How the GCC Rift Appears from Jordan

King Abdullah II of Jordan

by Giorgio Cafiero and Shehab al-Makahleh

Surrounded by a host of conflict zones and sources of regional instability—from southern Syria to the Egyptian Sinai and western Iraq to Palestine—Jordan conducts a cautious and diplomatic foreign policy to safeguard the Hashemite Kingdom’s internal stability. To maintain security while keeping Jordan’s economy afloat, Amman has become quite reliant on financial support from the Arab states in the Persian Gulf, chiefly Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

As it appears from Jordan, the simmering Qatar crisis is unsettling given the potential for Amman to come under greater pressure from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to take more action against Doha. To be sure, the Hashemite Kingdom has supported Saudi Arabia and the UAE amid the Arab Gulf states’ rift, but only to a limited extent. King Abdullah II, who as a regional mediator has a record of helping Sunni Arab governments overcome their political differences, is determined to maintain Jordan’s independent foreign policy and avoid becoming too involved in the crisis on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s side.

Unquestionably, Jordan’s economic problems have worsened as a result of the Syrian refugee influx, which has put the country in even more of a financial squeeze. The Hashemite Kingdom has been increasingly reliant on financial support from the Arab Gulf states, which have high stakes in Jordan’s future stability.

In March, shortly before the March 29 Arab Summit in Jordan when the king of Saudi Arabia visited Amman, the two countries signed agreements that will lead to billions of dollars being invested in Jordan. Shortly after the “Arab Spring” uprisings erupted, all GCC states (save Qatar) paid their share of a $5 billion five-year grant for Jordan that expired last year. Of the roughly 800,000 Jordanian workers in the GCC, 650,000 of them work in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In 2016, Jordanian workers in these two GCC countries sent remittances back to the Hashemite Kingdom worth $1.4 billion. Additionally, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have both given the Hashemite Kingdom grants and soft loans for years.

Given Jordan’s need for continued assistance from Arab Gulf states, the GCC’s simmering crisis has unsettled Amman. Jordanian officials are concerned that the ongoing row will put greater pressure from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on Amman to sever relations with Qatar, which is one of Jordan’s most important export partners. Qatar was the destination for 11 percent of Jordan’s agricultural exports, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. As the Arabian emirate relied on food imports from the Levant that crossed the Saudi-Qatari land border, Riyadh’s decision to shut down this border will add to the Hashemite Kingdom’s economic challenges.

Navigating the Gulf

Now Jordan faces a new dilemma. Although Jordanian-Qatari relations have been quite tense over the years, largely due to Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Jazeera’s coverage of Jordan, officials in Amman (unlike their counterparts in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi) do not see Qatar’s foreign policy as a grave threat. In fact, the Jordanian leadership would prefer to see the GCC states direct their counter-terrorism efforts toward the Syrian battlefields, which directly threaten Jordan’s national security, instead of toward Qatar.

The ongoing Qatar crisis is prompting many Jordanians to recall the early 1990s when Amman broke with the “Riyadh consensus” and refused to join the US-led military coalition to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Much like Jordan saw the need to resolve the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait among Arab states, today the Jordanian leadership is pushing for brotherly nations in the Arab world to solve the Qatar crisis through direct talks based on mutual understanding of fears and concerns of each country concerned without non-Arab governments intervening.

Yet by not aligning with Saudi Arabia in the first Gulf war, officials in Amman paid major economic and political prices for several years. Moreover, Jordanian workers in the GCC were forced to depart without receiving financial aid payments. This history makes King Abdullah II think twice about upsetting officials in Riyadh and other Arab Gulf capitals.

A Pragmatic Outlook on the GCC’s Row

Thus far, the Jordanians have had a measured response to the GCC’s rift. Ultimately, King Abdullah II, who seeks to always represent Jordan as a country with an independent foreign policy, is trying to avoid any perceptions that Amman has embraced an extreme position. Instead, he is opting for a “moderate” and quiet response that takes into account Amman’s deep ties with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

One day after the Qatar crisis erupted, Amman took steps to show solidarity with Saudi Arabia and the UAE by downgrading representation with Doha. Jordanian authorities also asked Qatar’s ambassador to leave the country, and they voided the license of Al Jazeera’s office in Amman. But Jordan stopped short of taking other actions against Doha such as severing diplomatic relations with the Arabian emirate, canceling Jordanian flights to Qatar, and expelling its citizens from the Hashemite Kingdom. Furthermore, on June 6, a spokesman for Jordan’s government stated that Amman “hopes that such a regretful time would come to an end and that the crisis would be solved on a solid ground.” No other official statements on the Qatar crisis have come from officials in Amman since that date.

For Jordan, the Qatar crisis was unexpected. Although Amman’s closest partners in the GCC are Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, King Abdullah II decided against fully severing relations with Qatar because, in his capacity as the head of the Arab Summit held in Amman three months ago, Jordan’s monarch has the responsibility to resolve conflicts between Arab states. But the Jordanian monarch is turning to his Kuwaiti counterpart to take the lead in initiatives to resolve the Gulf’s rift. Rather than becoming excessively involved in the GCC’s row, the king of Jordan is seeking to stand by its close allies while providing political backing for Kuwait’s Emir Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah as he seeks to mediate this crisis.

In the event that Kuwait’s efforts to resolve the Qatar crisis fail, perhaps Jordan will find itself under greater pressure to embrace Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s position by severing ties with Doha. Under such circumstances, King Abdullah II may find it challenging to uphold his commitment to conducting an independent foreign policy that advances Jordan’s national interests without compromising Amman’s deep ties with the Arab Gulf states.

Shehab al-Makahleh (@ShehabMakahleh) is a senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics with experience as a political advisor in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. Photo: King Abdullah II (Wikimedia Commons).

Giorgio Cafiero

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor. From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.