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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 November 2005, 10:59 GMT
Jordan's trust in security shaken
By Gerald Butt
Middle East analyst

In a region shaken by violence, Jordan has thrived over recent years as a safe haven - not least for Iraqis fleeing the mayhem in their own country.

A Jordanian policeman stands guard by the Radisson hotel
Jordanians have long put faith in their respected security services
Convincing the world that Jordan still remains safe for visitors will be high on the list of government priorities in the wake of the hotel bombings.

The attacks will also put the Jordanian leadership's foreign and domestic policies under the microscope.

On the face of it, Jordan is an obvious target for Islamic militants.

It is a close ally of the United States and a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, and it has signed a peace treaty with Israel.

Yet Jordanians were confident in pronouncing the monarchy one of the safest countries in the Middle East.

This confidence sprang from trust in Jordan's respected and feared security services - described by Western diplomats as the most professional and dedicated in the Arab world.

Their reputation is built on experience, because Jordan is no stranger to political unrest. More than half its population is Palestinian, and turbulent developments in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have always reverberated on the eastern side of the River Jordan.

Nevertheless, even after the peace treaty was signed with Israel in 1994, the Jordanian authorities were able to keep the kingdom calm, allowing hundreds of thousands of tourists, Western businessmen and political refugees to fill its hotels.

Absolute power

King Abdullah II, meanwhile, has worked hard to strengthen relations with the West and rebuild bridges with the Gulf states which were broken when his father expressed sympathy for Saddam Hussein at the time of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

But the success of the king's foreign diplomacy has not always been matched by success in pursuing domestic policies.

Iraq's Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari (l) is greeted by King Abdullah in Jordan
King Abdullah has tried to improve relations with countries in the region
When he succeeded King Hussein in 1999 there was a general expectation in Jordan that the young king would implement widespread political reforms.

In the event, little has happened.

King Abdullah's power remains absolute. Parliament, political parties and civil society institutions are kept at arm's length. Restrictions on media freedom are as tight as ever.

A long-promised National Agenda, billed as a blueprint for long-term political, economic and social reform, still awaits publication.

Nevertheless, while political life in Jordan is trapped in a cul-de-sac, business is booming.

True, the cost of importing petroleum products at a time of record oil prices is putting strains on the national budget. But the service sector is thriving. Jordan is a conduit for international trade with Iraq, and companies doing business in Baghdad are using Amman as a safe base for their personnel.

Hard choice

Or at least they used to assume it was safe.

Why Islamic militants should have chosen this moment to target what they described as buildings "turned by the dictator of Jordan into a garden for the enemies of our religion, the Jews and the Crusaders" is a question that all Jordanians will be asking in the days ahead.

It would be hard to overestimate the impact of such a major terrorist attack in a small country like Jordan.

Jordanians' confidence in their security services will have been severely shaken. And they will wonder what impact the bombings will have on tourism and business in general.

For King Abdullah and his advisers, hunting down the perpetrators and their backers will be the main concern in the short term.

Beyond that they will undoubtedly re-examine domestic and foreign policies to see if they might be amended to enable the country to remain a rare and valued safe haven in the Middle East.

At home, the choice will be between imposing even stricter controls on public life and carrying out promised democratic reforms.

Having seen the ability of Islamic militants to evade one of the region's most effective security services, the choice will not be easy.

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