Saudi Arabia and Jordan: kingdoms at the crossroads?
More with each passing month, being a pro-American monarch in the Middle East qualifies as a hardship post. And the two senior members of that fraternity - Jordan's King Hussein, who has been on the throne for more than three decades, and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia - are visibly seeking ways of reducing the risks.Skip to next paragraph
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The two monarchies' strategies - like their geographical positions and particular political challenges - are decidedly less similar than Western pundits often suggest.
History alone should serve as a reminder that the two kingdoms are not identical twins. It was only 60 years ago, at the Arabian Red Sea port of Jiddah , that supporters of Ibn Saud - the father of the present Saudi monarch - forced his rival, Sherif Hussein, into exile. Sherif Hussein - then ruler of the Hejaz, the Arabian coastal strip including the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina - was the great-grandfather of the present King of Jordan.
At least one major regional issue of current import - the reemergence of Egypt as a regional power - could well spotlight differences between the Saudi and Jordanian ruling houses in the months ahead.
Yet increasingly, the amorphous threat of anti-Western ''extremism'' - especially Iran-style Shiite Muslim militancy - tops the list of regional preoccupations for the Saudis, the Jordanians, and other Arab monarchies or sheikhdoms traditionally on good terms with the Americans.
And increasingly, a shared response has been publicly to play down closeness to the United States while seeking that historically most elusive of Arab commodities - workable and effective ''unity'' - among the more moderate regimes in the area.
The trick, put differently, has been to maintain relations with Washington - indeed, in some senses to consolidate them in hopes of adding strategic depth to any moderate alliance - without the appearance of being regional surrogates for a superpower that is not exactly tops in the popularity polls.
The unraveling of Lebanon in recent weeks has further complicated the business of managing ties with the US. For not only are the Americans a regionally unpopular ally, but now, in painfully public view, they seem to have proved a decidedly superpowerless one as well.
With the handwriting (in the penmanship of Syria and Iranian-style Shiites) already on the wall last December, a Lebanese newspaper quoted an official from a moderate Gulf oil state as lamenting that the Americans couldn't even defeat a ''bunch of gunmen'' in Lebanon.
How then, went the implied postcript, could the Americans protect Saudi Arabia or its Gulf neighbors from potential military threat, say, from Iran?
Equally, the bleak prospects for a negotiated compromise on the Palestinian question have complicated the position of the Arab world's pro-Western monarchies. The Americans, as Israel's billionaire bankrollers, are portrayed by Arabs of all political stripes as ultimately responsible for the deadlock.
This concern is of particular import for King Hussein. He, unlike the Saudis, shares a land border with Israel. His kingdom, carved out on conference-table maps by his great-grandfather's British allies after World War I, is historically part of Palestine. His nation's population - even minus the West Bank area captured by the Israelis in 1967 - is predominately Palestinian.
But overshadowing even this conundrum has been what a ranking Jordanian official describes as the ''general threat of religious extremism and related, state-backed terrorism'' in the area. The deadlock over the Palestinians, if long a concern for the Jordanian monarchy, has taken on added importance as a potential boon for ''extremists of all types'' in the Arab world.
''The less bright are the prospects for negotiating progress, and the more the Americans are seen as contributing to that situation,'' another Jordanian source argues, ''the more convincingly radicals can credibly confront those who take the negotiated option, or ties with the US, seriously.''