Why Jordan is One of the Few Middle Eastern Nations Happy About Joe Biden
Having been cold-shouldered under Trump and his deals, Amman is looking forward to playing a key role in Washington again.
The Jordanian monarch, King Abdullah II, was among the first Arab leaders to congratulate Joe Biden on his win in November. In a tweet sent on November 7, King Abdullah II said: “Congratulations to President-elect Joe Biden and VP-election Kamala Harris. I look forward to working with you on further advancing the solid historic partnership between Jordan and the United States, in the interest of our shared objectives of peace, stability and prosperity.”
Over the past few years, the relationship between Jordan and the U.S. has been uneasy, primarily because of President Donald Trump’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President Trump took several steps that Jordan regarded with skepticism, such as moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing the city as the capital of Israel, and suspending funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).
While the Trump administration adopted a Middle East approach that favored Saudi and Israeli interests, it has virtually ignored Jordan, which is a longstanding American ally. In February 2020, the Trump administration revealed its long-awaited peace plan for the Middle East, which is known in the Arab world as the “deal of the century.” After the Palestinians, Jordan would have seen the greatest negative impact if the plan was implemented. Its enforcement would have left the kingdom to deal with various long-term obstacles.
Yet although Jordan, which is in economic turmoil, and the Trump administration did not share the same views on the Israel–Palestine conflict, Amman-Washington relations did not sour completely. Jordan, which cooperates with the U.S. on counterterrorism, receives over $1 billion of economic and military aid from Washington annually. Because of this aid, and for other reasons too, Jordan has been careful to avoid a total rift with the Trump administration. This can be seen in its refusal to back Israel’s West Bank annexation plans, which were much louder than its objections to Trump’s peace plan.
For instance, after the peace plan was revealed, Jordan reaffirmed per the Jordan Times that the establishment of an independent Palestinian state along the June 4, 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital on the basis of the two-state solution is the only path towards a comprehensive and lasting peace. As for the annexation, the Jordanian monarch, King Abdullah II, warned in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel in May that if Israel proceeds with its plans, then its move would lead to a “massive conflict” with Jordan.
Since the coronavirus outbreak, Jordan—which has a population of around 10 million—has recorded over 300,000 COVID cases and over 4,000 deaths. As one would imagine, the pandemic is likely to further worsen Jordan’s economic crisis.
Indeed, Jordan is one of the few countries in its neighborhood that was relieved by Biden’s victory. “In Jordan, the leadership is happy that Biden won, and President Trump lost the elections,” Mustafa Hamarneh, a member of the Senate of Jordan, told me. “There was tremendous tension, especially after the launch of the ‘deal of the century’ and the process of normalization with the UAE, Bahrain, and the others. Jordan felt it was being undermined and there was a feeling if Trump wins, it will be really dragged into joining the so-called ‘deal of the century’ whether it liked it or not and a lot of fait accompli will be implemented.”
“So, there is a sigh of relief that Biden won,” Hamarneh said. “At the same time, I think in some conservative quarters inside Jordan, they worry about the Democrats will be once again pushing for human rights, freedoms, etc….”
The Biden administration is in a position to address the current unease in U.S.-Jordan relations. On January 29, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke with his Jordanian counterpart, Ayman Safadi. Spokesperson Ned Price said, “The Secretary expressed his appreciation for Jordan’s leadership in advancing regional peace and stability. They discussed several matters of mutual interest and reaffirmed the importance of the deep bilateral partnership between our two countries.”
Although Biden is unlikely to reverse some of the Trump administration decisions—for example, he pledged to keep the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem—he is still not going to follow Trump’s path. In other words, Biden’s policy on the conflict is expected to be closer to America’s traditional stance that Trump reversed after becoming president four years ago. For instance, while Trump has refrained from endorsing the two-state solution, Biden has not. In his first conversation with an Arab leader following his victory in November, Biden talked with King Abdullah II and told the Jordanian monarch he hopes to cooperate on “supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Moreover, the Biden administration announced on January 26 that it was renewing aid to Palestinian refugees.
It is also likely that the selection of veteran diplomat William Burns as Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director will strengthen the ties between Amman and Washington. Burns served between 1998 and 2001 as the U.S. ambassador to Jordan and is said to have an “excellent” relationship with the kingdom. In addition, his understanding of the region, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is believed to be both deep and balanced.
Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes, “In addition to focusing on the pandemic and restoring some balance to the American approach to the Palestinian issue, King Abdullah will also seek a more coherent approach to the crisis in Syria. Abdullah’s relationship with Barack Obama soured in the latter’s second term, due to the king’s frustration with the administration’s hands-off approach to the Syrian disaster.”
On January 16, King Abdullah II visited the UAE and met Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. At a meeting, both men stressed the need to maintain coordination and consultation on issues of mutual concern, while bolstering cooperation across all sectors, according to a Royal Court statement. On the same day, Jordan’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister Ayman Safadi visited Saudi Arabia and met his Saudi counterpart, Faisal bin Farhan. The two diplomats reportedly discussed bilateral relations. The two foreign ministers also exchanged views on regional and international issues of common concern.
The following day, the head of the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate, Ahmed Husni, and head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service, Abbas Kamel, visited Ramallah. During their visit, they met with President Mahmoud Abbas. According to a Palestinian Authority official, the visit occurred within the context of ongoing coordination between the Palestinians and the two Arab countries in preparation for engaging Biden’s administration. On January 18, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi visited Jordan and met King Abdullah II. The two leaders held talks on bilateral ties and regional affairs. A Royal Court statement noted that the two leaders discussed means to bolster cooperation across all sectors, and expand Jordanian-Egyptian-Iraqi cooperation, while building on progress made at the three previous summits. Worth noting, the three previous summits between the leaders of Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq took place in March 2019, September 2019, and August 2020.
Veteran Jordanian journalist and political commentator Osama al-Sharif told me that the purpose of King Abdullah’s visit to Abu Dhabi was to “consult and coordinate positions ahead of the Biden presidency and following the departure of Trump. That was also the objective of Ayman Safadi’s visit to Riyadh where both sides reiterated support for the two-state solution and the Arab Peace Initiative.”
Al-Sharif noted that “King Abdullah is in a good position to regain role as a key player in future US-led peace efforts following years of marginalization under Trump. Jordan is now trying to use the normalization agreements that took place recently as leverage on Israel to re-engage the Palestinians and salvage the two-state solution. Also Jordan and Egypt have been putting pressure on President Abbas to hold elections in order to cement the legitimacy of the Palestinian leadership and institutions as a gesture to the Biden administration.”
It is thus not difficult to discern that there is optimism in Jordan over their ties with Washington under a Biden administration. As Curtis Ryan, professor of political science at Appalachian State University and author of Jordan and the Arab Uprisings: Regime Survival and Politics Beyond the State, notes, “For the Biden era in US-Jordanian relations, Jordanians at both government and opposition levels are simply looking to be heard and appreciated by the United States.” Of course, what remains to be seen is how long it will take for those relations to return to the pre-Trump era.
Abdulaziz Kilani is British-Arab writer and researcher who focuses on the Middle East and North Africa region. He tweets @AZ_Kilani.