The group calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) recently set First Lieutenant Muath al-Kasasbeh, a Jordanian pilot, on fire. He had been shot down over Syria on Christmas Eve, during a bombing raid on ISIS bases near the city of Raqqa. On February 3rd, the horrific footage of his execution was published on Twitter. Tragic as the pilot’s death was, it was a blessing in disguise for one man: King Abdullah II, the Jordanian monarch.
When soldiers die in battle, their countrymen mourn them together. Mourning unites people. Politicians know this, and exploit it accordingly; King Abdullah is no different. When people took to the streets in Amman to show their solidarity for the al-Kasasbeh family, he made a speech calling Jordan to stand united. His wife, Queen Rania, joined thousands at a rally in the capital. But the Jordanian monarchy’s response to the death of al-Kasasbeh can be seen in an altogether different light if we consider Jordan’s political context and the role of the monarchy within it. Abdullah is, after all, the head of a dynasty whose legitimacy now depends on a series of incredible balancing acts.
Foremost of these is the constant need to keep both East Bank and West Bank Jordanians happy. West Bankers – Palestinians who were granted Jordanian citizenship by Abdullah’s father, Hussein – constitute the vast majority of the citizenry. Despite this, they suffer from, and frequently complain about, a complete lack of representation: in the political class, the judiciary, the police. This is largely due to the vested interests of East Bank families and tribes, whose (mostly male) leaders dominate the parliament, and who are reluctant to let go of power.
Other thorny issues include the large swathes of disenfranchised youth who have been hopping across the border to the north. In December 2013, the Washington Institute, an American think-tank that specialises in Near East policy, estimated that up to 2,089 Jordanians were fighting in Syria, the highest number across all countries. More troubling still, Al Monitor journalist Osama Al Sharif reckons that Salafis may number up to 5,000 within Jordan itself. Caution must be taken when dealing with these numbers, which are old and only estimates, but the Jordanian state still has reason enough to worry. This may have been why, when John Kerry flew out to drum up support for his U.S.-led coalition back in September 2014, the Jordanians were initially reluctant to sign up straight away. Fear of revenge attacks by groups within Jordan itself led some opposition MPs to openly criticise the government’s decision to join the coalition.
A good way of uniting people is to give them an enemy they can all hate. ISIS have presented a problem for the Jordanian state by appealing to some Jordanians. When pilots get burned alive, this makes ISIS less likeable, and unites more Jordanians. Crucially, it grants Abdullah a PR boon. It allows him to be seen donning his war gear and the royal PR team to spread rumours about him personally taking part in air-strikes on ISIS. While these are clearly false rumours – hilariously so – I would suggest that it is precisely this hilarity that the PR team have played on over the years, getting him a part in Star Trek and casting him in various real-life roles: the father of the nation, the religious leader, the family man, the biker dude. He puts on all of these hats and wears them all well. The result is that he has managed to create an image of a king who can be anything you want him to be: whether you’re a disgruntled Palestinian East Banker; a loyal monarchist from Irbid; an urbane Ammanite; or a bemused Western onlooker (or all four).
All this internal balancing takes place while courting the West and Israel. To their credit, the Jordanian monarchy has also been incredibly good at seducing the Western press over the years. After all, Abdullah is almost a Westerner himself: he went to school in the UK and the US, and completed a ‘one-year Special Studies course in Middle Eastern Affairs’ at Pembroke, Oxford. His interviews usually go very well. Queen Rania, on the other hand, has her own Twitter page (currently the only monarch or consort world-wide to have one), and regularly appears in interviews. The Royal Court’s Facebook page has over 1,000,000 likes, and uploads content about the monarchy’s antics on a daily basis.
This is a smooth image that doesn’t always add up. The King’s now-notorious 2013 interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffery Goldberg caused a stir when he attributed Jordan’s political inertia to its tribal leaders, who he called “dinosaurs”. As monarch, he told Goldberg, he was hemmed in on all sides by conservative forces that prevent Jordan from modernising. The response from within Jordan was uproarious. The Royal Court, in an attempt at damage control, published a statement saying that the article “included a number of errors removed from their proper context”. And the King got away with it. Why? Because the image of Jordan he sold to Goldberg was simply untrue. The “dinosaurs” are really on his side: many came out in support of the king, castigating Goldberg for ‘fabricating’ the article. While he depends on their support for his legitimacy, they depend on him to ensure that the East Bankers continue to dominate in the Parliament.
Good King, bad S.T.A.T.E
There’s a split, then, between the image of Jordan that the King sells to the West, and the image he sells to his people. The King is the nice face of a less nice state that is good at keeping things under control. Its internal police force is highly effective and unscrupulous. When Jordanians jumped on the Arab Spring bandwagon in 2011, protests were quickly shut down, whether the protestors were liberals in Amman or Islamists in Ma’an. A sizeable percent of the population, moreover, was suspicious enough of protesting and revolting that nothing drastic happened.
The King neutralised opposition complaints by promising reforms and sacking his Cabinet. He set up a Constitutional Court and an independent commission to oversee elections. He granted some concessions to opposition groups and allowed certain restrictions to be placed on his power. He was helped, moreover, by the deterioration of events north of the border. As the situation in Syria got steadily worse, Jordanians grew less interested in political change and more interested in political stability. The statistics confirm this: in response to a 2012 Gallup poll, 68% of Jordanians said that they thought security and safety would worsen as a result of the protests; 59% thought economic prospects would worsen; 60% thought prospects for good governance would worsen. What’s more, Jordan’s percentage ranked higher than any other Middle Eastern country surveyed. Clearly, Jordanians were revolted by revolting.
Tough words —> tough deeds
Other small hiccups like the restrictive 2012 media law add to this disconnect between the optimism of the speeches he gives and the reality on the ground. This isn’t good for public image, which is why horrific acts like the burning of al-Kasasbeh are, ironically, such good PR for the monarch. It allows him to provide unequivocal justification for Jordan’s participation in the U.S.-led coalition at a time when many are questioning it. Al-Kasasbeh’s death also means Abdullah can match his tough talk with tough deeds: on the 5th of January, Jordan executed the two Iraqi militants who had been the Jordanians’ bargaining tools in a negotiation for the release of al-Kasasbeh and the Japanese ISIS hostage, Kenji Goto. While the militants had already been sentenced to death, a Jordanian moratorium on the death penalty meant they were still alive. It is impossible to know whether they would have remained so had al-Kasasbeh not been executed, but the end result is the same: King Abdullah means what he says.
From Jordan to Japan
In the aftermath of the hostages’ execution, there have been interesting parallels between Jordan and Japan. PM Shinzo Abe has also been putting his money where his mouth is, trying to assuage a disgruntled home crowd while appearing tough on terror. There has been a good deal of public opposition to Japan’s involvement in the Middle East. The Japanese premier has been criticised for recently travelling to the Middle East, where he pledged $200 million in non-military aid for the anti-IS coalition. In the wake of the killings, Abe has maintained that his country’s participation in the conflict is wholly necessary and that “Japan will not give in to terrorism”. Moreover, legislation slated to be introduced this year will give Japan’s Self-Defence Forces the power to play a greater role in overseas conflicts.
The execution of the hostages, then, was seen by many in Japan as the inevitable result of too much foreign meddling. It also transpired that the Japanese government may have known about the hostages since early as last November – and that they have been trying to silence Japanese media from reporting these details while hostage negotiations were under way. Yet this may smack too much of conspiracy theory for some.
The Japanese public’s encounter with ISIS mostly took place in the Twittersphere. Japanese users were bemused to see ISIS using Japanese hashtags in an attempt to get sneaky retweets. Words like ‘Zuwaigani’ (“queen crab”), “Saitou Hitoshi” (a recently deceased judo champion) and “Daikan” (the coldest day of the year) were included in ISIS tweets. Japanese users returned fire with some heavy trolling, using the hashtag #ISISクソコラグランプリ (‘ISIS kusokora guranpuri – ‘ISIS crappy collage grand prix’) to post satirical images of the militant and hostages.Others responded by posting soft-core porn images of girls with the faces of balaclava-wearing fighters photoshopped onto them.
These intrusions by ISIS are bizarre, but what they represent is an attempt to gain control over the narrative – precisely, after all, what the Jordanian monarchy wants to do themselves. For the Hashemites, control over the narrative is absolutely essential if they want to remain in power. They are utter masters at disguising this as a fight for national identity. At the Abu Dhabi Media Summit 2014 last November, Queen Rania declared: “we must create a new narrative and broadcast it to the world. Because if we don’t decide what our identity is and what our legacy will be, the extremists will do it for us.”
When a nation comes together over the death of a fellow country-man, then, it allows the monarchy to justify its own existence. When that countryman has been killed by a militant Islamist group in a country made politically unstable by anti-government uprisings, the monarchy can present itself as the only viable alternative to an unspeakable Other.