Described as preparatory to a state visit by King Abdullah II, the recent discussions between Fayez Tarawneh—Chief of the royal Court of Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan—and the Indian leaders reveal an interesting pattern. Breaking from normal protocol, Tarawneh met the Vice-President and Prime Minister and made a courtesy call on the President, thereby indicating the importance that both the countries attach to Jordan. Even more interesting was his meeting with former Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
Until two years ago, India’s security related engagements in the Middle East largely revolved around counter-terrorism cooperation with Israel and extradition of suspected terrorists from countries such as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE). Since the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to UAE in August 2015, a different template is emerging in India’s engagements with the Middle East. Cooperation in a host of security issues such as terrorism, cyber security, terror finance, protection of sea lanes of communication, intelligence sharing and coordination in fighting extremism have been highlighted during Modi’s meetings with leaders of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar. One can safely argue that security would be a major component in India’s engagements with Jordan and would be consecrated during the impending visit of King Abdullah.
This also indicates a paradigm shift in India’s perception of the Hashemite kingdom. Due to their different worldviews, bilateral engagements were minimal during the Cold War. While King Hussein visited in India in December 1963, Vice-President Zakir Hussein visited Jordan in May 1965 and offered prayers in Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam, when it was under Jordanian rule. An Indian state visit to the Kingdom, however, had to wait until October 2015 when President Pranab Mukherjee visited Jordan as well as Palestine and Israel. No Indian prime minister had ever visited Amman. Minimal trade ties (currently at about USD two billion) and absence of incentives such as energy security, expatriate labourers and remittances kept Jordanians from the Indian radar screen.
Two crucial politico-strategic developments have, however, pushed Jordan to the forefront. During his visit, President Mukherjee described the Hashemite Kingdom as an ‘oasis of peace’ and this was not an exaggeration. Since the outbreak of popular protests starting December 2010, a number of Arab countries have been in turmoil and political instability has become endemic in many countries. In some countries there was a regime change but countries like Libya, Syria and Yemen have plunged into civil war. The collapse of the state in Iraq and Syria was partly responsible for the onset of religious extremism and birth of the Islamic Caliphate or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or daesh as it is commonly referred to in the Arab world.
Since the birth of the Jordanian emirate in the 1920s, the Hashemites have been fighting various forms of extremism. If al-Qaeda was the enemy during the past decade, daesh has emerged as the new adversary. Some of the terror attacks in Jordan in recent months have been linked to ISIS and related radical Islamist groups. Partly due to fears of infiltration by ISIS elements, Jordan has regulated and even barred the entry of Syrian refugees into the country. While UN agencies like United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have put the number of registered Syrian refugees at 657,000, Jordanian officials claim that the country is hosting more than a million (1.4 million) refugees.
Thus, fighting the ISIS it not a choice but a necessity and a survival imperative for Jordan. Indeed, before ascending the throne in June 1999, Abdullah was commanding the Jordanian Special Forces. Hence, unlike other leaders of the region, the Jordanian monarch has a professional understanding of the problems of militant extremism and its ramifications. Consequently, intelligence sharing, counter-terrorism cooperation and combating radicalism would be key areas of cooperation between India and Jordan in the coming years.
Secondly, like India, the Hashemites also have a delicate relationship with Israel and Palestine. Historically, geo-political compulsions and regional rivalry resulted in the Hashemites viewing Israel as a benign and friendlier power. Since the late 1940s, there were clandestine but close relations between the two leaderships. The June War of 1967, when Jordan lost the West Bank to Israel, was a notable exception to that bonhomie even though formal relations had to wait until the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization headed by Yasser Arafat. The Israel-Jordan peace treaty concluded in 1994 grants the Hashemites special status over Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem.
At the same time, there is a substantial Palestinian population in Jordan including 2.2 million registered as refugees by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). This segment of population often has a tremendous influence upon Jordanian choices. For example, partly due to domestic compulsions in 1990, King Hussein was compelled to side with Saddam Hussein when the Iraqi ruler annexed Kuwait. The Palestinian population is also more vocal in the internal opposition to full normalization of relations with Israel. In recent months, Amman has been part of a four-member Arab quartet (Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE being the other three) trying to mediate among different factions of Fatah for selecting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s successor. Thus, Jordan purses a delicate policy vis-à-vis Israel and Palestine.
This Jordanian posture is not different form India’s, which too seeks to maintain its historic ties with the Palestinians amidst the emerging bonhomie with Israel. Since the normalization of relations with Israel in 1992, visits by Indian leaders to Israel have also included visits to Palestine. This practice was continued during the visit of President Mukherjee in October 2015 and of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in January 2016. During both visits, Indian leaders also visited Jordan. Thus, Jordan has emerged not only as a transit point of India’s engagements with Israel and Palestine but also as a potential bridge. This manifested clearly during the President’s visit when Mukherjee was able to underscore India’s traditional positions towards the Arab world more forcefully in Amman than in Ramallah or Jerusalem. Interestingly, in his earlier avatar, Tarawneh handled the Jordanian peace treaty with Israel.
Thus, increased security cooperation and the potential for cooperation in the Middle East peace process are likely to be the key areas of discussion during the impending visit of King Abdullah to India.
Manjari Singh is a doctoral candidate and Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (SYLFF) Fellow at the Centre for West Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.