In October, Saudi Arabia secured its first-ever election to a seat on the U.N. Security Council (UNSC). The same day, even as gift bags were sent to thank countries that had voted for Saudi Arabia, the kingdom then created another "first" as it became the first country to reject its own election to the UNSC. The objection appeared, at least at face value, to be a matter of principle. The Saudi government declined the seat, citing the Security Council’s failures in ending conflicts from Syria to Israel and Palestine. Just as importantly, however, Saudi Arabia may have wanted to avoid going on record in two years’ worth of repeated votes on controversial issues in international relations and international security. That pressure may now fall to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, as Jordan appeared poised to take the UNSC seat originally offered to Saudi Arabia.
For this to occur, Saudi Arabia would have to confirm its rejection of the seat, and Jordan would need to win an election in the U.N. General Assembly.* It also represents both an opportunity and a new set of difficulties and constraints for a country that has struggled with internal and external pressures during the years of the regional "Arab Spring." Jordanian officials were actively engaged in diplomacy, consultation, and negotiation, to see if they should, in fact, really want this opportunity or burden, and further, to see if Jordan would truly have the backing of Arab and other states (including Saudi Arabia). In a related move, Jordan dropped its own bid for a seat in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) — a body of 47 countries, some of which have stellar human rights records, and others which seem to be a Who’s Who of rampant human rights violators. In dropping its own bid to join the UNHRC, Jordan paved the way for Saudi Arabia, certainly an unlikely participant in any human rights body, but one that will be joined by equally out of place states such as the People’s Republic of China. With Saudi Arabia moving into the Human Rights Council, Jordan could then take the Saudi seat in the UNSC. The Security Council would still manage to have Arab representation, even after the Saudi shift, which will be reassuring to some members of the Arab League.
But does Jordan represent any significant change from Saudi Arabia in terms of likely stances in international relations? At first blush, the two might seem similar on the world stage: both are majority Arab and Sunni Muslim states, both are hereditary monarchies, and both have been closely aligned with Western powers — with the United States in particular. But while Saudi Arabia is a tremendously wealthy oil giant, Jordan is a resource-poor and deeply indebted country, in the midst of a long-term economic crisis. Both states have complained of Israeli policies, the continuing lack of an independent Palestinian state, and have warned of rising Iranian power (to the point of referring to the perceived dangers of an emergent "Shiite Crescent"), and both have felt the internal as well as regional pressures of the Arab Spring. Yet unlike Saudi Arabia, Jordan has for almost 20 years maintained a peace treaty with Israel. While U.S.-Saudi relations have encountered recurring rifts, U.S.-Jordanian relations have never been closer.
Saudi Arabia has championed revolutionary causes from Libya to Syria, but led a reactionary and decidedly counter-revolutionary camp among the conservative monarchies of the region. Jordan, in contrast, has (as is typical of Jordanian foreign policy) attempted a middle path wherever it appears available, styling itself as a moderate in regional relations. As Saudi Arabia has played an ever-increasing role arming elements of the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime, Jordan has played a more ambiguous and at times seemingly contradictory role regarding the Syrian civil war. Jordan has called consistently for a diplomatic solution, and has declared itself neutral in the conflict. But it has also accepted U.S. Patriot missile batteries and F16 jet fighters to bolster its border with Syria, while giving sanctuary to Syrian opposition figures, and even being accused frequently in international media of arming and training select rebel forces. (The Jordanian government strongly denies the latter accusations).
At least until the Arab uprisings, Saudi policy had seemed rather insular and locally focused, while Jordan has been an active internationalist, including as an enthusiastic supporter of the United Nations. The U.N.’s World Interfaith Harmony Day, for example, is now a global event, but it was a Jordanian suggestion, urged by King Abdullah II. Jordanian soldiers have also served in U.N. peacekeeping operations from Haiti to Sierra Leone to Darfur, Sudan. Setting up field hospitals, in fact, has become something of a national specialty for the Jordanian armed forces in either conflict zones or in global disaster relief efforts. In terms of the UNSC, in addition to its close relations with the United States, Jordan has maintained solid and even strong relations with the permanent members of the council, including Russia, China, France, and especially Britain.
It is with these points in mind that the Jordanian government, diplomatic corps, and monarchy all see Jordan as an especially worthy and responsible country for candidacy to the UNSC. Membership on the council, however, will bring with it both opportunities and constraints. Jordan could, for example, expect a greater voice in international affairs, as well as more favorable terms for foreign aid and perhaps greater trade and investment opportunities, as these do seem to be perks of the two-year UNSC term. But Jordan would also be forced to go on record in particularly controversial areas of international politics, whereas in the past it has tended to prefer a middle path — a centered, moderate, and at times even ambiguous path. Jordanian foreign policy has always been marked by caution and careful deliberation. To be blunt, Jordan simply cannot afford to alienate either regional or global powers. If it becomes a UNSC member, however, Jordan’s influence might increase, but it can also expect to receive strong and at times contradictory pressure even (and perhaps especially) from its allies, including the United States and Saudi Arabia or other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, regarding Israel, Palestine, Syria, Iran, and other areas of international security. Since the kingdom depends on U.S. foreign aid even as it attempts to join the GCC, these contradictory pressures will only become more difficult to navigate over time.
Meanwhile, democracy advocates in the kingdom seem increasingly disillusioned by Jordan’s domestic reform trajectory. In my visits to Jordan, democracy activists have argued that reform efforts appear to have frozen in place. International security concerns, especially over the Syrian civil war, do indeed seem to have affected Jordan’s reform process, and recent shifts in leadership in the lower house of parliament and the royally-appointed senate seem to have signaled a decidedly conservative and traditionalist turn. Reform advocates feel that they have been sidelined as traditional conservatives make their return, with economic Neoliberals taking perhaps a secondary position, while political and social reformers are blocked out even further. This was in some ways symbolized by the recent replacement of former senate president and moderate reformer Taher Masri with the conservative traditionalist ‘Abd al-Ra’uf al-Rawabdeh. Yet these moves were greeted generally by apathy. Perhaps more dangerous to democratic aspirations, however, is the emergence of a narrative among conservatives within domestic politics that seems to equate reform activism with instability, insecurity, and worse.
The rearranging of elites in key Jordanian institutions seems to signal a state bracing for worst-case scenarios regard
ing the fallout from Syria. In my conversations with King Abdullah, he was proud of a series of domestic reform achievements, but also especially concerned with the dangers to Jordan of spillover from the Syrian disaster. Jordan’s economy and resources have been strained by the presence of more than 500,000 Syrian refugees and indeed Zaatari refugee camp is now Jordan’s fourth largest "city."
A broader question, however, is whether a seat on the U.N. Security Council will also affect Jordan’s domestic politics as well as its international position. Will it insulate the state from pressures for further domestic reform, or act as a spotlight on both the successes and limitations of the kingdom’s reform program, which, at present, remains an incomplete process? Is the conservative retrenchment within Jordanian domestic politics a temporary offshoot of the security dilemmas associated with the Syrian war, or will it turn out to be a long-term feature of the political landscape?
In either case, Jordan has no shortage of pressures: from domestic politics to economic crisis to regional instability. If Jordan adds a U.N. Security Council seat to the country’s resume, it will then be travelling into uncharted international territory, requiring deft diplomacy, as both great opportunities and great dangers abound.
Curtis R. Ryan @Curtisryan1 is a professor of political science at Appalachian State University and author of Jordan in Transition: From Hussein to Abdullah and Inter-Arab Alliances: Regime Security and Jordanian Foreign Policy.
* correction: The article originally stated that this had been the first time Jordan had secured a UNSC seat. However, Jordan held a position on the UNSC from 1965-1966 and 1982-1983.