By Rami Ayyub for Global Risk Insights
The Kingdom of Jordan, long-revered as a beacon of political stability during the height of uprisings and civil war across the Middle East, might be reaching a boiling point.
Islamic State’s (IS) continued advance in Iraq and Syria threatens to drag Jordan into a conflict that has already taken a devastating toll on its civil scene and economy. Close to 700,000 Syrians have found refuge in Jordan, creating a unique strain on both the government and the many communities where refugees now reside.
To the west, heightened tensions with the Israeli government around Jerusalem’s holy shrines bring the peaceful Jordanian-Israeli status quo into question. Jordan, which Israel recognizes as an official custodian of the Jerusalem Al Aqsa mosque, recalled its Ambassador to Israel last month over accusations of Israeli violations within the holy site.
As officials from the two countries finalize a 15-year deal that will bring natural gas from Israel’s Mediterranean coast directly to Amman, continued tensions have undermined the vitality of a long term Jordanian-Israeli energy partnership.
Jordanian King Abdullah met with US President Barack Obama earlier this month in an effort to demonstrate his country’s commitment to the US-led airstrike campaign against IS. While Jordan’s involvement in the fight against IS has been limited to air strikes and intelligence sharing, King Abdullah has not ruled out deploying ground troops to Iraq and Syria.
Such commitments have caused resentment among the Jordanian public, who often remain silent in disagreement in fear of backlash from state courts and the military. And although Jordan offers a safe haven from the chaos outside its borders, internal economic woes and objections to the government’s energy strategy have caused many citizens to raise their voices in protest.
Jordan’s economy has been hit hard by the wars in Iraq and Syria, which previously made up over 20% of the country’s export market. Due to a partial closing of the Jordanian-Iraqi border, “the number of trucks crossing to Iraq has gradually dropped from a minimum of 500 per day, to only 25 per day since December 2013,” said Mohammed al-Daoud of the Jordanian Drivers’ Association. Sharp declines in exports have caused ripple effects through the Jordanian economy, driving people into unemployment and out of income.
But it is not just Jordan’s export market that has struggled as of late. Iraqi oil exports, which once made up a significant portion of Jordan’s energy consumption, have declined from $194 million in January-May 2013 to just $4 million over the same period this year. Seeking reliable alternatives to the increasingly chaotic Iraqi oil scene, Jordan has set its sights on new natural gas discoveries off of Israel’s Mediterranean coast.
Jordan and Israel recently struck a 15-year, $15 billion energy deal, and while negotiations over pipeline construction are ongoing, public opposition to the deal in Jordan has mounted. Protests outside of Jordanian governmental buildings and municipal offices in Amman have drawn thousands of local residents, who are concerned the resulting Israeli profits will be used to “build further settlements or [fund] weapons.” Half of Jordan’s 150 members of parliament have signed onto a bill opposing the energy deal.
Jordanian officials refute the protesters’ claims, indicating that the deal will save the government close to a billion dollars annually, allowing for investments in infrastructure projects and social services.
Although officials tried to negotiate other agreements with Gaza and Cyprus, the deal with Israel proved to be the cheapest. And with investments in alternative energy projects slowing, natural gas will likely be the backbone of the Jordanian electrical grid for the foreseeable future.
Recent tensions over the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem should not undermine investor confidence in a Jordanian-Israeli energy deal. Squeezed by tight budgets and unreliable energy partners, the Jordanian government will likely focus its efforts on securing a pragmatic energy deal that values economic efficiency over civic popularity.
Jordan will, however, have to find a happy medium between pragmatic military and economic deals and appeasing a society increasingly dissatisfied with the governmental status quo. Without such a balance, the Jordanian civil scene might not remain so quiet.