It’s not easy being King – especially when your kingdom is impoverished and less than a hundred years old, and when a veritable invasion of outsiders outnumbers the native population. That situation pretty well sums up Jordan and its beleaguered King Abdullah II, who this weekend is hosting U.S. President Barack Obama, one of the few friends the Jordanian ruler still has.
Those outsiders – refugees – are flowing into Jordan, these days from Syria, and now close to half a million are sheltered there. But King Abdullah is being criticized for those that Jordan is not letting in, especially Palestinians who have lived in refugee camps in Syria since 1948 and now are seeking safety from that country’s civil war.
In a sharply worded report Thursday, Human Rights Watch said it contravenes international law for Jordan to deny sanctuary to these asylum seekers.
Palestinians who fled to Jordan 65 years ago now comprise about half of the country’s population of six million and the Abdullah regime is having enough trouble dealing with the political fallout from that.
His father faced it, too. King Hussein used to be called the Plucky Little King, or PLK for short, because the diminutive long-reigning monarch was renowned for standing up to many of the same threats his son now faces.
There were severe financial crises, uprisings from Palestinians, threats from Syria, conflicts with Iraq and frustrations with Israel. And King Hussein dealt with them all, usually with great tact.
This week, his son appears to have been less diplomatic, sharing with Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg a blistering account of many of the people and issues that offend His Royal Highness.
He minced no words in describing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as provincial, the new Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi as shallow and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as disingenuous.
The King spared no one. Jordan’s secret police came under heavy criticism for their lethargy and his own family was denounced for taking excessive privileges.
Ominously, he described the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamist trend in his own country as a devious disease ravaging the region. They are “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” he warned.
Of all the threats he faces, it’s the one from Syria and the domestic Islamist movement that are the biggest.
Abdullah acknowledged this week that he is increasingly concerned about “a jihadist state emerging out of the conflict” in Syria, yet he is doing what he can to assist in the campaign against Mr. al-Assad. Jordan is taking in most Syrian refugees who come to the border and is reportedly allowing Saudi Arabia to supply weapons to the rebels in Syria by way of Jordan. He is even said to have permitted rebel fighters to be trained in Jordanian military camps with the United States picking up the tab.
Abdullah had hoped that the Syrian President, a younger, Western-educated man like him, would be a change from his father, Hafez al-Assad, a ruthless dictator who had claimed Jordan was part of greater Syria.
King Hussein had to ward off several threats from Syria, including one in 1970, when Damascus sought to take advantage of an attempt by the Palestine Liberation Organization to overthrow the King. For two days, Syrian tanks poured across the border into Jordan, until King Hussein found support in the unlikeliest of places – Israel.
As Syrian tanks captured the northern Jordanian city of Irbid, and the United States moved its fleet into the eastern Mediterranean, it was Israel that mobilized its forces along the Israeli-Jordanian frontier nearest the Syrians. The threat worked and Damascus ordered its forces to retreat.
Indeed, in his hour of need, King Abdullah, as well, appears to be turning to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Whereas relations between the two had been frosty at the start of Mr. Netanyahu’s previous term, the two met three weeks ago in the latest in a series of meetings over the past year.
Abdullah’s great-grandfather, a Hashemite, came from Mecca in the 1920s to rule over Transjordan, as it then was known, part of the British Mandate that followed the First World War. Like him, and like his father, the King has tried to carve out a workable relationship with “the cousins” [the Israelis], as he calls them.
He inherited a peace treaty with the Jewish state, signed by his father in 1994, and he intends to adhere to it. But he also inherited the resentment expressed, sometimes vociferously, by his Palestinian subjects, who note that the treaty did nothing to advance their people’s hopes for a state of their own.
And that resentment has led to Abdullah’s great domestic challenge.
At a time when calls for democracy are ringing out in the region, the King has tried to appease his citizenry with pledges to increase the power of an elected parliament.
Indeed, he moved on that front years before the so-called Arab Spring. In 2005, the King appointed Marwan Muasher, a respected former foreign minister, to develop a national agenda for political reform, but the program was shelved when Transjordanian tribal leaders balked at the idea.
For these leaders, whose tribes predated the Hashemite rule, government is all about patronage and they have insisted on a legislature that provides them with most of the seats. The King’s desire to change that arrangement to better reflect the national makeup is further complicated by the fact that he does not want to empower the Muslim Brotherhood’s party, the Islamic Action Front. That is a tough circle to square as the IAF constitutes a big part of the Palestinian vote.
In a national election in January, the number of seats was increased and several were open to Islamic and other candidates. It was not enough. The IAF boycotted the election and turnout, in what was to be a defining moment, was only 56 per cent.
“People in Jordan are deeply frustrated with the status quo,” Mr. Muasher said. “The way the country has been governed – with a relatively small decision-making circle and a very weak legislative check on power – is no longer sustainable in the post-Arab Awakening moment.”
In his comments to Atlantic magazine, the King acknowledged that and made it clear he wants his son to inherit a throne in “a Western democracy with a constitutional monarchy.”
This is appreciated by a number of Jordanians. “My impression is that King Abdullah understands the need to change the system into a constitutional monarchy in which parliament and the cabinet run the government,” says Rami Khouri, a Palestinian Jordanian who is director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut. “He just needs to do it slowly.”
But with thousands of new Palestinian refugees banging at the door, demanding to come in, time is running out.