Will Jordan Sign on to the “Deal of the Century”?

The Hashemite state is certainly in a delicate position. It seems as if the menacing economic and social crisis that arose out of the kingdom’s recent budget deficit precipitating tax increases that caused massive protests is not the only challenge Jordan faces, but another, almost as intractable, is right around the corner. The recent development following Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and his proposed deal is really challenging for a country that has always been strongly affected by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The Hashemite state is certainly in a delicate position. It seems as if the menacing economic and social crisis that arose out of the kingdom’s recent budget deficit precipitating tax increases that caused massive protests is not the only challenge Jordan faces, but another, almost as intractable, is right around the corner. The recent development following Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and his proposed deal is really challenging for a country that has always been strongly affected by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Since the Trump administration’s announcement of a “resolution” to the principal longstanding issue in the Middle East, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the whole world including Arab countries, has been wondering what a businessman-styled proposal might look like. Trump has already defied practically the entire world and the UN’s resolutions by announcing the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and relocating the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump also entrusted his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, with the task of mediating talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, as well as with Saudi Arabia and Jordan, to pursue Trump’s recipe for peace in the region and bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump’s proposal has been dubbed “the ultimate deal” or “the deal of the century.”

Though none of the parties has disclosed the substance of Trump’s “deal,” several leaks suggest that, apart from recognizing Jerusalem as part of Israel, it does not encompass any reference to removing Jewish settlements from the West Bank or returning Palestinian refugees to their land. Leaks also suggest that under the plan, Israel would retain control over the Jordanian Valley. What Palestinians would get out of the deal is financial support for economic development in the West Bank.

The Trump administration’s policies with regard to Palestine have irritated the Palestinian Authority (PA) and prompted it to escalate criticism to the extent of cutting off its relations with Washington. Until now, no Palestinian president has seemed more open to negotiations and compromise than Mahmoud Abbas.  But even Abbas’s openness could not prevent him from taking umbrage at Trump’s plan, calling it “the slap of the century.” Abbas is reported to have even fired the mediator.

Meanwhile, the Jordanian government could not conceal its disappointment over Trump’s decisions. As the custodian of the Muslim and Christian holy sites, King Abdullah criticized U.S. actions warning of their pernicious consequences.

Jordan has always maintained strong ties with the United States as well as Saudi Arabia. But the recent developments seem to have strained Jordan relations with these powers. The Jordanian king attended Istanbul’s emergency summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, in which he delivered a speech that strongly criticized moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. “[T]he United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is a dangerous decision, whose implications threaten security and stability. It undermines efforts to resume the peace process,” said King Abdullah in the speech.

In the same speech, the Jordanian King also reasserted the Hashemite Kingdom’s firm rejection of “any attempt to change the status quo of Jerusalem and its holy sites.”

This seemed to upset Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) who asked King Abdullah not to attend personally the summit but to send a lower level delegation. But there were other incidents that upset Saudi Arabia more with respect to Jordan than the king’s speech. First, the appearance of Abdullah along with the Turkish president Recep Tayyeb Erdogan in a photo was Something Saudis Would not encourage. Second, the brief meeting that King Abdullah held with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was undoubtedly even more irritating for the Saudis.

Saudi Arabia’s current priority is not the Palestinian question. The Saudis, as well as their Gulf fellows, have set the primary aim to counteract what they call the “Iranian threat.” In their combat against Iran, Israel may prove a strong ally for Riyadh. Enhancing a peace plan –Trump’s plan- for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would be the first step toward embracing a strong ally against the Shiite state. Palestinians and Jordanians will have to adapt to this “new reality.”

Though put at odds with the U.S. and Saudi Gulf camp, Jordan is by no means prepared to spoil its relations with the Western superpower nor with the oil rich country. The Hashemite dynasty has always maintained consistent relationships as well as dependency on Americans and Saudis. In a country with moderate natural resources, Jordan relies to a considerable extent on American aid, which amounts to $1.2 billion per year. The Gulf countries’ aid to Jordan is also substantial. But while all of this aid helps to stabilize the country, at the same time, these countries can also keep Jordan on a shorter political leash.

On the other hand, rallying along with the U.S.-Saudi agenda entails imperiling King Abdullah’s personal legitimacy as custodian of Jerusalem’s holy sites, as well as the possibility of facing strong domestic opposition from the Jordanian people, well known for their sympathy toward Palestine.

That said, however, pressure on Jordan is unlikely to be severe. Neither the U.S. nor the Saudi-led camp would take the risk of jeopardizing a reliable ally that sided with the Western camp during the peak of the Syrian crisis. Any further pressure may trigger a tilt on the part of Jordan toward Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. Perhaps they would learn a lesson from the blockade against Qatar; while the blockade failed to bring the small nation under Saudi hegemony, it has conversely improved Qatar’s economic relations with Iran (137% in Iran-Qatar trade)[1]. It could be that King Abdullah’s meeting with Iranian President Rouhani at the Istanbul summit signals a tacit message to Trump and King Salman that they are playing with fire.