Washington's Bahrain in the Levant

by Pete Moore | published May 23, 2012 - 9:56am

Despite sharing some of the socio-economic and political problems that propelled uprisings in other Arab countries, Jordan remains an exception to the trend. And if it can be kept that way, much of the world inside the Beltway will celebrate.

In that respect, Jordan is like Bahrain. A serious threat to regime stability in either country is seen to endanger core US and allied interests. So, as Jordan enters its second summer since the start of the regional uprisings, now under a caretaker government struggling with a moribund economy, there are expectations of change. There are parallels, of course, to the atmosphere during the summer of 1989, following mass demonstrations and violence in the south, and the summer of 2003, after the US invasion of Iraq. But there are some intriguing differences this time.

For one thing, the American wars on Iraq are now taking a different toll. While Jordanian exports to Iraq have recovered (albeit restricted to fewer sectors than in the past), the loss of preferential oil imports from Iraq has begun to bite. In 2010 alone, gasoline prices rose just over 30 percent and diesel over 20 percent, as the government decreased subsidies. Electricity prices may soon jump as well, along with fuel oil prices for industrial uses like power generation.

Meanwhile, Jordan’s time-tested ability to feast off regional turmoil (as in Lebanon, Palestine or Iraq) is not panning out with the crisis to the north in Syria. While some fleeing Syrian capital has arrived, the type of real estate and business investment that Iraqis brought in the 1990s and after 2003 has not. So far, Syrians prefer a wait-and-see-and-rent attitude. Real estate speculation, the bread and butter of Amman’s upwardly mobile elite, is finally flat. Poor Jordanians are squeezed between the subsidy cuts and a regressive tax system that misses few. In some agricultural sectors, Syrian exporters are dumping their produce on Jordanian markets pushing down prices for Jordanian exporters.

And corruption, that constant refrain, seems different as well. Millionaire ministers and buffoonish excess have always been around, yet now that the artificial growth of decades past has receded, the only things set in stone seem to be inequality and privilege. One needs a notebook to keep up with the list of projects in which regime cronies and parliamentarians are said to pillage and profit with no accountability: Jordan Gate, the tallest unfinished buildings in the Levant, and the ‘Abdali projects in Amman are among the most glaring. High-profile corruption arrests in the last year came across as cynical public relations schemes, a sort of penal version of the monarchy’s “Jordan First” campaign years ago. The joke is that the Suwaqa prison now has valet parking. And while the links of corrupt officials to the old king were spoken of only in whispers, ‘Abdallah II and Rania have succeeded in crafting one identity all Jordanians can share: extreme disdain for them and their cronies. Rumors of a palace reshuffle are commonplace, but beyond that it’s hard to tell what is in the air.

If and when mass demonstrations return to Jordan, the socio-economic problems won’t be the only factor. Many summers of socio-economic discontent have come and gone. More importantly, the regime’s economy of control can continue to rely on concerted American budgetary support with no ceiling in sight. The irony for American policy is that despite steady reductions in US assistance to Iraq, deposing the Baathists has forced continuous US aid to Jordan to counterbalance the Hashemites’ inability to adjust without Iraq’s help. Bahrain and Jordan are the new lines in the sand.