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Saturday, 22 June 2024
Biden’s best Arab ally
Ian Black
In mid-July, after an unusually turbulent few months at home, King Abdullah II of Jordan flew to Washington to meet Joe Biden – in the Democratic president’s first encounter with an Arab leader since his inauguration in January. Biden praised the Hashemite monarch as a “loyal and decent friend” in a tough neighborhood. “You have always been there, and we will  always be there for Jordan,” he added.

In terms of US-Jordanian relations, and in the wider context of the Middle East, this was quite a big deal. A royal source described the meeting as “a reaffirmation of the uniquely close relationship between the White House and Jordan” that had prevailed with every president until Donald Trump, adding: “the king had no one behind him the last four years.”

Abdullah was sidelined by Biden’s Republican predecessor, who he saw as undermining any chance for a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians with his controversial 2017 declaration of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The king also chafed at Trump’s pursuit of the Abraham Accords, with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, that normalized relations with Israel but ignored the Palestinians - and were followed  by Sudan and Morocco.

Abdullah, for his part, praised Biden for “setting the standard” internationally in the battle against the Covid pandemic. The US delivered 500,000 vaccines to Jordan days ahead of their meeting. But it is not just about fighting coronavirus: the king was lobbying senior US officials for an extension of a five-year $6.4 billion aid package that ends next year to help shore up his country’s struggling economy, with high levels of unemployment among women and youth.

Biden is preoccupied by the pandemic and by the inexorable rise of China, and is considered unlikely to have much appetite for Israeli-Palestinian peace-making. But Middle Eastern circumstances appear to have persuaded him to signal renewed support for Abdullah, who in his 22 years in power, has been viewed by successive presidents as both a moderate and reliable ally in the Arab world.

Jordan’s king urged Biden to back Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and to withdraw US combat troops but continue military training, intelligence support and other aid in the broader context of Iran’s influence over its immediate neighbour. Abdullah revealed in a later interview with CNN that his own country has been attacked by drones with an “Iranian signature” in the past year.

Abdullah also tried to persuade the US to join a task force to help stabilize Syria, following its disastrous civil war, which has seen Bashar al-Assad remain in power. The approach he is advocating would bring together the US, Russia, Israel, Jordan and other countries to agree on a “road map” for restoring Syrian sovereignty and unity.

In addition, a defence agreement signed in March between Amman and Washington served their mutual interests by allowing the US to move in forces, aircraft and vehicles in the country – from both Iraq and north-eastern Syria. It raised eyebrows in the Jordanian majlis, which the government ignored.

Abdullah and his Palestinian wife, Queen Rania, spent three weeks travelling around America; the royal couple had a good reason for wanting a holiday. Protests peaked in mid-March when several patients died in a government hospital due to negligent handling of the oxygen supply. In April Prince Hamzah, the king’s half-brother and popular with Bedouin tribes, was placed under house arrest.

And then on, July 12, just a week before the Biden meeting, a state security court sentenced two former officials, Bassem Awadallah and Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, a businessman and distant cousin of the king. Awadallah is a former chief of the royal court and served as the Jordanian finance minister and is a close associate of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.

This refocused attention on a low-key but longstanding Saudi effort to include Riyadh in the administration of Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif, Islam’s third-holiest site. Abdullah has described protection of the Muslim shrine as a “red line.” Jordan rejected the Saudis’ demand to release Awadallah into their custody, a move that was reportedly supported by Biden and CIA Director William Burns.

In the same interview with CNN, Abdullah also confirmed that he had met secretly with the new Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett this month and defence minister Benny Gantz after the formation of Israel’s new coalition government. The king clearly wanted to improve relations with the US by signalling that he was willing to be more friendly to Israel than during Binyamin Netanyahu’s time when Jordan cut off Israeli access to two farming enclaves leased as part of their 1994 peace treaty.

Earlier this year tensions escalated after Amman delayed a plane that was slated to bring Netanyahu to the UAE, ostensibly in response to Jordan’s Crown Prince Hussein – Abdullah’s son and heir - cancelling a trip to the al-Aqsa mosque due to disagreements over security arrangements. Netanyahu then attempted to shut down Israeli airspace to Jordanian flights in revenge.

In a changing Middle East, relations between Biden and Abdullah are clearly becoming more important – and to both sides.