What's Happening in Jordan Today Shows How the Arab World's Strengths Are Also Its Weaknesses

02/06/2015 04:01 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2015
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

BEIRUT -- Jordan's public opinion, political leadership and regional and international dynamics today offer very useful insights into the current condition of the entire Arab world, and they should be studied carefully by anyone interested in how things operate in this region and where it may be heading.

The immediate emotional reaction -- including mass anger -- among Jordanians to the brutal killing of air force pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh by the Islamic State is totally understandable and justified; but behind the current wave of enraged sentiments and demands for revenge is a complex matrix of emotions, ideologies and state-building realities that reveal the deeper challenges that King Abdullah faces.

Three particular elements shape this analysis of Jordan, which also apply to most other Arab countries:

1. The nature of national political and strategic decision-making

2. The role of public opinion and limited involvement in governance

3. The socio-economic condition of the country and its reliance on foreign support

All three of these dimensions are active this week as Jordanians come to terms with the massive hurt they feel at the gruesome and cruel Kaseasbeh killing -- and ponder how to respond. Public opinion has swung strongly behind King Abdullah, reflecting the understandable desire to hit back at ISIS and cause as much death and damage in the group's ranks as possible. This is a sharp reversal from the situation weeks ago, when Jordan enjoyed a lively debate about the wisdom of the country joining the American-led coalition to fight and defeat ISIS. Vocal critics of the Jordanian armed forces' involvement in the actual attacks, as well as in other aspects of the anti-ISIS campaign, included personal criticisms of the king's role in such decisions.

Expanding the military dimensions of the drive to destroy ISIS not only risks increasing the chaos in the region that creates more openings for such groups to take hold; it also can result in further tragedies like the alleged death of an American ISIS hostage who ISIS claims died in a Jordanian airstrike Friday.

The important point here is not whether the Jordanian decision to join the anti-ISIS fight is sound (I personally believe it is sound, given the real threat ISIS poses to the whole region), but rather the manner in which such fateful national decisions are made in Arab countries without any credible popular consultations or participation by the spectrum of indigenous ideological views. This legacy has led to state ruin in places like Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan.

Jordan is not in that situation, and remains tightly managed from above by a determined leadership supported by a capable security and military sector -- but also with little, if any, credible popular participation. This is evident in Jordan on controversial issues such as relations with Israel, with whom Jordan has a stable peace treaty, or cooperation with the U.S. and other powers in military arenas.

When things return to normal, Jordan will once again have to confront the big issues that its citizens have long debated, such as the central role of the security sectors in national governance and decision-making, whether or not the elected lower house of parliament accurately mirrors the views and interests of the entire citizenry, how development funds are managed, or why the parliament has no oversight of military-security spending in the national budget.

Other factors at play here should be considered, including Jordan's existential reliance on foreign aid for its national well-being. Foreign grants keep Jordan afloat, and the kingdom relies heavily these days on budget support from the U.S. and the Gulf Cooperation Council, to the tune of some $2 billion per year. This makes it very difficult for Jordan to conduct its foreign policy in any manner that deviates from the strategic interests of its major backers. This in turn only increases the potential internal tensions between masses of low-income citizens who resent their country following closely the dictates of conservative or militaristic foreign donors, and their own government that has few real options in this respect.

In the short run, Jordanians always behave like all other human beings, in that they will subdue any political misgivings they may have in favor of the two immediate needs that we see in action today: the emotional and political need to assuage their anger and bereavement at the Kaseasbeh killing, and their government's need to secure foreign aid to keep the economy going and maintain jobs and income for millions of citizens.

In the longer run -- one day when that generous foreign aid may slow down, or internal socio-economic and political marginalization stresses become too intense -- the current blend of a strong leadership, able military, and emotionally supportive citizenry (but without any serious mechanisms of political participation and credible accountability) may find it more difficult to respond to the threats and opportunities of the day.

Jordan's dilemma is on full display today -- its strengths are also its weaknesses.

@2015 Agence Global/Rami G. Khouri