New King Likely to Focus on Domestic Issues
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 8, 1999; Page A1
AMMAN, Jordan, Feb. 7 – No matter what the personal abilities of Jordan's new King Abdullah, he may be too preoccupied with consolidating his rule at home and a host of thorny domestic problems to plunge quickly or publicly into the thicket of regional politics.
At 37, the new king is an unknown quantity whose faltering public addresses in Arabic and military career out of the limelight of statesmanship have inspired a palpable anxiety here about how readily he will fill the shoes of his father, the late King Hussein.
At the least, analysts say, the Middle East peace process has lost its elder statesman. It remains to be seen whether Jordan will also lose some of the stature it enjoyed under Hussein, whose personal prestige gave this impoverished country a regional role far exceeding its size and power.
"His father had his own charisma and his own strength, and that allowed him to make unpopular decisions," said Labib Kamhawi, a political analyst in Amman and former head of the country's human rights organization. Abdullah "needs more support from the base" before he can assert the same sort of authority.
That makes the current, cloudy picture of Middle East peace somewhat cloudier. And it raises questions about how well Jordan will be able to mind its domestic concerns while advancing its security interests in a regional landscape laced with booby traps.
Indeed, bordered on three sides by Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia – all of which have at one time or another had designs on the Hashemite kingdom – and on the fourth by Israel, with whom it made peace just four years ago, Jordan is surrounded by potential foes.
Iraq and Syria, both of which bitterly opposed Hussein's peace treaty with Israel, are believed to maintain large numbers of agents in Jordan. Each is regarded as a source of potential instability for the Jordanian monarchy.
Abdullah himself has identified Iran as a troublemaker among the Persian Gulf states, an accusation that Iran rebuffed today by branding the young king "an amateur."
Jordan faces another major test in the event that long-awaited final negotiations get underway between Israel and the Palestinians. A major question in those talks would be the fate of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, more than 2 million of whom have lived in Jordan for years.
"A month ago this was the only regime in the region where you knew what would happen if the leader disappeared, and now the leader and his [anticipated] successor are gone and one simply can't predict how skillfully Abdullah will be able to deal with these challenges," said Yossi Alpher, director of the American Jewish Committee's Israel office. Hussein installed Ab dullah as his successor only days before his death, stripping the title of crown prince from his brother, Hassan, who was the king's heir apparent for 33 years.
It is a telling aspect of Hussein's legacy that perhaps the warmest wishes for his heir's success, and the deepest anxieties about Jordan's future, come not from any Arab nation but from Israel.
In the past couple of years, many Israelis have come to regard Jordan as their only real friend in the region, in large part because of Hussein's personal diplomacy. On Friday, when it became apparent the king was on his deathbed, Israeli radio played mournful music usually reserved for terrorist attacks.
"I didn't believe I could care so much about the death of a king from another country," said Avi Cohen, an Israeli interviewed by the newspaper Maariv.
The affection of ordinary Israelis for a king who commanded armed forces against the Jewish state in the 1967 war is a measure of Hussein's stature and of the distance his son must now travel.
Abdullah starts with a number of handicaps.
At the top of the list is Jordan's anemic economy, poor in natural resources, hobbled by unemployment and beset by a widening gap between a relatively few haves and many have-nots. There is pressure, too, to broaden democracy and loosen the reins on the media in a society torn between autocratic and pluralistic tendencies. More immediately, Jordan faces severe water-supply problems.
At home Abdullah will be under pressure to address these problems, particularly a declining standard of living, before he concentrates on diplomacy.
Still, Hussein did not begin his rule in a notably better position. As leader of a poor country with a mediocre army and uncharitable neighbors, Hussein never had a natural claim to the title of senior statesman of the Middle East peace process.
It was, rather, his personal authority, his experience in power and the depth of his popularity at home that enabled him to emerge as a peacemaker abroad, striking a bilateral treaty with Israel in 1994 that was disliked at home and criticized by many Arab countries.
It took 40 years in power to reach the point where he dared make peace. In the first decades of Hussein's reign, there were frequent discussions with Israeli leaders about possible peace arrangements, but Hussein always tried to keep those contacts secret, feeling himself too weak domestically and regionally to pursue an actual treaty.
When he felt it necessary, he reasserted his Arab connections, participating in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war – the conflict that cost his country control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Jordan remains important, as evidenced by the considerable sums of aid pledged by the United States and other countries. But its leader will have to win the confidence of his subjects before his presence at international meetings or peace discussions starts to carry much weight.
Indeed, while his father may be known principally for the peace treaty with Israel, Abdullah may try to rehabilitate his country's ties with the Persian Gulf states, which were alienated by Hussein's refusal to participate in the Gulf War coalition against Iraq.
Because of Jordan's economic dependence on Iraq, Hussein tilted toward Baghdad, leading the Gulf states to withhold what had been a steady and sustaining flow of foreign aid.
Jordan's attitude toward Iraq has since hardened, and Abdullah, through his ties to several of the young sheikhs whose influence is rising in the Gulf, has managed to return Jordan to the good graces of the region's oil powers.
Abdullah "has been instrumental in maintaining relations with the Gulf states in the last eight years," said Marwan Muasher, Jordan's ambassador to the United States.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company