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Last Updated: Monday, 25 April, 2005, 10:13 GMT 11:13 UK
Jordan fears loss of US favour
By Jon Leyne
BBC News, Amman

Kind Abdullah of Jordan and US President Bush during an Oval Office meeting
Jordan has not always been talking Washington's language recently
Of all America's allies in the Arab world, Jordan must surely be one of the closest and most trusted - or so it seemed until recently.

But all that has changed, and King Abdullah's government does not seem to know what to do about it.

Things came to a head after an incident in Salt - a small town just outside the capital with a reputation for sending its sons to take part in the Iraqi insurgency.

Last month the family of one of them, Raed al-Banna, held three days of mourning following his death as a suicide bomber in Iraq.

It was thought, probably wrongly, that he carried out the massacre in Hilla in which 125 people died.

The event caused a rupture in Jordan's relations with Iraq and led the US to question if Jordan really was such a reliable ally.

Diplomatic isolation

That was just one of a series of black marks against Jordan's name.

Relatives of Raed al-Banna gather to mourn him in Salt, Jordan
The Banna wake in Salt caused a rupture in relations with Iraq

In March there was its ill-fated attempt to launch a new Arab-Israel peace initiative at the Arab League summit in Algiers.

The idea appeared to offer normalisation with Israel in return for practically nothing, and other Arab countries rejected it out of hand.

There were the comments by King Abdullah in Washington recently when he warned of the dangers of a Shia Crescent in the Middle East - not what the administration wanted to hear.

Then there's the almost invisibly slow pace of domestic reform.

"I think Washington is becoming increasingly impatient with the pace of reform in Jordan," explained Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group, who is based in Amman.

The US still declares its friendship with Jordan. But the signals of a change of mood are there for all to see.

Closed political system

Richard Perle, the well-connected right-wing hawk, listed Jordan recently in the same breath as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

He condemned their "closed political systems" which bred "discontented young men who are easily enticed to sacrifice their own lives in order to kill us".

If [reform] proves to be impossible, Washington may decide that whatever happens is better than the status quo
Joost Hiltermann

In Amman recently, the American Charge d'Affairs, David Hale, repeated what has become a US mantra:

"It has become a priority... to provide our strong support for movements for reform within the region that are working to change the conditions that give rise to extremism and terror."

In Jordan, there is much talk of reform, but precious little evidence of it. The government is involved in a bitter confrontation with professional associations. With little civil society, associations of lawyers or engineers provide one of the few opposition gathering points.

They have been particularly outspoken in their opposition to the peace treaty with Israel and the US-led occupation of Iraq.

In response, the government has been trying to pass a new law curtailing their political activities.

Gagging the press

King Abdullah told a meeting of editors recently that journalists should no longer be jailed for what they write or speak.

King Abdullah of Jordan at Georgetown University
Criticising the king is still unheard-of in the Jordanian media

But it is still against the law to write anything that might harm relations with an Arab or friendly government, and journalists have recently been jailed for doing so.

Criticising the king himself is still completely off-limits. No journalist is locked up for it, because no-one does it.

And there's no sign of the sort of electoral reform that would make Jordan's parliament truly democratic.

King Abdullah's response to this crisis has been the second major government reshuffle in a matter of months.

Marwan Muasher, appointed deputy prime minister late last year to oversee the reform effort, has been moved to a job in the royal court.

The ever-loyal English-language Jordan Times now has pictures almost every day of meetings called by the King to reassure Iraqi journalists, Jordanian editors, European ambassadors.

New rules

For years, Washington's Arab allies explained how they were the least bad option. Without them, there would be radical Islamist governments hostile to the US and Israel.

You can imagine King Abdullah, and President Mubarak of Egypt and America's other Arab friends, regularly putting that argument to the White House.

The old covenant used to be, support US foreign policy and Washington will leave you alone to do what you will at home. But the rules have changed, and the word is only slowly getting around.

So what does Washington want in Jordan?

"It wants more change, and I can only imagine that the only change possible is managed change. They just want to see more results," suggests Joost Hiltermann.

"Whether this is possible is the big question. Maybe if it proves to be impossible, Washington may decide that whatever happens is better than the status quo."

That may sound reckless, but President Bush's Middle East policies could never be described as cautious.

Jordan edging towards democracy
27 Jan 05 |  Middle East
Abdullah sacks 'failing' cabinet
05 Apr 05 |  Middle East
How democratic is the Middle East?
03 Mar 05 |  Middle East
Country profile: Jordan
22 Mar 05 |  Country profiles

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