Defense & Security
'The worst is coming': Jordan braces for spillover effects of Israel-Hamas war
Image Source : Shutterstock
Defense & Security
Image Source : Shutterstock
First Published in: Nov.02,2023
As the Israel-Hamas war enters its fourth week, the Kingdom of Jordan finds itself on the frontline of the conflict and King Abdullah II a central figure in the regional and global diplomatic efforts to contain it. Facing a complex set of domestic and external challenges even before Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and with a perilous ground war in Gaza now underway, the Hashemite Kingdom is bracing for a broader conflict and multiple spillover effects.
A precarious reality at home and abroadDomestic pressures
Jordan faces numerous challenges that King Abdullah II is under mounting pressure to address. Popular discontent with the perceived corruption and indifference of government officials and the royal family itself has been growing, though there are few signs that the survival of the monarchy is at risk. Fueling this discontent are the worsening socio-economic conditions after the Jordanian economy failed to absorb successive external shocks, namely the COVID‑19 pandemic and the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. According to official figures, the unemployment rate stood at 22.3% in Q2 2023 and over 40% for those aged 15‑24. Interest rates, which have continued to climb as the result of a sustained period of high inflation and the Jordanian currency’s peg to the United States dollar, are further squeezing household incomes. The price of essential goods remains elevated, by pre-2022 standards. Meanwhile, wage growth has broadly stagnated. Public debt has swelled to around 110% of GDP, increasing external debt service payments and thus placing a heavy burden on the country’s foreign currency reserves. About 27% of the population is living in poverty. Jordan’s persistent economic malaise has done little to dissipate the public anger and frustration that boiled over last December, when a nationwide strike over fuel price increases stemming from austerity measures mandated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) sparked riots in several large cities, featuring clashes between anti-government protesters and supporters of the king along with skirmishes between protesters and police. These latest disturbances are part of a recurring pattern marked by chronic economic and fiscal crises, outbursts of public anger, and limited reforms. But it is important to note that in the past couple of years, the state has met growing popular dissent and disgruntlement with heightened repression.External challenges
Despite having succeeded in repressing jihadist attacks from infiltrating the kingdom and playing a pivotal role in inter-Arab reconciliation with Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Jordan has continued to grapple with the spillover effects of the Syrian civil war. At the same time, Jordan’s relations with Israel have deteriorated. The kingdom is waging a tough battle against increasing drug and weapons trafficking and carrying a heavy refugee burden, further stretching its resources. Across its northern border with Syria, a prevailing state of lawlessness has transformed Jordan into a key transit route for the smuggling of captagon, a highly addictive and lucrative amphetamine, along with other drugs and weapons. In addition, the United Nations World Food Program’s (WFP) recent reduction by one-third of aid for the 119,000 Syrians residing in Jordan’s Zaatari and Azraq refugee camps has increased fiscal pressure on the government. Meanwhile, Jordan’s political relations with Israel have deteriorated. During Benjamin Netanyahu’s lengthy premiership (2009-2021), Jordan’s relations with Israel were frosty. Although bilateral relations somewhat improved during the 18-month tenure of Israel’s “Change Coalition” under Naftali Bennet and Yair Lapid, the return of Netanyahu to power at the head of a hard right-nationalist coalition at the end of 2022 rekindled tensions. A rare meeting between King Abdullah and Netanyahu in Amman last January, aimed at easing tensions, was eclipsed three months later by a series of violent confrontations between Israeli police and Palestinians at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem. The 1994 Wadi Araba peace treaty with Israel remains deeply unpopular in Jordan. According to a March 2022 survey conducted by The Jerusalem Post, 32% of respondents ranked Israel as the country that most threatens Jordan’s security, and 48% identified the Jewish state as the country most responsible for regional instability. The Doha-based Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies’ Arab Opinion Index 2022, issued in January of this year, found that 94% of Jordanian respondents opposed any recognition of or ties with Israel. Raising the specter of an upsurge of violence in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip last December as a new hardline government in Israel was about to take office, King Abdullah warned in a CNN interview, “We have to be concerned about a next intifada. […] And if that happens, that’s a complete breakdown of law and order and one that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will benefit from.” The Jordanian leader could not have anticipated the shocking Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, yet his remarks at a conference in New York just two weeks earlier were prescient: “This belief by some in the region that you can parachute over Palestine — deal with the Arabs and work your way back — that does not work.”
Grappling with conflict
The war in Gaza has compounded the domestic and external challenges facing the Hashemite Kingdom. More than 2 million or 40% of all registered Palestinian refugees live in Jordan. Since the onset of the war, thousands of Jordanians have taken to the streets daily in Amman and around the country in pro-Palestinian rallies organized by opposition parties and to protest Israel’s bombing campaign and incursions into Gaza. Some young protesters attempted to storm the Israeli embassy while others reportedly demanded Jordanian authorities “open the borders” so they could join the fight to “liberate Palestine.” Hamas leaders have urged Jordanian tribes to enter the conflict against Israel. King Abdullah has faced growing calls to expel Israeli diplomats and abrogate Jordan’s peace deal with Israel. Two weeks into the war, at an emergency Middle Eastern summit in Cairo, the king channeled Jordanians’ growing public anger, harshly criticizing Israel for inflicting “collective punishment” on Gazan Palestinians. Jordanian diplomats have likewise lashed out publicly against Israel. Meanwhile, officials in Amman have directed their outrage and frustration not just at Israel but at Western “silence” in the face of Palestinian suffering and seemingly unconditional U.S. support for Israeli retribution. In an interview with CNN, Queen Rania, herself of Palestinian descent, decried the “glaring double standard […] in the face of such human suffering,” which “to many in our region it makes the Western world complicit.” On the 21st day of the conflict, a nonbinding resolution introduced by Jordan calling for “an immediate, durable, and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities” was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly, even as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced the expansion of ground operations and a near-total communications blackout was imposed on the besieged enclave. As the war continues into its fourth week, Jordan is grappling with the multiple dimensions of a rapidly escalating conflict. On the domestic front, Jordanian authorities have sought to contain the protests. The Ministry of Interior has banned gatherings and demonstrations in the Jordan Valley and border areas. Earlier, Jordanian police fired tear gas to disperse thousands of people protesting in an area around the Israeli embassy. Meanwhile, suspicion lingers that some Israelis may be flirting with the idea of a population transfer. Reflecting these concerns, a joint statement released during the Cairo summit, after King Abdullah’s meeting with Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, rejected “any attempt at the forced displacement of Gazans into Jordan and Egypt.” At an Oct. 17 press conference held following his meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin, King Abdullah stated unequivocally, “There will be no refugees in Jordan and no refugees in Egypt,” declaring it a “red line.” Echoing the king, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi stated, alarmingly, that any attempt to displace Palestinians from the West Bank would be “considered a declaration of war.” The current conflict in Gaza has shaken the foundation of Jordan’s relationship with Israel. Reflecting the strain the conflict has placed on the relationship, Jordan has decided to pull its ambassador from Israel. Yet Jordan needs Israel and, thus, finds itself in a steadily worsening predicament. Facing a deepening water crisis and potentially destabilizing shortages, Jordan was inching closer to finalizing a binding agreement on a “climate barter” with Israel ahead of the 2023 U.N. Climate Change Conference (28th Conference of the Parties, COP28), when the Gaza war broke out. The initiative, dubbed Project Prosperity and sponsored by the United Arab Emirates, envisions the sale of desalinated water to Jordan from Israel and the purchase of green electricity by Israel from an Emirati-funded solar farm in Jordan. The Gaza war is likely at least to postpone, if not derail this project as well as delay completion of the previously approved “Jordan Gateway” joint industrial park. The possible adverse economic repercussions of the escalating conflict on Jordan extend beyond its relationship with Israel. Shortly before the Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel, an IMF report warned that mounting economic pressures threatened the “sociopolitical stability” of Jordan as well as Egypt and Lebanon. Supporters of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), protesting against Israel’s attacks on Gaza, are blocking oil tanker trucks from crossing into Jordan, saying they will not allow Iraqi oil to be exported to countries that have peace agreements with Israel. Depending on how long the Israel-Hamas war lasts and is fought, Jordan could suffer a sharp decline in tourism and foreign investment as well as a disruption of cross-border trade. The grand U.S.-backed plan to build a multimodal India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), which would pass through Jordan, could become a casualty of the conflict in Gaza. The conflict has also complicated Jordan’s relationship with the United States. King Abdullah, Washington’s longstanding, stalwart regional partner, canceled his meeting with President Joe Biden in Amman in the aftermath of the deadly blast at al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City. The U.S. veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a “humanitarian pause” in the conflict was surely greeted with displeasure in Amman. And the U.S. pledge of a $100 million package in humanitarian aid for the Palestinians reportedly was viewed by Jordanian (and Egyptian) officials as a token gesture. Because the U.S. is the single largest contributor of bilateral assistance to Jordan — aid that the country has come to greatly depend upon — Amman will likely tread carefully lest its differences with Washington over the conflict risk severely damaging the relationship. However, the longer the war and the greater the loss of civilian life in Gaza, the more difficult it will be for the Jordanian monarchy to balance the tasks of managing its relations with Washington on the one hand and the domestic political fallout from the conflict on the other.
Speaking at an Oct. 19 press conference, with diplomatic efforts having failed to yield results in ending the Gaza conflict, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Safad expressed his fear that “the worst is coming.” His apprehension appears to have been confirmed, as, a little over a week later, Israeli troops advanced into the northern part of the enclave, accompanied by a massive aerial and artillery bombardment and amid a communication blackout. With a dangerous new phase of the Israel-Hamas war having begun, Jordan awaits the repercussions, having little leverage and few policy options.
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