Bilateral talks about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Jordan’s economy come at a critical moment for the king
Jordan’s King Abdullah II will become the first Arab leader to be welcomed to Washington by US President Joe Biden.
The US president and the first lady, Jill Biden, were expected to receive King Abdullah and Queen Rania on Monday in what the White House called a highlight of “the enduring and strategic partnership” between the two nations.
King Abdullah is usually among the first Arab heads of state to visit new US presidents, including Barack Obama.
The Biden administration has the task of repairing ties with Amman that were shaken up during former president Donald Trump’s tenure.
“Really, the only pillar that was out of place was the previous [Trump] administration, and it was primarily on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Merissa Khurma, director of the Middle East Programme at the Wilson Centre and former director of the Office of Jordan’s Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein.
Mr Trump’s “Deal of the Century” avoided pursuing a two-state solution to the conflict, moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and cut aid to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.
Mending that relationship, as well as Israel and the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, are the primary issues on the agenda, Ms Khurma said.
“President Biden is keen to hear King Abdullah’s views here. [King Abdullah] always brings a very accurate depiction of the reality on the ground in Jordan, in the region, given his relationship with regional leaders,” she said.
Prof Curtis Ryan, who has published books on Jordan’s politics, says that even as the page turns on both the Trump administration in Washington and the era of Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Jordanians remain sceptical of any movement towards a political environment more concerned with the Palestinian cause.
“The Jordanian state heaved a collective sigh of relief when Netanyahu finally lost, much as it did after Trump lost,” Mr Ryan said.
“But while Jordan wants to fully restore its previous high standing with the US, it has lower expectations regarding Israel.
“Any non-Netanyahu government at least holds potential for a more positive Israeli-Jordanian relationship, but everyone in Jordan is aware that this is still a far-right new PM in Israel, and they don’t necessarily expect Israel to suddenly become more supportive of Palestinian rights or Jordan’s preferred two-state solution.
President Biden and King Abdullah’s relationship dates back to the US leader’s time in Congress. That is important as the allies rebuild trust, said Ms Khurma.
“This is an opportunity for the king to make a strong case for why the Biden administration should invest in [the two-state solution] track… I think this meeting will be an opportunity to discuss the concerns Jordan has about inaction on that front, or [the US] taking a more quiet approach to this issue.”
The White House on Sunday said the Biden administration intended to promote “economic opportunities that will be vital for a bright future in Jordan”.
That emphasis on economic support for Jordan comes at a critical moment. Unemployment among youths has reached 50 per cent and the general unemployment rate stands at 25 per cent, according to the World Bank. Swelling public debt has also revealed vulnerabilities, as the country continues to grapple with Covid-19 and vaccine hesitancy.
“All of these economic wounds have to be attended to,” Ms Khurma said.
Washington is the largest provider of assistance to Amman. The US gave more than $1.5 billion to Jordan in 2020, including $425 million in military assistance. Reuters reported that the king will lobby the White House for an extension of a five-year $6.4bn aid package that ends next year.
“The next phase is critical. Precisely because socioeconomic issues have been a driver for sociopolitical unrest,” Ms Khurma said.
King Abdullah recently formed a committee to explore pathways towards political modernisation in Jordan.
There are signs the committee could lead to change, but history shows the need for a cautious attitude, Mr Ryan said.
“Scepticism abounds, but many on the committee seem to be deeply aware of that, and there are some genuine reformers among them who are going to try to make this round more ‘real’ than previous rounds.”
In April, some royal aides were accused of working with foreign powers to undermine the king’s authority. His half-brother, Prince Hamzah, was also implicated in the political rift. An envoy and royal aide were sentenced this month to 15 years each in prison for sedition.
“Jordan wants positive reinforcement that it acted appropriately in terms of the April arrests, keeping [Prince Hamzah] contained, and the outcome of the security court trials,” says Sean Yom, who specialises in Jordanian studies as a senior fellow in the Middle East Programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
For Mr Yom, the political and economic landscape in Jordan are linked. But he says Amman’s ally America, which claims to lead the democratic world, may not have an interest in stimulating democratic reforms there.
“By definition, an electoral democracy in Jordan that reflects popular preferences would not adopt consistently pro-American stances, because popular preferences in society remain cautious at best, and hostile at worst, to US strategic interests, not to mention normalisation with Israel,” Mr Yom said. “But I think the US also understands, rightfully, that continued economic degradation will push the kingdom into a worsening cycle of protest, crisis, recalibration and instability, which in turn would threaten Jordanian constancy.”
The Biden administration is more receptive to political modernisation in Amman, but is unlikely to endorse sweeping political shifts, Mr Ryan said.
“It seems likely that the new White House is more interested in reform than its predecessor. So it may be a kind of tough love version, pushing for at least some reform in the belief that this will help Jordanian stability and the longevity of the Hashemite regime.”