One evening in Greenwich in south-east London in the early 1990s, I walked into the Admiral Hardy, a popular haunt along with Bar du Musée on Nelson Road. Both were owned by ex-SBS and Royal Marines Commando Robin Challis. Nearby was the Royal Naval College with its low-power nuclear research reactor installed by the MoD. Anyway, a group of familiar faces at a candlelit table included Robin Challis. ‘John’s dead, Kabul,’ he said. (‘Kabul’ was my nickname at the time.) Now, John, I have to say, was a bit of a legend. As an unpaid volunteer he had been driving trucks carrying emergency medical supplies to Bosnia and Herzegovina for the Bosnian Muslim population. (He would take no credit for this.) I sat down, humbled by the respect everyone was at long last showing him, and I heard great swathes of narrative that night. People are strangely unleashed when someone is considered no longer in the game, I noticed. Bear with me on this but this was how I feel about Jordan.
Towards the end of last year, I wrote a piece for CounterPunch on the Hashemite kingdom, using personal memories and anecdotes from my time there during what I called the foothills of Gulf War One. These were pitted against a recent barrage of coordinated barbs and criticism directed against the kingdom. I suggested that this was not only wearisome for the reader but counter-productive to peace and security in the region. Since then, and this is the great surprise, there has actually been a change in attitude towards Jordan, that for me is like watching someone come back from the dead.
I see it in all sorts of ways, global food crises or tightening of oil markets or not. The now completed, and sometimes befuddled, visit by US President Biden to the region, when Biden was met on Jeddah tarmac by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, deputy governor of Mecca, and not by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has not been the only show in town. The crown prince, or MBS as he is known — to be fair, not exactly rehabilitated later by Biden’s visit — held recent talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah II at Al Husseiniya Palace in the capital Amman. This was the first such visit by the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia in years. This new phase of cooperation, with its openly declared enthusiasm for good relations, was a genuine surprise. MBS was granted the Order of al-Hussein bin Ali, the highest in Jordan. All those tense past few years, due to contrasting views on local hostilities and pledges of aid not followed through, evaporated like a desert haze. Colossal funding projects of at least $3 billion promised by Saudi Arabia could now be unblocked. It was like watching a desert rock at sundown change colour last minute. ‘There are large investments in Jordan that we are keen to actively participate in and such investments will bring benefits to both countries,’ said MBS. (‘What are the Saudis up to?’ one observer exclaimed to me about this.) Despite Biden later refusing to make Saudi Arabia a ‘pariah state’, at the same time as blaming MBS for being personally responsible for the killing of Saudi journalist Jamil Khashoggi, not even he was treated with such largesse. (They say MBS in quick reply to mention of Khashoggi accused Washington of hypocrisy by not investigating the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh, and for allowing Abu Ghraib prisoners to be abused.)
While some believe the Saudis still court the idea of absorbing the Hashemite kingdom, even sidelining new United Arab Emirates strongman Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, himself known as MBZ, separate to all of this is a shared unease for Jordan and Saudi Arabia over Iran’s nuclear ambitions — Iran is said to possess enough enriched uranium for two bombs. Iran is also experiencing problems of its own, having just sacked intelligence chief Hossein Taeb, amid reports of fresh infiltrations by ‘Israeli spies’. (Troublingly, Henry Kissinger recently told historian Andrew Roberts in the Spectator, ‘there is really no alternative to the elimination of an Iranian nuclear force’.) There was also the meeting with Putin. Not that the Russians are exactly persona non grata in many areas of the Middle East today.
Some of the previous problems that existed between Jordan and Saudi Arabia had been during the Trump administration when the American former media personality and businessman appeared to want to undermine Jordan, not to mention the menacing discord Jordan received at the same time from Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s Abraham Accords. (Kushner’s private equity firm are now reportedly the subject of an investigation about the $2 billion investment made by a Saudi wealth fund.) On a good day, they appeared to be forgetting, Jordan can be all things to all people. Only last month the Wall Street Journal said in a highly publicised article that since all other attempts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have failed, it might be time now to revisit the Jordanian option. Last week, while visiting the West Bank, Biden, looking unwell, soon to be diagnosed with Covid, called for ‘two states for two people’, adding that ‘the ground is not ripe’ for restarting peace talks between the two. (Thousands rallied in West Bank and Gaza against the visit.) In the WSJ piece, a well written, pretty ambitious, exposition delivered right before the Saudi visit to Jordan, it felt like a call to make Jordan — with its uncommon influence — feel important enough again to go all the way. (Memories of the wasted Peres-Hussein London Agreement in 1987 scuttled by Yitzhak Shamir lost now of course in the sands of time.) Nor, as another reality check, does the recent change of leadership in the UAE — and any alternative reboot of the region because of that — mean Jordan’s new future as peacemaker again is somehow secure. A second reality check should include the fact Jordan’s King Abdullah still insists his half-brother Prince Hamzah, accused last year of a planned coup, remains under house arrest, while two former officials have been sentenced to 15 years in jail, after being found guilty of conspiring to replace the king with Prince Hamzah, more of which later. Not an obvious place upon which to build an argument for one country’s fresh reintroduction to regional stability, but a workable one, according to some.
The fact the WSJ piece was written by former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Am should be seen as adding to its veracity. While reminding long-distance readers that the West Bank was ruled by Jordan from 1948 to 1967 before being defeated by Israel in the Six Day War, he also wrote, ‘Since 1988, when the late King Hussein of Jordan renounced his country’s sovereignty claims in favour of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the West Bank has presented Jordan with an insoluble conundrum.’ Almost invitingly, he says a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation has ‘a more compelling logic today in terms of economics, religion, history and memory.’
Great store is placed in King Abdullah’s visit to the West Bank in March 2021, when the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said, ‘We are one.’ I am writing this from a leaderless London where we know the kingdom of Transjordan was created in 1921 out of land belonging to a toughly ruled British Palestine, and that Jordan is not therefore some bit-part late player in the Palestinian question. Nor is it something to be returned to only experimentally every now and then. It was the peace agreement with Israel in 1994 that formalised Jordan’s important custodianship of the Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem, a strong factor in recent resentments of Jordan, though I don’t see how anyone interested in tunefulness could even have thought of sidelining Jordan. As Ben-Ami puts it, it is Amman not Tel Aviv that is the centre of business for West Bank Palestinians.
According to Ben-Ami, King Abdullah is exasperated by talk of a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation but has not written one off. In the event of the creation of a Palestinian state, such a confederation does remain possible. Apparently a state first and confederation later represents the majority thinking among supporters in Jordan. Nor do the ever-prowling ambitions among the Israeli right to annex the West Bank prevent such thoughts, though Israel does continue its annexation of the West Bank.
It seems Jordanian prime minister Abdel Salaam Majali’s plan for such a state is still for a Palestinian and Jordanian rotation of speaker and prime minister, with the king — as the true descendant of the Hashemite dynasty, and, as such, Prophet Mohammed — head of state. (Abdel Salaam Majali should not to be confused with Saad Majali, the former Jordanian minister in the Palestinian Authority recently killed as a result of a nasty car accident in the Jordanian capital Amman, a man himself once close to the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.) In Abdel Salaam Majali’s plan, Palestinians living in Jordan could then have the option of choosing between Palestinian and Jordanian nationality. As a kind of counterpunch, an American friend I dined with recently at a popular Lebanese restaurant in Mayfair insisted a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation was simply out of the question. ‘It just isn’t going to happen,’ he said, dipping into a fetching plate of Hummus Beiruty. I explained to him that some experts believed this could be the last hope for Palestinian statehood, and therefore lasting Middle East peace, and that with Jordan on board again, Israel would at least have someone ‘come-through’ to work with, someone ‘lodged’ in its success. My American friend stood his ground. The WSJ piece said that for far too long the region has suffered from ‘the convenient pretext of Palestinian institutional weakness to perpetuate the occupation of the West Bank’.
There are other tracts of strategic and regional value from which Jordan is re-emerging too. Away from the MBS visit, it has for instance been speaking out against ‘Iranian militias’ creeping around its northern border, often equipped with sophisticated drones, at a time when White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan has said the US had information suggesting Iran was about to ‘provide Russia with up to several hundred UAVs, on an expedited timeline’. Tehran has tried to assure the world that it wants to avoid what it calls steps that could lead to further escalation in Ukraine. All this, remember, since the start of the Russian drawdown in Syria, though confusingly enough Jordanian Prime Minister Bisher Khasawneh has since told BBC Arabic that Jordan has never treated Iran as a threat to its national security.
Even if it wasn’t a Russian shift to Ukraine that is the green light for greater Iranian influence in the region — and Putin is visiting Iran — it affects Jordan’s national security anyway because it is an obstacle to Syria’s revitalised drugs trade in the north where vast amounts of new ones are being produced in places like Homs and Qusayr. These also represent the main source of funding for the Shia militias. Nor are they the so-called traditional drugs of the Middle East. This year alone, Jordanian border guards — and other law enforcement agencies — seized more than 20 million Captagon pills — cheapo Syrian-made amphetamines. These are in far greater number than during the whole of last year. Also, border clashes have included some pretty fierce gunfights. Not that a highly trained Jordanian military will blanch at this. (Their Rapid Deployment Force has recently seen active duty in landlocked Mali in West Africa where one of its soldiers was recently killed.) In fact, Jordan and the US are already in talks on greater control of southern Syria, talks begun at the request of Amman. (Some of the insurgents operating in the al-Tanf zone are said to be already well connected with the US, having made clear their aims and those of Amman are now closer than ever.) Jordan, a kingdom famously brimful with long-term refugees, has more than one million Syrian refugees. But it has always offered itself up as a shelter from the storm to those ‘poisoned in the bushes and blown out on the trail’. Besides, this feels in keeping with a kingdom in charge of important Muslim holy shrines.
I know I have only touched upon Jared Kushner’s Abraham Accords. These established full ties between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, and later Morocco and Sudan, but not shrine-minding Jordan. It is because of new alliances within the Accords that Russian money is steadily moving via Israel to Abu Dhabi — with the State Department reportedly apoplectic about this. Surely Jordan appears positively sinless by comparison. Its influence may even be missed here.
The former Jordanian foreign minister and deputy prime minister Marwan Muasher — close to the Jordanian king — was not the first person to lash out against the Accords when recently published in Foreign Affairs magazine, imploring the US to stop offering incentives to other Arab governments to join the Accords, so long as Israel at the same time was continuing to grab Palestinian land. (The Jerusalem Post has suggested Muasher’s assault on the Accords was likely synchronised with Washington.) Muasher was basically asking Biden before his visit to reverse anything and everything Trump had put into play. What had already been done was to restore the $500 million of humanitarian help destined for the Palestinians before Trump scythed it down. A paltry amount compared to the $3.8 billion in aid each year given to the Israeli military, but not insignificant.
Nor is this to belittle significantly revamped relations enjoyed now by Jordan with Israel, including not only a fresh attempt at overall stabilisation of the Palestinian territories, but planned work on a new joint food programme, renewable energy, more attempted thwarting of radical Islam, and the halting where possible of arms smuggling. Nor are these mere stunts designed to stop criticism. The violence that grew so quickly at Al-Aqsa for example elicited some very serious criticism from Jordan.
One of my favourite non-Middle Eastern occasional writers on the subject of Jordan is Lydia Wilson, who also made an excellent TV series for the BBC on writing. Wilson towards the end of last year in New Lines magazine acknowledged the high-profile unmasking in the Pandora Papers at the time of hidden owners of offshore assets, including of course King Abdullah’s secret purchasing of luxury global properties worth $108 million. She pointed out that despite this, the Jordanian reaction was still ‘so what if the king of Jordan has investments in property?’ Indeed, the original unmasking felt targeted and personal to some people. The irony of a belligerent foreign power, or otherwise, working against Jordan, only making the king more popular with his people, was not lost on Wilson. There was at the time of the Pandora Papers great sympathy for the king’s half-brother Prince Hamzah, and fractious misgivings as it happened about the king. Wilson — during what was still at the time the Trump presidency — wrote, ‘this targeting of the king by investigative journalists is being linked both to America’s aim to remove Hashemite custodianship of holy sites (as well as sideline their religious legitimacy) and the attempted coup with Prince Hamzah at the centre, now believed to have had foreign backing. Abdullah has emerged from this “scandal” more popular than he has been for a long time.’ This is why it is Jordan’s subsequent rehabilitation which chimes the most.
Now for the punchline. At the beginning of this article, I wrote about the sudden death of my acquaintance John — he of the trucks and mercifully driven aid to help Bosnian Muslims during the Balkan War. Anyway, a few hours later, with John still being mourned and talked about, in he walked. No kidding. He actually turned up at his own wake of sorts. The face. The expression. It was a picture. Someone had obviously got the facts terribly wrong. This is how I now see Jordan.