Why Jordan's problems sparked messages of support from around the world

Speed with which international capitals backed King Abdullah and Jordan’s stability shows its role on world stage

FILE - In this Dec. 10, 2020  photo released by the Royal Hashemite Court, Jordan's King Abdullah II gives a speech during the inauguration of the 19th Parliament's non-ordinary session, in Amman Jordan.  Jordan’s army chief of staff says the half-brother of King Abdullah II was asked to “stop some movements and activities that are being used to target Jordan’s security and stability.” The army chief of staff denied reports Saturday, April 3, 2021, that Prince Hamzah was arrested. He said an investigation is still ongoing and its results will be made public “in a transparent and clear form.”   (Yousef Allan/The Royal Hashemite Court via AP, File)

When a junior royal and a former head of the royal court were arrested on Saturday – in addition to other unnamed figures – the international reaction was swift.

By midnight local time, foreign ministers across the world had put out urgent communiqués standing behind Jordan's King Abdullah, the government and the people of the country.

The swift and unanimous response is indicative of the important role that Jordan plays in the Middle East and the world as well as the importance that international capitals place on avoiding a political earthquake in the Hashemite Kingdom.

Former adviser to the king Bassem Awadallah and royal Sharif Hassan Ben Zaid were both detained on Saturday on security grounds, officials said.

The military said that Prince Hamza – who was removed as crown prince in 2004 – was not under house arrest after reports he had been detained. However, Prince Hamza leaked a video overnight on Saturday saying that he was being barred from leaving his home.

The authorities did say they warned the prince, King Abdullah’s half-brother, to stop activities they said undermined the country’s security. They gave no details.

Jordan’s importance at the heart of the Middle East

"The quick way regional and international powers reacted suggests how important Jordan's stability is," Hassan Al Momani, an International studies professor who teaches at Jordan University, told The National.

On Saturday night, State Department spokesman Ned Price said American officials were “in touch” with Jordanian officials and that King Abdullah “is a key partner of the United States, and he has our full support."

The US and Jordan have long been military allies and as well as hosting American forces and logistics bases for the American-led invasion of neighbouring Iraq the two countries share intelligence and military co-operation.

The authorities signed a security pact with the United States this year and the government is one the biggest recipients of American aid. An estimated 3,000 US troops are based in the country.

Jordan is a member of the US-led coalition to defeat ISIS and King Abdullah has even flown on combat missions over Syria targeting the extremist group after they killed Jordanian pilot Muath Al Kasasbeh and broadcast the videos in 2015.

Mr Al Momani said that over the last several decades Jordan, “has forged a strategic alliance with the West and managed to create and consolidate multiple-roles in counter-terrorism, peacemaking, hosting refugees and international humanitarian organisations.”

This, he said, places Jordan as one of the central blocks in an interconnected Middle East.

“This is a regional system. If something happens to one unit it could impact other units,” he said.

This was highlighted on Sunday by the UAE that said that “the security and stability of Jordan is an integral part of its own security.”

Jordan also hosts over 700,000 Syrian refugees who have fled the neighbouring conflict.

Amman has also long played a central role in the Arab-Israeli conflict and a large proportion of Jordan’s population are of Palestinian origin.

The country of 10 million, ruled by the Hashemite monarchy since independence from Britain in 1946, was one of the first Arab nations to sign a peace deal with Israel.

And the Hashemite family is also the custodian of Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa compound – the third holiest site in Islam – and has been a key interlocutor in peace talks.

Geographically, Jordan for years was a key overland trade link between the Gulf in the south, the Levant in the north-west, Iraq in the east and Israel and Palestine in the West.

Tough times in Amman

Mr Al Momani said that given the country’s delicate tribal balances, the arrests indicated “something uneasy is happening in Jordan”.

Tribes and clans dominate the security forces and form the bedrock of support for the king.

Historically, the king has been a hands-on commander of the military and the final arbiter of domestic disputes, while building external alliances and dictating foreign policy.

Since King Abdullah took to the throne in 1999, he has employed his stature on the world stage to try to attract international investment.

But the economy is in recession after a decade of stagnation.

Poverty is deep and unemployment is officially at a record high of 24 per cent.

Growth contracted by 3 per cent in 2020, hit by lockdowns during the pandemic, but the government and the International Monetary Fund both predict a bounce of similar magnitude this year.

“The economic cost of the pandemic is huge,” Finance Minister Mohamad Al Ississ said in January.

Criticism has been rising, including from the king, of the government’s handling of the coronavirus.

Covid controversy

The authorities last month cracked down on small demonstrations that erupted across the country after a number of Covid patients died at a hospital in central Jordan.

Intensive care wards at a hospital in Al Salt run out of oxygen for nearly two hours, killing 7 people.

What the king said negligence resulted in the deaths and ordered action to be taken.

But people demonstrated, pointing to the poor state of many government services in the country.

After early successes in containing the virus last year, cases rose and lockdowns that hammered the economy and cut off vital tourists were mandated.

Support for the king

AMMAN, JORDAN - JANUARY 24: Former Prime Minister of Jordan Faisal Al-Fayez delivers a speech during the 9th Executive committee of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent conference in Amman, Jordan on January 24, 2017. (Photo by Salah Malkawi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Despite the grumblings of dissatisfaction at the state of things in Jordan, King Abdullah retains popularity among the people.

In a show of support, parliament, which has limited powers, on Sunday convened for a regular session that was turned over to speaker after speaker who backed King Abdullah and extolled his major achievements.

Jordan's Senate Speaker Faisal Al Fayez told the upper chamber that Jordan would remain "steadfast" and a "bulwark" against what he called "malicious conspiracies" that aimed to destabilise the country and cause divisions.

"Jordan and the king are a red line," he said.

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