Lawrence Tal. Foreign Affairs. Volume 72, Issue 5, November/December 1993.
During the 40 years King Hussein has ruled the tiny Hashemite kingdom of Jordan, many observers have predicted his downfall. Yet he has outlasted all his contemporaries and is now the longest-serving head of state in the Middle East. But will Hussein have the last laugh The Palestinian self-rule agreement signed in September 1983 between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization is again raising speculation that both Hussein and Jordan may finally be doomed.
Despite such prophecies, the 72-year-old Hashemite monarchy has succeeded in creating enough interests vested in the survival of the state to assure Jordan’s place in any new regional order. The foundations of the Jordanian state may be wobbling, but they have held. While Jordan’s existence is not at stake, its political future is unclear: Will it be a Jordanian or a Palestinian state? Hussein rules over a country that has a large Palestinian population, and he must decide whether to accept a confederation with a Palestinian entity in the Israeli-occupied territories or sharpen the line separating Jordan and the Palestinians. Native Jordanians are arguing that they could become a minority in their own country unless Hussein draws away from the Palestinians. The king’s decisions in the coming months will determine the identity of the Jordanian state into the 21st century.
Jordan’s Shifting Foundations
Jordan is not a nation-state in the sense that France or Germany are nation-states. There is no single ethnic or nativist group a associated throughout history with the piece of territory created in 1921 by imperial Britain. Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill installed the Hashemite family from Arabia to rule. But the borders were artificial and encompassed a heterogeneous population: descendants of bedouin who had migrated from Arab lands before and during Ottoman rule as well as Christian and Circassian minorities. Refugees fleeing Palestine in 1948, and King Abdullah’s annexation of the West Bank in 1950, added to the population with no strong affinity to the Hashemites.
This lack of a cohesive ethnic or religious base has given the Hashemites myriad difficulties in shaping a national entity. Until the 1960s, when pan-Arabism reached its zenith, most inhabitants of Jordan looked to Iraq, Syria or Arabia for leadership—a problem that plagued Hussein until the 1960s. Lacking the natural resources and large population base to become a powerful country, Jordan was dependent on external sources of revenue. Powerful neighbors have made it subject to the push and pull of regional geopolitics.
The Hashemites have offset these destabilizing factors by creating additional institutional foundations for the Jordanian state. Jordan’s system of government ensures a strong central role for the monarchy. Security services safeguard the permanence of Hashemite rule and act as the state’s ultimate protector, with allegiant regiments recruited from bedouin tribes and loyal, established families, The army is devoted because it occupies a powerful position in Jordanian society, and Hussein ensures that members of key tribes and loyal minorities are distributed throughout the command structure.
Jordan has also maintained ties to external powers that are committed to its survival. Britain underwrote Jordan’s economic and security requirements until 1957. The United States then assumed the commitment, providing economic and military aid under the provisions of the Eisenhower Doctrine. In the late 1960s, the Arab gulf states began supplying Jordan with large aid packages. Today Jordan receives support from a variety of sources including the United States, the gulf states, Western Europe and the Far East.
Most crucial, the monarchy has created vested interests in Jordan’s survival by co-opting members of prominent families and tribes, who have maintained stability by acting as intermediaries between the state and its citizens. Hussein has neutralized his opponents with state jobs and special privileges. He is famous for pardoning former enemies and offering them good posts in government. He has maintained close links with the army, the tribes, notable families, the civil service and the influential Muslim Brotherhood. All the while, he has used his charisma to his advantage, playing to the hilt the role of Hashemite king. Vast infusions of foreign aid during the oil boom of the 1970s allowed the state to expand its economic role. The result was to make even more Jordanians dependent on government largess. Politics crosscurrents emerged, whereby various factions negated each other in competing for bigger shares of the state-controlled dole. Beneath the aura of social cohesion lay tensions between the Jordanian and Palestinian communities.
Who Is a Jordanian?
Identity a sensitive issue in Jordan. When Jordan was created in 1921, those who inhabited the East Bank of the Jordan River were considered Jordanians. The arrival of large numbers of Palestinian refugees in 1948, coupled with King Abdullah’s annexation of the West Bank in 1950, complicated matters. The Arab populations of both banks were now legally considered Jordanians. Thus was born the ambiguous identity of the Palestinians in Jordan.
Many Palestinians opposed the union of the two banks, but felt that life under the auspices of Jordan was their best option. Palestinians were generally more educated than their East Bank counterparts and had honed their business skills under the British Mandate. When Hussein came to power he worked to ease tensions between East Bankers and West Bakers by co-opting leaders of prominent families and tribes into his government. Although West Bankers complained that development projects favored the East Bank, and Palestinian leaders protested that the armed forces and civil service were staffed chiefly by East Bankers, Palestinians gradually developed interests in Jordan. As the economy grew nearly ten percent a year during the 1960s, even dispossessed refugees experienced improvement in their living standard.
Disenchantment with Arab nationalism after the 1967 war led to the growth of state-centered nationalism and an increase in the size and scope of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The PLO, founded in 1964, fought alongside the Jordanian army in March 1968 at the Battle of Karamah, helping to defeat an Israeli tank and infantry force. Although it appeared that the Palestinians did little of the fighting, Hussein allowed the PLO to take the lion’s share of the credit, boosting the organization’s prestige. By 1970, PLO guerrillas presented a serious threat to the Jordanian state.
The civil war of September 1970, dubbed Black September by Palestinians, was a watershed in Jordanian history. More than any other event, the conflict divided the kingdom’s population along Jordanian and Palestinian lines. Although some Jordanians supported the PLO, including various army commanders who defected to the guerrillas, most felt that the Palestinians had bitten the hand that had fed them. The Palestinians blamed Jordan for the loss of the West Bank and held Hussein responsible for the deaths of thousands during the civil war. Two distinct nationalisms started to take hold.
A group of advisers close to King Hussein began to articulate an “East Bank first” nationalism. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and the violent clashes during the civil war, caused these advisers to question the advantages of further involvement with the Palestinians. When the Arab states meeting in Rabat in 1974 declared the PLO the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians, the nationalists urged Hussein to take the decision to its logical conclusion by disengaging from the West Bank. Some even advocated revoking the citizenship of Palestinians living in Jordan. The nationalists urged Hussein to implement democratic reforms and consolidate his rule on the East Bank, leaving the intractable Palestinian problem to the PLO.
Hussein, however, refused to break with the Palestinians. First, he felt a personal responsibility for the loss of the West Bank. Not wanting to be recorded in history as the Arab leader and descendant of the prophet Mohammed who lost the holy city to the Jews, Hussein hoped to recover Jerusalem. Second, the king knew that Jodan’s ability to get money abroad was continent on continued involvement in the Palestinian dispute. Since the 1950s, British and American policymakers had questioned Jordan’s ability to survive as an independent state but had been willing to support the country for the sake of an alternative homeland for the Palestinians. To disengage from the West Bank could sever the kingdom’s economic lifeline, undermining a key foundation of Hashemite rule.
Hussein’s decision to remain tied to the Palestinians appeared to have paid dividends by the 1970s. The state was buoyed by the vast increase in oil-generated revenues. which led to an era of unprecedented prosperity. In addition to foreign assistance, the kingdom benefited from remittances from repatriates working in the gulf, income derived from reports of agricultural products and phosphates, and transit fees from the port of ‘Aqaba. But uneasiness lurked beneath this facade of affluence. Members of the political elite, including Jordanians and Palestinians along with varils intellectuals and students, began advocating reforms. They argued that Hussein’s preoccupation with the West Bank exposed Jordan to regional instability: Jordan was too dependent on external income and had not developed a viable economic infrastructure; there was little investment in industry; the kingdom was becoming increasingly dependent on food imports; and corrupt government officials were profiting as the bureaucracy swelled.
The shortcomings of Hussein’s policies became evident by the 1980s, when declining oil prices resulted in an economic downturn. More and more people were becoming dependent on a shrinking resource base, and the monarch’s ability to use state largess to co-opt opponents was diminishing. Hussein was forced to focus on the flagging East Bank economy and answer increasing calls for political liberalization. Finally, the stimulus for a major Jordanian policy reorientation came with the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 1987. Just as Jordanian nationalism had developed on the East Bank, an autonomous nationalism had emerged on the West Bank. The Palestinians living under occupation had developed their own structures and institutions of local rule and no longer needed Jordan. Hussein used the momentum generated by the intifada to sever political and economic ties with the West Bank. Jordan canceled a $1.2 billion development plan for the territory, ceased paying salaries to West Bank government employees and issued limited travel passports to Palestinians who had possessed full citizenship. Hussein also eliminated seats reserved in the parliament for deputies from the West Bank, and thereby removed the obstacle to holding parliamentary elections. (Hussein had always justified deferring democratization until the West Bank was recovered.)
In April 1989 the nationalist critique of Hussein’s policies was validated when antigovernment riots erupted in southern Jordan. For the first time the Hashemites faced violent opposition from Jordanians who had traditionally formed a bedrock of support in the armed forces and government. Protesting government austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund, the demonstrators sent a clear message that Hussein was losing his grip on the East Bank. The riots also sharpened the line, blurred in the 1970s, that differentiated Jordanians and Palestinians. The Palestinian refugee camps and business community remained quiet during the disturbances, treating the affair as an intra-Jordanian dispute. Hussein responded by calling Jordan’s first elections in 22 years. He has since legalized political parties (banned in 1957), lifted martial law (in effect since 1967) and approved a new electoral law changing Jordan’s voting system. However, the obdurate Palestinian problem has prevented the emergence of a pluralistic political system.
Disengagement marked Jordan’s first step in forging a new relationship with the Palestinians, furnishing the PLO the political space it needed to recognize Israel, renounce terrorism and begin a dialogue with the United States. The next step came when Jordan provided an umbrella for the Palestinian delegation at the Madrid peace conference in October 1991 but permitted the Palestinians to articulate their own agenda during bilateral talks with Israel. Jordan’s final move was to negotiate a separate peace agenda with Israel in October 1992.
While Jordan and Israel have maintained informal ties since 1967, Hussein fused to make peace before the Palestinians did so. Hussein has, however, established the principles he is pursuing. First, Hussein believes in the need for a comprehensive settlement which has the agreement of all parties concerned, particularly the PLO. Second, Jordanian concerns such as refugees, water, borders, security arrangements and the status of Jerusalem are inextricably linked to the Palestinian issue and cannot be resolved in isolation. Finally, a separate peace with Israel that ignores the Palestine problem could alienate Jordan’s Palestinians.
The Peace Accords
When the PLO-Israel accord was signed in September 1993, Jordan was caught by surprise. Hussein, who had been excluded from the secret negotiations in Norway, must now scramble to ensure that his country is not marginalized. Jordan quickly signed the draft agenda negotiated with Israel, which provides a basis for resolving 45 years of hostility between the two states. But the Palestinian self-rule agreement is more worrisome. At stake for Hussein is the economic and political future of his kingdom.
Economically limping, Jordan fears that the international community might directs its aid to the new Palestinian government. Jordan’s per capita GNP is lower than that of either the West Bank or Gaza, the unemployment rate is 25 percent and more than 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Although the Clinton administration agreed to release $30 million in aid to Jordan that was frozen during the Persian Gulf War, this sum is trifling when compared to the billions of dollars expected for Gaza and Jericho from the international community.
Jordan also worries that the new Palestinian entity will maintain close economic links with Tel Aviv rather than Amman. The Palestinian economy in the occupied territories has been integrated into the Israeli economy since 1967, and the PLO May balk at severing ties with Israel. Unless Palestinians living in Gaza—where rejectionist groups like Hamas have wide popular backing—see substantive improvements in their living conditions during the coming months, support for these self-rule agreement could rapidly erode.
Jordan stands to lose if Israel continues to obstruct the entry of Jordanian goods into the West Bank and Gaza. This move could strip Jordan of annual revenues estimated at $300 million. An additional risk is that Palestinians residing in Jordan may invest their capital in the fledgling Palestinian entity, draining reserves from Jordanian banks. There is also talk in Tel Aviv of establishing a fee trade zone comprising Israel and the occupied territories, with no mention of Jordan.
Finally, Jordan worries that no provisions are being made for Israeli recompense to the 1.5 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan. Although U.N. agencies provide assistance, the kingdom allots $300 million a year for refugee relief and has spent far more than that on education, health care and we are services for the refugees since 1948. The contentious refuge issue will remain the greatest obstacle to full peace between Jordan and Israel.
The future of Hussein’s relations with the Palestinians is the subject of an ongoing debate in Amman. Although there are worries that fractional fighting in Gaza could drive Palestinians to Jericho and then on to Jordan, the hottest topic of discussion is confederation. Jordanian-Palestinian confederation was first proposed in 1972 by Hussein in his plan for a United Arab Kingdom encompassing both banks. The Palestinians rejected the idea, fearing they would become the junior partners in a Jordanian-led alliance. Today the PLO is in a better position to exert influence over the affairs of such a confederation.
Hussein is treating the confederation issue with caution, preferring to wait until discussions begin in two years on the final status of the occupied territories. He is insisting that confederation presupposes two sovereign states, and the Palestinians must first achieve statehood before a binational federation is discussed. But the issue he has always been uncomfortable addressing—distinguishing Jordanians from Palestinians may soon force its way to the fore. The nationalists, who are an informal lobby rather than an organized group, will urge Hussein to pull away from the PLO and possibly make Jordan’s Palestinians choose allegiances. Swamped by influxes of Palestinians in 1948, 1967 and after the Gulf War, nationalists fear that Jordanians could become a minority in their own country. Hussein’s Palestinian supporters, on the other hand, will lobby for maintaining the status quo and against widening the gap between Jordanians and Palestinians.
Many nationalists are opposed to confederation. First, they ask whether it is in Jordan’s interests to incur defense obligations on behalf of a Palestinian entity, which almost certainly would be demilitarized. Jordan has no reason to be forced into a possible confrontation over the Palestinians with Syria or Israel. Second, they believe that Jordan could become embroiled in intra-Palestinian disputes. Jordan has enough trouble with its own Islamists and does not need problems with Palestinian groups like Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Finally, continued involvement with the Palestinians would only reinforce the Israeli Likud Party’s claim that “Jordan is Palestine.”
The nationalists say that it would not be difficult to break with the Palestinians because Jordan already started the process in 1988. Although no specific proposals have been discussed publicly, many nationalists would probably favor asking Jordan’s Palestinian community to choose either the Jordanian state or the PLO as its legal representative. For those who opted for Yasser Arafat, an arrangement similar to the right of permanent residence in the United States could be implemented. They would continue to live and work in Jordan, but they would not participate in elections, hold political office or serve in the military. Even as nationalists say they are not trying to expel anyone from Jordan, they cannot quite see why Jordan’s Palestinians should enjoy the benefits of Jordanian citizenship while pledging allegiance to Palestine.
The Palestinian community is wary of the Jordan-first agenda. They feel it was their remitted earnings from the gulf and investment in Jordan that brought about the rapid development of the 1970s. They argue that Palestinians control much of the capital deposited in Jordanian banks and manage most of the country’s commercial enterprises. If Palestinians invest their money elsewhere, the Jordanian state, which is suffering financially because of its support for Baghdad during the Gulf War could face a major crisis. Besides, they add, Palestinians form the bulk of Jordan’s population and should have a greater say in the country’s future.
It is often asserted that the Palestinians comprise approximately 60 percent of Jordan’s population. This figure, however, is disputed and has not been confirmed by reliable census data. Even if the Palestinians clearly represented a majority, their community and political sympathies in Jordan are not monolithic. Some Palestinians, particularly members of the political elite and the business community, identify themselves as being of Palestinian origin but profess their allegiance to King Hussein. Others, including many refugees who arrived in 1967, treat their stay in the kingdom as temporary and consider Arafat their leader.
To which of his competing constituencies Hussein tilts will affect Jordan’s political orientation in the coming years. Herein lies the source of the dilemma that has conditioned Hussein’s policies since the 1950s. If Hussein were to renounce his responsibility for the Palestinians, Jordan could lose the economic sustenance it needs to maintain domestic stability. And if, after severing links with the West Bank, Hussein responds to calls for democratic reforms on the East Bank, he would face the prospect of diminished monarchial power. Critics say that since the Hashemites are not originally from Jordan, Hussein will turn to any group that gives him legitimacy. If Hussein inclines toward the Palestinians, he could jeopardize the structures that have underpinned Jordan since its creation. If he accepts confederation with a Palestinian entity on the West Bank, he could become the Hashemite leader of a de facto Palestinian kingdom.
It is not likely that Hussein will cast his lot with the Palestinians if it means alienating the Jordanians on whom he depends. An emasculated but unified kingdom on the East Bank could be a better bet for Hussein than a larger, but more unstable, confederation with the PLO. If the Palestinians achieve statehood, he may be forced to take the divisive step of asking Palestinians in Jordan to choose loyalties. However, Hussein will probably avoid such a move.
Until Hussein has to take a stance, he is likely to choose the middle ground. If it looks as though the PLO is able to control the radical factions and consolidate its control over the autonomous government, Hussein will consider the advantages of confederation. In the meantime, he will call on his citizens to close ranks and adopt a posture of national unity. Hussein will also maintain close ties with Damascus, which controls the Palestinian rejectionists threatening the peace accord, and will not sign a peace that ignores Syria.
The middle ground may be the best place for Hussein to be. Among Jordan’s Palestinians, there is a discernible lack of enthusiasm for a settlement that gives limited control of a sliver of Palestine to a small number of Palestinians. Arafat has been condemned as a traitor by some, and black flags of mourning flew over refugee camps when the news of the PLO-Israel rapprochement was announced. Arafat’s political reincarnation on the White House lawn is viewed as a sellout by the 1948 generation. Furthermore, Hussein’s stance during the Gulf War won him unprecedented popularity among Palestinians. He is more acceptable to some Palestinians than Arafat.
A lasting peace in conjunction with democratic institutions seems to offer the best long-term guarantee of Jordan’s future. However, until the future of the Palestinians becomes clearer, Hussein may slow the pace of democratization, although he as decided to go ahead with November parliamentary elections. Further opening of the political process will have to wait until the issue of confederation is resolved.
Another factor militating against further reforms is the growing power of the Islamic movement. The well-organized Muslim Brotherhood swept the 1989 elections and is the most vociferous opponent of Jordan’s participation in the peace process. The brotherhood presents no military threat to Hussein, but could be instruments in mobilizing popular reaction against a settlement with Israel.
The Future of Jordan
Regardless of the way the self-rule accord plays itself out, the foundations of the Jordanian state are intact and are likely to remain so. The system of government left in place by Britain still functions today. Liberalization has served as a safety valve for the state, permitting grievances to be expressed in a public forum, but all substantive decisions are still made by the palace. The security apparatus is effective, and the armed forces are unswervingly loyal. Jordan is not a client of any single external power, but has created interests in its survival among various regional and international actors. There are signs that the aid Jordan lost during the Gulf War may begin flowing again from the West and the gulf states. Even Israel, Jordan’s supposed enemy, has built up a strong interest in the maintenance of a stable Jordan on its eastern flank. Syria and Iraq, too, have interests in containing conflict that could spill over Jordan’s borders. Moreover, despite Jordan’s economic predicament, the king has used his economic power to create a widespread and self-perpetuating reliance on, and identification with, the state.
The Hashemites have thus worked hard to ensure that they have a place in any new order that comes with peace. Although democratization implies a decrease in power for the throne, the Hashemites have a way to go before they become a titular monarchy like that of Britain or Sweden. The king will remain the ultimate arbiter of disputes, an eventuality guaranteed by the recent promulgation of the Mithaq al-Watani, or National Charter, which promises political pluralism to Jordan’s citizens in return for support of the monarchy.
Even though Hussein has become synonymous with the monarchy, questions about his health do not darken its prospects. Although a Jordan without the king is difficult to contemplate, Hussein has left a strong base for his successor. His brother, Crown Prince Hassan, although not as charismatic or popular as Hussein, nevertheless enjoys the support of many Jordanians. It appears that Hassan would enjoy a smooth succession to the throne. Whoever rules Jordan, the country Winston Churchill boasted he created “on a Sunday afternoon,” is here to stay. Although Jordan may incline toward the Palestinians, writing its political obituary is premature. As King Hussein once declared, “Jordan did not begin with me, and it will not end with me.”