Jordan: A Geopolitical Threat to Israel?

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein of Jordan confer on the Sea of Galilee shore after signing the Israel Jordan peace treaty.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein of Jordan confer on the Sea of Galilee shore after signing the Israel Jordan peace treaty.

Since the inception of the Arab Spring in 2011, Israel has faced imminent and continuous challenges from its neighbors: Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza Strip, and West Bank (to some extent).

Egypt is right now fighting its own version of the Islamic State (aka ISIS or Daesh) within Sinai. Egypt’s ISIS launched several rockets from Sinai targeting Israel’s interiors and cities. Syria is suffering 6 straight years of a civil war with indirect implications on Israel’s security including weapons smuggling to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah is fighting and supporting the Syrian troops against its battles with the Syrian opposition, ISIS, and the other Islamist groups as Fateh-El-Sham (Previously: Gabhat Al Nusra – an old Al-Qaeda affiliate which became independent several months ago). The dangers of Hezbollah involvement in Syria lie in the experience that Hezbollah is accumulating from the participation in the Syrian civil conflict in addition to any smuggled arms. Also, some groups from Gaza Strip – not necessarily Hamas – kept launching rockets into Israeli cities may be with minimal direct effects, but with major indirect effects on the overall political and economic well-being and stability of Israel.

Now, and for several reasons, Jordan is joining the list because of its semi-stable status as a nation.

Since the signing of the peace treaty with Israel in 1994, Jordan has become a strategic ally to Israel. Of course there was always some internal discontent with this kind of political and economic integration with Israel (e.g. construction of free-trade agreements with USA and external debt relief); however, Abdullah II and his father- Jordan’s king – have managed to mitigate and dampen this discontent by keeping all real powers within their control. The Jordanian king has a “constitutional” right of appointing the prime minister (and implicitly the government), naming the members of Jordan’s senate (the higher chamber in the bicameral parliament), dissolving the parliament and calling the parliamentary elections. The parliament cannot propose bills but can only accept, refuse, or amend bills forwarded by the government (or the king in reality). At the beginning of the Arab Spring, Abdullah II was able to suppress the protests that ensued the ones erupted in Tunisia, Egypt, and others by swiftly appointing “four” successive prime ministers in less than two years from February 2011 and till October 2012. What helped him also is that the Islamic Action Front – the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood – did not want to topple the Jordanian regime but instead they handed his prime minister – Mr. Samir Refai – some demands including that the government should be formed only by an elected –not appointed – prime minister  (i.e. full parliamentary democracy on the Westminster style).

A handshake between Hussein I of Jordan and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, accompanied by President Bill Clinton, during the Israel-Jordan peace negotiations.
A handshake between Hussein I of Jordan and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, accompanied by President Bill Clinton, during the Israel-Jordan peace negotiations.

Jordan has a palette of structural problems that includes large numbers of refugees from war zones, high and chronic unemployment rates, high debt-to-GDP ratio, foreign aid dependency, high poverty rates, deflation (in 2015 and 2016), terrorists’ attacks, and finally, completely concealed budget of Jordan’s king.

Jordan is lightly populated with a moderate density of 70 persons per square kilometer (To compare, Israel is 370). In 2015, its population reached 6.62 million. However, in 2016, the population jumped to 7.75 million due to the influx of Iraqi and Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict zones within their countries. This massive amount of refugees put a huge strain on Jordan’s resources and necessitated the receipt of international aid totaling $585 million as of July 2013. Jordan’s King and Prime Minister – Abdullah II and Abdullah Ensour – affirmed in multiple occasions, directly and indirectly, that Jordan’s capacity to absorb the refugees had reached its limits and is now contingent on receiving more aid to help to relieve the pressure from the already strained healthcare, infrastructure, and public education institutions of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

The unemployment numbers have been steadily on the rise. The unemployment ratio increased from 13.1% in 2015 to 14.8% in 2016, but the unofficial – and probably the correct number – is around the 30%! This increase combined with the increasing refugees’ numbers decreased the relative total available money within the Jordanian economic system which led to a general deflation in 2015 and 2016 and a noticeable reduction in annual GDP growth. The country also suffers from high debt-to-GDP ratio – about 90% – resulted from the limited country resources and persisting fuel subsidies funded by the external debt and supplied by the government through their national electricity supplier (NEPCO). Should NEPCO try to recover the true electricity costs, no Jordanian would afford to pay for his basic electricity needs. Some of Egypt’s problems transferred to Jordan by continuously bombing the gas lines within Egypt connecting Egypt and Jordan. These bombings decreased the gas supplied from Egypt and forced Jordan to buy expensive alternatives from Saudi Arabia and other venues.

The increased debt-to-GDP ratio was also in response to the decreased trade between Jordan and its neighbors – Syria and Iraq – due to the prolonged civil conflicts. This vicious mixture of bad economic and political circumstances is casting doubts on the ability of Jordan to be fiscally sustainable and forced the West to continue supplying Jordan with the necessary monetary injections to keep its economy afloat.

The tourism sector is vital to the Jordanian and especially that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are considering Jordan having holy and historic places that extend from the east of Jordan river in Jordan and passing Israel till the Mediterranean. That sector was strongly hit and the tourists were repelled by the civil wars inflicting the area. In addition, in December 2016, a sudden attack was carried out in Jordan and adopted by ISIS. That attack killed 10 people and injured 34. The casualties included policemen, Jordanian nationals, and a Canadian tourist. Attacking tourists is a widely used ISIS strategy to destabilize the regimes of the attacked states by depriving it of an important stream of revenue (i.e. tourism). In addition, Jordan is an important cornerstone in the US-led coalition against ISIS and Al-Qaeda. This fact will motivate the extremists to wage and spread more attacks within Jordan and on its borders.

Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi – born in Jordan – was a known figure and a famous leader in Al-Qaeda of Iraq. In 2002, the Al-Qaeda man killed a senior US diplomat, Laurence Foley, and performed a huge terrorist attack in Jordan itself back in 2005 and tried to plot an attack in 1999 on a Radisson hotel but failed and fled to Afghanistan. He fought against both of US troops and Shia militias in Iraq and against US troops only in Afghanistan. It is not clear where Al-Zarqawi got his hardline ideology from, but it is clear that although Jordan does not have a huge support for the Islamic Action Front, another type of extreme ideology can grow from its soil. A US strike killed Al-Zarqawi in Iraq in 2006.

Regarding the economic situation, around 14.4% of Jordan’s people are suffering from consistent poverty all over the year, and in some cases, at certain seasons it may reach 33% of the population including lower-middle and middle-income families. These numbers were in 2010 before the refugees’ crisis and the progressively accumulated national debt through the post- Arab Spring years. The country tried in 2012 and 2013 to raise the prices of fuel and electricity to stop the increasing debt but accomplished medium to little success because of the violent protests that erupted after such decisions. Nonetheless, in January 2017, the government insisted on a 3 to 8 % increase in fuel prices with no increase in electricity or gas cylinders for households.

On another note, the feeling of poverty is maximized within the Jordanians through the unchecked and unrestrained lifestyle of their king. Normally, there are no official or governmental estimations of Arabic kings’ and princes’ net worth within the Middle East, but it is known that Abdullah II has his own eateries, restaurants, soccer team, and multiple other investments including a vodka brand. His total net worth was projected to be around $750 million with a $58 million income in 2014. These numbers put a lot of nerve pressure on the normal suffering Jordanians who suffer to make the ends meet.

 King Abdullah II of Jordan
King Abdullah II of Jordan

All these factors have contributed to constantly increase the Fragility States Index from 74.5 in 2011 to 78 in 2016 (the higher the score the more fragile the state is). This index describes the ability of the country to provide for its citizens and examines its political, economic, and social stability.

Since its beginning in Iraq and based on the observations and the circumstances of its appearance, the Islamic State always feasts on specific social components: oppression, persecution, sectarian/religious conflicts, and political and economic instabilities. So, if for any reason the international aid to Jordan was cut off or Israel did a seemingly aggressive or unexpected act to the Jordanian populace’s feelings, the geopolitical Jordanian ticking bomb may just set off.