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Jordan: A reliable Bundeswehr host?

Konstantin Klein
June 8, 2017

Off to Abdullah's kingdom: Germany's Bundeswehr is set to participate in the fight against terror from Jordan instead of Turkey. The country is neither a NATO member, nor a democracy by Western standards.

Deutschland Jordaniens König Abdullah II erhält Westfälischen Friedenspreis
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/I. Fassbender

King Abdullah II is a leader very much to the West's liking. In contrast to the princes in the Arabian peninsula, he is usually dressed in a dark suit. He received a military education in Britain and studied in Oxford and Washington. Under his leadership, Jordan has reliably positioned itself in line with Western politics in all major Middle East conflicts.

And this won't change, according to Udo Steinbach, who was in charge of the Hamburg-based German Orient Institute for many years.

"He was a man of the West, he is a man of the West, and he has no alternative whatsoever to being a man of the West," Steinbach said. "Jordan is a poor country, and without Western aid, it wouldn't be able to survive at all."

'He reigns and rules'

In Abdullah's kingdom, Islam is the official religion. The judicial system is modeled on its British counterpart; disputes which are subject to civil law, however, can be dealt with by an Imam according to Sharia, or Islamic law. Women and men have equal voting rights, but the assembly of the government is determined by the King.

Islamforum in Duschanbe Udo Steinbach
Udo Steinbach: 'Abdullah is a man of the West'Image: DW

"By and large, King Abdullah is in control of Jordanian politics," said Andre Bank, a Middle East expert at Hamburg's GIGA Institute. "We are dealing with an authoritarian monarchy here."

"He reigns and rules. That means he has not only ceremonial responsibilities, but he's the key political decision maker in all major issues," Bank added, saying Jordan's entire political system was tailor-made for Abdullah.

The 55-year-old King is by no means a flawless democrat. According to the Democracy Index, which is compiled by The Economist magazine on an annual basis, Jordan is ranked 117th (of 167 countries), thereby qualifying as an "authoritarian regime." In 2006, a UN report claimed that the secret service, police and judiciary were using torture - human rights organizations have repeatedly accused the Jordanian regime of such crimes.

"Jordan's secret services are among the most efficient in the Middle East region," said Steinbach. "And the 600,000 refugees on Jordanian soil are telling every Jordanian citizen they prefer this kind of stability over the chaos in neighboring Syria."

Jordanien Airbase Luftwaffenstützpunkt Azrak (picture alliance/dpa/B. Doppagne)
Germany's NATO troops are bound for Jordan's military base at Al-AzraqImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Doppagne

Now, Germany wants to pull surveillance Tornado jets and a refueling plane from Turkey and move them to Jordan's Muwaffaq Salti airbase. The base is situated near the northern town of Al-Azraq, where German Bundeswehr soldiers are to be stationed, and has already been used by allied troops in the fight against the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) militant group.

Between 2014 and 2015, Belgian fighter jets were stationed at the base; currently it is used by American and Dutch forces. The fight against IS in Syria is Abdullah's official policy. "After all, Jordanians are interested in a return to normality in Damascus, and in a return of hundreds of thousands of refugees to Syria," said Middle East expert Steinbach.

Karte deutsche Luftwaffenstützpunkte Türkei Jordanien ENG

Dangerous mission on an island of stability

The German soldiers who will now be deployed to Al-Azraq will have to get used to the new surroundings. Their previous base, Incirlik in Turkey, was jointly built by Turks and Americans and was in operation since the 1950s. Its technology, infrastructure and housing are comparable to a US base, including the quarters' sanitation equipment. That's not what German soldiers can expect in Al-Azraq. Nonetheless, Germany's defense minister denied rumors the soldiers' mission will be more hazardous at their new base.

"The previous mission in Incirlik was already a dangerous one," said Ursula von der Leyen, adding that wouldn't change in Jordan.

Verteidigungsministerin von der Leyen besucht Jordanien
Ursula von der Leyen visited King Abdullah in December 2016Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Jensen

Jordan is viewed as an island of stability in a sea of Middle East hotspots. Since 1994, it has honored a peace treaty with neighboring Israel - part of a period of peace lasting almost 30 years.

However, Jordan suffers from terrorist attacks as well. At the end of last year, 10 people - including a Canadian tourist - died in a shootout at the famous Karak castle. IS claimed responsibility. And there is concern over homegrown extremists who are currently staying in Syria. An estimated 2,000 Jordanians are believed to be fighting in the neighboring country, primarily for Islamist insurgent groups, explained the GIGA institute's Andre Bank.

"There are great fears about what might happen when these people return to Jordan," he said.

Criticism of the ruler

Dr. André Bank, Nahost-Experte und Senior Research Fellow
Bank: 'Jordan's political system is tailor-made for Abdullah'Image: Privat

All in all, the authoritarian Abdullah is well respected in the West, said Bank. "However, time and again he is subject to criticism over his pronounced Western lifestyle."

Abdullah's neo-liberal economic policies have come under criticism as well: Privatization and deregulation in Jordan have led to a sharp increase in unemployment and poverty figures. Steinbach says this relates to the wave of Arab Spring protests in 2011.

"At the time, there were indeed large-scale protests against the King and protests for reforms," he said. "There was even the odd call for Abdullah to be removed from office," but the Syrian crisis and the many refugees on Jordanian soil helped to permanently reconsolidate the King's position.

Jordan is not a NATO member, but the country inked a free trade deal with the US in 2001, followed by an association agreement with the EU in 2002. From Washington's perspective, Jordan is a key non-NATO ally.

The German government has already given green light to move troops to Jordan. On June 21, the Bundestag is scheduled to finalize the relocation of troops to Al-Azraq. No one expects any surprises. All parties are in favor of the move, with the exception of the opposition Left party, which would prefer to bring the soldiers home.