For many Jordanians, the warm reception accorded to King Abdullah II in the west only serves to highlight the growing disconnect between the ruler and the ruled.
As befitting a loyal ally, the king will be the first head of state to address the new Democratic-controlled Congress on Wednesday. But in Jordan, there is rising disquiet over the perceived unevenness of US policies in the Middle East.
In an attempt to check the tide, the king will repeat his mantra to the US administration that time is running out for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Jordanian monarch and his American friends also have a host of other problems to address: conflict in Iraq that has driven up to 1m refugees into neighbouring Jordan; sectarian unrest in Lebanon; Iran’s nuclear ambitions; and a more marked Sunni-Shia divide emerging across the region.
It was King Abdullah, a Sunni whose Hashemite family claims direct descent from the prophet Mohammed, who caused a storm in 2004 when he warned of a growing “Shia crescent” as Iran extended its influence. Coverage of these comments, which many thought incendiary in a simmering region, overshadowed his Amman Message of religious tolerance.
Born in 1962, Abdullah grew up never expecting to be king during his education at US and British schools and at the UK’s Sandhurst Royal Military Academy. His uncle, Prince Hassan, was groomed as crown prince but King Hussein, on his deathbed, pronounced his eldest son successor. He assumed the throne in 1999.
He faced some scepticism over his Arab credentials but was afforded leeway as the son of a much-loved monarch. His mother, Princess Muna, was born British and his mastery of the Arabic language was imperfect. He was best known in the US for a guest appearance in a 1995 episode of ‘Star Trek’, one of his favourite shows.
The diminutive king’s public image was boosted by his beautiful and much-photographed wife, Queen Rania. Bought up in Kuwait, she is of Palestinian descent, as is more than half of Jordan’s population of almost 6m.
The king and queen’s profile is that of a modern couple, perhaps more at home in the west than with Jordan’s conservative Bedouin roots. Each is working to modernise their country; the king looking towards economic and political reforms and the queen to social issues such as child abuse and female empowerment.
The record is mixed. A sizeable middle class has benefited from soaring real estate and stock market prices but unemployment and poverty levels remain stubbornly high. Concerted political reform is repeatedly delayed, partly as a reaction to increased political turbulence in the region.
King Abdullah was left with little choice but to back Washington’s Iraq war policy after watching his father fall into isolation after backing Saddam Hussein in 1991. A 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, the last Arab country after Egypt to sign such an accord, helped to bring Amman back into the western fold. Jordan is reliant now more than ever on western aid, with cheap oil from the Gulf and Iraq having been phased out or cut off.
Even before the 2003 Iraq war, local passions were inflamed by the Palestinian intifada that started in 2000. Jordanians questioned the peace treaty with Israel, especially after already scant cross-tourism dried up. The victory last year of Hamas in Palestinian parliamentary elections further raised fears in the royal court of an emboldened domestic Islamist movement.
A crackdown on Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood followed and sits uneasily with a commitment to hold elections later this year, particularly as the brotherhood’s political arm, the Islamic Action Front, is poised to do well as the only organised opposition party. The king might find some relief if Washington keeps the brakes on its democracy drive, having watched Hamas come to power through legitimate elections.
Suicide bombings that killed 60 people in Amman in November 2005 damped popular support for radical Islam, according to opinion polls. But opposition to US policies in the region is rising.
This was acknowledged by Queen Rania during a speech in Saudi Arabia last week. “Americans . . . must face up to the fact that negative sentiments among many Arabs stem not from lack of understanding of US policy in our region but because many Arabs and Muslims think much of the policy is unsound.”