King Abdullah of Jordan celebrated his 49th birthday this past Sunday, and his reign turns 12 years old on Feb. 7. Neither anniversary could fall at a more unpropitious time. As popular protests roil the Middle East, with Tunisia’s dictatorial incumbent ousted and another in Egypt on the way out, observers have wondered whether the Hashemite Kingdom will be the next to catch revolutionary fever. With Jordan’s lively blogosphere and independent press insinuating about the “contagion” effect, the monarchy has also been squeezed by its increasing inability to extract consent. For several weeks, weekend protests have punctuated urban life, with thousands of demonstrators cheering the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts while demanding the dismissal of the king’s cabinet led by Samir al-Rifai — a Harvard-educated technocrat from a prominent East Bank family. Yesterday, they finally received their wish. In an ironic twist of history, Abdullah dismissed Rifai, mirroring his father Hussein’s sacking of Rifai’s father, Zeid, from the premiership in response to rioting in April 1989. He brought Marouf al-Bakhit, a career military officer who previously served a two-year stint as prime minister, back to office.
The Hashemite monarchy now faces an extraordinary challenge. Though the U.S. media has focused on the drama of nearby revolutions, the absence of Anderson Cooper in Amman should not connote that Jordan matters any less to U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, the fate of its pro-Western regime holds more consequences for American interests than any Arab state not named Egypt and Saudi Arabia — something better ruminated now than at the eleventh hour.
The kingdom is Israel’s other peace partner and remains the keystone to a two-state Palestinian solution. It reliably backs American initiatives, from the invasion of Iraq to the anti-Iranian containment strategy. Its intelligence services have provided vital services during the war on terror, something rarely exposed. In return, Jordan has received enormous economic and military aid from Washington, reaping more than $7 billion since 2000 and enjoying $660 million in annual support through 2013. It has also welcomed democracy-promotion programs, a contradiction that begs scrutiny. Above all comes diplomatic intimacy: It surprised few that King Abdullah was the first Arab leader to visit President Obama in April 2009.