As Arab Spring Burns, Jordan's Abdullah Is Feeling the Heat

Jordan's King Abdullah has signaled that he understands his people's frustrations. But as calls mount for reform, and even regime change, he now finds himself with little wiggle room.

Neighbors / Zvi Bar'el

Perhaps strangest among the sayings and chants the Arab Spring has engendered is "I've understood you," (fahimtkum) made popular by the deposed president of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, after the large demonstrations in his country.

Syria protest in Jordan

"Now I've understood you," Ben Ali said hoarsely at one of his last public appearances, signaling that at long last he was acknowledging the demands for reform.

"Now I've Understood You" is also the title of Jordanian playwright Ahmad al Zoubi's satirical play about the revolutions, which has been running for about two months now at a theater in central Amman.

The play tells the story of a Jordanian family in which the father, Abu Saqer, played by the talented actor Musa Hijazeen, rules his family with an iron hand and at the same time mocks the corrupt ministers and politicians who are running the country.

The big surprise came in November, when the large audience at the theater was joined by Jordan's King Abdullah and his wife, accompanied by a number of other royal family members. According to the Jordanian press, the royal couple laughed and smiled throughout the performance, came onstage when it was over and congratulated the actors and the playwright, who in turn praised the king for the freedom of expression and the kingdom's grants to the arts.

However, beyond the compliments and the royal gestures, King Abdullah also "understood" that the play expresses the anger and frustration felt by many Jordanians because of the situation in the country and especially because of the deep-seated corruption that is being exposed in the media.

A Jordanian newspaper, for example, recently revealed that in 2006 the Jordanian government headed by Marouf al-Bakhit granted a company registered in Brunei rights in perpetuity to mine phosphates, in violation of the law. Other reports have exposed corruption in granting of waste management franchises in Aqaba or the indictment of previous Prime Minister Nader al-Dahabi in the "casino affair."

At the center of that affair is the casino that Mahmoud Rashid, who was Yasser Arafat's economic advisor, wanted to build on the Dead Sea shore. The permit to build the casino was revoked during al-Dahabi's time in office and Rashid was supposed to be compensated with $1.5 billion for the cancellation of he agreement. Instead, the al-Bakhit government gave him land to which he was reportedly not entitled.

The Jordanian parliament, which discussed the affair, decided there was no justification for indicting al-Bakhit and the outcome was a series of demonstrations at the end of which the king dissolved the government and appointed a new one.

These corruption scandals are the reason for the orders the king issued prohibiting members of his family from expressing opinions on diplomatic and political issues, running private businesses or entering into business partnerships unless they pay for the investments out of their own pockets and disclose to the public the way they are managing them, with complete transparency.

The weekly demonstrations in various parts of the country against the royal family have left the king without much wiggle room. On January 17 he is scheduled to meet with U.S. President Brack Obama in Washington and his enemies are already organizing a series of demonstrations in the United States at which they will call not only for reform but also for regime change.

Jordanian sources note the weak language the king used to talk about the demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia, and the alacrity with which he rushed to amend the things he had said in a television interview to the effect that if he were in Syrian President Bashar Assad's shoes, he would leave the government - in order not to elicit Assad's wrath against him.

Moreover, when the Arab League decided to impose sanctions on Syria, the king asked for a special exemption for Jordan because of the wide-ranging economic ties between the two countries. About 60 percent of Jordan's imports from Europe come overland through Syria or its ports.

Hamas looks for a home

A new dilemma concerning Hamas' intentions to find a new home for itself outside Damascus has recently been added to the cauldron of Amman's troubles. Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh has made it clear that the reopening of the Hamas offices in the Jordanian capital is not on the table and that in the meantime there is merely an "opening up" to the Hamas leadership, "with which relations have never been cut off."

However, when the king himself comes to Ramallah and plays the role of mediator between Israel and the Palestinians at a meeting in Amman - he cannot ignore Hamas' changed tune, much less when the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas ripens into the establishment of a national unity government that will demand Arab recognition.

Jordan has not succeeded in leveraging itself into the status of a real mediator, like Egypt, and it is not within its power to influence Israel's policy; hence the "rapprochement" with Hamas could well give it a diplomatic card it has not held until now.

Possibly it is Tunisia that will release the king from the dilemma. Over the weekend, there were reports that the prime minister of Tunisia had informed Hamas Gaza head Ismail Haniya, who was visiting in Tunis, that his country "would be glad" to host Hamas' leadership.

Though Hamas has vehemently denied any intention of moving from Damascus to Tunis, after the disagreement between Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mashal and Assad it is doubtful Hamas will continue to be headquartered in Syria much longer.

One can only assume that King Abdullah is keeping his fingers crossed regarding the continued amity between Hamas and Syria. He certainly does not need any new pressure at home or abroad.