Long live the Beduin king
The kinetic energy of the Arab Spring that has been building in Jordan for almost two years has led to more and more demands for King Abdullah’s ouster.
Jordan King Abdullah Photo: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Laith Shubeilat has been vilified, beaten and imprisoned by Jordanian security
services for his outspoken criticism of King Abdullah II. Yet according to this
renowned opposition figure, the Jordanian throne must survive at all costs.
“Although I always criticize the king,” Shubeilat tells me, “I say that the
stability of the country needs the throne, which should not be
Support for the Hashemite monarch has grown increasingly weak in
the run-up to Jordan’s parliamentary elections on January 23. The kinetic energy
of the Arab Spring that has been building in this country for almost two years
has led to more and more demands for Abdullah’s ouster.
Crowds in the
street are now chanting, “Down with the king,” while the Islamic Action Front –
Jordan’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood – has announced a boycott of the
elections. Perhaps most worrisome, even some Western-oriented figures are now
joining the call for regime change.
Don’t do it, people. Jordan and the
world need the Hashemites. Jordan will implode without the
Its population is fundamentally unstable, divided between East
Bank Jordanians of Beduin stock and Palestinian immigrants from the West Bank
who now form the majority. Additional competing clan and tribal identities keep
this society permanently fragmented. Only the Hashemite family, which claims
direct kinship with Mohammed, has the legitimacy to rise above these ethnic
squabbles and bring Jordanians of all backgrounds into national
Even the king’s political adversaries understand the significance
of Hashemite leadership. Shubeilat, a former Islamist politician and now public
intellectual, openly embraces it.
“I need the throne,” he confessed in a
2011 interview with PressTV. “Jordan needs the throne. Without the throne there
will be civil war. The people of Jordan are tribal... [but]... nobody would dare
say, ‘Our family is nobler than the Hashemites’ – they are a point of meeting
for us all.”
If Jordan loses this “point of meeting,” it will lose its
raison d’être and collapse. As an arbitrary creation of the British government,
Jordanian society lacks any other cohesive factor.
LATELY SOME voices
have called for overthrowing the king, confederating Jordan with the West Bank
(read, making Jordan the hoped-for “Palestinian” state), and installing a
democratic government. The plan is attractive since it seems to solve several
problems at once.
However, it ignores the fact that, apart from
complaints about corruption and lack of political participation, Jordanian
opposition groups are generally united only in their unabashed antagonism toward
the State of Israel.
The 1994 treaty between Jordan and Israel is one of
the main guarantors of peace in the Middle East. Yet Abdullah’s opponents see
this treaty as the ultimate betrayal of the Palestinian cause, and view Abdullah
not just as a corrupt playboy but as a Zionist agent. If they succeed in
toppling his government, it is likely they will annul the treaty once and for
The most powerful opposition in Jordan today is the Islamist bloc,
which tracks largely along Palestinian lines. Historically, the Hashemites have
done an admirable job of bargaining with and co-opting this bloc. But if Abdullah
is dethroned, it is almost certain that the Palestinian-Islamist opposition will
be the natural heir to one of the Middle East’s most formidable
SOME OBSERVERS, like exiled Jordanian intellectual Mudar
Zahran, believe that Jordan’s secular camp is strong enough to seize leadership
from Abdullah and steer the nation into a golden age of peace and
In a recent interview with The Times of Israel Zahran pleads
for funding and Western-backed regime change, declaring from his London home
that he is “ready for confrontation” (thankfully he expects “[no] more than
three months” of bloodshed). However, this PhD student has lived half his life
outside Jordan and seems to know little about events on the ground.
secular opposition is, to put it bluntly, impotent. Its impotence stems not from
media oversight, as Zahran claims, but from its failure to resonate with
Jordan’s traditional society. Neither vague paeans to liberalism nor Western
funding will change this reality in the short term.
It is difficult to
understand why outsiders don’t see that the real “opposition” in Jordan is – as
it has been in all the Arab Spring countries – the Jordanian people themselves.
It is their dissatisfaction that is driving events and that demands
I ask Shubeilat what the crowds really mean by chanting “down
with the king.”
“They mean down with the king,” Shubeilat replies simply.
“But they are provoked and do not know the consequences of such a
For years, Shubeilat tells me, he has watched the Jordanian
people grow increasingly embittered and opposition figures grow increasingly out
of touch with popular feeling. Today he lives in constant fear of an angry
Jordanian mob that will one day overthrow the king and leave a power
“I have always warned that this will be dangerous because it will
lead to a chaotic scene with no trustworthy leadership,” he says.
obvious that the Jordanian government needs reform, and fast. Abdullah has made
some commendable attempts in recent months but the work is far from over. His
people are still poor, corruption is still rampant, and political participation
is still minimal. Meanwhile he and his wife spend millions of dollars in
European malls and casinos, exhibiting a “let them eat cake” attitude that
simply cannot continue.
The answer is reform, not regime change. Abdullah
needs first to reform himself, to return to his austere Beduin roots and win the
respect that guaranteed his father one of the longest reigns in modern history.
He must then amend the state’s legal framework to allow greater participation of
the Palestinian majority within the framework of a constitutional monarchy. He
must also make drastic economic reforms and impose tough penalties for
For Abdullah loyalists, it seems the situation is beyond
saving. The king stands paralyzed, the opposition is ineffective, and the people
are unrelenting. I ask Shubeilat where he fits in Jordan’s political landscape
“Where am I?” he repeats. “Where would an opera singer’s place be
with amateur beginners of jazz, most of whom do not want to take lessons in
music and yet think they are virtuosos? At 70 I am left so lonely by a multitude
of political personalities and parties who agree with almost everything I
criticize in camera, but still do not dare go public. The people went public but
[the opposition groups] still have not. It is forced retirement for someone who
Answer the people. Empower bold and loyal opposition
figures like Shubeilat.
Encourage the king to return to his Beduin roots
and lead his nation from the front.
Only in this way can Jordan
successfully navigate the perils of the Arab Spring and emerge on the other side
Robert W. Nicholson is a 2012-2013 Tikvah Fellow.