Spare a thought for Jordan’s King Abdullah as he visits Washington this week, complaining of the dire consequences of the failure of his Israeli neighbor to make peace with the Palestinians: it’s not easy being a monarch in a Middle East buffeted by the democratic winds of the Arab Spring, and even less so when your country is wracked with rising tensions between its indigenous Bedouins and Palestinians who comprise as much as half of the population. When the King visited the southern tribal area of Tafila on Monday, a rare skirmish between the gathered crowd and security officers hinted at the powder keg atop which Abdullah sits.
The authorities quickly dismissed rumors that the incident had been a direct attack on Abdullah’s vehicle. “After the King and his convoy left, some citizens were trying to reach the monarch to hand him letters with demands or to greet him, but they were stopped by the police forces,” government spokesman Taher Adwan said Monday. “It is untrue that the motorcade was stoned.” But the scuffle was a rare incident of unrest in the King’s presence that came after the leaders of the country’s 36 largest Bedouin tribes signed an open letter to Abdullah on Feb. 5, accusing his glamorous wife, Rania who is of Palestinian parentage of corruption.
“We hadn’t seen that before,” says Shadi Hamid, research director at the Brookings Doha Center. “With it came a realization that the problems aren’t just with the government but with the royal family. They don’t want it to fall, but the criticism is becoming sharper, even from his supporters.”
Still, despite the occasional incident, Abdullah appears to have retained his subjects’ support, unlike his peers in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria. He has done so largely by positioning himself as the glue that holds together the country’s many ethnic factions. “For an awful lot of Jordanians, the monarchy has marketed itself as part and parcel in the stability of Jordan,” says Rex Brynen, a professor at McGill University who specializes in Middle East politics. “People don’t really challenge that.”
Hamid concurs. “Very few people want to see regime change,” he says. “No one prominent is calling for the end of the Hashemite monarchy. Considering Jordan’s sectarian divide, it’s important to have a monarch who can mediate separate groups.”
Assaf David, Jordan expert at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, explains that tension between indigenous Jordanians and those of Palestinian descent, which permeates even elite circles of Amman, is the key to the regime’s power “because each side of society is scared that the other section will take control over what’s left … the King functions as a mediator between the two sides, acceptable to all.”
The scuffle in Tafila may have stemmed from frustration at the King’s failure to set a timeline for implementing the promise of a democratically elected government that he made in a rare televised speech on Sunday, in which he also warned that sudden change could cause “chaos and unrest.” On Tuesday, Abdullah explained that Jordanians might have to wait two or three years for a democratically elected government. Monday’s incident “suggests not necessarily displeasure with the King personally, but displeasure with the slow pace of economic and political change in the country,” Hamid says. “Every time democracy is promised, the regime fails to deliver.”
Even at antigovernment protests in Amman last April, demonstrators expressed support for the monarch. One factor restraining opposition demands is that “everything is falling apart around [Jordan],” says Naseem Tarawnah, the CEO of 7iber, an Amman platform for citizen-generated media. “Jordanians have been taught that we are better off than the rest of the region. We don’t want what’s happening in Syria to happen here. Even opponents have seen the Hashemite regime as the thing that holds this all together.”
Jordan has an elected parliament, but Abdullah’s absolute monarchy gives him veto power, and he either appoints or approves all ministers. But the turmoil in the region has prompted him to announce new reforms, as Jordanians begin to question the scope of the King’s powers relative to those of elected bodies. “There’s a growing realization that the King’s disproportionate power is a real problem going forward, that it’s impossible to have real democratic reform unless he gives up some of his powers,” Hamid says. On Feb. 1, Abdullah sought to stave off revolt, replacing his entire government and installing a new Prime Minister, Marouf al-Bakhit, with the palace promising a push for “real political reform” that hasn’t yet materialized. Instead, Abdullah’s rhetoric “has mostly been a policy of appeasement, short-term measures that have sort of quenched that appetite of people asking for reforms,” Tarawnah says. “It appears to have worked.”
Perhaps the most obvious reason for the stability of Abdullah’s rule is that it is illegal in Jordan to challenge the monarchy, which “has long been an absolute red line. If you cross it, it refuses to be gentle,” Brynen says. “As a consequence, for decades now reformers [have needed] to cast things as: ‘We support the King, we’re not challenging him, but we want this or that to change.’ The King is just out of bounds.” Because of this, “it’s hard to know whether people like him, or whether they’re afraid to voice their opinions,” says Hamid.
But incidents such as Monday’s scuffle highlight the royal circle’s precarious dance. “Anything that gives a whiff of instability, they’ll shun,” Tarawnah says, commenting the quick denial of the altercation in Tafila. With Jordan’s economy in a rut, “There are socioeconomic grievances, a loss of political tradition, a general sense that the system isn’t terribly responsive, and all of this is happening in the midst of Arab Spring,” Brynen says. “The King is worrying and is trying to take measures to assuage that.”
See “How to Make More Egypts and Fewer Iraqs.”
See TIME’s special report “The Middle East in Revolt.”