The King of Jordan Meets the King of Queens
Experts say a heavy burden rests on Abdullah's shoulder.
U.S. President Donald Trump met Jordanian King Abdullah at the White House Wednesday.
The meeting was hotly anticipated, and not without reason — a president who ran on the idea of keeping Muslims out of the United States and vowed to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem was to receive the king widely seen as the key moderating force in the Middle East.
Wedged between Israel, Iraq, and Syria, Jordan plays an outsized role in the roiling landscape of Middle East politics. It’s widely seen as a moderating, dependable Western ally and key go-between for Washington and the Arab world.
“Jordan is not just an island of stability, but an island of reliability,” said Ilan Goldenberg, Middle East expert at Washington-based think tank Center for a New American Security. “They’re by far our most reliable Arab partner.”
Tensions still simmer beneath the surface, primarily over Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, controversial policies on Israel, and repeated attempts to ban citizens from Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the United States.
But if anyone can navigate the tightrope of Middle East politics in the Trump era, it’s Abdullah. “Through moderate policies and an unabashedly pro-American orientation, Amman has attained an extremely rare status on Capitol Hill — bipartisan support,” wrote former Pentagon official David Schenker, now at the Washington Institute on Near East Policy.
Abdullah can also navigate Washington politics “better than any Arab leader,” said Goldenberg, a former senior Pentagon and State Department advisor on Middle East policy. “There’s a lot riding on this man’s shoulders,” he added.
The two leaders have a packed meeting agenda. They’ll talk shop on the ongoing fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, which Trump and other administration officials say is the administration’s top foreign policy priority.
At a joint press briefing, Trump and Abdullah did indeed address Syria. Tuesday’s chemical attack, the president said, “crossed a lot of lines” for him. And though he once again blamed the Obama administration, he acknowledged that it is now his responsibility.
“What happened yesterday is unacceptable to me,” he said, though he stopped short of blaming Russia for backing Assad, as his U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, did earlier Wednesday. Abdullah, for his part, thanked Trump for additional American financial support for the additional refugees Jordan is hosting, and said Tuesday’s events are a reminder of the failure of international diplomacy so far to find a solution in Syria.
Abdullah is slated to bring the Arab consensus perspective on the Israel-Palestine issue and will reportedly push for a solid pledge from Trump to revive peace talks. Trump and his controversial hardliner ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, temporarily backed off on their pledge to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a move experts say would stoke new tensions in the region’s smoldering political tinderbox.
Jordan in the past called the Israel-Palestine conflict the root cause of the region’s political turmoil and Abdullah may have played a hand in delaying Trump’s promise to move the embassy during his last visit to Washington in January, when he met with Vice President Mike Pence and Trump’s son-in-law turned White House advisor Jared Kushner days after Trump’s inauguration.
At the press conference, Abdullah reiterated his belief that this is the core conflict in the region. He said he has been encouraged by early signs of the Trump administration’s approach to the conflict, and assured his audience that Trump “understands the nuances and challenges” of the problem.
Abdullah will also likely try to secure a promise from Trump that aid to Jordan won’t be on the chopping block in the president’s move to gut the U.S. foreign aid budget. Jordan received an estimated $1.4 billion in U.S. foreign assistance funding in 2016, according to the Congressional Research Service. Experts say the assistance is key to shoring up Jordan’s stability and political support.
Meanwhile, Queen Rania, who is known for her advocacy work related to education and community empowerment, met with U.S. First Lady Melania Trump for a lunch and a visit to a local elementary school.
Update, Apr. 5 2017, 2:20 pm ET: This piece was updated to include remarks made at the joint press conference.
Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer