What exactly is the problem between Jordan and Saudi Arabia?

The Jordanian King’s decision to retire his brothers Prince Ali bin Hussein and Prince Faisal bin Hussein, along with their cousin Prince Talal bin Mohammed from the army was so sudden and so immediate that many were left reeling at the prospect that one of the most stable governments in the region could now finally be rocked by wider regional events.

In the wider context of the region, such shock (and concern) is justified. The Jordanian leadership has successfully managed to navigate the impact of the Palestine-Israel conflict across the border, the wider regional contest between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and has resisted Egypt’s assertiveness over the years as the established Arab mediator in all things Arab.

Prince Mohamed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia however, is proving to be a new challenge that requires more decisive measures.

King Abdullah of Jordan (not to be confused with King Salman’s predecessor King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia) has played a delicate balancing act between the superpowers of the region. He has allowed the US to train ‘moderate’ rebels in its jurisdiction while not committing whole-heartedly in the fight against Assad. He has welcomed Palestinian refugees whilst not whole-heartedly backing the Palestinian cause, preferring instead to pursue a de facto peace settlement with Israel. He has criticised Iran whilst not whole-heartedly backing or joining in the Gulf hysteria over the steady Shia Crescent expansion.

So why, if the accusations are true, would the country find itself in Saudi’s firing line?

“You backed the Turk?”

Put simply, King Abdullah is refusing to cooperate with Riyadh on one of the most fundamental issues governing the Trump-Bin Salman relationship; Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Moreover, Jordan is making its displeasure known in the Arab world. The assertiveness with which it is doing so has irked not just Riyadh, but Abu Dhabi as well.

King Abdullah made it painfully obvious that he was dissatisfied with the Arab response to Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Following the Arab League meeting, King Abdullah swiftly made his way to Istanbul to attend the OIC meeting that produced a far more defiant rejection of Trump’s declaration. The difference in tone between the two organisations was clear for all to see and King Abdullah was so fervent in his stance that he stood beside Erdogan during the announcement of the declaration.

Such symbolism did not go amiss. Nor did Riyadh and Abu Dhabi miss the symbolism of a Turkish leader seizing the leadership of the Muslims on such a vital issue, with a major Arab state at his side endorsing such leadership. The move hit such a nerve that the UAE foreign minister retweeted a post accusing Erdogan’s “ancestors” of theft and oppression of Arabs during Ottoman rule.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, center, flanked by Jordan’s King Abdullah II, left and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, poses for photographs with other leaders during a photo-op prior to the opening session of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Istanbul, December 13, 2017. (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

Mohamed Bin Salman’s quest to be King

King Abdullah’s defiance also demonstrates a more complicated problem for Prince Mohamed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. Bin Salman has spent the most part of three years lobbying Washington to support his bid to be king. Having been rebuffed numerous times in favour of former Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef, Bin Salman eventually managed to take advantage of discord between Trump, the Pentagon and the intelligence services to outmanoeuvre Bin Nayef and become Crown Prince.

As part of alleviating US concerns over the young prince, Bin Salman has been keen to stress mutual interests with Washington and display a willingness to deploy the kingdoms resources in promoting and achieving these interests.

As with all incoming US presidents, the Palestine-Israel issue dominates Middle East policy and naturally this was on the agenda when Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kuschner visited Riyadh. Most can only speculate on what exactly Bin Salman promised regarding this issue. However, suffice to say that softening of anti-Israeli rhetoric in Saudi Arabia, as well as the positive image portrayed of Mohamed Bin Salman in Israel suggests an unprecedented shift in the kingdom’s stance towards one of rapprochement, and even an acknowledgement of an Israeli state. Moreover, long-established Saudi proxy Bahrain saw its foreign minister suggest that the Palestinian issue is simply not a priority.

Jordan fears

However, Jordan has its own concerns over the Palestine-Israel issue. Firstly, as a result of sharing a border, Jordan is home to many Palestinian refugees. Any agreement heavily in favour of Israel threatens to unleash a hornet’s nest that will inevitably draw Jordan into an open conflict it does not want. Moreover, in such a situation, King Abdullah knows that Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which are geographically relatively distant from the conflict, are incredibly unreliable allies and are more likely to abandon Jordan than provide any genuine assistance in dealing with the fallout of cornering the Palestinians into foregoing their lands to a foreign occupier.

King Abdullah believes that since Trump has forcefully backed the Israeli side, the reaction must be equally forceful to restore the equilibrium in the peace process that Trump has jeopardised. Saudi Arabia appears to suggest that Palestinians must accept the status quo.

For Bin Salman, his reputation in Washington is potentially at stake over how he handles the Arabs over the Palestine-Israel issue and whether he can convince Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian authority to accept Kuschner’s humiliating peace proposal. If any Arab leader fails to cooperate, then alternatives can be found whether that is Baha al-Hariri in Lebanon, or one of King Abdullah’s brothers in Jordan.

For King Abdullah, Bin Salman is dragging Jordan into a fire it has sought to avoid for years and is breaking decades of established royal protocol between the kingdoms. This is not to suggest however that the two kingdoms will enter into an open and bitter enmity. As always with politics in the Middle East, nothing is impossible and it would not be any surprise if we find at some point that King Abdullah receives favourable treatment in Riyadh or Abu Dhabi…and money.