Has Jordan distanced itself from Saudi Arabia?

Has Jordan distanced itself from Saudi Arabia?
Despite attempting to maintain relations with its regional neighbours, Jordan appears to have significant differences with Saudi Arabia and appears to be moving away from Riyadh, writes Abdulaziz Kilani.
5 min read
06 Sep, 2019
King Abdullah II of Jordan [Getty]
At a time when Jordan's economy is going through a crisis, it has become apparent that Amman is shifting its foreign policy. In July, the Hashemite Kingdom appointed a new ambassador to Qatar, which comes two years after it downgraded its relations with Doha as part of the Gulf crisis. In the same month, top Turkish officials visited the kingdom. These could be signs of Jordan aiming to deepen its ties with the two countries.

Although Jordan did downgrade its ties with Qatar in 2017, it did not cut off relations completely or join the so-called Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ) - Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt- in their anti-Qatar blockade, as the Saudis seem to have hoped it would. In fact, it is believed that there has been ongoing communication between Jordan and Qatar during the two year Gulf crisis.

As a country that aims to play a positive role in the Middle East by hosting refugees and offering mediation where needed, the kingdom has withdrawn its support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Of course, such a withdrawal will not please Saudi Arabia, but the Jordanian government prefers diplomacy to getting involved in a war that has led to what is now the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. This became evident when it hosted the second round of the Yemeni peace talks earlier this year.

"Since the election of President Donald Trump, Jordan has been increasingly aware of the changing regional undercurrents and their possible effects on the stability of the kingdom at a time when Amman was battling chronic economic conditions," Jordanian political commentator Osama Al Sharif said.

Al Sharif pointed out that, in response to changing geopolitical conditions, Amman has realigned the kingdom’s foreign policy towards traditional allies. "King Abdullah was quick to take his country out of the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. He also maintained diplomatic ties with Iran at the height of the Riyadh-Tehran tensions while getting closer to Turkey's Erdogan even as Ankara's relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt had worsened. The same can be said of Qatar, where Jordan stopped short of terminating diplomatic ties with Doha and recently reappointed an ambassador there."

One of the main challenges that Jordan is dealing with at the moment, which may reflect a disagreement between Amman and Riyadh, involves its approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In March, during the 29th Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union conference that took place in Jordan, Saudi Arabia -alongside the United Arab Emirates and Egypt - opposed a recommendation that called for stopping normalisation with Israel. However, the speaker of Jordan's House of Representatives, Atef Tarawneh, refused to remove it from the conference’s final statement.

Amman - which is committed to a two-state solution - has made it clear that it will not change its position on Jerusalem.

There are doubts as to whether the Saudis have really been competing with Jordan over its role as the custodian of the holy sites in Jerusalem. 

"The Saudis are aware that they are not competitive to the Hashemite family when it comes to the history of Islam," Jordan's former foreign minister, Kamel Abu Jaber, said. "King Abdullah is the 43rd generation direct descendant to the Prophet Muhammad and the Saudis know this fact."

Amman - which is committed to a two-state solution - has made it clear that it will not change its position on Jerusalem. King Abdullah said back in March, days after his return from a visit to the US, that Jerusalem is a "red line" for him and stressed that "no one can pressure Jordan on this matter."

Officials in Jordan are seemingly aware that, with over 2 million registered Palestinian refugees in the country, the kingdom may be the first country to suffer should the Trump administration implement its long-awaited peace plan for the Middle East. There appears to be a fear that if the plan were to force more Palestinian refugees to seek asylum outside the occupied West Bank and Gaza, they would most likely have no place to go apart from Jordan.

That, in turn, would have a devastating impact on the kingdom because of the present severe economic crisis the country is experiencing. Jordanian public debt equals 95 percent of annual GDP and the youth unemployment rate is 41 percent, according to The Economist, which also pointed out in June that over a million of Jordan's 10 million people are poor.

Although Jordan has dealt with economic weakness, high youth unemployment, and high poverty for some time, economic conditions in the kingdom have worsened lately due to the influx of refugees and the decline of foreign aid. Last year, IMF-backed austerity measures led to widespread protests in the kingdom, which resulted in the resignation of Prime Minister Hani Al Mulki. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and UAE held a summit in Mecca in the presence of Jordan and pledged to give $2.5 billion to the kingdom, but so far Jordan seems to have not received much of that sum.

Doha has pledged to provide 10,000 jobs and $500 million in investments in Jordan, a move that is undoubtedly appreciated by officials in Amman. So far, 5,000 Jordanians have already obtained work permits in Qatar. Moreover, on Sunday it was reported that King Abdullah invited Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to visit the kingdom, and that the latter "welcomed" the invitation, another sign of the closeness in relations between Amman and Doha.

"Jordan has never wanted to have any kind of relationship but an excellent one with all the Gulf States, including Qatar," Abu Jaber said. "It is the natural thing for Qatar and Jordan to strengthen their relations at this time."

Jordan has been keen to maintain its relations with all regional countries. However, recent events have shown that there are areas in which Amman and Riyadh differ when it comes to regional issues, mainly the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. A Jordan-Qatar-Turkey alliance will likely be more aligned with the Palestinians in their approach to that conflict. What remains to be seen is how effective this alliance will be in advancing the Palestinian cause.

Abdulaziz Kilani is a British-Arab writer. He is also the editor-in-chief of Sharq Wa Gharb Arabic electronic newspaper.

Follow him on Twitter: @az_kilani

This article was published with permission from Lobelog.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.