Michael Bell teaches at Carleton University. He served as Canada's ambassador to Jordan, Egypt and Israel.
King Abdullah II of Jordan rules a country without natural resources, wedged between powerful neighbours: Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel. It was invaded by Syria in the 1970s by the forces of the Assad regime, its survival was questioned during the Gulf wars of the '80s and '90s, and it lives constantly in fear that Palestinians from the Israeli-occupied West Bank will, by hook or by crook, be forced inside its borders.
Managed superbly by King Abdullah's father, the late King Hussein, Jordan's present monarch has learned many lessons in his 15 years on the throne, and most often has managed his country's challenges with competence. But there have been missteps: He has neglected the tribal support that sustained his father's regime.
King Abdullah's visit to Canada on Wednesday came at a critical time. He needs help. And he needs assistance if his strategic buffer of a country is to survive as the relatively benign, albeit authoritarian, state it has been since its emergence after the First World War. One shudders to imagine a radicalized Jordan sitting just a very few metres across the Jordan River from Israel, making any Hamas threat look harmless. It is also questionable whether an already challenged Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas – or anyone else for that matter – could continue to exercise any predictable control over the West Bank, let alone survive.
Given its importance, Jordan is in like flint with the Americans and the British, as well as the conservative states of the Gulf, who will spare no effort in propping up the Hashemite dynasty, a Sunni entity like their own. This does not imply that Canada should not be involved. We are already active in humanitarian and refugee relief through United Nations-based organizations. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's appointment of the former head of his security detail, a departure from any known practice, demonstrates Canadian concern about Jordan's welfare. Nor would the King have come to Canada were there not something in the pot: An additional $120-million in assistance, that includes funding to tighten its borders and deter Islamic State terrorism in Jordan. Such continuing co-operation alone is a valid enough reason to strengthen our involvement in Jordan, and something even the NDP would be unlikely to reject. The Prime Minister almost certainly relishes this operation given his past support of the security option in other conflicts.
The country's population, swollen by an influx of refugees (100,000 Iraqis and 700,000 Syrians), sits around eight million, more than half of whom are under 25 and, among that cohort, 30 per cent unemployed. The burden of so many Syrian refugees is such that almost all are confined to the camps, barred from both housing elsewhere and employment.
On the domestic political front, the King, partly through his tendency to share the good life with the Palestinian business elite (Palestinian refugees mainly from 1948 make up more than 60 per cent of the population and many have prospered) has alienated his father's traditional support base – the indigenous tribes of the Jordanian desert. IMF and World Bank austerity conditions for any bailout and the regime's neo-liberal modernization through capitalist reforms have combined to disconnect the tribes from the centre of government. This diminishment of political strength has led to a sense of alienation and a mounting desire for a rough sort of pluralism. Although this in itself it has not posed a critical threat to the regime it has led to disturbances, which have been easily controlled by well-trained and effective security services.
However, there is a growing Salafist movement within Jordan itself, again much of it among tribally based youth. Previously distinct from radical jihadism and traditionally identified with the Kingdom's long-standing and much tolerated Muslim Brotherhood, it started to connect first with al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and then increasingly with Islamic State. The security authorities, it need not be said, are cracking down.
There is in sum much to be done in Jordan, certainly on the military and economic fronts, but also with respect to pluralism, social tolerance and inclusion. Given our Prime Minister's approach to international issues, there was almost certainly no discussion about the well-being of Jordanian society as a whole. But the countries who are determined to support this parcel of Mideast moderation would be wise to talk about more than just muscle.
Michael Bell serves as a member of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's foreign policy advisory team.