Analysis: Jordan's King Abdullah faces crisis
By Tim Lister, CNN
November 17, 2012 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
(CNN) -- "Jordanians look around the region and they say to
themselves --'We're lucky -- the streets are safe. There is stability.'"
Those were the words of a former Jordanian minister speaking to CNN on a
bleak, damp day in Amman 18 months ago. At the time, Egypt and Yemen were in
turmoil, Tunisia's president had fled, and Shiite protesters were taking to
the streets of Bahrain.
But even then, there was plenty of grumbling in Jordan -- over gas prices,
unemployment, pervasive corruption. Tribal sheiks described their
disappointment with King Abdullah, who succeeded his father to the throne in
1999. In towns like Mafraq, near the Syrian border and traditionally a
bedrock of support for the monarchy, there was an undercurrent of
resentment -- especially toward Queen Rania for her alleged lavish
Those same grievances have stoked the current protests, triggered by a
sudden and sharp increase in the price of cooking oil and fuel as state
subsidies have been withdrawn. Now King Abdullah confronts what analysts in
Amman say is the biggest crisis of his 13-year reign.
Osama Al Sharif -- an Amman-based commentator and syndicated columnist --
says the economic crunch is merging with evermore strident demands for
political change, now led by the Muslim Brotherhood. But the sometimes
violent protests in Amman and elsewhere this week have also included young
men from poor areas, and for the first time a refrain from protests
elsewhere in the Arab world -- "The People Want the Downfall of the
Regime" -- has been heard.
The street protests this week have underlined a growing divide between older
tribal leaders and a younger generation that's "on a totally different
bandwidth," Al Sharif says.
Al Sharif and others do not believe the monarchy is under threat. Jordan's
military, security and intelligence services are efficient and intensely
loyal. But the threat of more unrest beckons, and could deter what little
foreign investment Jordan attracts. The Islamic Action Front, the political
arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, is demanding the price hikes be rescinded
It also wants changes to the election law -- and constitutional reform so
that the prime minister is directly elected and not appointed by the king.
The Brotherhood, which intends to boycott parliamentary elections in
January, has built alliances with other opposition groups.
The government appears adamant that with the state's coffers nearly bare and
compensation offered to the poorest, subsidies have to be reduced. That's
the condition set by the International Monetary Fund for $2 billion in
Jordan simply can't survive without foreign aid. The state has a huge role
in the economy -- as employer of more than one-third the work force and in
subsidizing the price of basic commodities which consumes almost one quarter
of all government spending.
When it can't afford those subsidies, or the International Monetary Fund
demands they are reduced in return for loans, trouble is not far away.
As in Egypt and other Arab countries, the Jordanian "street" is
hypersensitive to the price of bread and cooking oil. Most Jordanians
struggle to get by: The average per capita income is $6,500. Price "shocks"
provoked street protests in 1989 and 1996 -- just as they did in Egypt in
1979 and 2007.
The Kingdom's current problems echo those of 1989. Aid was declining, but
spending was rising amid ever-worsening unemployment. As part of a deal with
the IMF, the government cut subsidies on basic goods and riots erupted in
southern Jordan, quickly turning into more general protests against the
The same syndrome has taken hold this year, worsened by cuts in gas supplies
from Egypt to less than one-fifth the agreed amount. The government has
already tried once (in August) to tackle subsidies, but retreated in the
face of protests.
Despite its lack of size and economic clout, Jordan matters to the West. The
Hashemite Kingdom has been consistently pro-Western, is one of only two Arab
states to have a peace treaty with Israel and is at the heart of a volatile
neighborhood. In the past it has quietly allowed the American and British
militaries to use its territory and facilities as a staging ground.
About half of Jordan's population is Palestinian, and the monarchy has
worked hard to ensure peace between them and the various tribes that live
The Kingdom's geography -- as a neighbor of Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia and
Iraq -- has thrown up awkward and sometimes impossible choices. Its current
financial situation is not helped by the presence of some 200,000 Syrian
refugees on Jordanian soil and King Abdullah's cautious attitude toward
events in Syria -- while Jordan is quietly helping the Syrian opposition, it
has kept its ambassador in Damascus.
Al Sharif says the less-than-wholehearted Jordanian support for the Syrian
rebels may explain why Saudi Arabia has not delivered the expected level of
financial aid this year.
There is also a growing threat from Salafist/jihadi groups. Eman Ebed Alkadi
of the Eurasia Group says Salafists have acquired weapons from Syria and
points out that Jordanian intelligence recently uncovered a plot to launch
terror attacks on diplomatic missions in Amman. Radical clerics such as Abu
Muhammad al-Tahawi have called for sharia rule in Jordan to replace "the
gang of corruptors" in power.
Al Sharif says some commentators, himself included, believe that as trust in
the monarchy erodes, it's time for a "grand political initiative" from the
king -- one that addresses the current dissent and sets a new role for the
monarch within a revised constitution.
The United States says it supports both the king's road map for reform --
which gradually shifts more power to the elected parliament -- and demands
for a more inclusive political process. But the two may not be compatible.
The tribes don't want to see the largely urban Muslim Brotherhood -- which
derives much of its support from Jordan's Palestinian population -- gain
power at their expense.
Economic crisis, a government virtually out of money, a generational divide,
political deadlock, rising unrest in neighboring countries: King Abdullah
faces a multifaceted challenge that would have tested the abilities of his