King Abdullah of Jordan became the first Arab head of state to visit Iraq after the fall of Saddam. His visit signals a pragmatic policy towards a changing Middle East.
Alistair Campbell, Director, RUSI Qatar
13 August 2008 - When King Abdullah visited Baghdad earlier this week as the first Arab head of state to do so, his motives were as much about his own image and the survival of Jordan as his interest in Iraq and support for Nouri al-Maliki. The move was a continuation of his father’s policy of pragmatic initiative and staying ahead of the following pack.
‘Al Jaar qabl al Daar’ (the neighbours before the house) is a well known Arab saying which urges potential house buyers to consider the next door inhabitants more carefully than the building itself. The problem, of course, is that neighbours can change and although in the 1920s King Abdullah I had his benign Hashemite brother to the East and the British mandated Palestine to his West, the current King is less fortunate and frequently quips that he lives between ‘Iraq and a hard place’. But it is almost entirely because Jordan has worked hard at ensuring productive relations with its neighbours that this – most unlikely of all the nation states that emerged from the Ottoman Empire – has survived. With only limited resources (Dead Sea potash and some water) and with a variable and situation-dependent tourist industry, Jordan has managed to keep going against the odds thanks to tireless and at times exasperating efforts by King Hussein to navigate through the trials and treachery of the twentieth century Middle East. He chose Abdullah as his successor on the basis that he was ‘homme de la même pâte’.
The twenty-first century has presented challenges of its own but more from the East than West. The young Abdullah, although he inherited some of Hussein’s qualities, has not yet been accepted as a true heir to his father’s charisma and judgement. His trip to Baghdad with his Prime Minister on 11 August as the first Arab Head of State is a typical Hussein-like initiative: bold, risky but ultimately the only sensible choice. Jordan has relied on cheap oil from Iraq for many years and the sanctions post-1991 on Iraq were nearly disastrous for its economy, although there was evidence of frequent sanctions busting. But Iraq owes much to Jordan as well since the daily flights from Amman to Baghdad and Irbil were a valued lifeline to the occupied and chaotic country in the early years after the invasion. Indeed Amman has been host to most of the agencies and international organisations that have kept Iraq afloat – and it has suffered the consequences by way of terrorist attacks in November 2005 and up to 750,000 refugees weighing heavily on the economy and fuelling inflation.
Arab governments, especially regional ones, have been criticised by the US and EU for not doing more to assist Iraq. The excuse that such assistance would be interpreted as submitting to an occupying power has now worn thin. Although the post-Surge reduction in violence has encouraged various Arab states to declare the opening of embassies, Abdullah is the first leader actually to visit. In fact several Arab states opened missions in Baghdad in 2004, but the intimidation of several diplomats from Egypt and Algeria in 2005 plus the sectarian violence that followed the bombing of the mosque in Samarra in February 2006 caused the withdrawal of most missions. Kuwait had actually nominated its ambassador, General Ali Mu’min, in 2005, but he never took post and was only re-nominated two months ago as the air cleared.
King Abdullah is rightly concerned over the spread of Shia beliefs and made this clear in 2004 when he spoke about the threat of the Shia crescent. There are reports that he has made military plans to occupy a part of Anbar province to extend his Eastern Desert if things go badly wrong in Iraq – perhaps similar to his great grandfather’s move into the West Bank and Jerusalem in 1948. However, this would be a desperate step which would probably backfire whatever the circumstances. So King Abdullah has wisely decided that it is better to have good relations with the Shia dominated government in Baghdad than seek to oppose the spread of the ‘crescent’. Indeed, by creating space for constructive dialogue he could assist the reconciliation of the Sunnis, the lessening of Iranian influence and further the course of stability and prosperity. And he will be seen in the important eyes of Washington and London as taking a bold step where others have feared to tread.
The visit and establishment of an embassy will also assist in the current refugee problem that is such a burden on his country. Although not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees, he has belatedly recognised his nation’s responsibility and opened up Jordanian schools to Iraqi children. The easing of relations between Amman and Baghdad should encourage the refugees to return to a more stable Iraq and defuse tensions in Amman.
There is also an important element of symbolism in King Abdullah’s visit. As a Hashemite descendant of the Prophet he has unmatched Sunni credentials. Furthermore the Amman Message of Islamic Consensus (between the faith’s diverse traditions and sects) which was developed between 2004 and 2006 was blessed by Abdullah, reinforcing his role as a pragmatic conciliator, even in the religious field. His meeting with Prime Minister Al-Maliki signifies not only a rapprochement across the confessional line and but also sends a message of international confidence in the Iraq government. Having taken the initiative to tackle the Shia militia himself, Al-Maliki has demonstrated his independence of Shia and even Iranian schemers. It is too early to judge whether in fact Al-Maliki has developed into a truly non-sectarian premier; but Abdullah’s visit is a welcome nudge of support from a former critic.
On a personal level King Abdullah knows that he will be judged as much by his role in Iraq as by his role in the Israel/Palestine struggle. If he is to continue to get the support of his people and attain the popularity that his father enjoyed, he needs to take more diplomatic initiatives – even risks – especially in areas, such as Iraq, where others seem too timid to try.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.