The Daily Show is listening to King Abdullah. Is anyone else?
On the Daily Show tonight, Jon Stewart is hosting Jordan's King Abdullah. Abdullah gets full points for hipness, but restoring his country's influence is another matter.
And King Abdullah is pretty cool to begin with. He’s married to Queen Rania, one of People Magazine’s 50 most beautiful people. Before becoming king, he appeared as an extra on Star Trek: Voyager. An amateur race-car driver, he also personally drove President Barack Obama to the airport when he visited Jordan prior to being elected. Obama later joked: “I won't tell you how fast [Abdullah] was going.”
Unfortunately for Abdullah, the first Arab leader invited to Obama's White House, cool can only take you so far. He's struggled to acquire the kind of political capital once wielded by his father, King Hussein, who made peace with Israel and helped nudge Israeli-Palestinian peace talks forward.
“[Abdullah] doesn’t have any real cards to play when it comes to the final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," says Avi Shlaim, author of the King Hussein biography, "Lion of Jordan." "Jordan doesn’t have leverage either with America, or the Palestinians, or Israel, so it’s not a major player.”
That's largely due to factors outside of Abdullah's control. Hussein's 47-year reign was defined by the Israeli-Arab conflict and the context of the now-concluded cold war.
After losing the West Bank and Jerusalem in 1967's Six Day War – and seeing the demographics of his nation transformed by a flood of Palestinian refugees – Hussein was a US ally in a region where Arab nationalists like Egypt's Gamal Abdul Nasser were seen as being in the Soviet orbit.
And with his regional standing aided by the 1967 war with Israel (notwithstanding that it was a disaster), Hussein could act as an interlocutor for the US, the Palestinians, regional powers like Iraq and – quietly – the Israelis.
In the late 1960s there were fears his country could be taken over by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which he expelled in 1970. He spent much of the 1980s laying the groundwork for his 1994 peace deal with Israel that secured his kingdom and won him lavish US aid. But that largely cleared away the issues that had helped give him an international voice in the first place.
In contrast to his father, Abdullah has little to offer beyond maintaining his country's pro-Western policies. With no natural resources, Jordan carries little economic clout. With 6.2 million people, his country's population is just one-third the size of Cairo's. The US works closely with Jordan’s intelligence agency, but does not need the kingdom as a base for troops.
So while the White House may like Abdullah, there are other factors in their political calculations.
“When you look at the way decisions are made in Western governments, you would tend to believe that at the end of the day it’s cost-benefit analysis more than the popularity or the structure of the message,” says Mohammad Al-Momani, a professor of political science at Yarmouk University in Irbid, Jordan.
The treaty with Israel
Jordan, which renounced its claims to the West Bank in 1988, is one of two Arab nations that already has a treaty with Israel.
But in April Abdullah said his country’s relations with Israel were at an all-time low and warned that conflict could erupt if diplomats “continue to go around in circles.” Consequently, Abdullah is in no position to work closely with Israeli authorities.
None of this is news to King Abdullah. Unlike his father who often relied on the force of his personality to act unilaterally, his son has taken a more modest approach, recognizing the limitations of his country. Instead of working alone, Abdullah now sees the importance of working in conjunction with other Arab leaders, says Prof. al-Momani.
Still, for Jordanians who remember life under King Hussein, their current king’s approach can often prove disappointing. A common sentiment among many Jordanians is that King Abdullah is all right, but he’s no King Hussein – but neither should he be expected to be.
“Why should he be a King Hussein? King Hussein was King Hussein and he’s dead now. King Abdullah is King Abdullah,” says Kamal Abu Jabar, a former Jordanian foreign minister. “King Hussein was a traditional sheikh of sheikhs and he operated from that vantage point. King Abdullah is a modern king. He’s computer savvy, he’s adopted technology, and he’s trying to industrialize the country.”
Waiting for Obama
At least when it comes to foreign policy achievements, namely progress in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many observers argue that any blame for the lack of progress lies squarely on Obama, rather than Abdullah.
Throughout the Arab world, many people, political leaders included, looked to Obama to usher in a new era of American relations with the Middle East. Now, more than a year after his Cairo speech, many Arabs feel that he has not delivered on the promise of change.
In the past year alone, the number of Arabs who had a positive view of the US president dropped from 45 percent to 20 percent, and negative views climbed from 23 to 62 percent, according to a Brookings poll conducted this summer.
“I think it’s Obama who lost the momentum. It’s not the first or the second or the third leader who met him,” says Oraib Al-Rantawi, director of the Al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman. Obama's election raised “ expectations in the Middle East … [then] people lost their faith in the new president.”
All King Abdullah can offer President Obama is advice, says Mr. Al-Rantawi. If the White House does not act, King Abdullah is limited by the same constraints that existed long before Obama arrived in office.
When it comes to brokering a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most analysts agree that the US is the only nation with the power to act as a credible mediator.
“It is not what influence [that] King Abdullah, or [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, or any other Arab leader have, it is the actual concerned parties – Israel and the Palestinians – realizing that they are almost out of time, and if nothing is done now the future is going to look quite grim,” says Riad Kahwaji, founder and CEO of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.