Is Jordan's King Losing Control Over the Bedouins / Mudar Zaharan

June 20, 2011
The Bedouin minority in Jordan has been critical of the king for some time, with some people calling for a constitutional monarchy and others calling for toppling the Hashemite regime.

The Bedouin control the Jordanian army and the security agencies; will we see the regime in Jordan falling at the hands of its formerly-loyal Bedouin?

Since the establishment of the Hashemite rule -- on the Eastern part of the British Mandate for Palestine in 1921 -- the Hashemites have been following the classic policy of divide and conquer by turning the Bedouin minority into their own army, and banning everyone else from joining.

This dependency on the rule of the minority worked out for the Hashemites when they occupied Judea and Samaria in 1948 and ruled the Palestinian population west of the Jordan River. It also served them well later, in 1970, when the Palestinian Liberation Organization was competing with King Hussein over who should rule Jordan.

The Hahsemites' doctrine of creating a loyal minority has resulted in the Palestinian majority being stripped of most of their basic rights and privileges, with the Bedouin meanwhile receiving massive benefits from the Jordanian state, such as free university education, exemption from most taxes, exemption from the high car tariffs, and at the same time being given generous land grants and lavish scholarships to Western graduate schools. This disparity has left the Palestinian majority somewhat miffed at the regime, and willing to replace it. This disparity has also turned the Hashemite regime into a virtual hostage to the Bedouin loyalists who control the army and the police, and who could topple the regime any time they wished.

Recently there have been signs that the Bedouin are no longer loyal to the Hashemites; they are seeking to rule Jordan on their own. On June 13th, when the King made a trip to the Southern Bedouin city of Tafillah, his motorcade was attacked by the local Bedouin, who threw stones and empty bottles on it. Although this incident was confirmed by a Jordanian official to the Jerusalem Post, and reported by the Agence France Presse, it was later denied by the Jordanian government's spokesperson, Tahir Edwan, who claimed that the stone throwers were just citizens stampeding to take a look at the king -- a claim similar to the recent one by Libya's Colonel Muammar Qaddafi to Christiane Amanpour that the people protesting against him were his followers rallying for support. Unconfirmed reports stated that the incident evolved into a standoff between the King's bodyguards and the usually heavily-armed Bedouin locals.

This is not King Abdullah's first run in with the supposedly loyal Bedouin. Last February, the King's bodyguards shot at Bedouin protesters who were blocking the King's motorcade in the rural area of Mafraq, home of Bani Hassan, one of Jordan's largest tribes.

What is different about the Tafillah incident is that it came just hours after Jordan's king made a televised speech in which he promised to reform electoral law and speed up reforms -- promises unsettlingly similar to the ones he has been making since he ascended the throne in 1999. Since then, there have been no changes on the ground, but there has been a deterioration of the human rights of the Palestinian majority.

This deterioration has extended to withdrawing the citizenship from Palestinians in the name --according to one of the King's officials -- of "forcing them to maintain their Arab right to the holy land of Palestine."

The Bedouin of Jordan are now making demands that compromise the King's absolute power. They have demanded a constitutional monarchy and a return to the 1920 agreement with Jordanian tribes, according to which King Abdullah's grandfather, Abdullah I, agreed to rule the country jointly with the Bedouin.

The Bedouin have further upped the ante of attacks against the King by launching an unprecedented campaign of criticism at his Queen, Rania. They have issued public statements calling for her to be stripped of her title, and have described her as a source of corruption. These attacks, however, are really proxy attacks on the king, as he himself acknowledged in a recent interview with ABC's Christiane Amanpour, in which he confirmed that the people attacking the Queen were actually doing so to target him through a weaker link.

The Bedouin who oppose the King are promoting an alarming agenda: to strip the Palestinian majority universally of their Jordanian citizenships and to end the peace treaty with Israel.

Since April 2010, Bedouin figures and senior retired army officers have been issuing public statements and open letters to the King, calling on him to de-naturalize the Palestinians and turn them into residents rather than citizens. They have also been calling for hostility against Israel, a plan that includes "ending the peace treaty with the Zionist entity" and "re-establishing Israel as an enemy state." Retired Bedouin army figures issued a statement in May openly demanding that the King establish serious ties with Hamas "as the one and only true representative of the Palestinian people."

Since then, King Abdullah has issued several warnings, and even threats. In the interview above, King Abdullah also said that people attacking his wife think they will not be held accountable, but that they would. King Abdullah then issued an open letter, including warnings, to his Prime Minister, in which the King called for the punishment of people throwing serious accusations. Nonetheless, little fear or deterrence seems to have resulted from this letter.

It is very likely, therefore, that the king no longer has control over the Bedouin. The Bedouin tribes control Jordan's advanced army and enjoy state-supported access to firearms. Their radical anti-Palestinian and anti-Israeli stances could lead to considerable threats to the Palestinian majority of Jordan, as well as to possible trouble for Israel, the longest border of which runs alongside Jordan.

It seems as if both the Palestinians and the Israelis, therefore, are being held hostage by the Bedouin minority in Jordan. Both the US and Israel have reason to doubt the King's ability to control the Bedouin who run his government and army, and who may end up running the King's dream nuclear program; for which he has been seeking US help.

It looks as if change is coming to Jordan sooner or later; the US and Israel would do well to be prepared.

Published by the author's personal permission

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