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The Effects of the Amman Bombings on U.S.-Jordanian Relations

Author: Lionel Beehner
November 10, 2005
This publication is now archived.

Jordan's Worst Terrorist Attacks in History

The recent hotel bombings in Jordan will once again shine the spotlight on U.S.-Jordanian relations. On the surface, relations between Amman and Washington seem strong: Jordan is the United States' fourth-largest recipient of aid; President George Bush last year called Jordan "a force for reform and positive change in the region"; Amman has contributed to the U.S.-led war on terror by backing the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, arresting terror suspects, providing intelligence, and securing its border with Iraq.

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But anti-U.S. tensions lurk beneath the surface. Experts say the two biggest thorns in the U.S.-Jordanian relationship are the war in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jordanians came out in droves to protest the 2003 Iraq war. Similarly, a July poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that 38 percent of Jordanians surveyed said the main cause of Islamic extremism is U.S. policies in the Middle East—namely its support for Israel. More than half of Jordan's citizens are of Palestinian descent—270,000 of whom reside in refugee camps. Meanwhile, according to the same poll, support for al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in Jordan has jumped from 55 percent in 2003 to 60 percent in 2005 the only Muslim country where al-Qaeda's leader has not lost popularity besides Pakistan. A number of the most notorious terrorist leaders in recent years have hailed from Jordan, including Abu al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the now-deceased rebel Khattab in Chechnya. "Jordan is a very important base for the development of local jihad," says Reuven Paz, an Israeli expert on Islamic terrorism.

Experts say another disturbing trend in Jordan, highlighted in the July Pew poll, is that Jordan is the only Muslim country where support for suicide bombs against innocent civilians in defense of Islam has risen, not dropped; a majority of Jordanians—some 57 percent—now say they support suicide bombing, as opposed to 42 percent in 2002. It's unclear what effect, if any, the recent trio of suicide attacks, which left at least fifty-seven dead and hundreds wounded, will have on public views of these kinds of bombings. "I think it will empower the existing relationship [between the United States and Jordan]," says Samer Abu Libdeh, a Jordanian scholar and visiting research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "But it must also quicken the reform and democratization process in order for the king to gain more support among the mass majority and avoid more young radicals and their sympathizers to rise up."

A Brief History of U.S.-Jordanian Relations

Historically, the Sunni Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has been a small, resource-poor country that in recent years has relied increasingly on the support—both monetary and political—of the United States. From 1953 until 1999, Jordan was ruled by King Hussein, a moderate by Middle Eastern standards but still an authoritarian. Besides the so-called Black September crackdown against Jordan-based Palestinian rebels in 1970 that left thousands dead, Jordan has remained relatively stable despite the escalating violence that encircled its borders. Throughout the 1980s,Amman backed Iraq during its war with Iran. In 1990-91, Jordan remained neutral during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Then in 1994, thanks to nudging from the United States, King Hussein signed a peace treaty with Israel—a move widely criticized by most Jordanians. In the following years, money from the United States poured into the country, making Jordan, behind Egypt and Israel, the region's third largest recipient of U.S. aid.

Since succeeding his father in 1999, King Abdullah, King Hussein's eldest son, has pursued what the Economist calls a policy of "studied neutrality." Despite the war's unpopularity, Jordan officially backed theIraqwar in 2003, although it only provided logistical support and allowed no U.S.military presence on its soil (more recently Jordan has served as a training ground for Iraqi security forces). The war was not only unpopular among Jordanians for political reasons but also for economic ones: Jordan had received subsidized oil from Saddam Hussein's regime, not to mention a large sector of Jordanian businessmen lost jobs in Iraq because of the war.

Much of the U.S.-Jordanian partnership hinges on Amman's growing unease with Iraq's Shiite leadership. Jordanians "fear the new Iraqi government has been taken over by Iranian sympathizers," says Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director at the International Crisis Group, and that "radical Shiites of the [Ayatollah] Khomeini brand are going to take over the Gulf and its oil." Earlier this year, King Abdullah famously warned Iraq's leadership of creating a "Shiite crescent," stretching from Tehran to Beirut.

The United States has also put more pressure on Amman to crack down on insurgents who they believe are entering Iraq from Jordan. An estimated 400,000 Iraqis are believed to reside in Jordan, according to the Economist. Many of them are nouveau-riche businessmen who are well-off financially, Hiltermann says, while others have ties to Iraq's Baath Party and may be abetting the Sunni-led insurgency. In July, Daniel Glaser, deputy assistant secretary of financial crimes at the U.S. Treasury, urged the Jordanian government to enact tougher laws against money laundering used to finance would-be terrorists. Others in Washington have called on Jordanian authorities to restrict the activities of former Baath Party officials, including members of Saddam's family, who operate out of Jordan. In response, King Abdullah has called for more financial support from the United States, pointing to progress Jordan has made securing its border with Iraq and clamping down on groups like the al-Haramein Brigades, a Saudi Arabia-based terrorist organization, and al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group allegedly behind both the November 9 hotel bombings and the August 19 Katyusha rocket attack that nearly hit a U.S. warship in the Jordanian port of Aqaba.

Amman: No Longer Open for Business?

Because of its relative safety, doing business in the Middle East often requires a trip to Amman, says Jane Arraf, Edward R. Murrow fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former senior Baghdad correspondent for CNN. The lobbies of the capital's high-rise hotels are teeming with Western businessmen, U.S. diplomats, foreign aid workers, and expatriate Iraqis. The recent hotel attacks, which experts say were targeted at Westerners, may deal a blow to Amman's position as an economic hub and preferred place to do business in the region and could put Jordan's economy "in more of a tailspin," Arraf says.

The country, which is devoid of natural resources, relies heavily on foreign aid and tourism and the attacks come as Jordan was seeing real economic and political progress. Growth is just under 8 percent. Jordanian exports to the United States increased from $7 million in 1998 to more than $600 million in 2003, helped along by the 1996 Qualified Industrial Zone (QIZ) agreement to establish duty-free zones in Israel and Jordan, as well as the U.S.-Jordanian free-trade agreement signed in 2000. To attract more foreign investment, King Abdullah was expected to introduce in the coming weeks a number of reforms aimed at reducing the country's debt—which may reach $1 billion by the year's end—lowering unemployment, and boosting stability. Because of the bombings, this new package of needed economic reforms may now be delayed to focus more on security and intelligence, experts say.

"No matter what reforms Jordan makes, the perceived risks associated with regional instability will continue to act as a deterrent to potential investors," said Bassem Awadallah, Jordan's minister of finance, addressing the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's May 5 Special Policy Forum. Still, if confidence is restored, Abu Libdeh says, "[Jordan] remains a much safer place to stay and do business than neighboring countries."

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