Two videos the Jordanian royal family posted on its YouTube channel in recent weeks do much to dispel the ambiguity around one of the dramatic sections of US President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. The US is seeking to give Saudi Arabia a major role in the guardianship of Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem, namely the Temple Mount, site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock.
The current guardians – Jordan and its king, Abdullah II – have more than 100 years of history on the Mount, as well as a long line of agreements and understandings with Israel. They are hurt and disappointed. The King is angry. He is unwilling to step down in favour of the Saudis and their seventh king – Salman Bin Abdel-Aziz al-Saudi – or share the guardianship.
On March 20, a week before Jordanian King Abdullah II met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other senior Trump advisors in Washington, he met with dignitaries from the Az-Zarqa district, one of the strongholds of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan.
Abdullah declared that he would “never” change his stance on Jerusalem, saying, “We have a historic obligation to Jerusalem and its holy sites.”
For the first time, the King acknowledged he was under pressure: “True, we are being pressured, but in the end, our response will be ‘no,’” he said.
A few days later, in a meeting with top Jordanian army officials, the King (now in uniform) repeated: “Jerusalem and the future Palestinian state are a red line for Jordan. I don’t know how I can make it any clearer … how can I, as a Hashemite, give up Jerusalem? It’s impossible…. I say ‘no’ to any concession on Jerusalem.”
For months, the US has been pressuring Jordan to give Saudi Arabia, or at least share with it, guardianship over the third-holiest site in Islam – the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Saudi Arabia is already responsible for the first and second most holy Islamic sites, the cities of Mecca and Medina. The pressure in question comes in financial form, combined with some juicy economic carrots.
Let’s look at the numbers: The Hashemite kingdom’s debts currently stand at over US$40 billion. At a conference of nations that donate to Jordan held in London in February, the king managed to raise a US$3 billion donation from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, to be paid over a few years. The US$350 million that Saudi Arabia transferred to Jordan in May is just a drop in the bucket. Now Saudi Arabia is putting a condition on continued support: a role in the administration of the Al-Aqsa compound.
Jordan is also heavily dependent on the US$1.5 billion of American aid it receives every year. Last year, the Americans spoke with various Arab rulers not only about the option of putting the Saudis in charge of the Temple Mount, but also suggested that Jordan would gradually take in and grant citizenship to a million Palestinian refugees.
In exchange for this package deal, the US is offering Jordan US$45 billion to pay back its debts, rehabilitate its economy, and also absorb Palestinians. It’s a very tempting offer, and one Jordan might take, if it weren’t for the Temple Mount.
The way the Jordanian royal family sees it, there are three solid reasons to reject the American ideas. The first is practical. The Jordanian (and Israeli) security apparatuses think that any change to the King of Jordan’s guardianship over the Temple Mount will shake up his rule, and possibly lead to his downfall. The guardianship, which Jordan has held since 1924, is an insurance policy for Jordan.
For years, the Jordanian government has rested on the loyalty of the Bedouin and the rest of the tribes to the royal family. But they make up less than half of Jordan’s population, while the Palestinian majority and the Muslim Brotherhood are a constant source of concern.
The second reason is historical. After World War I, the Hashemite dynasty lost its role as guardian of Mecca and Medina to Saudi Arabia. Hussein bin Ali, who served as the sharif and emir of Mecca from 1908-1917, was a member of the Hashemite dynasty, whose founders saw themselves as descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. Jordan, which was officially established in 1946, occupied east Jerusalem and the Old City in 1948, and since then has made do with the second-tier guardianship of Al-Aqsa.
The third reason is familial. Hussein bin Ali was buried on the Temple Mount in 1931. His second son, Abdullah – the first king of the modern state of Jordan – was murdered by a Palestinian assassin at the entrance to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in 1951 because of secret peace talks he was holding with Israel.
Looking askance at Turkey
The historic 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan anchored Jordan’s role as guardian of Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem. Israel honoured that status, especially given the two nations’ shared security, intelligence, and economic interests. Israel was even persuaded that the special status for Jordan helped the royal family maintain its rule on the other side of the Jordan River.
In 2013 Jordan bolstered its status on Al-Aqsa by signing a deal with the Palestinian Authority which determined that Jordan would continue to represent Palestinian interests at Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem until a future peace deal was signed.
All this means that Jordan is truly horrified at the US suggestion that it forgo its stewardship of Al-Aqsa or split it with the Saudis. Jordan is underscoring its public refusal by taking a series of diplomatic steps designed to make it clear to both Israel and the US that it has options other than the Jerusalem-Washington axis.
The first step was for the Jordanians to align themselves with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in rejecting Trump’s deal. Then, Jordan agreed for the first time to include representatives of the PA in the Muslim Waqf, the official Jordanian government body that oversees religious affairs on the Temple Mount.
The second step entails direct contact between the royal family and Turkey, another serious rival for control of the Temple Mount and for influence in the area surrounding it. Jordan allying itself with players who are dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood organisation, which has often posed a threat to the Hashemite dynasty, shows how far it is willing to go to maintain its primacy at Al-Aqsa.
The third step is Abdullah’s recent visit to King Mohammad VI of Morocco, also a descendant of the Hashemite dynasty. At the end of their meeting, the King of Morocco announced that the Jordanian Waqf was the only legal entity allowed to manage, defend, and arrange entry into the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Abdullah tried to squeeze similar statements from the rulers of Egypt and Iraq at a tripartite summit in Tunisia last March, but failed.
King Abdullah has met thrice with top US officials in the past half year: in November 2018, in January 2019, and in March 2019. The Jordanians were careful to announce nothing at these meetings. They might have wanted to avoid creating the impression at home that they were cooperating with the “deal of the century,” especially when it came to the Temple Mount.
On the other hand, Jordan now seems to have thrown off all restraint when it comes to the King’s position on the US deal. Since April, a few articles have been published in the Jordanian press calling for a new intifada in the West Bank as a way of thwarting the deal.
Jordan is also repositioning itself in relation to the Muslim Brotherhood, and in recent weeks Abdullah has allowed the organisation to arrange demonstrations in opposition to the “deal of the century.”
However, Abdullah is a pragmatist, and there are signs that he is looking for a compromise that will allow him to appear as if he opposes the Trump plan but actually accept some of its points. By doing so, he hopes to keep his key status among the moderate nations of the Middle East and continue enjoying US economic aid.
The second 2019 Knesset election in Israel has given Jordan some room to breathe, since the US Administration does not intend to make the main aspects of the deal public before Sept. 17.
Still, the US asked Jordan to decide whether, and at what level, it intends to participate in the Bahrain summit on June 25-26. Jordan said it would send a delegation to Bahrain, but at press time it was still unknown how high-ranking the representatives would be. Either way, Abdullah expects the US to provide clarification about his continued guardianship of Al-Aqsa.