Jordan Has Become a Banana Monarchy
The country is imploding under America’s watch.
As the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan marks its centennial this month, its citizens are still buzzing about the “Hamzah affair.” The political earthquake began two weeks ago, when security services rounded up almost two dozen prominent figures on charges of coup-mongering. Among those was former Crown Prince Hamzah, one of King Abdullah II’s half-brothers, who was ordered to stop meeting with opposition-minded tribal communities. Angered by economic hardship and rampant corruption, many of those communities had begun to see him as a better choice for king than Abdullah.
The British imported the Hashemites from the Arabian Peninsula to rule over their invented kingdom in 1921. Though it lacked wealth and prestige, the monarchy maintained domestic stability by patronizing and protecting its tribes, particularly after Jordan absorbed millions of Palestinians after the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars. The bargain was austere, but it worked: bread for loyalty. Since Abdullah’s enthronement in 1999, however, tribal Jordanians have seen many jobs and social services vanish. It was this fraying relationship between the monarchy and its tribal base that Hamzah entered.
While some allege a real conspiracy tied to Saudi meddling, most analysts believe that the entire affair was a manufactured crisis designed to distract a public enraged about the ruling monarchy’s worsening mismanagement over the past decade. The pandemic made the already-stagnant economy worse, spiking unemployment from 15 to 25 percent and raising the poverty rate from 16 to a staggering 37 percent. Fruitless promises of democratic reform from Abdullah have led nowhere. With tribal activists regularly criticizing the king—the ultimate act of transgression—the monarchy is responding not with better policies and more transparency, but by doubling down with heightened repression.
But neither stifling dissent nor palace intrigue is the real story. Like all autocracies, Jordan has little tolerance for popular opposition. Moreover, most of the Arab monarchies suffer from dynastic infighting. Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Bahrain have all seen powerful hard-liners muffle dissident princes over the last decade. Kuwait’s Sabah monarchy has been rocked by coup conspiracies and succession disputes.
What this crisis actually reveals is the painful demise of a U.S. protectorate in the heart of the Middle East. Jordan has become a banana monarchy whose popular legitimacy is in tatters and that survives only through massive infusions of aid and arms from Washington. It has surrendered much of its sovereignty with a new defense treaty—inked in January without the Jordanian public’s knowledge—giving the U.S. military such untrammeled operational rights that the entire kingdom is now cleared to become a giant U.S. base. All this makes the regime inherently unwilling to entertain any domestic reforms without explicit American pressure.
Meanwhile, the United States remains complicit in the economic bungling and political abuses unraveling the country. Abdullah is currently the longest-reigning national leader in the Arab world, and U.S. leaders routinely celebrate his pro-Western monarchy, framing it as an Arab model of reform and moderation. During the recent crisis, the Biden administration reached out to Abdullah to endorse the arrests and confirm his well-being. U.S. President Joe Biden counseled him to “stay strong,” while Secretary of State Antony Blinken trumpeted the U.S.-Jordanian “strategic partnership.”
This is a sad but familiar story. Think of Iran under the shah or non-Middle East cases such as South Vietnam or Nicaragua under the Somozas. History shows that when sponsoring a client dictatorship becomes a sacred pillar of Washington’s foreign policy, client rulers become extremely dependent upon U.S. support, prioritizing their relationship with Washington over their own people. In Jordan’s case, the government has preserved U.S. dominance in the Middle East and protected Israel while neglecting Jordanians’ own woes. Such rulers surrender to the worst excesses of autocracy, enriching themselves and alienating society. They ignore the warning signs of revolution, believing that Washington will save them. But it never does.
This hegemonic impulse to back banana regimes as they self-destruct is not simply a rehash of the Kirkpatrick Doctrine, the idea that even the most corrupt pro-Western dictatorships are preferable to anti-Western democracies. It stems from a more quotidian reality. Once the United States becomes committed not just to defending a regime but also to running the country itself, it cannot get out. Trapped in the trenches, the United States faces a paradox. Policymakers fear that reducing any part of their support will destabilize their client state, which could not survive without it. The only option is to perpetuate the current system, even though that regime’s own policies are clearly destabilizing it. This is why the Biden administration can recalibrate ties with large and wealthy Saudi Arabia on account of its authoritarian overreach, but it can do nothing in small, poor Jordan.
Jordan’s transformation into a U.S. dependency began during the Cold War. Washington replaced the fading British in the late 1950s as its great protector, a logical move given the need to back anti-Soviet regimes everywhere. Jordan had no oil. However, so long as Jordan endured, it could be a geopolitical firebreak insulating Israel and the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula from the radical forces of communism and Arab nationalism.
After the Cold War, Jordan became more integral by helping to inaugurate Pax Americana in the Middle East. It made peace with Israel, facilitated counterterrorism campaigns, and expedited the invasion of Iraq. It hosted the coalition against the Islamic State and funneled guns for Syrian rebels, albeit not without its own intelligence agents skimming off the top. The recent U.S. defense treaty goes a step further, conscripting the monarchy to help wage future U.S. wars in the region.
Throughout this process, Washington helped build the Jordanian state. Foreign aid was one mechanism. In many years, U.S. economic aid exceeded all domestic tax revenues, the only thing keeping “Fortress Jordan” from collapsing into insolvency. While Jordan today receives support from many donors, including the International Monetary Fund, U.S. economic support remains uniquely fungible: It comes mostly in cash, it is guaranteed, and it now exceeds $1 billion annually.
Likewise, the U.S. Agency for International Development began designing and operating much of Jordan’s physical infrastructure in the 1960s, doing the basic task of governance—providing public goods to society—for the monarchy. When Jordanians get water from the tap, no small feat in the bone-dry country, it is because of USAID. Even the Aqaba Special Economic Zone, a mega-project aimed at turning the Red Sea port city of Aqaba into a regional commercial hub, was funded and designed by U.S. technocrats.
Above all, the coercive institutions bolstering the Jordanian regime became symbiotically attached to America. The General Intelligence Directorate, glorified by Western journalists as an Arab version of Mossad, spends as much time smothering Jordanian dissent as battling terrorism. It owes much of its skills and resources to the CIA. The armed forces soldier on thanks to U.S. training and military aid. Most of its armory—tanks, jets, artillery, guns—is made in the United States.
Jordan is hence exceptional, even among the ranks of Washington’s allies. It is a U.S. satellite, run by a monarchy that knows the most important building in Amman aside from its palace is the U.S. Embassy. Of course, being a U.S. protectorate brings occasional costs. Dependency upon Washington’s goodwill, for instance, gave Abdullah little room to halt the Trump administration’s “deal of the century.” That provocative plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma incensed Abdullah, as it favored Israel’s land claims while sidelining Jordan’s traditional front-line role as mediator to the conflict. However, even during this hiccup, not even the Trump administration questioned the wisdom of keeping Abdullah on the throne.
All this explains why as Jordan’s banana monarchy devolves further, from rounding up its royal kin to suppressing its tribal critics, the U.S. instinct is still to give full-throated support. Washington cannot imagine any other kind of Jordan, because it never had to. It may yet learn the hard way. Not only does history show that American support fails to save authoritarian clients from social upheaval, but the governments that replace them are also often tenaciously anti-American. Iran’s Islamic Republic is a canonical case, one that has haunted U.S. leaders for 40 years. Closer to the United States, Cuba’s regime is the historical result of revolution toppling one of the original banana republics, the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship.
Given the unlikelihood of the United States imposing any pressures for serious reform from a distance, the onus of change rests upon Jordan’s shoulders. The monarchy already knows what not just tribal Jordanians but all citizens crave, because they have been loudly protesting for it since the Arab Spring. They want credible, transparent campaigns to end widespread corruption. They wish to replace wasteful public spending with productive, job-creating programs. They desire less repression and more democracy, a pledge famously made by Abdullah himself in 2011.
But time is running out. The Middle East remains a revolutionary place, as six of its autocratic rulers have lost power to mass uprisings in the last decade. Whether Jordan is next depends upon if the monarchy can fundamentally rethink its approach, rather than fall back upon the United States for affirmation. If it does, the Hashemite Kingdom may actually become the model of reform and moderation that Washington proclaims it is now.
Correction, April 19, 2021: An example of a U.S. client dictatorship is Nicaragua under the Somozas. A previous version of this article misstated the country formerly controlled by the Somoza family.
Sean Yom is an associate professor of political science at Temple University and the author of From Resilience to Revolution: How Foreign Interventions Destabilize the Middle East. Twitter: @YomSean