Jordanian stability, Israel, and the Dead Sea water deal

The Jordanian protest movement suffered significantly from what is happening in Egypt and Syria.

The sun sets over the Gulf of Aqaba 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
The sun sets over the Gulf of Aqaba 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Jordan’s stability and the maintenance of King Abdullah II in power is a national security interest of Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia, as well as of other Gulf states.
Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel and the cordial relations with Israel and the role of Abdullah in keeping radical Islamic forces at bay make the kingdom a stabilizing force in the region.
Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority signed a water-sharing agreement last week that includes building a desalination plant on the Gulf of Aqaba and a pilot study for a pipeline linking the Red Sea with the Dead Sea.
The level of the Dead Sea is receding at a rate of more than 1 meter per year.
Under the agreement, Israel plans to release more water from the Sea of Galilee, its largest reservoir, to Jordan, and to sell desalinated water to the PA.
The Arab uprisings that spread throughout the region led to Islamist gains, to their coming to power in Egypt and Tunisia, and to their advancing in other areas such as in Syria and post-Gaddafi Libya.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have been trying to keep the revolutionary forces at bay, favoring the status quo.
In Jordan, the Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, began protesting for more democracy.
However, since the backlash against Brotherhood rule began in Egypt, leading to the toppling of its president, Mohamed Morsi, in July, they began to lose regional momentum.
In addition, Saudi Arabia and the US have been providing aid to the Jordanian government in order to keep unrest at a minimum and around 1,500 American troops are stationed in the country to help deal with threats and refugees flowing from the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Kirk Sowell, the Amman-based principal of Uticensis Risk Services, a Middle East-focused political risk firm, told The Jerusalem Post in an interview that the protest movement right now in Jordan is “quite weak.”
The Jordanian protest movement suffered significantly from what is happening in Egypt and Syria, he said, pointing out that it hit its peak last December and has not recovered.
The July coup in Egypt was not the key for Jordan, he said. It was Morsi’s incompetence and efforts at trying to take over the state, which led many in Jordan to sour on the Brotherhood.
The protests in Jordan are made up of three currents, explained Sowell.
First, there are the Islamists, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is strong in Amman and the big cities.
Second, there are the traditional left-wing organizations, which include Pan-Arab nationalists and other more secular parties. They do not have large numbers, but are very active politically, he said.
The third group is the Hirak, or “movement” in Arabic, that began three years ago and is a tribal protest movement against corruption.
The movement never included many people and did not represent most of the tribes, but at one point, analysts viewed the Hirak as significant because it came from the tribes, which make up the king’s base.  But the movement lost much of what support they had, said Sowell, because the tribes see the Brotherhood as a threat.
“The real threat to stability is the country’s solvency. Absent the creation of a real private sector economy, they will need gas and shale oil development to save them,” he said.
The government expects debt to increase as the breakdown in natural gas imports from Egypt forced Jordan to replace it with more expensive alternatives, said Sowell.
“Politically, the new Israel-Jordan water deal makes a great deal of sense. The Jordanian government is under an enormous amount of pressure on a variety of fronts,” he said, adding that the major worry is the economic situation.
Jordan’s public debt is equivalent to around 76 percent of GDP, according to a 2012 estimate by the CIA World Factbook. It puts the official unemployment for 2012 at around 13%, though an unofficial rate is approximately 30%.
Israeli opponents of the deal “fail to see this agreement for what it is – a camouflaged aid agreement to Jordan, in exchange for the very significant benefits which Israel gets from this country,” Sowell said.
“Jordan is a socioeconomic shock-absorber for the Palestinian territories. Jordan would have gone insolvent and imploded some time ago were it not for massive amounts of aid,” he said. “If Jordan implodes, the West Bank implodes. But Israel can’t just give Jordan money directly or open projects here, for obvious reasons.”
He noted that many Palestinians abroad were sending money back to the West Bank.
He thinks that this deal might have originated with pressure from the US in response to pleas for help from Jordan.
Jordan is basically a welfare state, propped up by high subsidies, said Sowell, adding that the tourism industry was suffering.
In the past month or so, the Brotherhood has stopped meeting with the secular parties, largely due to differences over Egypt and Syria.
On Syria, the secular parties are supporting President Bashar Assad, while the Brotherhood supports the Islamist-dominated rebels.
“Jordan will survive as long as the money keeps flowing,” Sowell said bluntly. “Jordan is a basket case being held together by others.”
Reuters contributed to this report.