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Navigating Jordan


During a trip to the United States this week, Jordan's King Abdullah is seeking to refocus American attention on Middle Eastern concerns, some of which have been ongoing since he assumed power after his father's death in 1999. What are the challenges Jordan faces under King Abdullah and how might they shape the country's future?

Much like his late father, King Hussein did, Jordan's King Abdullah II has to juggle a wide array of regional and domestic issues to ensure his country's survival. Common to the both monarchs have been the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, problems in Iraq, Jordan's vulnerability in a troubled region and its economic constraints.

Historically, the kingdom, which is roughly the size of Portugal, has relied heavily on oil imports and foreign economic assistance. During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, King Hussein chose not to join the fight against Saddam Hussein because of his country's reliance on cheap Iraqi oil. Similar economic constraints now tie King Abdullah's hands, says The Heritage Foundation's James Phillips.

"Jordan has always been dependent on foreign aid, in part because it doesn't have a tremendous amount of natural resources outside of phosphate," says Phillips. "In many respects, King Abdullah must play a similar balancing act as his father and must walk a tight rope between the need for good economic ties to the West, good political ties with the Arab World and a hope for peace with Israel. But it [i.e., Jordan] needs to continue economic reforms to give it greater capacity for rapid economic growth."

Reform and Support for the Monarchy

Economic reform has been a high priority for King Abdullah. And while most experts agree that he is serious about it, some suggest that liberalization has created internal friction and alienated some of the monarchy's traditional supporters.

Additionally, Dalia Dassa Kaye, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation in California, notes that King Abdullah has to contend with new regional realities that have added to Jordan's economic burdens.

"You have two major wars that hit the region in the past five years: first the U.S. invasion in Afghanistan and then, more significantly for Jordan, the U.S. intervention in Iraq. That really has changed the whole landscape in Jordan dramatically in the past several years," says Kaye.

And according to Kaye, "the significant difference is that King Abdullah faces the constraint of having to purchase oil at market rates, which has been a tremendous economic burden. And King Abdullah, to a much greater extent than King Hussein did, really has attached himself to the United States as a key strategic partner."

Some analysts suggest that this closeness is partially due to King Abdullah's belief that Jordan's future lies with the West. Others say the kingdom's small size and regional vulnerability leave it little choice but to look to the West for assistance.

The U.S. and Jordan

But Roby Barrett, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, says the relationship between King Abdullah and the United States, depends on how Iraq and the Palestinian issue are handled. "That said, I can't see what the alternative would be. And I think we're seeing him, at least publicly, charting a course in which he distances himself from U.S. policy and even from the current administration, simply because if you take both of those issues - - Iraq and the Palestinian issue - - to embrace too closely the [U.S.] administration would be unwise," says Barrett.

At the same time, most analysts say King Abdullah shares the commitment his father had to resolving regional issues diplomatically. To that end, Middle East expert James Phillips says Jordan has an interest in playing a moderate role in the Middle East.

"King Abdullah wants to nudge the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward as fast as possible. Jordan also faces potential problems from a destabilized Iraq. There are many spillover effects, and particularly refugee flows, possible strengthening of al-Qaida in Iraq, which was once led by a Jordanian, [Abu-Musaab al-]Zarqawi [who was killed in a coalition air strike last year]. And I think the Jordanian government is very concerned about Zarqawi's network - - not only in Iraq, but inside Jordan," says Phillips.

Refugee Concerns

Jordan, which is already hosting tens-of-thousands of refugees fleeing Iraq, has recently imposed restrictions to limit their numbers. Many analysts say this reflects the government's concern over the burdens they place on Jordan's economy and infrastructure.

But analyst Eric Davis of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University says the kingdom has benefited from Iraqi investments. Furthermore, he suggests that Jordan, which has been slow to implement democratic reforms, may reap long-term benefits from its Iraqi community.

"I don't think that the Iraqis who are entering the country are the type of people who are going to subscribe to radical ideologies. So they would be the type of individuals who could help the Jordanian monarchy continue to promote this long-term development of democracy because, if you were to talk to [King] Abdullah, I think he would like to see some type of constitutional monarchy," notes Davis.

Most Middle East experts agree that Jordan's future will be shaped by what becomes of neighboring Iraq and Iraqis in the kingdom. But until the situation in Iraq improves, the RAND Corporation's Dalia Dassa Kaye says it is not clear how the Iraqi community will affect Jordan.

"It's hard to imagine that once Iraqis are living there, establishing their businesses and their families, that they're going to be returning anytime soon, especially because stabilization in Iraq doesn't look like it's happening very soon. So we are talking about a long-term Iraqi community in Jordan that will likely only grow. And so it's uncertain what the full ramifications of this will be. And many Jordanians are quite worried about this dynamic," says Kaye.

Some analysts say if Jordan had its way, it would become one of the most moderate and progressive regimes in the Middle East. But many experts caution that that vision will be difficult to bring about in this highly volatile region.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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