Will Jordan Be the First Arab Monarchy to Fall?

Alas, Jordanians are a patient bunch, but the Arab awakening has been toxic to the kingdom's long-anemic economy. Facing a nearly 30 percent budget deficit this year, in November 2012 the government announced that in line with its International Monetary Fund obligations, it would slash food and energy subsidies. The austerity decision, exacerbated by perceived palace excesses, prompted some to call for a "revolution."

To be sure, while protests in the kingdom -- demanding economic relief, more subsidies, political liberalization, and an end to corruption -- have been routine and persistent since early 2011, the demonstrations have not come close to reaching critical mass. At least initially, King Abdullah was able to diffuse rallies via a combination of deficit spending and a process of limited but serious constitutional reform. It also seems that fear of chaos a la Syria demobilized many would-be Jordanian protestors. The king has likewise contained the opposition through other forms of non-lethal pressure, including a sustained campaign of arrests.

But the trend line is not assuring. Most troubling, over the past 18 months a persistent opposition coalition has emerged that includes not only the monarchy's enduring Islamist detractors, but also a growing number of "East Bankers." Although the sentiments of these groups, known as Al Hirak, or "The Movement," may not yet be widespread among the kingdom's tribes, its members are tenacious and have been downright irreverent in their critiques of King Abdullah, violating every convention and law on the books in Jordan prohibiting defamation of royals.

Most famously, Hirak demonstrators from Tafilah province and the Tafilah neighborhood of Amman -- areas known for their loyalty to the monarchy -- have taken to dancing the Dabka al Fasad, a traditional local two-step, accompanied by protests accusing the king and his family of corruption, going so far as to describe the sovereign as "Ali Baba and the 40 thieves." Some royalists have even called for King Abdullah to be deposed and replaced by his younger half-brother, Prince Hamza.

Washington has a clear interest in doing whatever it can to ensure the continued survival of the monarchy. While Jordan cannot turn back on its current course of belt tightening, the Obama administration can help to ease the pain by helping to convince the Gulf Cooperation Council -- which in 2011 committed to giving Jordan $5 billion over five years -- to provide immediate budgetary support, including cash to the king, to help him shore up his tribal base.

More importantly, certainly in terms of popular perception, Washington should press King Abdullah to pursue a real anti-corruption campaign, one that would remove the "corruption files" from the secrecy of the parliament to a more transparent venue. The largely symbolic steps taken to date -- some parliamentary hearings about the Dead Sea casino scandal, the arrest of the mayor of Amman, and the conviction and sentencing of a former intelligence chief to 13 years of hard labor -- have been insufficient to restore confidence.

In early January, Jordan took the unprecedented step of issuing an arrest warrant for King Abdullah's fugitive uncle, Walid al Kurdi, who stands accused of embezzling hundreds of millions from Jordan's phosphate industry. A public trial of the royal could go a long way toward reassuring the public -- and particularly the monarchy's East Banker constituency -- of the king's commitment to fighting corruption. Washington should encourage King Abdullah to see through this and other public corruption trials, with an eye toward improving the monarch's tarnished image at home and his chances of surviving the current regional turmoil.

Presented by

David Schenker is director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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