Even before King Hussein’s death Sunday, his eldest son and successor was mending fences with old foes and reassuring friends like Israel and the United States of Jordan’s continued close ties and commitment to Middle East peace.
But without the political acumen and moral suasion of his father, King Abdullah, 37, is expected to face formidable challenges as he tries to maneuver Jordan among the conflicting forces that make up this highly volatile region.
The new king was not groomed to succeed his father. King Hussein unexpectedly replaced his brother, Crown Prince Hassan, as his successor just three weeks ago. But in an interview last weekend with the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, King Abdullah pointed out that he had carried out political missions for his father, particularly to Persian Gulf and North African states. And he said that although he was a career military officer, he was active on the political level through his own connections to “political and military leaders in many Arab and Western states.”
George Gruen, an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, noted that King Abdullah “has good relations with the younger generation” of leaders in the Persian Gulf who are waiting their turns at governing. Like King Abdullah, who was educated in Britain and the United States, they also received their education in the West.
There was evidence of a new approach to Jordan as soon as King Hussein appointed his son his successor. The Gulf Emirates expressed willingness to restore aid that had been withdrawn in protest of King Hussein’s decision to side with Iraq rather than Kuwait during the Gulf War in 1991.
In addition, according to Jonathan Paris, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Saudi Arabia also recently decided to renew the sale of oil to Jordan, as did Kuwait. The latter also is reopening its embassy in Amman, which was closed because of the Gulf War.
Paris said he could foresee King Abdullah acting as a bridge between Israel and such Arab nations as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar.
He added that the acting ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Abdullah, has Syrian relatives, and “if Jordan can bring the Saudis and Israelis closer, the Saudis might be able to bring Syria closer to Israel.”
Paris observed that the funeral of King Hussein brought together representatives of more than 70 nations, including Arab and Western nations that are bitter enemies. For instance, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were separated by only minutes from bumping into Syrian President Hafez Assad and representatives of Iraq and Libya.
“Sometimes a death like this unfreezes situations,” said Paris. “There was a lot of opportunity for spontaneous dialogue, and some of that could perhaps lead to breakthroughs.”
Some analysts believe that before King Abdullah tries his hand at foreign diplomacy, he will first try to deal with pressing economic problems at home. Unemployment is running at 30 percent and nearly one-third of the country’s 4 million residents live below the poverty level. Water remains scarce and Jordanians are feeling the economic embargo imposed on Iraq, one of its principal trading partners.
Andrew Cordesman, co-director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Jordan is now facing a severe drought, and the “lack of economic dimension creates a significant risk” for the country. He added that Jordan has no natural resources except phosphate.
“King Abdullah is an inexperienced leader who has to navigate these intricate issues,” said Shibley Telhami, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
He speculated that the king might create the title of vice king for his uncle, Prince Hassan, who for nearly 34 years was groomed to be heir to the thrown.
“My assessment is that he would get along well with his uncle,” said Telhami.
Joseph Nevo, professor of Middle East history at the University of Haifa, noted that Hassan’s expertise is in economic development, and academic and scientific affairs.
King Abdullah praised Hassan in the Al-Hayat newspaper interview and said he could make “great contributions to the future of Jordan through the national institutions and also on the world level.”
The new king is said to have a charming personality and common touch with the people — perhaps his father’s greatest asset and something Hassan lacked.
“He had a magical charm that was overpowering,” recalled former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban, who met secretly with King Hussein eight times. “It was really his strength.”
Noting that Clinton has promised to ask Congress to speed up the $300 million in aid to Jordan promised last October, Eban said he believed King Abdullah would continue to follow his father’s policies and be bound to the U.S.
Israel’s consul general in New York, Shmuel Sisso, pointed out that Israel, which signed a peace treaty with Jordan in 1994, is also committed to “trying to improve Jordan’s economy. People have said it was the king’s peace, that it did not have broad-based support. But Israel and the West have helped to see to it that there are economic benefits.”
He cited as an example the Israeli-Jordanian joint corporate ventures established in the new industrial zone in Irbid, Jordan.
Richard Murphy of the Council on Foreign Relations and former assistant secretary of state for Near East and Asian Affairs, said it is in “Israel’s interest to continue business as usual with Jordan. It knows the new king. He has been to Israel and visited with its military.
“I hope Israel is going to give more attention to opening [more] trade channels, particularly between Jordan and the West Bank,” he said. “That has been a problem that dogged the last years of King Hussein.”
Nevo agreed, noting Jordan is Israel’s best friend in the Arab world and it should not be given “an excuse to put relations in low gear.”
But Telhami questioned whether King Abdullah has the “skill and the people’s trust to deal with the complexity of issues regarding Israel. King Hussein could do the unpopular with Israel and make it stick. The new king does not have that capacity, and how he will deal with it is hard to know.”