Qatari Leader Visits Jordan, Signaling a Warming of Ties
Nursing an ailing economy, Amman tries to thread needle between bitter rivals Doha and Riyadh
A three-day visit to Jordan by Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani of Qatar, which began on Sunday, is being hyped by media outlets in both countries as the start of a new phase in diplomatic relations after Amman downgraded ties in 2017.
At the time, Jordan supported the blockade imposed on Iran-friendly Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, which were accusing Doha of supporting terrorism.
The diplomatic ebb and flow has put a strain on Amman’s economy and political interests. The flood of refugees from neighboring countries has strained its resources, adding to high unemployment and poverty, and resulted in intermittent protests in major cities.
Formal relations with Qatar were restored last year in what was seen as Jordan’s response to changing regional politics and Amman putting its interests first.
Officials in both countries say they will sign a number of economic agreements during the visit. These deals are seen as crucial to the financial stability of Jordan.
“The Jordanians have pulled out all the stops and are trying to make sure the visit is successful,” Daoud Kuttab, a prominent Amman-based writer and analyst, told The Media Line.
“Jordan, when the Gulf crisis began, tried to take a moderate position,” he explained. “It lowered its Qatari representation and shut down the [Doha-based] Al Jazeera office in Amman. But it tried not to do more, and it seems the Qataris understood the complication that Jordan faced and… gave it a pass…. It seems to have paid off.”
Kuttab says the emir brought with him a high-level delegation that includes members of the Qatari sovereign fund.
“It looks like Qatar will be making major investments in Jordan,” he said. “Currently, it is investing around $1.5 billion, but it sounds like it will be making many more investments, offering jobs to Jordanians and opening up the Qatari market.”
Abdullah Sawalha, founder and director of Amman’s Center for Israel Studies, told The Media Line that the visit did not carry any message for Doha’s Gulf foes.
“Unlike many who say this visit is part of the Gulf’s polarization, I do not see this. I believe that Jordan needs Qatar, and Qatar needs Jordan to remove itself from its isolation,” he said. “Each is pursuing its interests.”
It is no secret that Jordan is heavily reliant on wealthy Gulf states like Saudi Arabia for economic and energy assistance, while hundreds of thousands of Jordanians work in these countries and send home much-needed monthly remittances. Any disruption to this relationship would see Jordan pay a heavy price.
Yet Sawalha says the Qatar crisis also has consequences beyond the region.
“We must not forget that the Gulf problem or dispute is also an American problem,” he stated.
“The US feels that this issue gets in the way of the implementation of its political agenda, especially with regard to confronting Iran, and also with regard to the American peace plan [for Israel and the Palestinians],” he explained. “Therefore, the United States thinks – and I believe Jordan shares this belief with Washington – that a solution must be reached to the Gulf crisis.”
As for Saudi Arabia, it has promised over the past few years to develop huge economic projects in Jordan, but the Jordanians complain it is all lip service.
Hasan Awwad, a Middle East expert at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, says that although Jordanians in the know have been critical of Riyadh’s lack of follow-up in pledging to extend financial and political help, Amman is not reconsidering its relations in the Gulf.
“Riyadh has signed several economic deals with Amman, but these projects are still on paper,” Awwad told The Media Line. “Doha delivered, and that created a political and public push toward getting closer.”
Jordan, he adds, is in a tough spot.
“It needs to carefully balance its domestic needs while making sure it keeps its Gulf allies satisfied,” he explained. “King Abdullah [has] to balance a number of competing interests that may have direct impact on his kingdom.”
He also argues that Jordan, in hosting the emir, is sending a message to Saudi Arabia that it has its own interests, with another major issue being differences over the Trump Administration’s Mideast peace proposal.
“We should not forget that the positions of Jordan and Qatar regarding what is called the ‘Deal of the Century’ are quite similar, as there is a firm, serious and absolute rejection by Jordan of the plan, and Qatar has [also] publicly rejected it,” he noted.
Many analysts say the Saudis are also undermining the Hashemite Kingdom’s position as custodian of the Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, a role Awwad believes King Abdullah and rank and file Jordanians will never willingly relinquish.
“Everyone must understand that when it comes to the holy sites in Jerusalem, the only legitimate custodians are the Hashemites,” he said.
Sawalha says, however, that despite all the talk of Doha-Amman rapprochement, much remains to be done.
“Jordan will not change its alliances…” he said. “It is known that Qatar is the ‘official sponsor’ of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region, and we in Jordan have a problem with this. I do not see that there is a fundamental change in Jordanian policies.”