Kushner’s squeeze play on Jordan’s King Abdullah

Trump’s son-in-law will likely use Jordan’s economic and water crises to force the king to accept the ‘ultimate deal’.

King Abdullah
King Abdullah receives White House adviser, Jared Kushner, on August 22, 2017, in Amman, Jordan [File: AP]

In March of this year, King Abdullah of Jordan met the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington. By all accounts, the closed-door meeting with the Jordanian monarch, a staunch ally of the United States, was somewhat of a bumpy ride. King Abdullah is said to have expressed his deep frustration about being kept almost completely in the dark about the “ultimate deal” that is supposed to secure peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of US President Donald Trump and the deal’s chief architect, has kept his cards close to his chest with only a handful of people, some say as few as six knowing what the plan actually includes. On the rare occasions when he has spoken publicly about the deal, as he did in early May, he has emphasised its economic benefits and praised it as a “very good business plan”. He has also sought not to address the question of Palestinian statehood since “[it] means one thing to Israelis, [and another] thing to the Palestinians, so we said, let’s just not say it”.

King Abdullah, whose country is home to nearly two million Palestinian refugees, has, it seems, been given no opportunity to contribute to or influence the Kushner deal. As a Jordanian official told the Axios news website: during the meeting, “His Majesty was asked about the plan and said he did not yet see it and therefore cannot comment. He also believes that an economic plan without a political one is not sufficient.”

Behind that succinct and acerbic statement lies a great deal of anxiety. Jordan is being pushed towards accepting a disastrous deal that will give the Israelis virtually everything they want in exchange for a chunk of the economic aid that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are supposed to provide. The Palestinians and their regional supporters will be bought off with the promise of a bright economic future and, in the process, the issue of Palestinian statehood will be buried.

Like the Palestinians – who will be presented with an ultimatum of take it or the bad gets worse for you – King Abdullah is being left with very little wriggle room.

The Jordanian economy is close to a breaking point. The public debt stands at 28.3 billion dinars ($39.9bn), nearly equal to the country’s economic output, while unemployment is running at close to 20 percent. Last summer, as a series of protests roiled Jordan over plans to increase income tax, the Saudis led a bailout effort worth $2.5bn. With their backing, King Abdullah was able to reverse the planned increase and stabilise the situation temporarily.

Of course, it is very much in the Saudis’ interest not to see Jordan destabilised by protesters taking to the streets. The last thing they want to see is a hereditary monarch deposed. But the message is not lost on King Abdullah that Saudi Arabia has the whip hand.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is very close to Kushner, has already demonstrated that he can turn the aid tap off as quickly as he turned it on. In 2017, the Saudis, annoyed with King Abdullah’s continued support for a Palestinian homeland and his failure to ban the Muslim Brotherhood and sever diplomatic ties with Qatar, abruptly decided not to renew a Gulf aid package. It was only when Abdullah went cap in hand to Riyadh last year that the tap was turned back on again.

Another pressure point is Jordan’s acute water crisis – one of the worst in the world. Ten of the country’s 12 aquifers are massively depleted and the Jordan River and the Dead Sea are drying up.

The refugee influx from Syria has increased consumption and exacerbated the situation. Most of the one million Syrian refugees have been settled in camps and in poor rural areas in the north of the country where water scarcity is the severest. In the desperate search for potable water, deep illegal wells are being drilled which further depletes the aquifers. With global warming and the continuous rise in temperatures, water shortages are expected to get that much worse.

One solution – the Red Sea to Dead Sea project – envisions seawater from the Red Sea desalinated at the Jordanian port of Aqaba to create fresh water with the brine being pumped into the Dead Sea to slow its shrinkage. But the project comes with a hefty price tag of $1bn. The Israelis have offered to pay for it.

Like the Saudis, they see the benefit of a stable Jordan. The offer, though, can always be withdrawn and although Kushner is being coy about details of his plan, it is hard not to see the desalination project as part of the economic package offered to Jordan.

The US president’s son-in-law must believe he has caught King Abdullah in an economic pincer with the Israelis on one side and the Saudis on the other. He knows he needs to gain the king’s backing and he seems to reckon that with that sort of pressure he will have it.

However, even those experts and diplomats who favour the Israeli side argue that the plan is bound to fail and could well lead to a huge uptick in violence. For King Abdullah, this is an impossible choice. The Palestinians in Jordan, both refugees and those who have citizenship, will expect and demand he take a robust stand against the deal. But denouncing it cuts him off from the financial lifeline the Saudis and the Israelis are offering to help manage the severe economic crisis.

At the same time, the king is facing pressure to surrender the custodianship of Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, to Saudi Arabia. Such a move would destroy the remaining legitimacy that King Abdullah and the Hashemite dynasty he represents still have.

Small wonder the king is really worried. The throne he sits on rests on shaky ground.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.