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Jordan’s geopolitical options

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By Shehab MakahlehAlex Vatanka

The Kingdom of Jordan, a long-time U.S. ally in the Middle East, is looking to reorient its regional policies. This shift is not only significant for Washington to monitor but has already alarmed Saudi Arabia, the historic cornerstone of Jordanian foreign policy. With Jordan engaged in a new high-level process of détente with Turkey and suggestions that Iran and Jordan  diplomatic relations, the stakes are high for Riyadh.

A Jordanian Reassessment

Amman’s push to explore its geopolitical options is fundamentally rooted in an assessment in Amman that its policy of accommodating the Saudis has failed to yield the intended results for Jordan. King Abdullah increasingly seems to believe that his country is either ignored by its traditional Gulf Arab friends or, worse, deliberately targeted.

The decision by the Saudis to exert much behind-the-scene pressure on Amman to accept the Trump administration’s December 2017 announcement recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was viewed among Jordanian decision-makers as a case of total disregard for how sensitive this issue is among Jordanians. Meanwhile, the arrest of Jordan’s most prominent businessman in Saudi Arabia on December 16 has been viewed in Amman as a case of settling scores and undermining Jordanian sovereignty. The brief arrest of Sabih al-Masri took place a few days after King Abdullah visited Riyadh and exchanged views with King Salman on various regional topics, including the question of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It has apparently quickly become clear to the Jordanian king that ignoring Saudi pleas regarding the future of Jerusalem as fait accompli will not be left unanswered. The arrest of al-Masri, who is also a Saudi citizen, was intentionally aimed to deliver a message to Amman.

Enter Turkey

During his meeting with King Salman last month, King Abdullah also ignored a Saudi plea for him not to attend the 57-state Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) extraordinary summit. The meeting was organized by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a symbolic show of collective Muslim anger against Trump’s decision on Jerusalem. Instead of abstaining, King Abdullah made sure to be one of the heads of Muslim states that showed up in Istanbul. The message was clear: Jordan believes a lasting solution on the question of Jerusalem will be found via Turkey, not Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, Jordanian-Turkish differences, most importantly Amman’s anxieties about Turkish support for the Muslim Brotherhood, have taken a back seat to more immediate priorities, at least for now. Amman’s rapprochement with Istanbul is a thorny issue for Riyadh. In fact, Jordanian-Turkish rapprochement arguably poses a greater test for Riyadh than any potential Jordanian-Iranian détente. From Riyadh’s vantage point, Jordanian-Turkish rapprochement means the formation of an alternative Sunni religious alliance parallel to the Saudi-Egyptian axis.

There are also geopolitical ramifications in this context. If the Hashemites of Jordan and the Turks join their efforts and unite on the question of Jerusalem, the Sunni-led Muslim alliance which President Trump and previous U.S. presidents have sought to forge will be split. In this scenario, the Saudis will be far less likely to be able to play the leadership role in the Muslim world.

The king of Jordan knows this well, but so far attempts to bridge the gap between Amman and Riyadh has not yielded any results. Erdogan, sensing an opportunity to push back against Saudi Arabia’s aspirations of Muslim leadership, made sure during the recent OIC summit to emphasize his support for Amman. By calling King Abdullah and the Hashemites the custodian of Muslim holy sites, the Turkish president set social media in Jordan on fire. It appeared Erdogan knew he was hitting the right buttons among Jordanians at a sensitive time, taking full advantage of Trump’s Jerusalem decision.

New Outreach to Tehran

Jordan’s geopolitical soul searching is not limited to the question of Saudi Arabia and Turkey alone; it also touches on the topic of Iran. A Jordanian parliamentary delegation visited Tehran in mid-December, and the speaker of the Jordanian parliament is said to be planning to visit Tehran in the near term. Although the recent political upheaval in Iran might delay the trip, there are strong, unmistakable signs of a Jordanian effort to repair its troubled past with Tehran.

Why would Iran welcome a Jordanian delegation? It has little to do with Tehran seeking to create a wedge between Jordan and Israel and everything to do with Iran’s goal of weakening Riyadh’s regional clout. Jordan has after all been a reliable Saudi partner since the end of the first Persian Gulf War.

With its new approach to Tehran, the Jordanians are engaging in a hedging strategy and exploring ways to bail themselves out of the geopolitical and economic straitjacket that they are in at the moment. In Amman, there is no doubt a sense of unhealthy reliance on the GCC states for Jordan’s economic well being. Iran, and post-war Syria, are evidently hard to ignore in Jordan’s future economic planning. This explains why Jordanian economic delegations, like the industrial delegation that visited Tehran in December, are once again arriving in Iran.

If nothing else, the intended message from Jordan’s latest manoeuvrings is meant to let old friends, particularly the Gulf Arab states, know that Amman will not shy away from new foreign policy paths if it feels its interests require it to do so.

Originally published by Lawfare