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Monday, 5 November, 2001, 22:23 GMT
Analysis: Jordan's precarious position
Roger Hardy

Jordanian King Abdullah is in the UK to strengthen the traditionally strong bond between Britain and Jordan and to show his country's support for the US-led war against terrorism.

But Jordan, which also has a major interest in seeing the revival of the Middle East peace process, is in a difficult position.

It is a weak state surrounded by stronger neighbours. To the west is Israel, to the north Syria, to the east Iraq, to the south Saudi Arabia. Jordan has throughout its history been caught in the political crossfire of a turbulent region.

For more than four decades, its destiny was in the hands of King Hussein - the "plucky little king", as he was known in the West - who knew how to win over friends and placate foes.

When he died in February 1999, the throne passed to his son Abdullah, an army officer still in his 30s.

A popular figure but a political novice, King Abdullah has faced daunting challenges both at home and abroad.

Iraq headache

Jordan is intimately affected by the Arab-Israeli dispute, both because of its geographical proximity to Israel and the Palestinian territories, and because more than half of all Jordanians are of Palestinian origin.

The collapse of the peace process last year, and the eruption of the Palestinian intifada, have had a direct impact on Jordan, fuelling anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment.

A second big headache is the Iraq issue.

As an ally of the West, Jordan is under pressure to enforce the 11-year-old UN sanctions against Iraq. Yet ordinary Jordanians have deep sympathy for the Iraqi civilian population, which has been hard hit by sanctions, while the merchant class wants to maximise trade with Iraq.

At home, the economy is in the doldrums. Lacking oil, Jordan relies on trade and aid. It has a rapidly growing population of five million - three-quarters of whom are under 30.

Politics are stagnant too. Fearful of internal instability, the king has postponed elections due to have taken place this year and tightened restrictions on the press.

King Abdullah and Queen Rania
King Abdullah and Queen Rania
Against such a backdrop, King Abdullah is anxious to make the right moves in the current international crisis, triggered by the suicide attacks against New York and Washington on 11 September.

A decade ago, during the Gulf War, his father alienated Jordan's traditional allies, the United States and Saudi Arabia, by supporting the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

With opinion in Jordan running strongly in favour of Iraq and against the US-led coalition, he felt he had no choice. But the country paid a high price, both politically and economically.

King Abdullah wants to make sure that does not happen again. He has come out in favour of the military action taken by the United States and Britain in Afghanistan, despite the misgivings of many of his people.

Jordan's origin

Nowadays the US is the kingdom's main strategic ally, but relations with Britain remain strong.

This is partly for reasons of history. Winston Churchill, Britain's leader during Word War II, looking back to his days as an imperial policy-maker, used to say he created Jordan with a stroke of the pen one Sunday afternoon.

He was not joking. After World War I, Britain and France carved up the Middle East between them.

The British created Jordan from the patch of desert between Palestine and Iraq, and appointed an Arabian prince as its king. This was Abdullah - great-grandfather of the present king.

A country which began life as an artificial entity, entirely dependent on outside support, has proved surprisingly durable.

But in the uncertain situation created by the events of 11 September, Jordan still needs all the friends it can get.

You can join King Abdullah for a special web, radio and television edition of Talking Point on Friday 9 November. Send us your questions for him now and include your phone number if you want to put them directly to him.

See also:

30 Jul 01 | Middle East
Jordan's king of disguise
09 Jun 99 | Middle East
King Abdullah: Jordan's hope
14 Oct 01 | Middle East
Jordan's unease over air strikes
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