out together for a long time,” Mr Biden said, noting he first met King Abdullah when his father, King Hussein of Jordan, was in power.

“I had the honour and privilege of knowing you with my father decades ago,” King Abdullah said. “So, this is very warming for me to be able to see you in this position and to thank you for the generosity that you always have shown.”

That history is important as the allies rebuild trust, Ms Khurma said.

“This is an opportunity for the king to make a strong case for why the Biden administration should invest in [the two-state solution] track … I think this meeting will be an opportunity to discuss the concerns Jordan has about inaction on that front, or [the US] taking a more quiet approach to this issue.”

The White House on Sunday said the Biden administration intended to promote “economic opportunities that will be vital for a bright future in Jordan”. Mr Biden also noted the US would keep providing vaccine support and the White House announced the delivery of over 500,000 Covid-19 vaccines to Jordan as Amman grapples with high rates of vaccine hesitancy.

An emphasis on economic support for Jordan comes at a critical moment.

Unemployment among youths has reached 50 per cent and the general unemployment rate stands at 25 per cent, the World Bank says. Swelling public debt has also revealed vulnerabilities.

“All of these economic wounds have to be attended to,” Ms Khurma said.

Washington is the largest provider of assistance to Amman. The US gave more than $1.5 billion to Jordan in 2020, including $425 million in military assistance. Reuters reported that the king will lobby the White House for an extension of a five-year $6.4bn aid package that ends next year.

“The next phase is critical, precisely because socioeconomic issues have been a driver for sociopolitical unrest,” Ms Khurma said.

King Abdullah recently formed a committee to explore pathways towards political modernisation in Jordan.

There are signs the committee could lead to change, but history shows the need for a cautious attitude, Prof Ryan said.

“Scepticism abounds, but many on the committee seem to be deeply aware of that, and there are some genuine reformers among them who are going to try to make this round more 'real' than previous rounds.”

In April, some royal aides were accused of working with foreign powers to undermine the king’s authority. The king's half-brother, Prince Hamzah, was also implicated in the political rift. An envoy and royal aide were sentenced this month to 15 years each in prison for sedition.

“Jordan wants positive reinforcement that it acted appropriately in terms of the April arrests, keeping [Prince Hamzah] contained, and the outcome of the security court trials,” says Sean Yom, a specialist in Jordanian studies and a senior fellow in the Middle East Programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

For Mr Yom, the political and economic landscape in Jordan are linked. But he says Amman’s ally, Washington, which claims to lead the democratic world, may not have an interest in stimulating democratic reforms there.

“By definition, an electoral democracy in Jordan that reflects popular preferences would not adopt consistently pro-American stances, because popular preferences in society remain cautious at best, and hostile at worst, to US strategic interests, not to mention normalisation with Israel,” Mr Yom said.

“But I think the US also understands, rightfully, that continued economic degradation will push the kingdom into a worsening cycle of protest, crisis, recalibration and instability, which in turn would threaten Jordanian constancy.”

The Biden administration is more receptive to political modernisation in Amman, but is unlikely to endorse sweeping political shifts, Mr Ryan said.

“It seems likely that the new White House is more interested in reform than its predecessor. So, it may be a kind of tough love version, pushing for at least some reform in the belief that this will help Jordanian stability and the longevity of the Hashemite regime.”

Sources from the Jordanian embassy tell The National that King Abdullah, who enjoys bipartisan support in a polarised Washington, will meet members of multiple Congressional committees this week.

Updated: July 20, 2021, 6:26 AM