Gulf states rally round Jordan's king

Last week's riots could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for King Abdullah of Jordan. Gulf monarchs, nervous about any challenges to hereditary rule in the Arab region, are now looking at ways to prop up his throne. In the Financial Times [subscription] Simeon Kerr reports:

"Days after demonstrations erupted against a cut in fuel subsidies – during which for the first time slogans targeted King Abdullah himself rather than his government – the foreign ministers of the oil-rich Gulf states are studying ways to reduce the kingdom's budget deficit, which is predicted by the IMF to reach 6.5% of gross domestic product in 2012.

"Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who conceded that talks could take some time, said the Gulf Co-operation Council would look for ways to 'close or minimise the deficit', according to the UAE's official news agency.

"Sheikh Abdullah was addressing a news conference on Tuesday with Nasser Judeh, Jordanian foreign minister, after a meeting in Abu Dhabi."

Gulf newspapers have also been urging more support for the Jordanian king. In a column for the Saudi-owned Asharq Alawsat, Tariq Alhomayed, the paper's editor-in-chief, writes:

"Do we realise the all-encompassing danger present in the Kingdom of Jordan, and the size of the conspiracy that has been hatched against it, from numerous sides, whether by the Muslim Brotherhood, Israel, Iran or the extremists, or even some Arab gamblers, whose stories exceed all others?"

This is the sort of language more usually heard from Syrian Ba'athists blaming worldwide conspiracies for the uprising against the Assad regime. Alhomayed continues:

"The forces of evil in the region do not hesitate to take action – utilising money, material and men – to destabilise our region, as well as compromise the security and stability of Jordan. This, in itself, represents a danger that is in no way less than the danger that is on the verge of engulfing Bahrain and Kuwait, particularly as the King of Jordan has undertaken serious reforms ..."

The upshot is that "the security of Jordan is the security of the Arab Gulf, and the regional as a whole":

"Jordan must not remain alone in confronting these evils. So when will the Arab Gulf intellectuals, particularly in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait take action in this regard and stand with Jordan before it is too late? ... It is also dangerous to wait for America’s position on this, especially following everything that we have seen from the US administration with regards to the Arab Spring."

In Kuwait, an article in the Arab Times headed "Stop Jordan from sinking" trundles out the well-worn argument that the Hashemite ruling family, with its "sagacity and wisdom", is a vital bulwark against Islamist extremism – and even raises the spectre of Jordan turning into another Somalia.

In Bahrain, Adel al-Mouawda, a prominent Salafi member of parliament, also called on the Gulf Cooperation Council to support the Jordanian government financially.

"The GCC countries should mobilise their forces and provide prompt assistance to contain the critical and ominous consequences. The GCC countries do have the financial capability to cover the subsidies and will not be affected by the move," hesaid. The report in Gulf News continues:

According to al-Mouawda, Jordan is an extension of the Gulf countries and its national security was "an essential part of the Gulf national security".

"The Gulf cannot accept the deterioration of the situation in Jordan, and it is our duty to help our brothers there. It is the right thing to do instead of wasting and squandering money on luxuries," he said.

In the past, Gulf rulers have dipped into their pockets to keep Jordan's economy afloat but a Reuters report last week said they were no longer "providing the cash that could calm the trouble".

"The kingdom has long relied on western support and intermittent dollops of Gulf financial aid to survive.

"But Saudi Arabia, Amman's main donor, is not known to have provided money since a $1.4 billion infusion in late 2011 to stave off a previous dire economic crisis in the kingdom ..."

(Interestingly, there was no mention of dwindling Gulf aid in the 
recent statement from the Jordanian embassy in Washington about the causes of the economic crisis – though it specifically blamed Egypt in connection with the interruption of natural gas supplies.)

So far, the regimes toppled by the Arab Spring uprisings have all been republics. The monarchies have held their ground and, increasingly, they are resorting to collective action in order to keep it that way – since the fall of one monarchy could weaken the others.

Last year, the GCC sent troops (mainly Saudis) to Bahrain to prop up the beleaguered monarchy there. There has also been talk of Jordan and Morocco joining the GCC – in effect turning what has hitherto been a club for the rich Arab states into a club for hereditary autocrats.

However, this closing of the royal ranks does not bode well for those seeking reform in Jordan. Increased dependence on Gulf aid will not encourage King Abdullah to grant his citizens more freedom and democracy – probably the opposite.

Across the Atlantic, there's more support for King Abdullah from right-wing elements suggesting that President Obama is "selling out" the king to the Muslim Brotherhood (Front Page magazine) or has "decided to get rid" of him (Gatestone Institute).

These bizarre claims are based on a press briefing given by Mark Toner, the State Department's deputy spokesman, on 15 November. Toner made very clear that "Jordan is an important strategic partner and ally of the United States, and we're very supportive of King Abdullah’s reform package" but he also said:

"There are concerns, economic and political concerns, aspirations by the Jordanian people. We believe that King Abdullah’s roadmap for reform addresses these, but certainly, as we’ve seen elsewhere, there’s a thirst for change."

Mention of "aspirations" and "thirst for change" rang alarm bells on the right. The Front Page article says:

"The last time people in Tunisia and Egypt had aspirations, we got Iran x 2. Jordan, where the Muslim Brotherhood’s base mainly consists of disenfranchised Palestinians, will be even worse."

The Gatestone Institute article adds:

"Unless the US clarifies its position regarding King Abdullah and reiterates its full backing for his regime, the Muslim fundamentalists are likely to step up their efforts to create anarchy and lawlessness in the kingdom. Washington needs to reassure King Abdullah and his followers that it would not allow the creation of an Islamic terror republic in Jordan."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 November 2012.