Despite Great Britain’s promises made to the Hashemites – who claim to be descendants of the Prophet Muhammad like the al-Saud tribe – London stalled on the creation of an Arab kingdom. In 1920, the San Remo conference gave the former Ottoman territories of Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq to the British (the British Mandate). The Hashemites threatened to attack their former allies. To avoid this, it was decided to create an emirate of Transjordan under British control.
During the Second World War, Transjordan supported Great Britain. After the war in 1946, the British Mandate an agreement ended the British mandate. This eventually led to the Kingdom of Transjordan with Abdallah I as king. From 1946 to 1948, the history of Jordan was deeply entrenched with the political and nationalist aspiration of its neighbors; namely, the end of the British mandate in Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel. The partition of Palestine voted by the United Nations in November 1947 led to the establishment of f two states: one Jewish (Israel) and the other Arab, as well as the internationalization of Jerusalem, under the control of the United Nations. But the Arabs were furious about the plan, which sparked the first Israeli-Arab war and the evolution of Transjordan to ‘Jordan’.
In more recent times, Jordan switched from cultural crossroad to the role of crossroads in Middle East wars, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its future history, demography and economy will inevitably be linked to the outcomes of these unresolved tensions.
Like other Arab monarchies, Jordan has astoundingly absorbed the shock of the ‘Arab Spring’ rebellions. It has suffered some terrorist attacks – even as recently as last December. But, considering the country is surrounded by conflicts, it has rightly maintained a reputation for stability. Jordan has first-rate intelligence services, efficient and modern armed forces (including an excellent air force). But, its last two Kings have represented the country’s main strategic asset. The present King Abdallah and his father and predecessor King Hussein have been skilled mediators and navigators of regional politics and hostilities.
One of the most important aspects of Jordan’s character and demographics derives from the fact that half of the population is Palestinian. So, significant is the Palestinian presence that one of the excuses of Israeli settlers for denying – or stalling – a ‘two-State’ solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that Jordan is the ‘Palestinian State’. In 1970, some Palestinians – the world came to know them as Black September – tried to overthrow the King Hussein’s government, but lost.
It’s essential to understand the events of the 1960’s and 1970’s in Jordan to understand the risks the Kingdom faces today. The 1960s were marked by numerous – nationalist – militant attacks in Jordan, due to political opposition and the difficult relations that Jordan, a Kingdom with a loyal local backing, had with Egypt and Syria, espousing Arab nationalism, and the Palestinians. Regularly, Palestinian commandos launched attacks against Israel, promoting the Jewish State to react. In Lebanon, this pattern resulted in various Israeli aids and ultimately the invasion of 1982. To this effect, Jordan signed a defense pact with Egypt and Iraq, with which it had also had very conflicting relations. During the 1967, ‘6-Day War’, Israel launched air and land attacks on Egypt, the West Bank and the Syrian Golan. Jordan capitulated, losing what is known as the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The 1967 war was pivotal in Jordan’s history. The Bedouin kingdom, close ally of Saudi Arabia, saw an onslaught of 200,000 Palestinian refugees from the West Bank. These added to those who came in 1949, altering the Kingdom’s demographics. The population of Jordan is 56 percent Palestinian. They had, and still have, have an important influence in their host country.
In 1972, Hussein sought to retake the West Bank – diplomatically. Israel refused, stating the territory belonged to the Jewish people. Crucially, a year later, when the Arab states launched another war against Israel – the Yom Kippur War – King Hussein did not participate. He was too concerned with the internal situation and worried about losing more territory to Israel. In the period 1968/70 Jordan was the scene of armed clashes and reprisals by Israel. There was also an attack against King Hussein himself and the infamous hijacking and destruction of four Western planes by the Palestine Liberation Front, which, in 1971, was expelled from Jordanian territory.
In the wake of the Camp David Accords, King Hussein tried to involve the United States to form a Jordanian-Palestinian state. The U.S. was needed to persuade Israel to give up the Occupied Territories. This led to a dead end but in 1988, Jordan officially renounced sovereignty over the Occupied Territories and the Gaza Strip, leaving the Palestinian Liberation Organization as the sole responsible party.
The 1990’s: Peace with Israel and the Rise of New Threats
The outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in September 1980 fueled more tensions. While Jordan supported Iraq, Syria backed Iran. Jordan and Syria almost came to war in September 1981. In 1989, domestic economic conditions (debt, inflation, unemployment) were catastrophic and popular discontent increased. This changed Jordan’s political framework. King Hussein offered political concessions. It reinstated the Constitution and held legislative elections.
During, the 1990s and the Gulf War, King Hussein supported Iraq. He had no choice given the huge Palestinian population, which backed Saddam Hussein as one of the leading advocates of Palestinian sovereignty. But, it paid the price of losing American support and having to absorb some 660,000 refugees from Iraq and Kuwait, but also Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Gulf countries– many Palestinians among them. They had all been accused of supporting Iraq. But after the war, King Hussein re-forged ties to the Western powers and the Gulf States. In the 1990’s, the King also moved steadfast in democratizing his country. He also normalized relations with Israel in 1994, ending the ‘state of war’. In 1999, King Hussein died. His son Abdallah II has continued Hussein’s reforms, but the country, while more politically open than its neighbors, remains authoritarian. But, in economic matters, Jordan has one of the most market friendly economies in the region; Amman has a rather active stock exchange and few Arab states have as good relations with the West as Jordan.
Like many of its neighbors, one of the main political opposition groups is the Muslim Brotherhood. But, since the 1990’s, the Kingdom has formally recognized the Brotherhood. The group has a close relationship with the king himself and parliamentary representation. There are also more radical homegrown Islamists such as Hizbut Tahrir. This ‘Party of Liberation’ considers all current Arab governments as illegitimate – Jordan included. It, along with a variety of Salafist groups, preach the re-establishment of the Caliphate. The original founder pf ISIS/Daesh and finally various Salafist groups. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaida in Iraq – the group that evolved into ISIS – was Jordanian.
Therefore, the risk that the wars raging in Iraq and Syria, might spill across at Jordan’s northern and eastern borders remains. Certainly, the rebels in Syria have likely smuggled weapons and combatants from Jordan. Meanwhile, almost 700 thousand Syrian refugees have been living in camps along the border area. These refugees have added to Jordan’s refugee burdens. Every major Arab conflict since 1967 has left it as one of the main destinations for refugees. The 1991 and 2003 U.S. wars against Iraq had already pushed Jordan to the brink. The Syrian war has tested its ability to cope further but the Saudis have funded the Jordanians.
Saudi financial aid in difficult situations represents one of the main reasons why Jordan has managed to survive. But, the low oil prices since 2014 – and the improbability of a marked increases despite OPEC production cuts – have made it harder for the Saudis to sustain the funding. The House of Saud is also financing an expensive war in Yemen. The potential for Jordan to run into funding shortages to help subsidize food staples and fuel for the population has exacerbated internal risks. The Hashemite Kingdom could runout of the funds it needs to keep the people happy, while also continuing to run an efficient military force. In 2017, Jordan faces a higher risk of incurring terrorist attacks if not a full-on civil war. In other words, Jordan has not yet averted the chance for an ‘Arab Spring’ like phenomenon. (A.B.)