Jordan: On the Edge?

March 21, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: JordanKing AbdullahISISIranPalestine

Jordan: On the Edge?

Popular unrest against ties with Israel and an uneasy economy makes the country vulnerable to Iran’s and ISIS’ malign activity.

Jordan, which has enjoyed deep relations with the United States for over seventy years and hosts nearly 3,000 American troops, is a vital partner in America’s presence in the Middle East. Having received over $20 billion of U.S. assistance since 1951, Amman has served as a valuable partner for American counterterrorism operations, particularly in Iraq and Syria, and a mediator between Israel and Palestine. In January 2023, Amman and Washington agreed to a $4.2 billion deal that would provide the Jordanian government with advanced Block 70 F-16 fighter jets as part of an expansion of a seven-year Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2022.

However, recent widespread protests across the country have brought Jordan’s status as a bastion of security and stability in the region into question. 

Since the October 7 Hamas assault on Israel and the resulting Israeli invasion of Gaza, thousands of Jordanian protesters have taken to the streets to criticize the government’s policies toward Israel. This includes allowing the Israelis to use Jordanian territory as part of a land corridor for transporting goods amid insecurity due to the Houthi Red Sea attacks. In mid-February, Jordanian protesters chanted, “the land bridge is treason,” and even formed a human chain to block trucks carrying goods crossing the Jordan-Israel border. The development is unsurprising given that more than half of Jordan’s population is Palestinian, including two million registered Palestinian refugees. While many now hold Jordanian citizenship, an estimated eighteen percent of refugees live in thirteen official and unofficial refugee camps around the country. 

Recognizing the powder keg it is sitting on, the Jordanian government has enacted a widespread crackdown that has included prohibiting demonstrations and gatherings in the Jordan Valley and along its borders, firing tear gas at demonstrators trying to storm the Israeli Embassy, closing roads and access to the United States and European Embassies, and arresting at least 1,000 people between October and November alone. The government has also leaned on its restrictive cybersecurity laws to arrest people for social media posts expressing pro-Palestinian sentiments that criticize Amman’s relationship with the Israeli government or incite public strikes and protests. 

While the Jordanian monarchy has weathered many protest movements since its foundation, primarily due to U.S. support, the current protests threaten regional stability and should not be overlooked. After all, these latest demonstrations are only a symptom of the broader issues facing the Hashemite Kingdom. In recent years, the Jordanian populace has challenged their government over its relationship with Israel and several unpopular socio-economic policies, including increased gas prices and a water-for-energy deal with Israel, impacting those already struggling with poor economic conditions and high rates of unemployment. Amman is aware that the public’s lack of faith in the government has made the king vulnerable. Former Crown Prince Hamzah bin Hussein—who is widely popular, especially with the tribal establishment—remains on house arrest almost three years after he was suspected of being involved in a conspiracy to oust his half-brother, the king. 

Should unrest spread and destabilize the government in Amman, it would mean more than just the loss of a trusted U.S. ally in the region. Jordan, with a population disgruntled over the state of the economy and a significant presence of refugees who are vulnerable to radicalization, could become a new arena for the Islamic State (ISIS) and Iran’s malign activity. While Amman has thus far avoided a large-scale ISIS insurgency, despite sharing borders with both countries that hosted the group’s short-lived territorial caliphate, Jordan has long been a desirable target; ISIS considers the Hashemite rulers traitors to the faith for their cooperation with Israel and the United States. The group would undoubtedly jump on the opportunity to recruit and operate within the country, endangering a critical U.S. foothold in the region for counterterrorism operations.

This concern is only augmented by warnings that the Israel-Hamas war may serve as a valuable propaganda tool for ISIS, which has announced a new campaign nominally in support of Palestine, aiming to leverage sympathy for recruitment and fundraising efforts. Underscoring Jordan’s vulnerability to such endeavors, an organization of Palestinian Islamic scholars specifically called on the Jordanian youth, which comprise more than sixty percent of the population, to “employ any means of jihad” and open up new fronts in the fight against Israel.

At the same time, there are growing concerns about rising Iran-backed threats emanating from Jordan’s borders with Iraq and Syria. These concerns were only amplified by the January 28 attack on Jordan’s Tower 22 base, which killed three U.S. servicemembers and was widely attributed to the Iranian-sponsored Kataib Hezbollah militia. Adding to the threats, there has been a surge in the smuggling of drugs, weapons, and explosives into Jordan by those who are thought to be Iran-linked traffickers, indicating that Tehran is hoping to make Jordan a transit point for weapon and drug smuggling—and, in the future, could even use the country as a launching point for attacks against Israel. 

These possibilities call into question whether the United States will continue to permit the Jordanian government to slip into such a level of unrest. Recognizing that an Iranian-sponsored Hamas campaign is the spark that ignited Jordan’s current turmoil, Washington needs a comprehensive, long-term plan to prevent Tehran from future efforts to destabilize the region. In the interim, the United States—and Gulf partners—should continue to support Jordan with economic and political assistance that could quiet unrest, encourage new investment, and ensure a more stable future. For instance, Washington should promote programs for job creation and make much-needed reforms to the country’s electric and water sectors. Without these types of reforms, Jordan has the potential to transform from a U.S. security asset in the region to a liability.

Emily Milliken is the Senior Vice President and Lead Analyst at Askari Associates, LLC. Follow her on X: @EmilyMPrzy.

Caitlin Miller Hollingsworth is the Vice President and General Counsel at the Fozzie Miller Group. Follow her on X: @_CaitMiller.