November 20, 2018
Middle East

How Jordan’s economic crisis exposed Saudi Arabia’s leadership vacuum

Saudi Arabia did not come to Jordan's rescue with a $2.5bn aid package, although King Salman very much wanted to appear as if it had.

What happened was an attempt by King Salman to take the credit for the money that Kuwait had already pledged. What resulted was a scramble by rival Gulf states to support Jordan.

'Substantial financial support'

King Abdullah had sent an envoy to Kuwait, before street protests erupted at rising prices and a planned increase in income tax, a well informed source close to the Jordanian Royal Court told MEE. A Kuwaiti minister of state was in Jordan during the protests, and as a result Kuwait pledged to deposit $500m in the Central Bank of Jordan and promised another $500m in low interest loans.

The next knock on the door came from Qatar. Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, called Abdullah to offer Qatar's "substantial financial support". The call was not announced upon the request of Jordan, which was still hoping for Saudi Arabia to cough up.

Saudi Arabia did not come to Jordan's rescue with a $2.5bn aid package, although King Salman very much wanted to appear as if it had

Today Qatar's foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, and the Qatari finance minister have arrived in Jordan to negotiate the aid package. This is the first such visit since Jordan downgraded relations with Qatar as a result of Saudi pressure to enforce the blockade a year ago.

The Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Qatar decided to support Jordan's economy directly with more than 10,000 jobs, and $500m.

A few hours after the call from Qatar, and possibly because he had got wind of Qatar's move, King Salman called Abdullah. The meeting which followed included the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, and the emir of Dubai and prime minister of UAE, Mohammed bin Maktoum, who is theoretically second in command after the president.

King Salman called the de-facto UAE ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed, but he declined to come and the UAE was represented by bin Maktoum.

In a Saudi sleight of hand, Kuwait's $1bn was included in the total aid package announced by Salman, as if it had been decided in the meeting. In reality, Saudi and the UAE gave less than Kuwait by dividing the remaining $1.5bn between them.

Saudi leadership vacuum

There was, consequently, "a degree of disappointment" in the royal court with Salman's response, because Jordan already had received $1bn from Kuwait and they expected more from Saudi Arabia, particularly as the Saudis had stopped funding Jordan for two years.

What does all this mean?

Firstly, that King Salman was panicked into a reaction once he realised that the vacuum of Saudi regional leadership was being filled by his Gulf rivals. Kuwait has tried and failed to play the role of intermediary in the crisis sparked by the blockade of Qatar by Saudi, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. But it has also been at loggerheads with Israel and the US over Gaza.

The Kuwaiti reaction to Jordan is another sign that there is no love lost between it and Saudi

The US blocked a statement calling for an independent investigation of the killings of Palestinian protesters on the Gaza border, which Kuwait, a non-permanent member of the Security Council had written.

Having attempted to bully the Gulf Cooperation Council into submission, all Saudi Arabia has succeeded in doing is to split it. Kuwait now is pursuing its own policies with a degree of independence which it did not do before. The same can be said of Qatar. The Kuwaiti reaction to Jordan is another sign that there is no love lost between it and Saudi.

Secondly, it means that King Abdullah, who visited Kuwait on Tuesday, is less tied to Saudi Arabia after this aid package than everyone thinks. The Saudis do not have as much leverage over Amman as the headline figure of $2.5bn suggests.


Jordan's King Abdullah II (R) meeting with Qatar's Emir Shiekh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani during the Arab-African leaders summit meeting in Kuwait City on 19 November, 2013 (AFP)

Yes, there are 400,000 Jordanians working in Saudi and their remittances are worth around 10 per cent of Jordans GDP. But Jordan now has other sources of finance, from Gulf states that are closer to the issues that matter to Jordanians than Salman is.

I say Jordanians rather than the king himself, because that too is another factor.

Change the political formula

King Abdullah understands that his legitimacy does not depend on buying the support of his people. He has to take into consideration the will of his people regarding the political direction of the kingdom more than any time in his reign.

Last week's protests and the continuing friction with the Beni Sakhr tribe, whose leader Fares al-Fayez, was arrested on Saturday after calling for political change, are a warning to the king that he can no longer take the loyalty of his people for granted. Al-Fayez broke the unwritten rule of making a personal attack on the king publicly.

He not only said he wanted to "change the political formula", he added: "We will not accept you [Abdullah] as a king, prime minister, defence minister, police chief and governor. You are everything. You became a demigod, according to this constitution, and we are slaves."

What Jordanians think matters and this too is a factor limiting Salman's leverage, because as an absolute monarch he has no concept of civic society or public opinion

He also reminded the king that his family came from the land that is now Saudi Arabia. To be more precise, Jordan is all that is left of the kingdom his family once ran. "This is our country and our land. You came from the Hijaz, you, your father and your grandfather. My father welcomed your grandfather. You owe us, we do not owe you."


A demonstrator gestures and shouts during a protest near the prime minister's office in Amman, Jordan, on 5 June, 2018 (AFP)

The veteran political dissident Laith Shubeilat rubbed salt into the kings wounds by telling the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar that Jordan had been displaced by Saudi as Israel's loyal military servant.

He said that "Jordan was an Israeli ally with a brigadier general rank, but now it has been downgraded to lieutenant and Saudi Arabia rose to be the general.”

An existential threat

Such bald and open affronts to royal authority are not accidental. They are a reminder to the royal court that public opinion in Jordan cannot be so easily bought off these days.

What Jordanians think matters and this too is a factor limiting Salman's leverage, because as an absolute monarch he has no concept of civic society or public opinion.

For different reasons, both the East Bank and Palestinian halves of the Jordanian population are dead set against Saudis sponsorship of the Israeli demand that Palestinian refugees abandon their right of return.

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This alone is being seen as an existential threat to the stability of the Jordanian state. But there are other threats too. The US recognition of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel challenges, to say the least, the Hashemite custodianship of the holy sites in Jerusalem, as well as the Palestinian demand, backed by the Arab League, that East Jerusalem is the capital of a Palestinian state.

Whether he wants to or not, these are not issues on which King Abdullah can bend. His legitimacy depends on his role as custodian of the holy sites more than ever before.

Saudi Arabia has good reason to think that the fresh wave of people power in Jordan could easily migrate across borders. Kuwait and Qatar's growing importance as independent Gulf actors and donors to Jordan also gives King Abdullah the chance to give political reform in Jordan a chance. If he does not take it, the writing is on the wall.

David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Jordanian King Abdullah II (1st-R) attending a meeting in Mecca on 11 June with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz (2nd-R), Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (3rd-R) and Kuwait Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah (1st-L) to discuss the economic crisis in Jordan (AFP)

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