Behind the Mecca Summit

Why the Gulf states are wooing Jordan after trying to undermine it for years

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Suddenly, after seven lean years marked by political marginalisation, financial strangulation and massive and unbearable regional and international pressure, Jordan has become the most important focus of regional concern. Those who worked so hard to marginalise the country are now rushing to woo it and express sympathy with its predicament and willingness to throw it a financial lifeline.

How did this turnaround come about? What made this this policy volte-face happen, transforming Jordan into the recipient of such care and affection? 

There are six principal reasons why the Saudis invited King Abdallah to Monday’s summit meeting in Mecca, joined by the leaders of UAE and Kuwait, at which he was promised $2.5 billion in financial support over the next five years. 

The first is that the Gulf states were alarmed by the powerful wave of popular protests that swept Jordan earlier this month in protest at tax and price hikes. They fear that the Jordanian model of peaceful and orderly protest, which appeared like a scaled-down and reformist variant of the Arab Spring revolutions, could infect Saudi Arabia and the other monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula. This prospect is increasingly plausible in light of the erosion of their rentier state systems, the fall in the price of oil, the rise of sectarian tensions, and the growing burden placed on the public by increased direct or hidden taxation. 

Secondly, these states do not Jordan to develop policies aimed at making it economically self-reliant and financially self-sufficient and free it from dependence on aid from the Gulf – especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This would also make the country more politically independent and end its longstanding deference to Gulf dictates and policy priorities.

Third, the collapse of the regime in Jordan would raise the spectre of chaos spreading along its lengthy borders with Israel and Saudi Arabia and the prospect of a revolutionary alternative arising in the country. Jordan’s stability is integral to that of the rest of the Middle East. 

Fourth, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners are aware that their policies have made them deeply unpopular in Jordan. Their cut-off of financial aid over the past two years, their creeping normalization with Israel which bypasses Jordan, and indications that Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman supports the Trump administration’s ‘Deal of the Century’ have earned them the hostility of the Jordanian public opinion on a scale not seen since the 1991 Kuwait war.

A fifth factor is the mounting pressure on the Jordanian leadership to change its strategic orientation by drawing closer to Iran and its allies in the resistance axis, to Turkey as an alternative source of Ottoman Sunni authority, and to Qatar – bête noir of the Saudi-UAE-Bahrain trio.

And finally, Gulf rulers fear that the protest movement in Jordan could shift from its focus on economic grievances and evolve into a political movement of a civic and social character. The Jordanian monarch was alive to this and acted quickly to prevent such a transformation by sacking the government led by Hani al-Mulqia and replacing it with one more acceptable to Jordanian civil society led by Omar al-Razzaz, who is seen as honest and un-corrupt and has academic depth and administrative experience.

Accordingly, the Jordanian monarch, perhaps for the first time since he succeeded his father in 1999, travelled to Saudi Arabia from a position of relative strength, bolstered by popular support for his skill at largely defusing a domestic crisis that could have spilled over in the region had it escalated.

The new Saudi leadership wanted a weak, subservient and supplicant Jordan that would always be obliged to defer to its financial benefactors and their dictates. That is why it waited more than ten days before acting to help the country out, or even consider doing so. Perhaps it was waiting for the Jordanian leadership to implore it to come to its rescue and duly submit to the required demands. But it did not turn to Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, but remained resolutely in place and rightly preferred to concede to the demands of its people.

The Gulf states pumped $50 billion into supporting the government of Egyptian President Abdelfattah as-Sisi in order to contain the fallout from the Egyptian revolution and prevent it from spreading to them. They offered Jordan only crumbs because they were convinced that any such popular movement there would be foiled and the state was capable of defusing it ‘free-of-charge’. This was a misreading of the new regional map and its popular impetus, as proven by the current surge of popular activism which brought down the government, reshuffled the cards, lifted the cover and imposed its terms.  

Jordan is going through a political and social awakening, based on a sense of national unity that has transcended traditional divisions between Palestinians and East  Bankers or different regions of the country, and firmly focused on combating corruption and the corrupt and championing Arab national causes, above all Palestine. The country is changing fast, and has become in a position to defy the dictates of the US, Israel and the allies of Jared Kushner and Benjamin Netanyahu in the Gulf region – dictates over the Deal of the Century and the judaization of Jerusalem and ending Hashemite custodianship of its holy places.

The halting of Gulf aid did Jordan a favour, in our view, as it restored its leadership and people’s awareness and self-confidence. King Abdallah was right in his speech deferring to the protestors’ demand to stress that it was imperative for Jordan to start relying on itself and not look to others for help.

That may have been the key phrase that hastened the issuing of the invitation to convene the Mecca summit.