With Biden in White House, King Abdullah reclaims Middle East role - analysis

US-Jordan ties under president Donald Trump were the worst in decades, Jordanian analyst says.

US President Joe Biden shakes hands with Jordan's King Abdullah II in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, US, July 19, 2021. (photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)
US President Joe Biden shakes hands with Jordan's King Abdullah II in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, US, July 19, 2021.
(photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)

King Abdullah II of Jordan has been busy of late. He is set to visit Qatar for a meeting with its emir on Tuesday. The Jordanian monarch has also visited the US at least twice this year, and he was the first Arab head of state to be welcomed by US President Biden to the White House last July.

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Abdullah held a secret meeting with new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. He also convened with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas twice in the last few months and spoke on the phone with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

He met with Sisi and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi last July at a summit in the capital Baghdad that was seen largely as an attempt to neutralize Iran’s influence across the region.

Last August he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

The message from Amman is loud and clear: After being marginalized during the Trump administration, Jordan is back as a stable mediator in a tempestuous region; the king is wasting no time reclaiming his country’s historic role as a major player in the Middle East.

Abdullah sees in Biden’s administration a breath of fresh air, a return to traditional US diplomacy, and an opportunity to reclaim his country’s historic position as a strategic ally of Washington.

US President Joe Biden points a finger as he delivers remarks on the administration's continued drawdown efforts in Afghanistan in a speech from the East Room at the White House in Washington US, July 8, 2021. (credit: EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/REUTERS)US President Joe Biden points a finger as he delivers remarks on the administration's continued drawdown efforts in Afghanistan in a speech from the East Room at the White House in Washington US, July 8, 2021. (credit: EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/REUTERS)

Bassam al-Manaseer, former head of the Jordanian Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Media Line that Jordan’s old-new role can be attributed to its moderate policies in the region.

“Jordan is witnessing a new start in foreign policy after the advent of the Biden administration, after Jordan’s role had been marginalized by the previous US administration, the Trump administration,” he says.

Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli national security adviser and major general, told The Media Line that Abdullah was taking advantage of two political changes, “one is the change in America, and no less important is the change in Israel.”

Amidror stresses that, despite the cool relations between the king and former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ties between Jordan and Israel haven’t changed.

“It is understood in both countries that it doesn’t matter who is the prime minister in Jerusalem, that the stability of Jordan is very important for the stability of the Middle East,” he adds. “The basic relationship and the cooperation relating to the security part [of the ties] were strong before and after the tense relations between the two leaders,” he says.

Amidror, who is the Anne and Greg Rosshandler Senior Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, a conservative security think tank, says opening communication channels with Damascus is an Arab affair.

“The fact that the king is speaking with Assad is not [directly] connected to either Israel or the US and is more about the internal relation between the Arab countries. It’s more about the internal relations between the Arab states than anything else. And Israel and the US prefer that it be done by an Arab leader.”

Manaseer didn’t mince words, describing US-Jordanian ties during the Trump administration as the “worst” in decades.

Many Jordanian observers say that president Donald Trump’s policies in the region undermined the king and sidelined their country.

Trump provided unequivocal support for Israel, favored the powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), and pursued close ties the UAE and Egypt while overlooking King Abdullah.

Trump announced his “deal of the century” proposal in January 2020, and Amman rejected it. The draft plan recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The Trump administration cut aid to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, while Amman swiftly rejected talk of Israel annexing the West Bank portion of the Jordan Valley.

“There is a feeling in Jordan that the previous marginalization phase of the Trump administration has vanished,” says Manaseer.

He stresses that the king’s meeting with Biden “carried with it an important international and regional dimension,” and that the advent of the Biden administration has reset relations between Amman and Washington to the pre-Trump era and rejuvenated Jordan’s regional role.

Jordan’s custodianship of the Muslim and Christian holy sites in east Jerusalem is enshrined in the country’s 1994 peace treaty with Israel, and much of the Hashemite monarch legitimacy is derived from that role.

Abdullah’s resurgence comes at a time when MBS is keeping a low profile; he hasn’t spoken with Biden and there are no plans by the White House to call him anytime soon.

“The new US administration caused the retreat of the Saudi and Emirati role and gave Jordan more space and brought Jordan back to the fore,” says Manaseer.

He argues that the crown prince’s own policies are to blame for the cold shoulder from the White House.

“It is quite clear that there is an absence of the Saudi role, especially regarding Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. After the Khashoggi murder case, it is clear that there were hasty steps, such as [Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt] severing ties with Qatar, Saudi Arabia plunging into the quagmire of Yemen, and Jordan being pressured by Saudi Arabia regarding the issue of the Qatar crisis,” Manaseer says.

At one point, Jordan was concerned about rumors that Netanyahu and MBS were plotting to strip Abdullah of the custodianship of the holy sites in Jerusalem.

“Everyone knows of Mohammed bin Salman’s desire to get the custodianship of Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem away from Jordan,” he says, insisting that Amman and the king will “never allow this to happen.”

Amidror disagrees.

“I believe the disappearance of MBS from the scene is related more to the fact that Saudi Arabia is facing a huge challenge from the older generation within the Saudi monarchy.”

In 2004, Abdullah warned about the emergence of an ideological Shi'ite crescent from Beirut to the Persian Gulf. And with the growing influence of Iran in the region, Manaseer says the monarch’s efforts have the blessing of the US administration.

“There is a hegemony of Hezbollah in Lebanon. In other words, there is a stronger presence of Iran on the borders of Israel. All this does not appeal to the US and Israel. Consequently, there is satisfaction with the role that Jordan plays, and returning Syria, Lebanon and Iraq to the Arab embrace means that Iran will be cut off in the region,” Ma