Amid the social and political transformations reshaping the Middle East, can Jordan’s Abdullah II, the region’s most pro-American Arab leader, liberalize his kingdom, modernize its economy, and save the country from capture by Islamist radicals?
One morning last fall, Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein, the fourth Hashemite king of Jordan, rolled up to a helipad situated close to the royal office complex in Al Hummar, on the western edge of the capital, Amman. He stepped out of an armored Mercedes—he drove himself, and drove fast, like he was being chased—and hustled to one of his Black Hawks. The king, who as a young prince served as a commander in the Royal Jordanian special forces, climbed into the pilot’s seat, talked for a moment with his co‑pilot, a trusted member of the Royal Squadron, and lifted off, pointing us in the direction of the rough, unhappy city of Karak, about 80 miles to the south. A second Black Hawk, filled with bodyguards, lifted off a moment later.
The king was flying himself to Karak, which is one of the poorer cities in a distressingly poor country, to have lunch with the leaders of Jordan’s largest tribes, which form the spine of Jordan’s military and political elite. More than half of all Jordanians are of Palestinian origin, with roots on the West Bank of the Jordan River, but the tribal leaders are from the East Bank, and the Hashemite kings have depended on East Bankers to defend the throne since the Hashemites first came to what was then called Transjordan from Mecca almost 100 years ago. This relationship has a coldly transactional quality: in exchange for their support of the royal court, the leaders of the eastern tribes expect the Hashemites to protect their privileges, and to limit the power of the Palestinians. When the Hashemites appear insufficiently attentive, problems inevitably follow.