In 2010, King Abdullah II of Jordan described his country on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” as “between Iraq and a hard place.” These days, Iraq is just one item on a laundry list of woes.
With a civil war raging to his north, the threat of cross-border violence, and floods of refugees straining his already resource-poor kingdom, Abdullah should have his eye firmly fixed on Syria—but the rest of the world will just not let him.
Since his appointment in February, US Secretary of State John Kerry has culminated an exhausting six visits to the region with an agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to resume peace talks over a nine-month period. Abdullah has been party to these exercises in shuttle diplomacy, most recently hosting a meeting between Kerry and Abbas in Amman, the Jordanian capital.
Abbas has been working to cement Abdullah’s support as well. In March, he signed what has been termed a “historical” treaty with Abdullah conferring upon the Jordanian monarch the title “Guardian of the Holy Places in Jerusalem.” Since Jerusalem will undoubtedly be a sticking point in any future negotiations with Israel, it is possible Abbas is trying to legitimize Jordan’s political involvement.
Abdullah is not backed into a corner
Meanwhile in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s spectacular failure in democratic leadership should be cause for celebration in a kingdom where the Islamic Action Front, the political wing of the Islamist organization in Jordan, is the monarchy’s most vocal opponent. But in recent months, the Brotherhood’s election boycotts and calls for organized protests have proven less potent than the voice of the rank and file. Affected by rising fuel and food prices, a result of austerity measures necessary for a $2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, Jordanians are not-so-subtly reminding the government they feel the squeeze.
Besides, Iraq is teetering on the edge of dissolution into sectarian violence. But currently, a Shi’a majority population resentfully ruled by a Sunni minority is only slightly more preferable than the potential alternative: a Shi’a government more amenable to Iranian influence. With a population clocking in at 92% Sunni, Jordan is loath to welcome a firmer link in the chain of countries Abdullah dubbed the “Shi’a Crescent” in 2004.
So, what is a monarch to do?
In one word—abdicate.
Jeffrey Goldberg’s April 2013 article in The Atlantic revealed Abdullah has considered it before. Having been named successor a mere two weeks before King Hussein’s death, Abdullah appears not to have taken to the crown the way his father did.
While abdication was not considered a viable option in 2009, the Arab Spring protests have changed the tenor of leadership in the Middle East. A mere four years later, abdication is not the admission of defeat it once was. In June, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, former emir of Qatar, smoothly transitioned power to his son, Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim, to the applause of several Arab leaders, King Abdullah included.
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And abdication is not unheard of for the Hashemites. King Talal, Abdullah’s grandfather, abdicated in 1952 due to his compromised mental state.
In the same article by Goldberg, Abdullah presciently disparaged Mohammed Morsi’s leadership style in Egypt and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s cavalier attitude toward democracy in Turkey. This might ingratiate him to the West, but his forward-thinking approach has maligned the “old dinosaurs” of his tribal constituency, historically the strongest supporters of the Hashemite monarchy.
Efforts have been made to patch Abdullah’s personal relations with the tribes, but the government’s announcement in June of a plan to revise the much decried Elections Law that currently favors tribalism over political party representation is likely to exacerbate this tenuous relationship.
Claiming a desire to preserve the monarchy—albeit a more democratic one—for his son, Abdullah may look upon abdication as just one in a series of moves to revitalize the Jordanian government. Abdullah’s frequent exercise of his constitutional right to dissolve his cabinet at will has not inspired confidence in Jordan’s particular brand of democracy, among either the general public or the international community.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown
Abdullah owes his role in attempts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to his Hashemite heritage: support from Jordan trumps support from Abdullah. But Abdullah must know the slightest step back could rock the boat. And since much of Middle Eastern negotiation is built on cults of personality, abdication might not be the best option—right now. But if the “now-or-never” rhetoric regarding the two-state solution proves true, the scene might be set in Jordan for a changing of the guard.
Having named his son, Hussein, crown prince at 15, Abdullah has stated his hope to avoid any confusion that should accompany his own untimely demise. But given Crown Prince Hussein’s growing prominence in state affairs and the fact that he is now 19 (three years older than King Hussein when he was proclaimed monarch), it appears Abdullah is grooming him—and the Jordanian public—early for life on the throne.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown, but in a few years, it might be a different head.
By this time, Abdullah may be hoping to have prepared a more stable kingdom for his fresh-faced son to inherit and a more stable region to work within, quixotic a gambit as it may be.
Abdullah is not backed into a corner, but he might be looking for the door nevertheless.
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