Jordan: Terrorist Bombings Backfire (ARI)

Jordan: Terrorist Bombings Backfire (ARI)

Theme: The bombings in Jordan on 9 November backfired in their attempt to undermine King Abdullah’s regime, which remains secure. However, the country’s weak spot is its economy.

Summary:The hotel bombings in Jordan on 9 November underlined the pro-Western kingdom’s vulnerability to terrorist attack. But the bombers miscalculated if they hoped that the atrocity would undermine King Abdullah’s regime. United in revulsion at the carnage, Jordanians rallied around their king. The terrorist threat to Jordan is not new, and such attacks will not divert King Abdullah from his underlying policies. He has given priority to an IMF-directed economic reform programme, placing in abeyance progress towards democratisation. As yet, few tangible results have been achieved, other than a widening gulf between the rich and the poor. A failure to bridge this wealth gap could prove a much greater threat to Jordan’s stability than terrorism.

Analysis: The terrorist bombings of three hotels in Amman in November 2005, in which some 60 people died, came as no great surprise to the Jordanian authorities. The question had always been when, not if. ‘I’ll be quite honest with you. We’re in a state of war’, King Abdullah warned in mid-2004. ‘I hate to say it, but we’re picking up terrorist groups [at a rate of] one every two weeks’. The threat, he predicted, would ‘probably be with us at least for the next couple of years’.[1]

As a US- and UK-allied state that has made peace with Israel and has supported, albeit discretely, the Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jordan is a tempting target for the militants. The problem dates back to the early 1990s when an estimated one thousand Jordanians who had fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan returned home. They included Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the al-Qaeda organisation in Iraq, which claimed responsibility for the Amman bombings. The years since have been punctuated by actual or attempted terrorist attacks. Prior to the Amman bombings, the latest incident had been in August this year, when Islamist militants thought to be linked to al-Zarqawi fired three Katyusha rockets from the outskirts of the southern port town of Aqaba. One narrowly missed a US warship but killed a Jordanian soldier on the quayside. The second landed near a military hospital while the third was fired into the nearly Israeli town of Eilat, causing minimal damage.

Devastating though the Amman bombings were, however, they posed no threat to the regime’s stability. In the following days Jordanians took to the streets in their thousands to express their revulsion at the atrocity and to declare their support for the monarchy. If the terrorists’ intention was to destabilise Jordan, they manifestly failed: politically, the attack backfired spectacularly, prompting a closing of ranks between Jordanians and their king.


While posing a serious threat, terrorism is far from being a determinant of Jordan’s political life. It has not distracted King Abdullah from his underlying policies, either at home or abroad. Broadly, he has persisted with strategies put in place by his father, the redoubtable King Hussain. Certainly that is how he likes to portray his record, although in reality he has placed much more emphasis on the economy. ‘Before he passed away, my father said he had this ambition to do some dramatic reforms, which were political, social and economic’, King Abdullah explains. ‘My point of view was that we had to start on the social and economic. It was so much better to do political reform on a full stomach than on an empty one’.[2]

Under King Abdullah, ‘political reform’ –a euphemism for democratisation– has been placed firmly on the back-burner. While Jordan had enjoyed a brief flirtation with democracy under King Hussain, this had already ceased before his death in 1999. Under King Abdullah, despite his rhetorical commitment to democratisation, the retreat from democracy has continued.

While not a demagogue in the mould of other regional leaders, King Hussain was no democrat. Political parties had been banned and martial law imposed in 1957. General elections had been infrequent and their results largely rigged. Especially after the 1970-71 civil war between the king and the East Bank establishment that dominated the state, on the one hand, and the Palestinians, on the other, torture and other human rights violations had been rife.

Suddenly in 1989, King Hussain had embraced democracy, permitting the kingdom’s first elections since 1967 and the first ever that were free and fair. The resultant parliament included forces that, while not challenging the regime, were very different from the conservative and tribal elite that had traditionally held sway. A quarter of the 80 seats were held by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood while 25-30 (depending on the definition used) were held by independent Islamists, leftists, pan-Arabists, liberals and reformers. The 1989-93 Parliament was unlike any in Jordan’s history, debating issues of real concern to the population at large and frequently embarrassing the regime. Martial law was lifted in 1991. Political parties were legalised in 1992. In 1993 a new media law relaxed some of the tight controls circumscribing the press, prompting a flourishing of the media.

Jordan’s fledgling democracy, however, had been instituted not because King Hussain had undergone a sudden political conversion. Economic recession in the 1980s had culminated in financial collapse and resort to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In return for emergency loans, the IMF demanded austerity measures including cuts to subsidies on basic commodities. In turn, this prompted serious rioting in Jordan’s southern towns in 1989. Previous unrest had been largely confined to Amman and other northern cities, where Jordanians of Palestinian origin are concentrated. The 1989 riots shocked King Hussain because they were staged by East Bankers, who had traditionally formed the bedrock of his support and who provide most of the manpower for Jordan’s army and other security agencies. In essence, the 1989 elections were a tactical response to dissent from a politically important part of the population. Above all, the ‘Jordanian spring’ was an exercise in defensive democracy.

The democratic experiment –which involved no diminution of the monarchy’s powers– proved short-lived. In 1993 the Palestine Liberation Organisation made peace with Israel in the Oslo Accords, clearing the way for Jordan to sign its own peace treaty with the Israelis in 1994. Amongst Jordanians –especially the large Palestinian-origin population– the move was deeply unpopular and was the target of fierce criticism in parliament and the media. An intensely irritated King Hussain responded by clamping down. In 1993, in the run-up to the treaty, a new electoral system was instituted that was designed to prevent further advances by the Muslim Brotherhood. A series of restrictive press laws were passed and non-governmental organisations and professional associations came under increasing pressure from the authorities. The result was that general elections in 1993 and 1997 produced far more subservient parliaments than that of 1989-93.

The ‘Jordanian spring’ was a watershed. Before, the regime had made no attempt to disguise its authoritarian essence. Since –both under King Hussain and King Abdullah– it has walked a tightrope. On the one hand, it has tried to maintain a semblance of liberalism, both to appease local sentiment and maintain the affections of foreign backers, notably the United States. On the other, it has taken steps to prevent any serious challenges by the opposition, especially on the issues of the peace treaty with Israel and the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000 underlined the extent to which the Oslo process had failed and sparked supportive protests in Jordan. In July 2001 King Abdullah postponed the general elections scheduled for November that year. The pretext was the need for extra time to implement new administrative and other procedures related to the new electoral law, but the real factor were fears over the intifada-linked turmoil. The delay was then extended in the light of the ‘difficult regional situation’: the continuing intifada; the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US and President Bush’s resultant ‘war on terrorism’, starting with the invasion of Afghanistan; and, from late 2002, the first impending and then actual US-led invasion of Iraq. A violent confrontation between local Islamists and security forces in the southern town of Ma’an in late 2002 surely confirmed the authorities in their view that the time was not ripe for elections.

The absence of the legislature did not mean an absence of new laws. In 2001-03 over 220 ‘temporary laws’ were issued by royal decree, many with grave consequences for democracy and civil liberties. October 2001 saw the promulgation of amendments to the Penal Code that introduced harsh penalties for publishing items that could damage national unity, incite crimes or hatred, and damage the dignity or reputation both of individuals and the kingdom as a whole. A public gatherings law required organisers of demonstrations to obtain a permit three days in advance and made them personally liable for any damage to property that might occur. A state security court law was issued denying the right of appeal to people convicted of misdemeanours. A municipalities law gave the government the right to appoint the head and half the members of municipal councils whereas previously all members, except those in the Greater Amman Municipality, had been elected.

Elections were finally held in June 2003. The Muslim Brotherhood won 17 seats and another five were taken by independent Islamists, but the overwhelming majority of seats were once again secured by the conservative East Bank tribal and urban notables whose hallmark is unquestioning support for the monarchy and all its works.

Jordan boasts some 30 political parties but all except the Muslim Brotherhood and some small leftist and nationalist factions are essentially groupings around conservative notables whose policy platforms are hard to discern, still less distinguish from each other. King Abdullah expresses a desire to nurture programme-based parties of the left, right and centre. But there will be limits, set by himself. ‘We’d like to strengthen political parties’, he explained. ‘But I’ll have to be quite honest: I want to strengthen the right ones. I have a vision for the country and there are elements in our society that have a 180 degree difference [of view]. My personal view is that once the Muslim Brotherhood got into power there would be no democracy’. Asked what was his time frame for achieving his vision of a Jordan with fully-functioning, programme-based political parties, King Abdullah replied: ‘It depends on how strong these parties become in the right way. I’ll be honest: if I see that it’s the Ikhwan [the Muslim Brotherhood] that’s in control, it’s going to take a lot longer. [Theirs] is not the vision that I have for Jordan’.[3]

Jordan’s elite may be largely unaccountable, but it is no Syria or Saudi Arabia. While the freedoms of 1989-93 have been eroded, the margins of debate and criticism remain wide, at least by regional standards. Certainly parliament lacks teeth and the press is constrained. A watchful eye is kept on dissidents and sometimes they are detained. But usually they are held only briefly, maltreatment is rare and the legal system offers a degree of real protection. Tellingly, an opinion poll conducted by JordanUniversity’s Centre for Strategic Studies (CSS) in 2004 revealed that only 3% of Jordanians feel that ‘enhancing democracy and freedom of expression’ is the biggest problem facing the country. The relatively high degree of freedom stems largely from the regime’s benign political culture. Except when feeling cornered, Jordan’s kings have preferred to rule by consent rather than fear. ‘Jordan can be vicious sometimes, but it’s not vicious altogether’, Mustafa Hamarneh, the CSS’s director, has observed.[4]

The Economy

The IMF-inspired liberalisation programme launched in 1989 was pursued only reluctantly by King Hussain, who was mindful of its destabilising potential. In 1996, after all, riots linked to the economy had again erupted in the politically crucial south. In contrast, King Abdullah is a true believer, and his faith remains unshaken despite the violence in Ma’an in 2002, caused in part by economic despair. He has driven an accelerated privatisation of state assets in areas such as telecommunications, energy and transport. Price controls have been lifted and efforts made to curb government expenditure, including by cutting subsidies on basic commodities. In April 2000 Jordan joined the World Trade Organisation and in October that year became only the fourth country –after Israel, Canada and Mexico– to sign a Free Trade Agreement with the US. In 2001 a free trade accord was signed with the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and an Association Agreement was signed with the European Union in 2002.

The results have been mixed and no clear and sustained pattern of improved performance has yet emerged. In 1995-99 Jordan’s gross domestic product (in constant prices) expanded at an average annual rate of 3.5%. At 4.3%, the equivalent figure for 2000-03 was little better. But GDP gains are seriously eroded by population growth, even though Jordan’s population is now expanding at an average annual rate of 2.8% compared with 4.8% in 1961-79 and 3.3% in 1998-99. In 2003 per capita GDP stood at US$1,574 –not much different from the US$1,521 of 1995–. Inflation, rampant in the late 1980s, is now under control although it has been rising again since 1999. Exports have grown strongly, but so have imports, and no sustained reduction in the trade balance has occurred. Although the balance of payments has generally stayed in surplus, it remains highly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of foreign aid. Much of a US$992 million surplus in 2003, for example, was accounted for by a major influx of funds from the US related to the crisis in Iraq. While Jordan’s debt burden has eased, it remains very heavy, with domestic and foreign public debt still accounting for 101% of GDP in 2003.

For all the government’s rhetoric about the need to reduce the state’s economic role, government spending as a proportion of GDP stood at 23% in 2002, unchanged from its level during the 1990s. The government is still the kingdom’s biggest employer by far, accounting for around half the labour force if the 100,000 members of the armed forces and Interior Ministry’s paramilitary forces are included. This is the same proportion as in the early 1990s, and indeed as in the 1970s. For all the talk of ‘good governance’ and ‘transparency’, wasta –the gaining of favours by means of family and personal connections– and other forms of corruption remain widespread.

The benefits and disbenefits of the economic liberalisation programme can be debated. What is certain is that it has signally failed to improve the lot of a substantial proportion of Jordanians. Higher prices because of tax increases and subsidy cuts have hit the worse-off disproportionately. An official survey in 1997 showed that one third of the population lived below the poverty line, with 12% in abject poverty. The situation has since almost certainly worsened. Unemployment remains chronic. Officially, the rate averaged 14.5% in 2003 but the real figure is estimated at around 25%. Still rapid population growth means that around 60,000 young people enter the labour market each year, ensuring that unemployment and poverty will persist for the foreseeable future, constituting a major potential source of unrest.

‘I’ll tell you frankly’, said former Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Dr Muhammad Halaiqah, who has been a leading figure in Jordan’s economic reform programme: ‘We liberalised. We privatised. We down-sized. We did all the “izeds” in Jordan. Or the “ions” –liberalisation, privatisation, whatever–. But the focus in the past ten years was on the economic front and very little was done on the social front. We did not do enough’.[5] Mazen al-Ma’aytah, President of Jordan’s Trade Union Federation, insisted that the economy had been ‘in recession’ since the late 1980s although he blamed the regional situation rather than the government. ‘We have no real hope: only promises and waiting’, he said.[6]

The authorities readily acknowledge the persistence of poverty and unemployment but insist that matters will improve with time. ‘The talk that you’ll hear from everybody is that society still has not felt the impact [of the reforms], and I’m very aware that poor people will say, “we’re still poor”’, said King Abdullah. ‘And only when the lower middle class and the lower class start to say, “OK, my lot is getting better” can we start to rest on our laurels, and I think we’ve still got a long way to go on that’. Despite the mixed results to date, his faith in his economic strategy remains unshaken. ‘We have to stick to our guns’, he affirmed.[7]

Foreign Affairs

Jordan’s location at the hub of a volatile region is one key to understanding its foreign policies. Three others are its conservative, Western-orientated monarchical regime; its meagre resources and a consequent perennial dependence on foreign aid; and its large Palestinian population whose views, generally more radical than those of East Bankers, the government has always had to take into account. The interplay of these factors has frequently produced paradoxes. While officially at war with Israel until 1994, Jordan cultivated a discreet modus vivendi with its western neighbour that included secret meetings between King Hussain and Israeli leaders. In the 1980s Amman enjoyed an intimate relationship with Saddam Hussain’s nominally radical nationalist Iraq but in 2003 it backed the US-led operation to topple Saddam. Jordan’s basic orientation towards the West and other pro-Western regional states notwithstanding, the kingdom’s foreign policy has been markedly pragmatic. The regime has displayed what Milton-Edwards and Hinchcliffe describe as ‘a persistent desire to be all things to all men within the region as well as on the international stage’.[8]

The crisis over Iraq, starting in late 2002 and persisting until now, has been King Abdullah’s biggest foreign policy challenge by far, requiring him to balance his strategic alliances with Washington and London with the markedly pro-Saddam Hussain (and, perhaps more to the point, anti-US) sentiment of the majority of Jordanians, particularly those of Palestinian origin. Adroitly, and in contrast to his father during the 1990-91 Kuwait crisis, he has managed to have it both ways. In the prelude, he repeatedly warned of the dangers and difficulties and declined any direct role. At the same time, however, he allowed the US to station anti-missile batteries in Jordan to counter possible Iraqi strikes against Israel. More discreetly, he also allowed US and British special forces to conduct operations from remote bases in Jordan’s eastern desert. His immediate reward was a sharp hike in US economic and military aid.

Jordan has determinedly positioned itself as the new Baghdad’s most important regional ally, not least with an eye to the rich potential economic rewards. In 2003 it started a US$1 billion, two-year programme to train 32,000 Iraqi police cadets and Jordan is also training personnel for the new Iraqi armed forces. Amman has been the venue for a series of conferences and seminars on Iraqi reconstruction, with local enterprises selling themselves as middlemen for international companies. In April 2004 Jordan became the first Arab state to offer to send peacekeeping troops to Iraq, and plans for a far-reaching expansion of ties were laid at the first meeting in November 2004 of a bilateral Joint Higher Committee. Joint projects were approved to rehabilitate customs and immigration posts on each side of the border; to create a free-trade zone at the border; to build a new, 642-kilometre highway to the frontier from Jordan’s Red Sea port of Aqaba; to modernise the port to enable it to handle larger volumes of Iraq-bound cargo; to build a railway linking the two countries; and to lay a pipeline to convey 350,000 barrels per day of Iraqi crude oil to Jordan’s refinery at Zarqa, near Amman. At the same meeting, agreement was reached on the formation of joint commissions to promote collaboration in the fields of finance, technology, trade, transport, oil and energy, labour, training and investment promotion, and in military and security matters. It was eerily reminiscent of the 1980s, when Jordan was Iraq’s closest ally in its war with Iran. Then, exactly similar projects were agreed and some were implemented, and Iraq had been Jordan’s biggest export market by far.

On Palestine, which like Iraq is simultaneously a domestic and foreign issue for the kingdom, Jordan has played a supportive role in Western attempts to secure a peace settlement. In particular, King Abdullah has invested much personal prestige in the so-called Road Map plan, unveiled by Washington in June 2002 but still far from implementation. Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel remains in effect but, given the Palestine issue’s extreme domestic sensitivity, the kingdom’s relations with Israel are little more than correct.

Elsewhere in the region, Jordan has maintained cordial ties with its powerful northern and southern neighbours, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, carefully modulating its rhetoric as required by its long-established ‘all things to all men’ approach to foreign policy. Traditionally, Jordan has been close to the conservative Gulf monarchies, where many Jordanians live and work and which have been important, if sometimes capricious, sources of budgetary and other aid. Jordan’s stance during the 1990-91 Kuwait crisis prompted Kuwait and its neighbours to freeze relations with the kingdom, at enormous cost. After its liberation, Kuwait expelled up to 400,000 Jordanians, mostly of Palestinian origin, who had lived and worked there for decades and whose remittances had been crucial for Jordan’s economy. A rapprochement with Kuwait and the other Gulf states was achieved only in the late 1990s and King Abdullah has worked hard to avert any back-sliding. Beyond the region, Jordan has maintained its intimate strategic relationships with the US and UK, wholeheartedly subscribing to President Bush’s ‘war on terrorism’ and, more discretely, supporting the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq. At the same time it has worked to bolster ties with Europe –another important source of funds– and Russia, still a major power despite its straightened circumstances.

Conclusion: Some seven years after coming to the throne, King Abdullah has reason for satisfaction –though not for complacency–. Above all, his regime remains secure. While its legitimacy may be challenged by the likes of al-Qaeda, it is not questioned by the great mass of Jordanians. In foreign affairs, King Abdullah has performed creditably. Above all, he has weathered the Iraqi storm. Certainly Jordan is no closer to being a true democracy than it was before, and if anything is even less democratic than in 1999. But it remains an oasis of relative liberalism in a region where crude and blanket repression is the norm. The weak spot is the economy. To be fair, Jordan’s economic problems derive fundamentally from its limited resource base and its vulnerability to economic shocks stemming from regional political developments. The government’s room for economic manoeuvre is severely restricted. That said, the neo-conservative economic agenda being pursued by the king has widened an already yawning wealth gap, with potentially serious consequences for stability. The threat is not so much from terrorism, although that will surely persist. More potent is the danger of unrest along the lines of the 1989 and 1996 riots and the 2002 Ma’an upheaval.

Alan George

Senior Associate Member, St Antony’s College, OxfordUniversity and author of ‘Jordan: Living in the Crossfire’ (Zed Books, London, 2005) and ‘Syria: Neither Bread Nor Freedom’ (Zed Books, London, 2003)

[1] Alan George, Jordan: Living in the Crossfire, Zed Books, London and New York, 2005, p. 62.

[2] Ibid., p. 47.

[3] Ibid., p. 187.

[4] Ibid., p. 243.

[5] Ibid., p. 76.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 246.

[8] Beverley Milton-Edwards and Peter Hinchcliffe, Jordan: A Hashemite Legacy, Routledge, London, 2001, p. 95.