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 370 (photo credit:  	 REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)
Jordan King Abdullah 370
(photo credit: 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 shaken.”
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 throne.
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 unity.
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 all.
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 militaries.
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 prosperity.
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.
The 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 attention.
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 slogan.”
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 vacuum.
“I have always warned that this will be dangerous because it will lead to a chaotic scene with no trustworthy leadership,” he says.
IT IS 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 corruption.
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 today.
“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 respects himself.”
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 intact.
Robert W. Nicholson is a 2012-2013 Tikvah Fellow.