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Jordan's King Abdullah seeks to 'reset' ties with US after Trump era

Jordanian monarch is looking to restore Amman's strategic relationship with Washington after being sidelined by Trump administration, experts say
Jordan's King Abdullah II meets with then-US Vice President Joe Biden in Amman in 2016.
Jordan's King Abdullah II meets with Joe Biden in Amman in 2016 (AFP/File photo)
By Umar A Farooq in Washington

Jordan's King Abdullah II will be the first Arab leader to meet with US President Joe Biden on Monday, with the monarch's visit to Washington set to coincide with one of the most difficult chapters of his 22-year reign.

Last week a Jordanian court sentenced two former officials to 15 years in prison over an alleged plot to replace King Abdullah II with his half-brother Prince Hamzah.

The case sent shockwaves through foreign capitals, with western powers rallying behind King Abdullah, a strong ally in the region.

King Abdullah's visit also comes as Jordan's economy faces a lengthy recovery in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, with low growth, high unemployment and the tourism sector, a main source of foreign currency, hit hard due to global travel disruptions.

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"It will be an opportunity to discuss the many challenges facing the Middle East," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday, adding Jordan is "a key security partner and ally of the United States."

Monday's meetings are expected to include discussions on the situation in Syria, where a decade of conflict has pushed more than 1 million Syrians into Jordan, as well as neighbouring Iraq where US forces have faced renewed attacks by Iran-backed groups.

Other topics include efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal, dormant Israel-Palestine peace talks, and the Trump-era "Abraham Accords" that saw Israel normalise relations with four Arab states. 

Experts told Middle East Eye that after years of tumultuous relations between the kingdom and the Trump administration, King Abdullah's visit sought to restore a "pre-Trump normal" between the two allies.

"We know this would be a reset given how ecstatic many officials were when Biden won over Trump back in November," Sean Yom, an associate professor at Temple University and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told MEE.

"The US-Jordanian alliance is built upon generations of support and agreements. It will not take long to restore lost trust and confidence."

Scrap deal of the century

Under Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump, Jordan's role in regional affairs diminished greatly, with Amman no longer seen as the principal arbiter in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The Trump administration released what it called the "Deal of the Century", a 181-page plan that aimed to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The deal triggered fears in Jordan that the country would end up becoming a de facto Palestinian state, and the question of a Palestinian state would be solved at the expense of Jordan's borders.

King Abdullah was sidelined once again by the normalisation deals that were signed between Israel and four Arab countries - the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

'Abdullah needs to be able to return home with a statement to the Jordanian people that conveys the idea that the 'Deal of the century' is gone'

- Sean Yom, Temple University

"When the US pursued normalisation between Gulf Arab countries and Israel, Jordan was left out of those discussions, and even felt threatened by discussions about having a Palestinian homeland in Jordan," Tuqa Nusairat, deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council, told MEE.

"Jordan wasn't given the position that it's used to with regards to this issue. So Jordan wants to reinforce its role as the protector of al-Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem," Nusairat added, using another name for the al-Aqsa Mosque complex, the third-holiest site in Islam.

Yom noted that one of the intended goals for the Jordanian monarch was to convince the Biden administration to discard Trump's plan for the conflict and return to the conventional two-state solution that existed as US policy for decades before his presidency.

"He will seek dialogue about Jordan's place in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, and promote the idea that the deal of the century is dead - and with it, a restoration of Jordan's conventional place as the frontline mediator to the Palestinian dispute and its pathway for future statehood," Yom said.

"Abdullah needs to be able to return home with a statement to the Jordanian people that conveys the idea that the 'Deal of the century' is gone, the US will work with Jordan to revisit the two-state solution, and that Jordan is not alone in resisting Israeli belligerence."

Battered economy

King Abdullah's meeting with Biden comes amid a worsening economic situation in the Hashemite kingdom, with the monarch hoping to secure an extension to a five-year $6.4bn US aid package that ends next year.

The country, like many others around the world, is reeling from the economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Jordan's economy shrunk by 1.6 percent in 2020, with unemployment rising to 24.7 percent, while youth unemployment hit 50 percent, according to data from the World Bank.

"Jordan is America's closest Arab ally and client state, while Jordan cannot survive without American assistance and protection. Both parties know the parameters of this deal," Yom said.

Washington is Jordan's single largest source of bilateral assistance, the State Department has noted, providing more than $1.5bn every year, and the kingdom ranks among the top recipients of US foreign aid.

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Prior to visiting the White House, King Abdullah has been touring the US for the last three weeks, on an itinerary that included a meeting with investors - a sign that he is looking to bolster more support in the US for Amman's economy, both through the public and private sectors.

"Considering the really difficult economic situation that Jordan is facing, in the aftermath of the pandemic, this is going to be a top priority for the monarch to pursue investment opportunities and aid," Nusairat said.

Before leaving for the US, King Abdullah also met secretly with the new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet in Amman, according to multiple Israeli media reports.

The countries' foreign ministers agreed to a deal that saw Israel double its sale of water to the resource-poor kingdom.

Jordan is one of the world's most water-deficient countries, and experts say the country has been grappling with one of the most severe droughts in its history.

'America's closest client state'

After claiming he had been put under house arrest over his alleged role in the plot, Prince Hamzah accused Jordan's rulers of corruption and ineptitude before rolling back his comments in a statement voicing loyalty to the king.

The Biden administration pronounced its steadfast support for King Abdullah, and commended him for "promoting peace and stability in the Middle East".

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Experts said the Prince Hamzah affair highlighted deep-rooted unrest in the country that has been bubbling over the past few years.

The country has seen large-scale public disaffection with the Jordanian government, a key example being when hundreds of teachers took to the streets across the country last year to protest against the shuttering of their syndicate.

Many Jordanians say the country is plagued by high levels of corruption that have seeped into nearly every aspect of life. 

While King Abdullah has presented himself to the West as a committed reformer, experts say he has failed to support this rhetoric with a credible blueprint for transitioning Jordan from autocracy to democracy.

"Whenever you hear Jordanian officials or American officials talk about the US-Jordanian relationship, they use the term 'alliance.' I think a better term for this relationship is a patron-client relationship," Yom said during a virtual panel hosted by the Project on Middle East Democracy last week.

"If we're talking about this from the perspective of American foreign policy, I think that we want the United States as the patron of Jordan to do better: to potentially attach economic aid to attaining meaningful democratic targets.

"But that doesn't happen."

According to a 2019 Arab Barometer survey, only 38 percent of Jordanians had high trust in their government, a staggering fall from 72 percent in 2010.

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