Jordan's King Abdullah is greeted by residents as he waves from his vehicle during visit to the southern city of Tafila last year. Small protests are taking place in the country, demanding political reforms, but not the fall of monarchy. (Reuters)

That one of the most overt challenges yet to the authority of Jordan’s king took the form of a song-and-dance routine speaks to the restraint with which the Arab Spring has unfolded here over the past 16 months.

The identity of the participants and the words they sang, immortalized in a video posted on YouTube, underscored just how dangerous the discontent pulsing through this little kingdom could become.

“Ali Baba the Second and his 40 thieves,” the men intoned rhythmically as they danced the traditional “dabka” at a busy traffic circle in central Amman, in what was unmistakably a direct reference to King Abdullah ll. “The people are fed up, the security forces are fed up, and the riot police are fed up.”

The men who were singing were native Jordanians, “East Bankers” who belong to the tribes from which most members of the army and security forces are drawn, and whose loyalty to the monarchy has never been in question — until now.

“We are loyal to the country, but not exactly to the king,” explained Munzer Ali, a retired policeman who was among those who participated in the protest in March. “If the regime was good, we would be loyal. But it is not. It is corrupt.”

Amid the bloodshed in neighboring Syria and the drama of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the relatively low-key unrest simmering in Jordan has largely been ignored. Protests demanding political reforms, but not the fall of the monarchy, are small and generally well-behaved, and security forces have mostly refrained from using force to suppress them.

But the civility masks deep and growing tensions that call into question the stability of this strategically significant kingdom of 6 million people, a bedrock of U.S. influence in the region and Israel’s last reliable Arab ally since the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

A slumping economy and a string of corruption scandals involving ministers and members of the king’s inner circle have heightened resentment of the ruling elites. Journalist Jamal al-Muhtaseb was detained last month and charged with jeopardizing state security for reporting on one scandal, a housing project for the poor in which hundreds of millions of dollars are allegedly missing.

Frustrations that reforms promised last year have not been implemented intensified in recent days after the king replaced his prime minister for the fourth time in just over a year, a move widely viewed as another delaying tactic.

Criticism of the king, long a taboo potentially punishable by death, is becoming more vocal and direct, establishing a worrying new trend for the Hashemite family that has ruled Jordan since 1946.

“It is public criticism. It’s clear and it’s candid, and that never existed in Jordan before,” said Zaki Saad, a leading figure with the Islamic Action Front, the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan’s most organized opposition movement.

“This is unprecedented, and the only way out for the king is to move toward real reform. If he doesn’t do this, he will be in trouble.”

‘Mood for change’

The heightened chaos in neighboring Syria has exacerbated the concerns, bringing tens of thousands of refugees into the country, emboldening Islamist dissenters and aggravating existing social, economic and political divides in ways that test long-held assumptions about Jordan’s cohesion.

“Jordan is not stable at all,” said political analyst Labib Kamhawi. “There are hidden bombs, minefields, and though most people don’t want to remove the king, they also don’t want him to continue his powers. There is a national mood for change.”

It is only the specter of the widespread chaos in Syria that is holding Jordanians back from taking to the streets in greater numbers, said Alaa Faza, a journalist with the Khabarjo Web site who was briefly imprisoned last year for criticizing the government.

“People are very angry, but at the same time, they are very afraid. They don’t fear the police, but they fear the future,” he said. “I don’t know when the anger will beat the fear.”

Also working in Abdullah’s favor is the divide between the East Bankers and West Bankers — between the tribes that consider themselves the real Jordanians and the residents of Palestinian origin who arrived after the creation of Israel in 1948.

The former, long regarded as loyal to the royal family, have historically feared that Palestinians will eventually overwhelm their country; the latter worry that their influence would be eclipsed under a different system. Both want the king to implement constitutional reforms that would empower an elected government, but they disagree on the details.

Defenders of the king say that he is trying to steer a course between these camps but that it would be unwise to rush into reforms at a time when the region is so unstable. Most Jordanians and the country’s Western allies have no wish to see Jordan fall under an Islamist government, as is happening elsewhere in the region, the king’s supporters say.

In a speech to the European Parliament last month, Abdullah pledged that reforms will be implemented this year. “I am confident that 2012 will be a year of key political reform in Jordan,” he said.

U.S. sees stability

U.S. government and intelligence officials offered a generally positive assessment of Jordan’s political environment, crediting the government with taking significant strides toward reform in the past year while remaining tolerant of the continuing, if relatively low-key, demonstrations.

“It’s worth noting that, despite the Arab Spring and sporadic domestic demonstrations, there have been no serious casualties and no deaths in Jordan,” said one senior State Department official in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal politics of one of the United States’ closest allies in the Arab world. “This is different than Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Syria.”

The official said Jordan is “stable,” adding that “the kingdom will get through this.”

But critics say the king would be wise to pay heed to the growing chorus of discontent, and especially the new, and vocal, participation of East Bankers in the opposition.

“If he doesn’t do real reform, the regime will be in danger, because the native Jordanians form the army and all the bureaucracy,” said retired Gen. Ali Habashneh, one of a group of army veterans organizing an opposition party — another unprecedented development.

“For Jordanians, the Hashemite family used to be a sacred issue,” he added. “But now it’s the issue. If there is no real political reform and no economic change, I think people will explode one day.”

In Amman’s working-class Hay al-Tafila neighborhood, long a bastion of royalist support but now a hotbed of unrest, residents say they are prepared to hold out. They are related to tribes in the southern town of Tafila, one of a number of former royalist strongholds that has been agitating for change, and they were a driving force behind the dancing protest in Amman.

“It’s a matter of time,” said Mohammed al-Harasees, 57, a lawyer who was briefly detained for participating. “If this corruption continues and the regime keeps on like this, we are going to the unknown, and it’s going to be really dangerous.”

“For now, we are reformists,” added Ali, the retired policeman who also participated. “But if we find reform is a dead end, everything will change. It won’t only be reform we are asking for.”