WASHINGTON – Jordan’s King Abdullah is meeting Monday with U.S. President Joe Biden, after years of tumultuous relations between the Hashemite kingdom and the Trump administration.
Abdullah is the first Arab leader to meet with Biden since he took office in January.
"We’ve been hanging out together for a long time. And it's good to have him back in the White House, you know, I want to thank you, Your Majesty, for your enduring and strategic relationship with the United States. You've always been there and we will always be there for Jordan," Biden said in a joint press conference.
"We talked about how our children and my children had to finish their senior year of college on Zoom and we talked about the COVID crisis, we've been able to give a little help to Jordan and hope to help some more," Biden said.
Biden and Abdullah will later hold an expanded bilateral meeting.
Dealing with an economy devastated by COVID-19 and a restive domestic political scene, Jordan hopes to highlight the symbolism of the meeting – both relating to U.S.-relations and the message it sends to the broader Middle East.
Biden also thanked Jordan's king for his role in stabilizing the Middle East and expressed hope to strengthen bilateral cooperation. "You live in a tough neighborhood, and I look forward to hearing on the pressing challenges that Jordan faces. We're going to continue to strengthen bilateral cooperation," the president said.
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On his part, Abdullah thanked Biden. "I've had the honor and privilege of knowing you with my father decades ago, so this is very warming for me to see you in this position and thank you for your generosity you've shown me and my country," the king said.
"You alluded to supporting us with vaccines, so on behalf of Jordan, and thank you so much for your leadership — not only for our country but for fighting COVID internationally. You've set the standard for the rest of us," Abdullah said.
"We come together as strong partners, we have many challenges in our part of the world. Many of us leaders will do the heavy lifting, but you can always count on me and my country and many of our colleagues in the region. There's a lot to do, but with your leadership we will do it."
A White House readout of Biden's meeting with Abdullah released later on Monday indicated that the leaders also discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Jordan's relationship with Israel: "The leaders also consulted on opportunities to enhance peace and stability in the Middle East. In that regard, the President expressed his strong support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and respect for Jordan’s special role as custodian of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem. The President expressed U.S. support for engagement between Jordan and the new Israeli Government, as demonstrated by their bilateral agreement earlier this month to improve Jordan’s access to fresh water and increase Jordan’s exports to the West Bank."
A reset in relations
Jordan was perhaps the Arab country most anxious during the Trump administration, Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Haaretz. "It was losing lots of its traditional prominence in Washington, which existed under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Now this is basically a reset and back to the way things were.”
Merissa Khurma, Middle East program director at D.C.’s Wilson Center, noted that Jordan is a key partner for the United States in a very challenging region. “While Jordan does not hold all the cards for all the different issues – whether Palestine or Syria or Iraq or the war on terror – it still plays a crucial role,” she said.
She added that this “reset” extends to Jordan’s role as a significant player in the region. According to Khurma, Jordanian pundits believe former President Donald Trump undermined Jordan’s historic regional role via the Abraham Accords.
“Not only because it’s the second country to have signed a peace treaty with Israel, but also because it had been, and continues to be, the number one champion of the Palestinian cause, and on the diplomatic front has pushed very hard with the Arab Peace Initiative,” Khurma said.
This reset offered an additional signal to the Middle East that the U.S. is explicitly supporting Jordan, after years of tense relations with Israel’s former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Arabia and the recent rumored coup attempt by the king’s half-brother, Prince Hamzah bin Hussein.
The visit is also important for Abdullah in terms of shoring up domestic support following the Hamzah affair in April.
“If you look at the Jordanian scene, the king’s support continues to be high. The problem is the overall environment that’s creating restiveness,” Omari said. “The Jordanian media is playing up the visit in terms of reminding Jordanians that the king maintains these crucial relations for the country. It also enforces the king’s standing as a statesman that adds to the overall prestige he has domestically.”
Beyond the symbolism, the two leaders will discuss practical agenda items – some bilateral and some regional. The most notable of the latter is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Khurma highlighted as the primary wedge between the Trump administration and Jordan.
She noted Jordan’s top priority will be “ensuring there is momentum toward reigniting talks. The king continues to warn of this closing window if talks aren’t jump-started.”
She expected Biden and Abdullah to discuss the latest cycle of violence in Gaza, as well as ongoing tensions in Jerusalem – particularly concerning preservation of the status quo on the Temple Mount, a Jewish and Muslim holy site where Jews are not allowed to pray.
“These are issues that make headlines in Jordan. Given Jordan’s demographics and the fact that it hosts the largest number of Palestinian refugees, there is high political awareness of what’s happening next door,” she said. “This is very much a Jordanian concern, and remains a top national security issue on King Abdullah’s agenda.”
While the Biden administration has preached quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy aimed at rebuilding trust instead of any significant initiatives, Khurma expected the Jordanian delegation to at least highlight the urgency of taking steps toward jump-starting talks due to the fragility of the situation.
The cease-fire between Israel and Hamas is fragile, she said, “and with the continued developments in Jerusalem, it takes one trigger and we’re sucked in another cycle of violence that nobody can really afford. The cost of inaction is very high, and there has to be at least some clarity on what the administration hopes to do moving forward.”
Omari, meanwhile, said Jordanians were simply looking for a “reaffirmation of the basics” – specifically, a commitment to pursuing a two-state solution and committing to Jordan’s role as custodian over Jerusalem’s Muslim holy sites, which he said “plays very highly in the Jordanian scene.”
Renewed focus on the matter comes as Jordan and Israel were working on repairing bilateral relations after the Bennett-Lapid government assumed power last month. While the improved ties may come up – Bennett held secret talks with Abdullah in Amman earlier this month, when he agreed to sell more water to the kingdom – it won’t necessarily be highlighted.
Nor will there be a direct response to Netanyahu’s recent criticism of the Israel-Jordan rapprochement. “I don’t see either the king or the president responding to the leader of the opposition. It’s hard for all of us to internalize it, but he’s no longer prime minister,” Omari said. “There may be an indirect response to Netanyahu, as well as other regional actors who downplay Jordan’s importance. We will see an effusive affirmation of Jordan’s strategic partnership with the United States.”
Another significant topic on the agenda, according to Omari, was something that has garnered less attention but remains quite important for Jordan both economically and as a regional stabilizer: exemption from 2019’s Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which would enable it to trade with and through Syria.
Beyond these points, the meeting will focus on bilateral U.S.-Jordan relations, particularly kick-starting negotiations on renewing the memorandum of understanding, which stipulates that the United States provides around $1.5 billion annually in assistance.
“We’re already seeing a drop in aid in the proposed budget. Under Trump, ironically, even though the overall environment was negative, Jordan actually got an increase – part of that was added on by Congress,” Omari said. “The assistance is going back to the traditional amounts in the Biden budget, and the Jordanians will try to get an increase.”
Khurma says there is a particular urgency to securing this aid due to COVID-19, which has hit Jordan hard. “It is of huge importance that Jordan is able to vaccinate its citizens, and to ensure that the government can address economic challenges such as skyrocketing unemployment and reducing poverty, which has also risen significantly since the pandemic,” she said.
“The promise of more aid will be leveraged by the government to basically say, ‘There’s a light at the end of this tunnel.’ It will certainly help, but the president is not going to address domestic issues directly,” Omari concluded. “The show of support, both in terms of Jordan’s foreign policy objectives but also economic support, will translate into credit for the king domestically.”