Only a focus on corruption will save America’s most reliable Arab ally, David Schenker writes for The Atlantic.
Two years into the so-called “Arab Spring,” the tally is grim for Middle East republics. To date, three nominally republican governments have been toppled, and a fourth — Syria — promises to follow in 2013. Despite longstanding governance problems and human rights abuses, the Arab monarchies have largely been spared from the popular revolts that dislodged their autocratic neighbors. Until now this monarchy “red line” has served U.S. interests. After all, Washington would benefit little from a cascade of friendly kingdoms and emirates falling like dominos only to be replaced by inimical Islamist regimes.
But the monarchy red line will not last forever, and Washington will face a series of new strategic challenges when and if this threshold is crossed. The end of the monarchy in Jordan would constitute a particularly serious blow to U.S. interests.
Historically, the regime has been able to weather popular discontent by relying on the support of East Bankers — Jordanians who inhabited the area before the arrival of the first Palestinian refugees in 1948, and who have stood by the Hashemite regime out of fear that a revolution could bring to power the Palestinian-origin majority. But for the past two years, the kingdom has been contending with persistent protests focused on the sluggish economy and corruption — an issue that may, for the first time, unite East Bankers with Palestinian-origin protesters.
The list of corruption allegations linked to senior decision-makers in Amman is long. But more offensive — and more problematic to the king — is a growing perception that the degeneracy reaches the palace. Consider that in 2011 — in the wake of her highly publicized and extravagant 40th birthday party — leaders of 36 tribes in Jordan wrote a public letter criticizing Queen Rania’s corruption. More recently, the Jordanian internet publication Jo24.net highlighted the delivery of King Abdullah’s new stretch Airbus 330, an executive jet with a purported cost of $440 million. And the list goes on.
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 In early January, Jordan took the unprecedented step of issuing an arrest warrant for King Abdullah’s fugitive uncle, Prince 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.
David Schenker is the Aufzien fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
This is an edited extract from a longer piece for The Atlantic.