Where is Jordan headed?

Marion SORANT, FMES associate member of the Strategic Monitoring Centre for the Mediterranean and the Middle East (OS2MO)


Jordan, which hosted the second regional annual Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership on 20 December 2022 and has distinguished itself in the region by its opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is strategically positioned as a stable and reliable ally of the West in the midst of the tumultuous Arab world. However, the recent outbreak of anger in the south of the country against the rise in fuel prices highlights fragilities that are often overlooked. These internal challenges show a regime, certainly skilful and endowed with a strong political sense, but where socio-economic issues and internal wars lie below the surface and question the stability of a monarchy that is perceived as reformist. Far from the passivity that is often attributed to it, the country is trying to seize the opportunity of regional reconfigurations to start a real energy revolution in order to increase its independence from the Gulf, while maintaining a strategic position acceptable to both the United States and the European Union (EU).
The reader can also refer to the ‘Jordan’ section of the Strategic Atlas of the Mediterranean and the Middle East which can be consulted via the following free link. 


If the image of a Jordan ‘on the brink’ applies to the kingdom, the fall of an ‘imported’ monarchy has not actually taken place despite the many oracles of doom. Challenged for at least three decades, the government has responded with an authoritarian reinforcement of its powers: restriction of public freedoms (undermining the idea of a moderate monarchy), organised attacks by loyalists on opposition demonstrations, an increase in royal powers, and the co-opting of family members to strategic positions [1]. This was accompanied by the resumption of control over the intelligence services, as well as increased control over the clergy. King Abdullah II managed to maintain the system thanks to a particularly finely managed mix (repression aside) of crony capitalism and rare social and political reforms, extensions of the embryonic social security system, targeted economic aid, gifts of state land to certain clans, decentralisation reforms used to control the opposition and the redistribution of state revenues within restricted circles. There is a convergence of interest between a part of the country’s elites, those integrated into the state apparatus, referred to as ‘Transjordanians’ who see themselves as the ‘Praetorian Guard’ of the state, and the frequently Jordanian-Palestinian bourgeoisie in favour of the status quo. Real reforms would undermine their privileges. Domestically, despite an undeniable loss of legitimacy, there is much evidence to suggest that Jordan’s authoritarian regime is resilient in the short to medium term. That said, how is Abdullah II trying to position himself externally amidst a changing regional game? Is the kingdom able to reassure its partners, and what about the energy revolution?

A regime facing multiple challenges

Internal stability still fragile

Since 1989 (the first IMF plan), and even more so since the accession to the throne of King Abdullah II in 1999, Jordan has been plagued by regular protests that have been defused by promises of reforms and major national campaigns promising liberalisation and political participation. However, senators and governors are still appointed by the king. Economic liberalisation, pushed by international organisations and the business elite, is testing the tacit social contract, especially due to poor prospects for public employment. In this context the security services have become the guarantors of the Hashemite regime’s survival, and the prime ministers the vehicles for adjustment. Thus, in 2011, the king dismissed his prime ministers in quick succession in the face of opposition: no less than 5 governments in less than two years.

Since Black September in 1970 (the Jordanian Civil War), the prevailing views have been those of the Palestinian threat, a marginalised and discriminated population, and of the unwavering support of the tribes – described as the real backbone of the regime, when their relationship is in fact marked by ambivalence. This opposition between Jordanians and Palestinians, manipulated by the monarchy, remains prominent within the security services. Moreover, if some clans do indeed have significant local power, the monarchy first of all relied on families of Syrian and especially Circassian origin, before gradually co-opting a few families, clans or sheikhs among some of the tribes: the legal discrimination against the Bedouins only ended in 1976. In fact, the tribes do not constitute a unique and monolithic body; their unity of support for the regime is a myth, their opposition is repressed and not widely reported in the media, and in fact many clans have been spearheading protests for several decades.

A shrinking economy

Even if the per capita standard of living continues to rise and inequalities are significantly lower than in the rest of the region, the socio-economic situation does not invite optimism. A decade after the 2011 uprisings the situation is going from bad to worse: unemployment was 12.3% in 2011; it has officially peaked at 23% since 2020 and has reached 50% among young people. Industry is almost non-existent, and most workers are in the service sector. In the region, the kingdom ranks behind even Syria, Libya, Yemen and Sudan according to the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme). By 2050, the population could reach 15 million inhabitants (against 10 million today, 7 in 2011). Employment thus appears to be one of the main challenges in the years to come, even as 45% of young people are considering emigrating.

While unlike many of its neighbours, the country is not directly impacted by the war in Ukraine as 90% of its wheat comes from Romania, it is suffering from rising fuel prices. In August the government increased the price of fuel for the fifth time this year under pressure from the IMF; this in a country with a stagnant economy, already weakened by the hosting of 1.4 million Syrian refugees over the past ten years. The country is also vulnerable to its dependence on basic foodstuffs, and thus to a global food crisis.

Global warming: a time bomb?

Climate change is threatening the resources and social balance of the Hashemite kingdom. The country has some of the lowest water reserves in the world. Ninety percent of the country is desert and by the end of the century, according to the most pessimistic projections, there could be a 70% drop in surface water. By 2050, the reduction in rainfall and the increase in droughts, coupled with the rise in population (+5 million inhabitants in 2050, excluding refugees), have a significant potential to cause water shortages. For example, the exploitation of the Disi aquifer in the south of the country, which was to supply Amman with water, could end in less than 30 years, and still only covers 20% of needs. After having abandoned the project of a Red Sea-Dead Sea canal the choice of a desalination plant in Aqaba seems to be the prevailing preference, along with a reorganisation of supplies coming from Israel. The water problem is also political: the risk for the regime is that the rural exodus will weaken the informal social contract between the rural areas – overrepresented in the institutions – and the monarchy. The academic Hussam Hussein rightly underlines the politicisation of water in Jordan, between a government putting forward exogenous factors – and therefore solutions for importing water, via international agreements – and international institutions insisting on governance and its difficulties in the face of the deep state. In fact, large consumers of water are often members of the political-economic elite, landowners who have the cheapest water in the country and are accused of many privileges, including tolerance of illegal wells which have become a real environmental scourge. At present, the pressure to reduce consumption is almost exclusively on domestic use. In the medium-term Jordanian agriculture needs to be rethought, which cannot be done without regional food security and an acceptance of reforms by the monarchy.

Despite all its domestic challenges, the monarchy retains a real political sense and knows how to maintain itself by ‘renewing’ its authoritarian model. Above all, it knows how to use its foreign policy as a primary tool to create distractions, and also to attract foreign support.

What foreign policy?

A security dilemma for the Damascus regime

Jordan and Syria have a complex relationship. As the bridgehead of US policy in the Syrian conflict from 2012, Jordan hosted the Military Operation Commands (MOC) whose command centre, based in Amman, became the primary operational platform for Western and Arab forces to finance, equip and train moderate Syrian opposition groups. However, Amman and Damascus never broke off their relations despite the temporary dismissal of the Syrian ambassador, making Amman a virtual exception in the region. In fact, support for the opposition was very localised: it was above all a question of maintaining trade routes and avoiding the implantation of radical groups in Southern Syria. This is how agreements and a form of cooperation were reached between Jordan, the Syrian regime and the opposition until 2015 [2]. As Russian intervention restored the Syrian regime’s control over the turn of events in Syria, the Western-Arab consensus around the opposition then began to fray. Riyadh’s policy was less and less aligned with that of the West, which viewed with disfavour Saudi Arabia’s protection of groups considered too extremist. In the light of the strategic turnaround in the Syrian ground campaign and the the cooling of relations with the United States under the Trump mandate, Amman favoured political realism, gradually accepting the new Syrian realities. From 2016 onwards there began a resumption of official contacts carried out by the Jordanian chief of staff, General Mahmoud Freihat, with Maher al-Assad and Ali Mamlouk, and then by the head of the GID (General Intelligence Directorate), Ahmed Husni, from May 2019. Within this context King Abdullah II sided with Mohammad Ben Zayed (President of the United Arab Emirates), promoting the idea of a normalisation with the regime of Bashar Al Assad and the reintegration of Syria into the Arab League. The meeting in September 2021 of the Syrian Minister of Defence and the Jordanian Chief of Staff in Amman, followed by a telephone conversation between the two leaders, helped normalise relations between Jordan and Syria. Less visible than the Emirates’ diplomacy on the issue, Jordan managed to partially impose its interests on Washington, obtaining an unofficial agreement of non-application of Caesar Act sanctions for Jordanian companies that were either involved in Syria, or wished to be.

Today, the issue at stake for Amman remains above all drug trafficking, a consequence of the transformation of Syria into a quasi-narco-state during the war. While local dynamics have reduced Russian influence in South-East Syria (well before the Ukrainian conflict) the Shiite militias close to Iran and Hezbollah are trying to establish themselves in the long term (especially in Bosra el Shams and around Deraa). The Syrian regime and its supporters are at the heart of the traffic in Captagon, the consumption of which is soaring in the Middle East. On the one hand, Amman denounces the involvement of the Syrian regime – the military and especially the President’s brother – and its Hezbollah support for various trafficking; on the other hand, it favours the revival of economic exchanges. In the medium term, only a return of Damascus to the regional stage would be able to replenish the regime’s coffers, thus limiting resorting to drug trafficking.

At present, the deal made by Amman of increased security on its border in exchange for a rehabilitation of relations with Damascus does not yet seem to have borne fruit. And this is all the more so as Daesh, taking advantage of the low density of security forces, is making a strong comeback, especially in the town of Al Jassim, about 50 km from the border, and more generally in the South and the central Syrian desert. It is in this city that the ‘caliph’ of the organisation, Abu Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, was killed in late November 2022.

Towards a new regional posture?

Fearing the volatility of American support and that of the Gulf monarchies, Jordan is trying to fit into a new regional system by multiplying its partners, while maintaining its historical supporters to maximise its revenues. To do this, and despite its strategic vulnerability, it has more room for manoeuvre than is generally believed.

Despite American and Israeli efforts, the idea of a vast anti-Iranian front has not succeeded for the moment. Jordan’s public stance has long been vehement with regards to Tehran: at the origination of the expression ‘Shiite crescent’ in 2004, King Abdullah II made a series of declarations against the Islamic Republic, and recently even called for the formation of an Arab ‘Nato’. By taking the lead in the regional denunciation of Iran in 2004, Jordan ensured Saudi and Israeli support and re-legitimised the need for Western support to Amman. However, within the Jordanian government there have been calls to accept Iranian offers, such as an official visit of the king to Tehran, the organisation of pilgrimages to Shiite holy places in Jordan, and the opening of air routes between Tehran and Jordan. In the summer of 2022, the Jordanian stance officially went against the perspective of American diplomacy. Amman now advocates ‘friendly’ relations with Tehran. This change of direction comes after a visit by Mohamed Ben Salman to Jordan in June 2022, when the Gulf monarchies were in the midst of a rapprochement with Tehran. In this respect, the Jordanian posture testifies to the autonomy now asserted by the states of the region with regard to the United States. This more conciliatory Jordanian posture is essential for the project of a ‘new Levant’ uniting Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. This rapprochement, which has been in the making since the Trump presidency [3] and which now has American support, aims to increase the autonomy of these three Arab states in the face of non-Arab regional actors (Turkey, Israel and Iran).

This desire for autonomy in the Gulf is accompanied by a reconciliation with Saudi Arabia, widely reported in the regional media, whereas relations had deteriorated after the accession of the Saudi crown prince to power in 2015. He was suspected by the Jordanians of being involved in the attempted coup of April 2021. The announcement of the engagement of the Jordanian crown prince, Hussein ben Abdallah, to the Saudi Rajwa Al Saif, a young woman from a large Nedj family (from the Subai tribe), was a media sensation. The young woman is related to the Saudi royal family through her mother, Azza Al Sudairi, and her father, the managing director of the El-Saif Group, is an influential businessman in Saudi Arabia. Queen Rania is said to have pushed for this marriage in order to obtain Saudi support for the succession. For Amman, the challenge is to keep Saudi Arabia at a distance from internal affairs, to obtain an increased diplomatic margin, outlined during the Gulf crisis of 2017, while maintaining crucial financing for its economy (8% of Jordan’s GDP according to the World Bank), particularly in the banking, mining and energy sectors, and potential contracts for the futuristic Saudi city of NEOM.

Maintaining American support, diversifying partners

The kingdom demonstrates its desire to maintain its special ties with the United Kingdom and the United States, especially in the military field. King Abdullah, the first Arab leader to be received by Joe Biden, is aware of America’s irreplaceable military aid (425 million dollars, 20% of Jordan’s annual defence budget) and has granted – without a vote in parliament – a particularly favourable legal status to the American forces stationed in the country. Jordan has also acquired eight F-16 Viper aircraft. The government has been more supportive of the Ukrainian cause than other Arab leaders – a line already taken in 2014 – and was thanked for this by Antony J. Blinken. The new Memorandum of Understanding on U.S. foreign assistance to Jordan, signed on 16 September 2022, provides for 1.45 billion in annual aid from the State Department for 2023-2029, the second largest amount after that given to Israel [4]. In addition to this aid, the country has received loan guarantees, numerous funds from USAID (United States Agency for International Development), and remittances ($845 million in 2022). American budgetary support (excluding military aid) to Jordan thus represents 6% of the kingdom’s annual budget.

In terms of military cooperation, the links with the United Kingdom post-Brexit remain significant, particularly in terms of training. Similarly, although cooperation with France was long-standing, the crisis in Syria was an opportunity to strengthen it: financing of a logistical hub for the protection of the Syrian border, development of interoperability through joint exercises (especially of special forces), stopovers in Aqaba, and an official visit by the king to Paris on 15 September 2022. France also has a deployable air base (BAP) within the framework of Operation Inherent Resolve, where four Rafales and nearly 400 personnel, including intelligence specialists, are stationed. The king also supports the project of a bilateral base for French and American special forces (COS and USSOCOM). For France, a base in Jordan would be a potential alternative to Djibouti.  

The crisis in Syria has also led the country to develop new partnerships and strengthen its ties with Russia. With 19 official visits in 22 years of reign, the king is the most invited Arab head of state to the Kremlin. The rapprochement with Russia could be a means of leverage on Israel, where the idea of a Palestinian state in Jordan periodically resurfaces [5]. However, it has no tangible political consequences for the moment. Similarly, China has become the country’s third largest trading partner, behind Saudi Arabia and the US. In 2016, China gained a foothold in the Jordanian energy market with the purchase of 45% of the Attarat project by Guangdong Energy Group, a Chinese state-owned company. However, this economic influence does not seem to have any political or military impact for the moment.

A future regional energy hub?

Abdullah II’s ambition is to transform the country into a proper energy hub: the transit of Egyptian gas and electricity to Lebanon and Syria, as well as to Iraq, Iraqi oil (Basra-Aqaba pipeline) and the production of exportable renewable energies [6] (the al Risha solar power plant project to Iraq, the ‘water for solar electricity’ deal with the Emirates and Israel), the doubling of supplies to Palestine, and the project for an electricity connection with Saudi Arabia (Amman – Al-Qurayya line). Jordan would thus be linked with all its neighbours. This alliance would pave the way for the Hashemite kingdom to have an infrastructure for regional dialogue, which would strengthen its strategic autonomy should it work. Since 2015, the country has also been committed to energy production [7]. Amman is banking on solar and renewable energy: 19% of the electricity produced currently comes from renewable sources, compared to 1% in 2012. This energy strategy is a way for the monarchy to reduce its dependence on Israel with which a 15-year gas agreement was signed in 2016, and more broadly, its energy dependence (96% in 2011), which weighs heavily on its debt (around 8% of GDP). In addition to the development of its modest gas resources (the exploitation of gas from al Risha produces 10% of Jordan’s electricity consumption), the country is banking on oil shale of which it has the eighth largest reserves in the world. Thanks to Chinese investments (a loan of 1.6 billion dollars), the Attarat-Um Ghudran electricity plant should supply 15% of the country’s electricity needs [8].  The civil nuclear projects (four power plants, in cooperation with the Russians and initially planned for 2030, should provide 30% of electricity production), although delayed, continue under the supervision of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency).

Persistent sources of tension

The regular demonstrations in the country rally the ‘Transjordanian’ populations that are broadly presented as the social base of the regime. New large-scale protests cannot be ruled out. It is difficult to evaluate their chances of success. The success of the opposition will depend on its ability to mobilise over time and to unite; however the example of the Jordanian veterans is revelatory of the divisions and difficulties that limit the impact of these movements. Occasional socio-economic demonstrations could also play a destabilising role. Jordan has been used to labour protests for more than ten years; they have allowed the emergence of dissident trade unions that have reversed the balance of power locally. These social movements could play a key role in turning a social movement into a real political movement.

The hypothesis of Abdullah II’s removal by a coup d’état seemed fanciful until the attempt of April 2021. This was probably the result of a desire by foreign powers (possibly Tel Aviv and Riyadh), supported by part of the US administration close to former President Trump, to force Jordan’s hand on the Palestinian issue. Despite its loss of centrality in regional issues, the Palestinian question remains a domestic issue in Jordan. As such, the victory of the ultra-religious Zionist hard right in Israel (November 2022) is of particular concern to Amman. Some observers have pointed out the likely involvement in this coup attempt of certain factions within the security forces just a few months after the ruler’s attempt to reduce the power of these services. The possibility of a new conspiracy by the military, allied or not with certain political and economic elites, cannot be totally ruled out. Could such an event occur with the premature death of the king, whose fragile health is widely rumoured? It seems that the king is taking this threat seriously, as the crown prince is now routinely put in the forefront during trips abroad as well as on Jordanian soil, testifying to a power struggle within the regime. A significant part of the state apparatus is said to be opposed to the liberalisation guidelines set by the king. Throughout the kingdom’s history the security services have expanded their authority and role in political crises. The discovery of a new plot, even a fabricated one, could hinder the king’s reforms and maintain the security services as an essential pillar of the monarchy. In this context, can demonstrations be used as a means of pressure by the king within the state apparatus to demand its modernisation? This idea of a renewal of elites within the state seems to have been adopted by Abdullah II. His continued rule may thus depend on the success of the restructuring of power.

Furthermore, the very recent challenge to a law on the protection of children (August 2022), led by the Salafist Iyad Al Qunaibi in the name of the fight against a Western norm deemed to be contrary to local values, shows the capacity of these actors to mobilise well beyond their traditional audience on social networks, and revives the fear of protests led in the name of political Islam. Jordan is home to a significant jihadist and Salafist movement. Numerous Jordanians have distinguished themselves in the jihadist galaxy: Omar Mahmud Abû ‘Umar, better known as Abû Qatâda al-Filastînî, but also Abû Muhammad al-Maqdisi or Abu Musab al Zarqawi. In addition to these figures of the global jihad, there are a myriad of local sheikhs. The various Salafist-jihadist currents are said to group together 6,000 to 8,000 individuals, mainly established in Zarqa, al-Rusayfa, Maan, al-Salt, Irbid, Ain al-Basha, and al-Baq’a, where most of the Jordanians who have left to fight in Syria come from. These different currents have never succeeded in uniting because their ideological divisions are so deep, all against a background of successful manipulation by the intelligence services. The quietist or reformist currents have a larger audience (15,000 people). Officially recognised, their institutions are subsidised by the monarchy in an effort to control them. The Muslim Brotherhood, although organised, has a popular support that is probably overestimated and in any case less than in Syria, despite a strong social and charitable presence. In addition, their party, one of the few that is organised and can mobilise in the country, was divided in 2015 between those in favour of a national refocusing following the king’s will, and those in favour of maintaining a transnational orientation. Their arrival in power seems extremely unlikely at the moment. It could only happen with a reform of the electoral law and the tacit agreement of the deep state, which might want to play the Muslim Brotherhood card against the king, a hypothesis whose probability seems low given that the Palestinians constitute today the social base of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, which was previously largely established in the Jordanian middle class.

In conclusion, if the Jordanian monarchy has been able to survive and manage the opposition so far, it seems likely that it will have to deepen its reforms if it is to remain in power, while still maintaining the appearance of continuity. Identifying these changes, which are often detectable at a very local level, will be crucial to avoid repeating the misjudgements from which French policy in the region has suffered greatly post-2011.

[1] 29 June 2022, appointment of Faisal bin el Hussein, younger brother of King Abdullah II, as viceroy; his half-brother, Ali bin al Hussein, chairs the new National Security Council.

[2] Roussel, Cyril. ‘Comment gérer le conflit syrien depuis la Jordanie ? ‘, Outre-Terre, vol. 44, no. 3, 2015, pp. 226-236.

[3] According to the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar, which has close links with Hezbollah, the day before the arrival of the new American ambassador in Amman, Henry T. Wooster, the Jordanian prime minister went to Cairo to meet his Egyptian and Iraqi counterparts and start discussions.

[4] This budget is increasing ($1.275 billion annually between 2018-2022)

[5] Negotiations had already taken place between Arafat and Hussein. In Israel, the idea is supported by right-wing parties (the annexation and transformation of Jordan into a Palestinian state) and more left-wing parties, which are in favour of a confederation. The ‘Jordan Is Palestine’ Idea Resurfaces Again & Why Jordan rejects a confederation with Palestine.

[6] Renewable energy has grown strongly in recent years, and now accounts for 26% of electricity consumption, up from 1% in 2014.

[7] The country has set itself the target of producing 48.5% of its electricity consumption by 2030.

[8] This is the largest Chinese private investment by the BRI outside China.

Share on social networks

Join us

FMES newsletter

Enter your email address to subscribe to our monthly newsletter and other mailings (conferences, training, etc.)

FMES newsletter

Enter your email address to subscribe to our monthly newsletter and other mailings (conferences, training, etc.)