Jordan: Between the Sunni world’s two poles

 24 Dec 2017 - 10:10

As a resource-poor Arab country, Jordan has long relied on wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states for economic assistance. For decades Amman has conducted a foreign policy within the geopolitical orbits of its close Sunni Arab allies—chiefly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt—and their Western backers, namely the United States. 

Jordan and Saudi Arabia, as two Sunni Arab monarchies, have generally shared a negative perception of Iran’s expanding influence in the Arab world. After all it was King Abdullah II who, in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s fall, famously warned of Tehran’s arch of influence from Iran to Lebanon via Bahrain, Iraq, and Syria constituting a “Shia Crescent”, although in recent years Jordan has embraced a relatively diplomatic approach to Iran. Illustrative of Amman’s deep links with Riyadh and other Arabian capitals, Jordan received an invitation to join the GCC six-and-a-half years ago. 

Yet relatively recently regional developments have fueled some tension in Jordan’s relationship with the GCC states, namely Saudi Arabia. At this juncture it is reasonable to contemplate the possibility of Amman making a strategic shift away from Jordan’s traditional Arab and Western allies, pushing Jordan into greater alignment with Turkey, Qatar, Iran, and—by extension—Russia and China too. 

When the Arab Spring uprisings erupted across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Jordan—like all Arab monarchies—weathered the political tsunamis that brought down several republican regimes. Despite Jordan maintaining relative stability and maintaining power, the conflict in neighbouring Syria posed a dilemma for Amman. 

In the initial stages of the Syrian crisis, Jordan reacted to the conflict in alignment with Riyadh and Washington by supporting Sunni rebels fighting the Damascus regime. However, Islamic State’s (ISIS or IS) meteoric ascension to power in mid-2014—and the so-called Caliphate’s barbaric murder of a Jordanian pilot, Moaz al-Kasasbeh, in early 2015—changed Amman’s threat perception of the Syrian crisis. The Jordanian leadership abandoned its support for regime change in Damascus, viewing ISIS—not Assad—as a graver menace to their country. Russia’s military intervention in Syria prompted Amman to pivot to Moscow, hedging its bets between the United States and Russia.

In 2015, when the Saudi-led Arab coalition entered Yemen, Jordan joined and deployed its forces to participate in anti-Houthi operations. Amman has also strongly condemned missile strikes against Saudi Arabia from Yemen. Yet Jordan has not been a major player in the Yemeni crisis because Amman sees the main security threats to the Hashemite Kingdom stemming not from Yemen but instead from Syria and Iraq, from where ISIS fighters have waged deadly terror attacks on Jordanian soil. 

The Qatar crisis’ eruption prompted Jordan to strike a careful balance. Amman downgraded ties with Doha, albeit without severing them. Amman’s efforts to not upset Riyadh and Abu Dhabi without burning a bridge with Qatar led to Jordan declaring that it did not endorse the Anti-Terror Quartet’s (ATQ) terror list and that Amman did not see itself as a party to the GCC’s diplomatic row. The Gulf dispute has served to signal more coldness between Amman and the Saudi/UAE-led bloc given that Jordan’s action against Qatar was relatively minimal.

Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has added new tension to Jordan’s relationship with the Saudi/UAE-led bloc as well as the Amman-Washington alliance. From Jordan’s vantage point, Trump’s Jerusalem move—and Egypt and the GCC members’ reaction to it—has the Jordanians feeling betrayed by their traditional Arab and Western allies. 

Now, in the aftermath of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s (OIC) summit on Jerusalem, held in Istanbul, Jordan appears keen on deepening its relations with Turkey. As President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is leading a rhetorical campaign against Trump and Israel, while vowing to create a “new alliance” of Muslim countries in defense of Jerusalem, Jordan is assessing its position between the Sunni world’s two poles: Mecca and Istanbul. The fact that the King of Jordan attended the OIC meeting in Istanbul, after meeting with Erdogan in Ankara earlier this month, and that he stood next to the Turkish president in the summit’s ceremonial photo spoke volumes about Amman’s look to Turkey—not Saudi Arabia—for leadership on an issue of major importance to the Muslim world. 

Ultimately, the friction between Amman and the ATQ is largely attributable to Jordan’s unease with the visions of Crown Prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ). From Jordan’s perspective, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have addressed regional issues—from Qatar to Syria to Palestine—in ways which undermined interests of the Hashemite Kingdom and the greater Arab world at large. Amman sees MbS and MbZ making plans with the Trump administration for a new Middle East that excludes Jordan from important decisions about the region’s future. There is speculation that the UAE is supporting the establishment of a separatist state in Gaza, separating the besieged coastal strip from the West Bank and further derailing Jordanian-backed plans for a two-state solution to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In light of the Jerusalem crisis which has potential to fuel instability in Jordan, Turkey’s increasingly anti-Western foreign policy, Russia’s securing of the Assad regime’s survival in Syria, and the institutionalization of the Qatar crisis, Jordan faces new realities in the region. As Turkey, Iran, and Qatar are overcoming past (and current) differences on Syria—particularly regarding Assad’s role in the country’s post-conflict political arena—and establishing a new axis that bridges the sectarian divide, Jordan must continue what it has achieved for decades in terms of carefully navigating the Middle East’s shifting geopolitical fault lines.

Given Jordan’s economic challenges and the country’s interest in shoring up future financial assistance from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Amman will likely go to pains to avoid losing Riyadh and Abu Dhabi as allies. Yet the ATQ countries will probably impose pressures on Jordan to realign Amman more closely with the Saudi/UAE-led bloc as Turkey and Iran challenge MbS and MbZ’s plans for transforming the Arab world. What remains to be seen is how such leveraging of influence over Amman would pan out. Whether such pressure would rein Jordan back toward Riyadh’s orbit or prompt Amman to pivot more decisively toward Ankara is unclear.

Dr. Khalid Al Jaber is the Director of Gulf International Forum and Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics.