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The Curse of the Custodian: Jordan’s Fragile Stability & The Deal of the Century

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

Executive Summary

The piece intends to explore why certain states such as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan have emerged as ‘pillars of stability’ in a region marked by conflict. It offers three characteristics for stable regimes in the Middle East, and places Jordan in this scheme of things. It then explores in the context of recent events such as President Trump’s Peace Plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as enduring history, the dangers Jordan faces to maintaining its stability. It makes the case that Jordan is facing a daunting task of dealing with a multiplicity of factors and processes gnawing away at it from within.


The Middle East & North Africa (MENA) is a land of terrible contrasts. Ever since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the MENA region has seen waves of destabilizing political occurrences. The region is seen by many to be a playground for the great powers, where unstable governments, and fundamentalism are rife. To maintain stability in the region is a tall order, and the burden of this dreaded task falls disproportionately on a few key players. These countries act much like pillars, collaborating with each other, and punching above their weight in influence. The fundamental insight into understanding political stability in MENA is to recognise that all of these countries, while engaged in an anarchic form of competition, face significant stability externalities. That is to say, they all have a stake in each other’s stability. This is because threats are extremely fluid in the region, and easily transmit from one country to the next. The rise of social media in particular has magnified the transfer of such processes in a youth heavy, politically, and economically troubled region. The Arab Spring in 2011 is case in point, as well as the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq & Syria. In both these instances, large swathes of the region fell into anarchy and turmoil, a jinn yet to be put back into its bottle.

The Arab Tightrope

In contrast to pillars of stability, the region also plays host to multiple arenas of competition. These are areas where one sees the writ of governments collapse, and the law of the land is replaced by the brutal law of the jungle, where might is right. A heady concoction of internecine ethnic-tribal warfare, extremism, and warlordism invites the attention of powers big and small in shaping the future of power in the region.

These arenas are usually characterised by certain markers.

  1. Lack of state capacity: Access to welfare, opportunities for rent seeking, and access to institutions of power largely follow an ethnic-tribal model of clientelist politics in the region. This system necessitates a careful balance between the elites from these communities, who are more than likely to think in zero-sum terms. Within the context of this constraint are two more realities which impel the choices of each of these countries in the region. Firstly, weak, extractive institutions coupled with poor economic functioning further increases the impetus for communal competition- when resources are scarce, competition skyrockets(1). Secondly, the limitations imposed by international economic agencies, such as privatisation and liberalisation, often ignore the critical precondition for these programs- responsible, efficient, and transparent institutions carrying these programs out(2). We have witnessed the failure of the Russian privatisation experience after the Soviet collapse, but few have taken their lessons from it(3). Together, these three factors lead to a volatile environment where an emaciated state finds itself managing incessant competition over limited resources. Favouritism- real and perceived, add another layer of ethnic-tribal antagonism over the tensions inherited from the past.

A vicious cycle thus begins. Low state capacity leads to more intense competition, which further exacerbates communal tensions due to clientelist politics, which go on to further erode state capacity. The ability of the state to exercise a certain level of autonomy from society, in order to build state capacity and institutions, is thus under perennial stress in the MENA region. Iraq is a tragic example of what can go wrong in such circumstances.The Shias, Sunnis, and the Kurds locked themselves in what they perceived is a zero-sum game for institutional capture. This ultimately set the stage for Iraq’s present de facto balkanisation.

  1. Unregulated multilateral competition: With the erosion of state capacity comes multilateration competition. This is because a country with a robust state capacity insulates internal competition from foreign powers, preventing interference. The retractment of state capacity creates a vacuum where access to welfare, opportunities for rent seeking and the same ethnic-tribal model of clientelism opens the doors for foreign powers to become clients where they become parties to multilateral competition as well as establish channels of influence in the region. State capacity ensures that such multilateral competition remains within the confines of its institutions, and doesn’t spill out onto the streets(4). The Syrian civil war is a prime example of foreign powers becoming invested in multilateral competition in the face of receding state capacity.

  2. Bad borders: The overwhelming majority of these arenas of competition occur where state boundaries do not correspond with ethnic-tribal divides. This is because much of the MENA’s borders are not ‘organic’ constructions but the consequences of a series of post First World War treaties between colonial powers(5). This has led to antagonistic communities finding themselves stuck together in states while sections which are irrationally separated from the main body of the community exist in another state. Not only does this exacerbate fault lines but also breeds a politics of otherisation. The community which is the majority in one nation finds itself a minority in another. This creates two simultaneously destablising forces- one, clientelist politics breeds resentment and atrocity against a community which is seen as an other (mostly a minority); two, a country where this community is in the majority finds this horribly unpalatable, raising the spectre of interstate violence. An example of this process in play is the military involvement of Turkey in the Syrian conflict, where it felt compelled to take action against the Kurds in Syria, and ‘protecting’ Turkmen6.

Countries that constitute pillars of stability in the MENA region should not be seen as fundamentally distinct from arenas of competition, for their political systems are based on ethnic-tribal models of clientelist politics. State capacity here provides two broad stabilising features. The first is that they are able to build strong economic institutions that provide for not only broader inclusion through a larger network of clients, but also provide the state the means to maintain an efficient coercive apparatus. The second is the careful provisioning of a strong set of political institutions, which can limit the zone of competition and negotiation to a ‘bloodless’ political sphere, while also providing a credible deterrent to those daring to step beyond these institutions through the use of the said coercive apparatus. Both these set of institutions, together, provide a residual source of stability- that of legitimation, since institutional inertia, once having crossed a critical threshold, limits gains to those wanting to operate outside of these institutions, securing the ruling classes their position. Libya under Muammar Gaddafi is a prominent example of just such a system- when it works and how quickly it can unravel. Thus, stability needs to be understood not as a state to be attained but a continuous, demanding process of institutional interplay and management.

Jordanian Resilience

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is one such pillar of stability, bordering known fault lines with Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel & Palestine. The Kingdom is one of two Arab states to have formal diplomatic relations with Israel (the other being Egypt) and has repeatedly demonstrated its commitment to stability in the region, which can be gauged by its contributions to the War on Terror as well as recent interventions against terrorists in the Syrian Civil War. King Abdullah II also chairs the Aqaba Process, a multinational forum which hopes to enhance global cooperation in the fight against terrorism and religious extremism(7).

Jordan is a curious candidate for its present position as a pillar of stability. While its predilections are not too different from its neighbours, Jordan’s burdens are far lighter due to an interplay of both effort and luck. Its only bad borders are on the West Bank, and after a period of crisis in 1970-71, it has an exceptionally efficient coercive apparatus ensuring political competition is regulated. Its history is marked with threats to the reigning Hashemite dynasty, which led to Jordan developing strong state capacity, marked by increased centralisation of authority. It also has a robust and growing economy, in stark contrast to the region’s current pallor. These features enabled it to become a bulwark of stability, but their evolution and genesis is by no means a finality. All of these features are simultaneously under stress from a host of stressors, the bulk of which can only be managed, not eliminated.

Jordan’s collaboration with all key players (including Israel) on fighting terrorism along with a relatively prosperous economy has enabled Jordan to maintain a modicum of stability through very turbulent waves of instability in the Arab world. However, there are inherent long standing threats to this stability. There is a dynamic interplay between long standing issues and rapidly emerging current developments which put Jordan in a state of perennial precarity. Jordan’s key strategic position at the confluence of various countries and demographics make Jordan’s continued stability a sine qua non for broader regional stability. This very strategic position is also a cause for lamentation, as it invites the unwelcome attention of foreign powers in its underlying divides.

Storm Clouds Gathering

In recent times, Jordan has survived the Arab Spring’s vicissitudes, the rise of IS, and the implosions of Syria and Iraq. However, these developments need to be understood in terms of how they unsettle processes underlying Jordanian stability. The outbreaks of such periods of trouble are the final fruits of a long period of festering grievances gnawing away at the foundations of state stability. Thus, these occurrences must be analysed in terms of fundamental changes they bring to the existing body politic. The most recent of such big earthquakes is the 2020 Israeli- Palestinian peace deal, titled Peace to Prosperity(8), which threatens to undermine Jordan’s increasingly fragile stability. Jordan’s stability is an outcome of a group of interrelated political systems each with their own range of vulnerabilities. For Jordan’s stability to be severely compromised, only one of these systems malfunctioning can prove to be disastrous. Systems can also share the same vulnerabilities and can have differential reactions to them. This necessitates holistic thought when one tries to gauge the impact of any vulnerability emerging from current circumstances. Certain critical strands can be identified as well as the possible impact of current developments.

1. Demography: In 1950, Jordan annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem which had previously been a part of the mandate of Palestine, conferring Jordanian citizenship on West Bank Palestinians. This action irreversibly altered Jordanian demography and politics. After the annexation, the enlarged Kingdom of Jordan had two thirds of its citizens as Palestinians. Even after the loss of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967, roughly half of the Jordanian population is believed to be West Bank Palestinian(9), while 30% of their population in 2015 consisted of non citizens, including refugees and illegal immigrants(10). Given the clientelist nature of ethnic-tribal politics in the broader region, the presence of such a large cohort of communities which do not fit into the tribal mould of ‘East Banker’ or indigenous tribal Jordanian identity, is bound to cause problems. The Palestinian component in particular has a strained relationship with the Hashemite monarchy, which is labelled as ‘pro-Israeli’. In 1970-71, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, under Egyptian and Syrian tutelage, launched an insurrection to overthrow the monarchy known as the Black September (which also saw future Pakistani President Zia ul Haq fight on the Jordanian side as a Brigadier). After around ten months of warfare, the PLO was expelled to Lebanon (destabilising it in the future, in turn). In the aftermath, Jordan initiated a purge against Palestinians and their sympathisers, shifting the allocation of access to power back to the ‘East Bankers’(11). While this scheme of favouritism works so far, it necessitates a lopsided body politic, which it can sustain only through coercion. Not only does this make Jordan overly dependent on the loyalties of the ‘East Banker’ tribes, it also simmers resentment within a massive population which has turned restive more than once as the reign of King Hussein bin Talal testifies in the forms of assasination and overthrow attempts.

King Hussein bin Talal (1935-1999) with his troops in 1957. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

President Trump’s peace plan has a peculiar focus on free movement of people (alongside trade).This betrays a lack of sensitivity to the political realities of Arab states, and the historic relationship between East and West Bankers in Jordan. Allowing for free movement of people among countries with significant Palestinian populations threatens to revive the virulent spread of militant ideologies, a phenomenon Jordan has already stood witness to. It also gives an immense sillip to foreign powers who can cultivate a mobile, restless Palestinian population into fifth columns. The repeated insistence of the Trump plan on the felicitation of the movement of people is rooted in both the values of liberalism, economics, and paying scant regard to the immense destabilising potential of such action. Jordan’s massive Palestinian population, can re-emerge as a direct threat to the state if these recommendations are acceded to.

2. Persistent Clientelism: Following the Black September (1970-71) purge, Jordan has reverted to what is the regional norm when it comes to political accommodation. The bureaucracy, military, and intelligence services are the de facto dominions of loyalist East Banker tribes. This communal balancing act is a cause for grave resentment for the Palestinians, and it is a process of mutual otherisation. The Hashemite Kingdom is seen as a fief for East Bankers by the Palestinian West Bankers; the East Banker tribes see the Palestinians as potentially disloyal/de-stablising subjects who outnumber them overwhelmingly. Jordan is in the unenviable position of being unable to resolve this dilemma. Jordan’s ‘Arab credentials’, as well as the loyalty of the more ‘hawkish’ elements among the East Bankers, forces it to maintain a de jure sympathy for the Palestinians. Also, hosting such a large Palestinian population is in and of itself used as a source of legitimacy by Jordan in its domestic politics, the Arab world, and the broader Muslim world. This, despite the ever present threats their presence poses. Even during Black September, Egypt, Syria and Iraq justified their pressures and attempted military interventions as being protective of Palestinians and the Palestinian cause. Jordan is forced into a position where it cannot be seen repudiating Arab support for Palestine, yet, for the sake of regime security, it cannot fully assimilate them either. Meanwhile, the Hashemite monarchy is simultaneously balancing and managing competing interests amongst East Banker tribes on which it depends. As Alia Awadallah writes regarding tribal loyalties in today’s Jordan, there isn’t much room for cheer-

“In addition to being outnumbered, many Jordanian tribes and Bedouins are marginalized, mired in poverty, and susceptible to extremism. It’s not clear how popular Crown Prince Hussein would be among those tribes or that their support would be as relevant as in the past, given the increasingly diverse Jordanian population... Predictions that tribes are turning against the royal family or losing all influence may be overly hyped, but it’s safe to assume that the future King Hussein II will not necessarily be able to rely on the fabled traditional base”(12).

3. Religious Legitimation : The Hashemites are the oldest surviving Arab dynasty, and the present branch traces its descent from the last Sharif of Mecca. Having lost the immensely prestigious position as custodians of the two most important Mosques in Islam, to maintain their religious legitimacy as being divinely ordained, maintaining their custodianship over the Al-Aqsa Mosque at the Temple Mount in East Jerusalem is of utmost importance. Jordan formally gave up its sovereignty over the area in 1988, but brokered a continuation of its ‘historical role’ over Mosques and Churches there, especially the Al-Aqsa and Haram al-Sharif.. This arrangement was reaffirmed, albeit vaguely, in the 1994 treaty of friendship between Israel and Jordan. In 2013, the PLO also reaffirmed this arrangement. The present custodianship comprises Hashemite control over two related institutions- the Waqf, the permanent endowment, and the Wisayah, which is translated as ‘something that is entrusted to the care of’. This system has mutually benefited both Jordan and Israel. The Hashemite King of Jordan has an incontrovertible claim to religious legitimacy and the final word on declaring Jihad for the sake of the Mosque (which could cause major upheaval, if triggered). Israel gets a way to avoid taking physical control of the Mosque (a major religious flashpoint), while also ensuring that no extremist- terrorist organisation, be it Palestinian or otherwise, has the legitimate claim to declaring Jihad in the name of the Mosque(13).

The Trump Peace Plan is suspiciously silent on the matter of Hashemite custodianship of the Mosque as well as Christian holy places in East Jerusalem. It argues for mutual access between Israeli and Palestinian places of worship, but does not recognise Hashemite custodianship explicitly. The plan also continues to relentlessly stick to the American tradition of exporting liberalism by asking for universal access and rituals in the Al-Aqsa Mosque. This jeopardizes Hashemite custodianship which would open a Pandora's box for the entire region. The custodianship itself is no longer a given for the Hashemites. It has become a scene of international intrigue, with regional powers attempting to alter the status quo. Israel and Saudi Arabia, have been reported to be in talks over limiting Turkish involvement around the site, owing to their differences in Syria. More troublingly, there have been whispers of Saudi Arabia and Israel negotiating the involvement of Saudi Arabia within the Waqf, perhaps even setting the stage to repeat history and take over the custodianship itself. The reigning Hashemite monarch, King Abdullah II, has publicly stated, although he was under pressure to alter his country’s historic role as custodian of the Jerusalem holy sites, he wouldn’t ‘change his position’(14). Even more recently,at the Plenary Session of the 74th U.N. General Assembly in September, 2019, King Abdullah II reiterated his stand saying, ‘ As Hashemite Custodian, I am bound by a special duty to protect Jerusalem’s Islamic and Christian holy sites’(15).

4. Economic Woes:Jordan’s economy grew at an impressive annual rate of 8% over the decade starting in 1998. However, growth has come to a halt at around 2% per annum after the Arab Spring in 2011(16). The economic shock emanating from the Wuhan Virus means that the Jordanian economy is estimated to shrink by 3.5% this fiscal year(17). The most evident fallout of Jordan’s economic troubles were the Ramadan protests in 2018. Suffering from austerity, high unemployment and a growing tax burden, massive protests erupted following a tax proposal which ultimately led to a change in government. Encumbered by high debt, unsustainable levels of unemployment, and plateauing growth forced Jordan to follow an IMF backed reform-cum-austerity path which has been unpalatable so far. Jordan’s public finances are locked in an unsustainable path of spending on a bloated civil service and security apparatus- hallmarks of dispensing away jobs for the sake of cronyism and nepotism. The civil services and security apparatus together amounted to 67.61% of spends in 2019, while aid and subsidies together came out at 5.66%. Coupled with a 6.97% budget deficit in the same period(18), very little scope is left for expenses on productive capital assets. The end result is deep social discontent, an unemployed and restless youth, along with an intensification of communal competition denting the legitimacy of the monarchy. Considering the Wuhan Virus not only caused major disruption to the entire economy but also has stymied important sectors such as tourism, the outlook isn’t rosy either.

Adding to this, 660,000 Syrian refugees (a $2.5 billion dollar drag annually in 2016)(19) were granted work permits, which unsurprisingly spiralled into a communal issue when jobs are scarce to come by. There have been talks on the streets about discontent brewing amongst even communities seen as loyal to the Hashemite monarchy owing to such penurious times. Since the region remains mired in conflict and destitution, Jordan’s burdens are only bound to increase. This would remain an increasingly destabilising variable, where loyalists would feel further disgruntled and others further ignored.

Jordan has been thus scrambling to sign a panoply of aid packages, including those by competing interests. Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Kuwait have together pledged $2.5 billion(20), while rival Qatar has pledged $500 million in investments and 10,000 jobs for Jordanians(21). The IMF will be providing a $1.3 billion package(22), and the US Congress seems to be deliberating an aid package as well(23). Germany has given $800 million(24), while the EU offers $200 million(25). While Jordan’s exorbitant finances will appreciate the money, such aid deals come with conditions, explicit or otherwise. Such ingratiations have non monetary costs in the form of influence, which is particularly unwelcome at such sensitive times. The fact that Qatar and the Saudi- led alliance have both offered aid is an especially troubling development, for it is a phenomenon more suited to an arena of competition rather than a pillar of stability.

The End Times?

All of these factors when considered together, suggest that Jordan will witness weakening trends in all three characteristics of being a pillar of stability in the region. It is facing a multitude of simultaneous pressures which can ultimately push Jordan below a critical threshold. State capacity has steadily come under increasing threat owing to terrible public finance, hazardous demography and an ossified system of political accommodation dependent upon coercion. With this state capacity becoming fragile, multilateral competition is already approaching an uneasy level where regulating this competition becomes more challenging. The Trump Peace Plan complicates and compounds existing difficulties for the Hashemites in Jordan especially when it comes to religious legitimation and demographic threats. Recent signs of increasing dependence upon rival foreign powers harks back to the days of Black September, and Jordan’s character seems to be sleepwalking towards an inflection point where it becomes more of an arena of competition rather than being a pillar of stability. It does not help that neighbours are deeply interested in Jordan’s stances and that existing arenas of competition do not seem to be winding down. Not only its neighbours, powers such as the United States and Iran are anxious to expand their footprints over Jordan, with the latter having extensive support through a range of terrorist organisations active in the region. The Hashemite monarchy or the Jordanian state occupy an extremely essential niche, which if turned into a vacuum, portends another disaster in the Middle East. All signs are speaking, is the world listening?

(Ishan Dhar graduated from George Washington University with a Bachelor's Degree in Political Science in 2015. He has formerly been a Researcher & Project Officer at the Australia India Institute and a Research Intern at the Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies in New Delhi. Ishan has also participated in Tiger Watch's wildlife conservation interventions since 2014. He has co-authored the titles Wildlife Warriors and Jhalana: Leopard Forest in the Pink City).

(Deekhit Bhattacharya is currently a student of Economics at the Delhi College of Arts and Commerce, University of Delhi. He has interned previously at the Australia India Institute at New Delhi, and the Federation of Indian Exports Organisations under the Ministry of Commerce, the Government of India).


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