Jordan and Iraq: Bound Together


2012-08-26 By Richard Weitz

Iraq and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which is not a GCC member, are destined to have intense ties due to the deep ethnic, geographic and religious connections between their citizens.

Recent Jordanian-Iraqi relations are driven by issues regarding safe havens for terrorists, Iranian involvement in Iraqi politics, overall Shite influence in the region, Iraqi expatriates and refugees in Iraq, and the two countries’ joint economic ties.

The Hashemite family, whose members served as monarch in both countries until a 1958 coup in Baghdad overthrew the Hashemite dynasty, historically linked Jordan and Iraq.

Jordan’s King Hussein supported Saddam’s invasion of Iran in 1980 due to concerns that Tehran aimed to export Islamist extremism to other Middle Eastern countries. Jordan provided economic support to Iraq in the form of access to Jordan’s port of Aqaba and trucking routes. In turn, Iraq sold heavily subsidized oil to Jordan.

In 1989, Jordan, Iraq, North Yemen, and Egypt created the Arab Cooperation Council (ACC), to foster mutual economic cooperation and integration.

Jordan seeks to avert a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq, to limit Iranian influence on Iraqi affairs, and to improve economic ties between Iraq and Jordan.
There is real concern that a security crisis or vacuum in Iraq could prompt even greater Iranian intervention in Iraqi affairs. Credit Image: Bigstock

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, King Hussein, aware of the popular support Saddam enjoyed among the Jordanian population (especially the Palestinians), attempted to mediate the conflict. In the end, the King only managed to antagonize Western countries and other Gulf governments, which curtailed their economic assistance to Jordan and expelled their Jordanian guest workers. Meanwhile, Iraqis and Jordanians criticized the King for not supporting Iraq.

After Operation Desert Storm liberated Kuwait, the Jordanian government mended ties with Western and Gulf states at the expense of relations with Saddam Hussein. In 1995, Jordan allowed Iraqi opposition groups to establish offices in Amman and gave asylum to defectors from Saddam’s family. King Hussein, citing human rights abuses, publicly called for Saddam’s removal from power. Iraqi officials then accused the King of seeking to revive Hashemite dynastic clams to rule Iraq. In 1997, Iraq executed four Jordanians accused of smuggling auto parts, leading Jordan to expel Iraqi diplomats.

The resilience of the two countries’ economic ties helped buffer political relations and prevented an enduring diplomatic break. Jordan relies on Iraq for inexpensive energy. Throughout the 1990s, Jordan received some of the cheapest oil in the world, as Saddam attempted to suborn Jordanians away from Western influence. Jordan paid about $8 per barrel of oil when world market prices typically ranged from $15 to $30.

Embargos on Iraqi products also facilitated the development of a strong trading relationship to develop between Amman and Baghdad. A highway between Jordan and Iraq sustained “caravans of trucks” in the 1990s. Sales from Jordan to Iraq peaked at $420 million in 2001, which amounted to almost one fourth of Jordan’s exports.

A notable turning point in Jordanian-Iraqi relations occurred in 2000 after Prince Abdullah II—King Hussein’s successor—assumed the throne in February 1999 and then called for an end to the UN embargo on Iraq in a speech to the Jordanian parliament the following year. Jordan then demonstratively violated the embargo by sending medical aid and diplomats to Iraq.

King Abdullah eventually succeeded in repairing relations with many regional and Western governments, but after 9/11, Jordan soon found itself facing an increasingly likely conflict between the United States and Iraq.

King Abdullah desperately strove to avert the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

He cautioned that toppling Saddam could, in addition to threatening Jordan’s oil supplies and economic health, “throw the whole area in turmoil.” But his various peace initiatives, which included a plan for peaceful political transition in Baghdad, failed to halt the descent to war.

Once the fighting started, rumors circulated that the Jordanian government was quietly assisting the Anglo-American invaders, which the King denied, claiming that his government had rejected many U.S. requests to use Jordanian airspace for military operations.

The Jordanian public was outraged by the U.S. military action, and there were numerous anti-American demonstrations and calls to boycott U.S. goods. The government sought to appease these sentiments when it relaxed a ban on public demonstrations. Prime Minister Abu Ragheb publicly summoned the U.S. Ambassador to Jordan to condemn U.S. military killings of Iraqi civilians.

As soon as the fighting ended, King Abdullah became concerned about what type of regime would follow Saddam Hussein’s demise.

Jordanian officials became especially apprehensive that Ahmed Chalabi would receive a high-ranking position in the new Iraqi government. Chalabi allegedly contributed to the collapse of the Petra bank in Jordan and he had been convicted of embezzlement in Jordan.

Abdullah also expressed skepticism regarding proposals to hold elections in Iraq, stating that ”[i]t seems to me impossible to organize indisputable elections in the chaos currently reigning in Iraq.”

On the other hand, King Abdullah was eager for Iraq to resume cheap oil shipments to Jordan as well as revive cross-border trade, which had been severely disrupted by the fighting.

As the King had forecast, the Jordanian economy suffered major losses from decreased exports to Iraq as well as diminished tourism, transportation, and trade. Jordanians had to pay more for their oil now that Iraqi subsidies vanished with Saddam’s regime. Unemployment in Jordan reached 25% as truckers lacked cargo to move across the Jordan-Iraq border.

While calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country, the Jordanian government agreed to establish field hospitals staffed by Jordanian medical personnel and to help train the Iraqi police force. Jordanians also assisted with international political party building programs in Iraq and other democratization efforts.

But several events following the U.S. invasion of Iraq impeded efforts to resume Jordanian-Iraqi ties.

A 2003 attack on the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad killed nearly a dozen people, including two U.S. soldiers; the attack was planned and ordered by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in response to Jordan’s cooperation with the U.S. military.

Two years later, a Jordanian citizen, Raed Mansour Banna, conducted a devastating suicide bombing in Hilla, that killed more than one hundred Iraqis. This attack led to the recall of Iraqi diplomats, with Iraqi officials saying that they wanted to signal “real anger among Iraqis” and “bitterness” over the massacre.

Jordanian diplomats, fearing Iraqi retaliation, also returned home.

In November 2005, al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq sponsored four attacks inside Jordan; three succeeded in destroying popular hotels in Amman, killing 60 people and wounding 115. These bombings represented yet another significant setback for Jordan’s tourism industry, which had been in a slump since the second intifada in Israel that began in September 2000.

King Abdullah eventually helped to legitimize Iraq’s political transition by becoming the first Arab leader to visit post-Saddam Iraq, in 2008. Abdullah announced that Jordan would re-open its embassy in Baghdad, while Iraq later resumed deliveries of subsidized oil to Jordan. This measure was of vital importance for a country that depends on foreign sources to meet 97 percent of its energy needs at a cost of an equivalent of one-fifth of Jordan’s national GDP.

In 2009, Iraq’s imports from Iran and Turkey stood at $4 billion and $6 billon, respectively, while Iraq’s imports from Jordan were only $1 billon. According to Ambassador Hani Hayyani, Jordan’s private and public sector businesses are not fully exploiting their ties and experience in Iraqi markets. Iraqi officials are encouraging Jordanian investors and companies to participate more in Iraq’s reconstruction.

In 2009, Iraq’s imports from Iran and Turkey stood at $4 billion and $6 billon, respectively, while Iraq’s imports from Jordan were only $1 billon.

According to Ambassador Hani Hayyani, Jordan’s private and public sectors are not fully exploiting their ties and experience in Iraqi markets. Iraqi officials are also encouraging Jordanian investors and companies to participate more in Iraq’s reconstruction.

The two governments also launched a joint campaign to induce Iraqi refugees straining Jordan’s infrastructure to return to Iraq.

At half a million strong, the refugees represented some ten percent of the population, contributing to local housing shortages and higher living costs. Jordanians also perceived their presence as a security risk given how poverty and alienation could contribute to their radicalization. Jordan reportedly currently hosts 500,000 to 700,000 Iraqi refugees, which amounts to 10 percent of the total Jordanian population and gives Jordan the second largest population of Iraqi refugees after Syria. And with the fighting flaring up in that country, more Syrian refugees are going to Jordan than are returning to Iraq.

In a 2009 interview, King Abdullah emphasized his support for the new Iraqi regime, claiming that “Iraq’s stability is essential for the stability of the whole region.” He highlighted the importance of Iraq as an economic and trading partner and a Middle Eastern power.

The following year, Abdullah said “we as Arab countries have been negligent in not standing with the Iraqis more.”  In a 2010 speech at an Arab League Summit, Abdullah applauded the Iraqi national reconciliation process and again stated “what [Arab nations] have done for Iraq is below our expectations.

Emphasizing the need to strengthen regional support for the Iraqi government served multiple purposes.

In addition to seeking to support the Jordanian economy and sustain Jordan’s ties with the United States, King Abdullah sought to improve relations with al-Maliki’s government to provide a counterweight to Iranian influence.

Jordan’s current objectives in Iraq include inducing more Iraq refugees to return home, averting a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq, limiting Iranian influence on Iraqi affairs, and improving economic ties between Iraq and Jordan.

Jordanians oppose political instability in Iraq or proposals to partition the country for fear these developments would hurt Jordan’s economic interests. A stable, democratic Iraq is in Jordan’s best interest, especially due to Iraq’s historic role in Jordan’s energy sector and exports.

Furthermore, a security crisis or vacuum in Iraq could prompt even greater Iranian intervention in Iraqi affairs.

If Iraq’s Sunni-dominated provinces—al-Anbar, Diyala, Salahaddin, and Ninewah—demanded regional autonomy, sectarian violence could ensue and foreign fighters could flood into Jordan’s border region. Jordanians’ primarily concern is that Iraq’s al-Anbar province could again become a “launching pad” for terrorist attacks against Jordan.

The Jordanian security forces have accordingly helped teach thousands of Iraqi police officers and Iraqi Special Forces. On November 9, 2010, the Jordanian and Iraqi armies signed an agreement that provides for increasing cooperation in training, education, and sharing experiences between the two military establishments

Now the Syrian crisis is generating a renewed upsurge in local extremism and terrorism as well as presenting a new obstacle to improved Iraq-Jordanian relations.

The Jordanian King joined other Arab monarchs in boycotting the March 2012 Arab League summit in Baghdad, sending only his prime minister in an apparent gesture of solidarity with the GCC governments.