The New York Review of Books
To measure the sturdiness of King Abdullah of Jordan against the tide of upheaval sweeping the Arab world, go to Tafila, an impoverished town tucked into a sandy bowl encircled by the Moabite Mountains 110 miles south of the royal seat of Amman. Outside the courthouse where four youths recently awaited trial on charges of cursing the king, a crime punishable in this hitherto deferential kingdom by up to three years in jail, one hundred protesters continue cussing the king, until the order comes from on high to let the four go.
Such protests are growing in intensity and geographic reach, degrading the royal stature with every chant. Last season’s innuendo against his courtiers and queen has become this season’s naked repudiation of the King. In September, demonstrators chanted S-S-S, a deliberately ambiguous call for both the regime’sislah, Arabic for reform, and isqat, overthrow. The protesters outside Tafila’s courthouse dispense with such niceties, spicing the crude one-liners with which Egypt’s revolutionaries toppled Hosni Mubarak with cheeky Bedouin rhyming couplets: “O Abdullah son of Hussein/Qadaffi’s a goner, whither your reign?”
Among the flashy young men who staff the royal court, it is common to dismiss the protests as coming from unruly poor peasants after money and jobs. But in the more sober milieux of their parents where much of Jordan’s business is conducted, the King’s inability to impose his will on the south is a cause of greater unease. For though peripheral and small in number, comprising 10 percent of the kingdom’s six million subjects, the tribesmen dominate the ranks of his security apparatus. If their dissatisfaction grows, some might be tempted, as in Egypt, to jettison their leader in order to preserve their power. Doomsday may yet be far off, but, a former senior Jordanian intelligence official tells me, each month seems worse than the last. By way of comparison he cites Black September of 1970, when an armed force rose up against the King, only this time the forces challenging his rule are those already running the country, not Palestinians opposing it.
Under Abdullah’s father, King Hussein, the alliance between the monarch and his East Bank tribesmen was so sacrosanct that Jordan was often called the Bedouin Kingdom. Perhaps because the tribes seem so secondary to King Abdullah’s grandiose plans for modernization and economic expansion, he has had much less time for them. He and his Palestinian-born wife, Rania, have publicly campaigned against tribal law such as honor killing and actively forged a new patronage network, rooted in the Westernized urban high life of their mushrooming capital.
Beyond their immediate playground in West Amman lies a conurbation stretching twenty-five miles and incorporating over half of Jordan’s six million people, the great majority of them Palestinian (but now including hundreds of thousands of refugees from Iraq). Much of it is a morass of teeming Palestinian refugee camps, the largest in existence. Senior officials call it Jordan’s Tora Bora, for the Muslim militants it has fostered. But over the decades the squalor has receded. With few opportunities for Palestinians in the public sector, some turned to private business, and with the economic liberalization of King Abdullah’s early years they found fresh opportunities for work. And as incomes have risen, many have left the camps and built their own homes in the capital’s sprawling suburbs.
While the lot of Jordanians of Palestinian origin has improved, that of Jordan’s indigenous East Bankers has slumped. The public sector—where most hitherto found work—has either stagnated or disappeared, thanks to the King’s privatization of public utilities and the mineral companies in the south. Fadi Ubaydeen, one of the young cursers in Tafila whom the King tried to prosecute, is a jobless twenty-three-year-old who emerged from Tafila’s courthouse wearing shredded plastic sandals. Married with three children, he lives with his parents and sister’s family—fourteen people crammed into a single-bedroom hovel. Their front door is a dirty brown blanket, strung up like the flap of a tent. When I visited, his mother was stirring four plastic tubs of milk she pasteurizes for a few dollars a day. Light splinters through the bedroom ceiling, where the rains have eroded the algae-green plaster.
The Ubaydeens’ deprivation is far from unique. Indeed, Fadi’s father considers himself relatively prosperous, for he has a television and scrapes together enough to cook mansef, the tribesman’s traditional staple of lamb’s head doused in goat yogurt, for the Muslim Festival of the Sacrifice. For others, the prices of meat, electricity, and water from the privatized utility companies are rising beyond reach. They look with envy at the health care and education—the means of upward mobility—that the UN doles out to Palestinian refugee families. None of the students with the top one hundred highest marks in last year’s tawjihi, or final secondary school exams, were southerners.
In the past the Hashemites bought their East Bankers’ acquiescence by doling out titles and stipends in the security forces and political establishment. Thanks to flagrant gerrymandering, rural areas with Bedouin Arab populations were awarded disproportionate representation over the urban areas where Palestinians are concentrated. Though a minority, East Bankers received 85 percent of the parliamentary seats in the elections a year ago, and were awarded twenty-two of the twenty-eight posts in the last government.
But the King is finding it hard to make the old contract stick. The financial burden is too great for a kingdom in the grip of recession. So far this year, a Jordanian fiscal expert told me, the King has added over a billion dollars to subsidies, created 21,000 new security positions, and inflated the bureaucracy with a welter of new municipalities. Even so, the birth rate is climbing far faster than the state can create jobs. For want of finance, the large-scale infrastructure projects of which Abdullah is so fond have stalled.
Money is not the King’s only problem. A government job or legislative seat is not worth what it was. King Abdullah has repeatedly treated parliament as an inconvenience, dissolved it, and ruled by decree. On the Freedom House’s scale of political rights, the kingdom has slid from 3 at the time of King Abdullah’s accession, when it was one of the most progressive regimes in the Arab world, to 6, a classification for “not free.”
In place of the old political structures, the King and Queen prefer consulting their coterie of predominantly Palestinian business associates, who East Bankers fear are set on taking over the country plot by plot from its indigenous inhabitants. From their seat of power in West Amman, they allegedly want to turn Jordan into Palestine, thereby settling Israel’s refugee problem at Jordan’s expense. “We’re red Indians in our own country,” says Hamoud al-Faiz, a sheikh from Bani Sakhr, a desert tribe southeast of Amman that, perhaps because of its reputation for martial prowess, has played a prominent role in arousing the resentment of East Bankers. He says he feels like a foreigner in his own capital, estranged from the moneyed youth who cast the keys of their fancy convertibles to liveried valets at the gates of Amman’s bars.
By regional standards the turnout of protesters has been puny. Few rallies attract more than five thousand demonstrators; many are attended by only a few score. It is possible to visit the capital and not hear their cries. East as well as West Bankers appear reluctant to join a movement whose slogans are openly seditious. But what the protests lack in numbers, they compensate for in tenacity and depth. Across the kingdom bushfires have erupted that the King seems unable to quench. When at the end of October I took the desert highway from the capital down to Tafila, I encountered tales of unrest along the kingdom’s north–south spine. A few minutes outside Amman, tribesmen had blocked the airport road, denouncing the omission of their hamlet from the group of new municipalities the King’s men had announced would be established for rural areas. Further south, more tribesmen blocked access to a Saudi-owned cement plant, in protest at its refusal to hire more local labor. Further on, hundreds of head-high iron tubes stand in the desert, abandoned by a Turkish company building a pipeline for groundwater from the Saudi border. Its workers had fled after two of its Syrian laborers were killed, apparently by locals who wanted their jobs.
Moreover, the protesters claim they tap a hidden groundswell of support, which sometimes breaks through the fear barrier. At a rally last month in Amman, Ahmed Obediat, a former prime minister and an ex-chief of the Mukhabarat, the intelligence apparatus, stood in the front row. In a country where the Mukhabarat’s grip is so omnipresent that even a taxi driver needs its approval each year to keep his license, his presence was remarkable. In Tafila, garbagemen at work down the hill from the courthouse uniformly repudiate the protesters as traitors and profess their loyalty to the King, but later one catches up with me and apologizes that an informer had been in their midst. “The protesters speak for all of us,” says the road-sweeper. “We know the King is a thief.”
Such backstabbing is audible at all levels of the kingdom’s hierarchy, from garbage collectors to bankers’ boardrooms. “King Hussein used to be our father, this king is our son,” says a senior politician who worked with him closely in the early years of his reign, but now doubts he is up to the job. “He’s still riding a motorcycle, swearing, and playing the Internet. And after ten years he has not changed.” Once-loyal East Bank parliamentarians, too, are increasingly acting like an opposition. In October they forced through a law banning Jordanians with dual nationality from holding senior positions. This was read not only as a move against Palestinians, who as refugees are more likely than East Bankers to hold second passports, but the King, whose Welsh mother I found chatting with friends in a tearoom near the American embassy in Amman. “There’s no place for double agents in our palace,” a former parliamentarian from Tafila told me.
The jibes are increasingly personal. After a decade on the throne East Bank critics still deride Abdullah as an outsider who does not represent them. Despite the King’s improved fluency in Arabic, protest leaders often switch into English, in order, they say, to help him understand. Another chief object of their bile is Queen Rania, a Palestinian born in Kuwait, whom East Bankers condemn for her Parisian-style extravagance, and regard as the power behind the King, or as they dub him, the Queen’s husband. “Divorce your wife,” cry the crowds at some of their rallies, a sign of contempt in a society where family honor is paramount. Their seventeen-year-old son, Crown Prince Hussein, faces similar calls for his dismissal: since his mother is Palestinian, he must be too, and thus ineligible to be Jordan’s king. While still insisting that they remain loyal to the Hashemite family, many tribesmen openly flaunt their preference for the King’s half-brother, Hamza, who was crown prince until King Abdullah rescinded his status seven years ago. Some tribesmen openly call for Hamza’s restoration, citing his better Arabic and uncanny likeness to his father.
Such rank xenophobia makes it easy to dismiss the protesters as people bent on imposing what Adnan Abu Odeh, a one-time royal courtier of Palestinian stock who fell afoul of the King, calls “an ethnocratic irredentist regime.” While calling for parliament to be sovereign, most shun the recalibration of electoral boundaries to ensure equal rights for all Jordan’s citizens. And many protesters seem reluctant to criticize those parts of state power that are firmly in East Bank hands, most notably the Mukhabarat. Leith Shbailat, a well-known critic of the Hashemites and former parliamentarian from Tafila, sidesteps the issue. “If we can reform the King, the rest will follow,” he replies, when I ask how he would reform the security services.
The Mukhabarat has been unusually hands-off in its treatment of the protesters. Despite the occasional use of beltajia, plainclothes bully boys, to disperse rallies, only one demonstrator has been killed in nine months of protests, a most humane figure by regional standards. Some openly wonder whether the protesters and police are acting in tandem. “The security forces have not yet intervened, but if they do they will act to support us,” says a retired army general during our drive down to Tafila, revealing himself to be a republican. A prickly local journalist insists that the protesters are counterrevolutionaries serving the old forces of repression. “If the Arab Spring is about equal rights, liberty, and majority rule, then these demos have nothing to do with the Arab Spring,” a one-time royal confidante agreed.
But the East Bankers confronting the King do not fit so neatly into such stereotypes. For such a humdrum country, the debate is surprisingly febrile. In a tumbledown office where the popular committee of Madaba, a town south of Amman famed for its ancient Roman mosaics, is holding its first meeting, delegates argue over the contents of their proposed constitutional reforms. A bank manager condemns the system of royal privileges, or makarim, such as university scholarships, and insists that free education should be a constitutional right. Several want to clip the King’s prerogative to hire and fire the prime minister. The youngest delegate, a highly articulate seventeen-year-old who quotes Rousseau, wants oversight of the military budget; he says the Mukhabarat expelled him from high school because of his political activism.
On their way to another rally by minibus, the delegates practice their latest slogans, this time against the Mukhabarat. “Write Reports, and Hand them in/You won’t scare us with your Informing.” They insist on giving their names, not they say because they want jobs to silence them, but rather to puncture the stranglehold of self-censorship they claim is hobbling Jordan’s political development.
With old taboos crumbling, the King appears uncertain about how to respond. “The King has never gambled in his life. He hates gambling,” insists a one-time confidante. “But how can he rebut them? Answering the allegations would just give them credence.” Some detect signs of strain. Close-ups of the King beamed onto giant LCD screens at a recent conference revealed the royal countenance to be red, puffy, and bereft of its boyish charm. A Western diplomat called him paranoid, and suggested that the more ill-at-ease East Bankers make the King feel, the more he shuns them. When his motorcade made a rare visit to Tafila last summer, the townspeople and the King’s escort pelted each other with stones.
Abdullah’s relationship with the tribes has never been easy. I remember his faltering effort to call a convocation of the tribes to join his support for the 2003US-led invasion of Iraq. Liberating Iraq meant the end of the regime from whose trade and subsidies they had greatly benefited. (Faced with a similar predicament a decade earlier after the US mobilized its forces to roll back Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, his father, King Hussein, had opted to lose his Western and Gulf funding rather than incur the wrath of the East Bank tribes.) Arriving bumpily on the back of a camel in the rose-red southern desert of Humeima, Abdullah sat on the dais behind a posse of black-garbed bodyguards who rotated their machine guns at the assembled tribesmen; he then scuttled off in a helicopter without publicly uttering a word, cutting short the tribal custom of sharing a meal.
Rather than risk further missteps, Abdullah prefers the more appreciative company of foreigners. In 2010, he reportedly spent more time out of his kingdom than in it. In the atmosphere created by the Arab awakening he has come under pressure to prune his travel expenses, and he now brings foreigners to Jordan. On the eve of Fadi Ubaydeen’s scheduled trial, he feted delegates from the Davos-based World Economic Forum with a champagne reception in his Dead Sea resort, sealing off public access for miles around the Dead Sea. The pretext for the meeting was “creating jobs,” but bankers warned of impending bankruptcy if Jordan’s wage bill was not further slashed. The complacent resplendence smacked uncomfortably, noted a doctor, of the latter years of the Shah.
Some Jordanians insist that a courageous leader could have promulgated a bill of liberties and new social charter, in which he would hand real power to the parliament. East Bankers in turn would accept a fairer redistribution of Jordan’s franchise, and West Bankers a fairer redistribution of their wealth. There were hints that King Abdullah had considered this. Earlier this year he said that future cabinets would be formed according to the results of parliamentary elections, and at the Dead Sea forum he spoke of opening “a gate of democracy for stakeholders.” But the package of measures accompanying such grandiose statements leaves the King’s powers almost entirely unchanged.
Instead he has resorted to continuously rotating advisers, which some say is a sign of indecisiveness and panic. In October he changed his government for the second time in a year, as well as his intelligence chief and head of the royal court. In place of the old prime minister, an East Bank general with a reputation as an Islamist basher, he appointed Aoun Khasawneh, a judge at the International Criminal Court, who immediately called on the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s most organized political force with a groundswell of Palestinian support, to join his government. In a bid to further bolster his legitimacy, the King also made overtures to Khalid Meshal, the leader of Hamas, whom he had banished twelve years earlier, soon after acceding to the throne. His expulsion, said Khasawneh, was a mistake, indicating that Meshal, himself a Jordanian national, might be welcome back.
Though the Muslim Brotherhood declined to join the government, the new policy has succeeded in buying their silence, at least for now. The Brotherhood has become studiously agnostic on supporting the demonstrations. Its daily newspaper, al-Sabil, publishes details of forthcoming protests on some days, not others, as if tempering its support with the concessions it can extract from the King. Zaki Bani Irshad, the head of its political wing, still sports a picture of the King in his office, albeit with a wistfully Islamist wisp of a beard. The minority of Palestinians who took to the streets when the protests first erupted in January have largely retreated indoors. (Only two hundred responded to calls for a million to march near the Israeli embassy after the ransacking of Israel’s Cairo embassy.)
Has the King prescribed the wrong medicine? Perhaps. By shifting from one camp to the next he has inflamed tensions, not calmed them, and accelerated the transition of East Bankers from prime protectors of the monarchy to prime opposition. Even before the new government had been sworn in, a crowd resumed braying outside the prime minister’s gates. Some demanded the King’s impeachment for pilfering tribal lands, and called for substituting the “royal” anthem, “Long Live the King,” with a “national” one. Rather than uphold the law against insults to the royal name, the security forces, who come from the same stock as the protesters, stood by and watched.
Yet while the King’s domestic policy inflames their sense of dissatisfaction, his foreign policy bolsters their power. To fund his rising expenditure, he has sought help from foreign backers. The United States remains a major donor. Last year it paid $818 million, making Jordan, after Israel, the largest per capita recipient of American aid. But courtiers view President Obama as an increasingly ineffectual ally—”We’ve lost hope that the US can do anything,” bemoans a royal confidante—and have begun seeking more robust alternatives. Foremost among them is Saudi Arabia and its club of fellow Arabian Peninsula kingdoms, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which is anxious to maintain the fiction that monarchies are somehow more resilient to the Arab awakening than republics. This year Saudi Arabia surpassed America’s funding with over $1 billion in aid, and invited the King to apply for GCC membership. To cement the relationship, the Saudis are close to completing a new Amman embassy that could soon exceed America’s—hitherto the largest—in size, grandeur, and visibility. “Saudi Arabia has lost Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Yemen. They can’t afford to lose Jordan too,” explains a former prime minister. Four generations after the Saudis ousted the Hashemites from the Arabian Peninsula, he mused, they are now inviting them to return.
In return Jordan is putting what it claims is the Arab world’s most professional armed force at the GCC‘s disposal. The King, say Jordanians, dispatched hundreds of security personnel to join the GCC‘s Peninsula Shield defensive to crush Bahrain’s popular rising. Some Jordanians complain they have become the Gulf’s mercenaries. But in their new guise as the Gulf’s security contractor, the East Bankers have found a new role. Jordan’s inclusion in a larger club of Bedouin tribes further enhances their status and leverage in dealing with the kingdom’s Palestinian majority.
In its increasing subservience to reactionary Gulf emirates, the kingdom could increasingly come to resemble one. As elsewhere in the Gulf, a minority of Arab Bedouin clans would rule the roost, while the nonindigenous majority would find themselves relegated to second-class citizens or guest workers. Hopes of political and economic reform will be put on ice, and Gulf largesse will relieve pressure to hold to account those parts of the state budget that are currently outside parliamentary review, like military expenditure. Already the Central Bank looks increasingly powerless to investigate allegations of high-level corruption. When the Central Bank’s governor tried last month to do just that, he was sacked and his office surrounded by the Mukhabarat to prevent him entering it. “When the state is working against those who are working against corruption, and sending thugs to attack them, where are we going?” says Leila Sharaf, the governor’s mother and long-standing legislator, who tendered her resignation in protest.
And what of beleaguered King Abdullah? Over tea, one of the Hashemite family confides that should the security establishment continue to feel alienated by the King, some might act to swap him for one more attuned to their customs and interests.
—Tafila, November 10, 2011