News Analysis: Intense Speculation Underscores Jordan’s Deep Political Significance

In almost any other circumstances, Jordan might have been an insignificant speck on the map. It has no oil wealth, no economic clout, no military might.

But a quirk of geography has placed the Hashemite kingdom at the epicenter of one of the most explosive pieces of real estate on earth. Bordering Iraq, Syria and Israel, it has acquired a strategic importance that is out of proportion to what should be its innate significance.

So the political upheavals that swept through the kingdom during the past few weeks — the triumphal return of King Hussein after six months of cancer treatment at the Mayo Clinic and his race back to Minnesota; the dumping of his brother Hassan as heir apparent and the appointment of his son Abdullah as crown prince — made the world sit up and take notice.

The upheavals, both unexpected and unpredicted, sent the region’s military, intelligence and political analysts into overdrive.

Publicly, the concern of neighboring leaders took the form of a flood of messages to the royal palace in Amman, expressing sympathy for the king’s medical setback and good wishes to Crown Prince Abdullah.

Privately, there was a flurry of speculation about the reasons for his unexpected decision to depose Hassan, the likelihood of the king’s survival and his return to power, the chances of Jordan surviving Hussein and the positions his new heir might adopt.

Underscoring the importance that Washington ascribes to the well being of the Hashemite throne, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright interrupted a diplomatic swing through the region last week to make a high-profile 90-minute stopover in Jordan to wish Abdullah well and reiterate Washington’s commitment to the kingdom.

She was also anxious, according to diplomatic sources, to determine whether Washington could continue to rely on Jordan’s overt and covert support of U.S. policy on Iraq. (The answer was yes.)

Apart from what is regarded as a brief aberration when Jordan appeared to side with Iraq during the 1990-91 Gulf crisis — a posture dictated by the kingdom’s overarching economic dependence on Baghdad — Hussein has led Jordan down a thoroughly pro-Western path.

The most tangible expression of Jordan’s commitment to the West, and Hussein’s personal affinity with Britain and the United States, was the 1994 peace treaty with Israel, unencumbered by the ambiguities and inherent hostility in Israel’s pacts with Egypt and the Palestinians.

Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel was, indeed, merely the formalization of longstanding military and intelligence cooperation supported by a powerful sense of mutual self-interest and overlaid by regular secret contacts between Hussein and a succession of Israeli leaders.

For Israel, Jordan represents vital strategic depth against Iraq in the East. For Jordan, Israel’s support for a strong Hashemite throne represents a guarantee of its very survival against a predatory Syria, a menacing Iraq and the national aspirations of over-zealous Palestinians, who comprise some 60 percent of Jordan’s population.

Today, two central question occupy the minds of analysts, both within the region and beyond: Will the Hashemite throne survive Hussein? And, if it does, in what direction will Abdullah lead the vulnerable kingdom?

Hussein, who has occupied the Jordanian throne since 1952, learned his survival craft on the job, acquiring skills that allowed him to defeat a bloody Palestinian attempt to topple his throne in 1970, resist pressure from Damascus to lapse into a Lebanese-style Syrian protectorate, escape a dozen assassination attempts, maintain contacts with Israel and balance competing domestic interests.

One irreversible misstep along that tortuous, 47-year path was his decision to enter the 1967 Six-Day War against Israel, a decision that cost him the West Bank and Jerusalem. After that traumatic event, Hussein paid lip service to pan-Arabism but never bought into the philosophy, preferring to follow a path of strict pragmatism.

In a kingdom that is so identified with the person of Hussein, Abdullah, an army general whose skills have been honed in martial rather than political arts, will have to display some fancy diplomatic footwork if he is to succeed in winning the allegiance and affection that his father achieved from both the power elites and the grass roots.

In the past, the 37-year-old Abdullah had shown little interest in political affairs, but he is known to support the mix of reform, modernization and democracy that his father has carefully started to institute.

The new heir gave some indication of his future direction in his maiden address as regent last Friday when he told a conference of Arab ministers in Amman that he was committed to working for “comprehensive peace and security in the Middle East.”

And, in a clearly coded message to Syria and Iraq, he warned that the army would continue to deal rigorously with attempts at terrorism and subversion.

Analysts assessing abdullah’s chances of success believe he holds two strong cards: First, his military power base will be a key element in crushing internal and external subversion; second, his wife’s Palestinian origins will go some way toward assuaging Jordan’s potentially irredentist Palestinian majority.

Why, then, are Israeli analysts cautious when assessing the long-term prospects for the survival of the Hashemite throne?

Much, they say, will depend on the ability of the royal family to bury the poisonous rivalries that led to last month’s dramatic upheavals and present a united face to their subjects. “They must hang together or they will hang separately,” warned one leading Jordan-watcher.

Already Abdullah has demonstrated that he has inherited some of his father’s sharp political instincts, showing an acute sensitivity to the need for family unity — in public, at least. On his few public appearances since taking on the mantle of heir, he has been surrounded by members of his immediate and extended family.

This was intended to send a message to both the fiercely loyal Bedouin tribes and the less-predictable Palestinian communities that, despite the recent turbulence, the Hashemite family has united behind his leadership.

In the coming days and weeks, however, his authority will be tested by Syria, which has a long record of attempting to subvert the Hashemite throne through its own agents and through its influence within some Palestinian factions. And it will be tested by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, for whom Jordan remains an essential conduit to the outside world.

The stakes are high and only one thing is certain in this dynamic region where the young prince finds himself in virtual power: He does not have much time to learn the skills that are necessary to finesse the various forces at work in and around Jordan.

His success, and the survival of the Hashemites in Jordan, will depend on restoring a measure of family harmony and the swift acquisition of diplomatic skills. It is a tall order, and Abdullah does not have the luxury of a period of reflection and introspection.

According to Jordanian analyst Salameh Ni’imat: “Jordan has always had, and continues to have, only two choices: to be a key player in the region, or to be a playing field for others.”

NEXT STORY