Why Obama needs to focus on corruption to save America's most reliable Arab ally.
This piece is part of "Obama and the Middle East: Act Two," a series produced with the the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on U.S. foreign policy in the president's second term. See our full coverage here
Two years into the so-called "Arab Spring," the tally is grim for Middle East republics. To date, three nominally republican governments have been toppled, and a fourth -- Syria -- promises to follow in 2013. Despite longstanding governance problems and human rights abuses, the Arab monarchies have largely been spared from the popular revolts that dislodged their autocratic neighbors. Until now this monarchy "red line" has served U.S. interests. After all, Washington would benefit little from a cascade of friendly kingdoms and emirates falling like dominos only to be replaced by inimical Islamist regimes.
But the monarchy red line will not last forever, and Washington will face a series of new strategic challenges when and if this threshold is crossed. The end of the monarchy in Jordan would constitute a particularly serious blow to U.S. interests. Should the regime fall, Washington would lose its best remaining Arab ally, and Israel would lose its last reliable peace partner.
Historically, the regime has been able to weather popular discontent by relying on the support of East Bankers - Jordanians who inhabited the area before the arrival of the first Palestinian refugees in 1948, and who have stood by the Hashemite regime out of fear that a revolution could bring to power the Palestinian-origin majority. But for the past two years, the kingdom has been contending with persistent protests focused on the sluggish economy and corruption - an issue that may, for the first time, unite East Bankers with Palestinian-origin protesters. While Jordan's perennially feeble economy will take some time to improve, in order to ensure the long-term survival of the monarchy, Washington should encourage King Abdullah to take bold steps now to root out the corruption and insulate his regime.
Transparency International ranks Jordan 58 out of 176 countries on its annual "Corruption Perception Index," among the best scores in the Middle East. Still, corruption is a hot button issue in Jordan, a topic that resonates with both the monarchy's traditional tribal supporters and Islamist detractors. In Jordan, a small state where gossip travels quickly and where internet penetration is high, reports of graft and of palace excess have been become ubiquitous over the last decade.
Ask Jordanians about corruption and they will lament the absence of transparency in the near-sales of government lands -- the Amman headquarters of the Jordanian Armed Forces and the King Hussein Medical Center, for example -- and the non-competitive privatization process of the national phosphate industry. They will complain about a lack of accountability for the enormous financial penalty associated with the signing and subsequent cancellation of a government concession to establish a casino on the shores of the Dead Sea. You might even hear about Khaled Shaheen, a convicted businessman serving three years in prison for graft, who inexplicably was permitted to leave Jordan for extended medical treatment in the U.S. -- until he was subsequently observed shopping with his family at Harrod's in London.
The list of corruption allegations linked to senior decision-makers in Amman is long. But more offensive -- and more problematic to the king -- is a growing perception that the degeneracy reaches the palace. The problem started shortly after Abdullah took the throne, when he was accused by some Jordanians of illegally appropriating "tribal" lands. The perception has grown since then. Consider that in 2011 -- in the wake of her highly publicized and extravagant 40th birthday party -- leaders of 36 tribes in Jordan wrote a public letter criticizing Queen Rania's corruption. More recently, the Jordanian internet publication Jo24.net highlighted the delivery of King Abdallah's new stretch Airbus 330, an executive jet with a purported cost of $440 million. And the list goes on.