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January 24, 2017 No.
1297

Following Harsh Anti-Gulf Sermon By Leading Jordanian Cleric, Jordan Attempts To Mitigate Sermon's Impact In The Gulf

Introduction

In his January 20, 2017 sermon at an Amman mosque, Jordan's Chief Islamic Justice and Imam of the Royal Hashemite Court Sheikh Ahmed Hilayel harshly criticized Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states for failing to provide sufficient economic aid to Jordan, which is in severe economic crisis. The vehemence of Sheikh Hilayel's sermon caused an uproar in Jordan, and sparked fears that it would trigger harsh responses from the Gulf countries, all of which are considered to be Jordan's allies and which have also provided it with economic aid for many years.

Jordanian officials were taken aback by Sheikh Hilayel's statements, and were apprehensive about angry reactions of the Saudis and the other Gulf states; they quickly distanced themselves from him and stressed that he was speaking only for himself.

Two days after the sermon, on January 22, 2017, Sheikh Hilayel stepped down from his positions as Chief Islamic Justice and Imam to the Royal Court; some stated, however, that he had actually been fired.

It should be noted that also on January 22, the official Jordanian daily Al-Rai reported that Saudi King Salman Bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz is expected to meet with Jordanian King Abdullah in Jordan in late March to discuss increased Saudi-Jordanian cooperation. Since this report appeared only in Al-Rai and nowhere else, it could be an attempt on Jordan's part to show that Jordan's ongoing relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are normal.

This report will review Sheikh Hilayel's sermon, reactions to it, interpretations of it, and commentary on it in the Jordanian press.

Sheikh Hilayel, Chief Islamic Justice And Imam Of The Royal Hashemite Court: The Gulf's Failure To Help Jordan Could Trigger A Second Syria

In his sermon, Chief Islamic Justice and Imam of the Royal Hashemite Court Sheikh Ahmed Hilayel attacked the leaders of the Gulf states, imploring them to send economic aid to Jordan, which he said was "your backing, your support, your mainstay, your backbone." Addressing "the Gulf leaders, the Gulf rulers, the wise men of the Gulf... the Gulf kings, sheikhs, and princes," he said that "things have reached boiling point, it has gone too far. Your brothers in Jordan are facing a bleak situation, and the dangers have closed in all around them." He continued: "I warn once, I warn twice, and I warn time and again that Jordan must not be weakened, harmed, or imperiled.... Where is your support? Where are your hands, extended in goodwill? Where is your money? Where are your riches?"

Noting that the Syria scenario could be repeated in Jordan, he said: "If the suffering of Jordan escalates, and the unthinkable happens – it will not stop with Jordan. Everybody will be caught in this cycle... I am calling upon our brothers in the Gulf to help us... to use some of the riches bestowed upon them by Allah to save Jordan." He concluded: "It will be recorded in the annals of history, and people will remember for generations to come, that we reached out to them, in our times of suffering and distress."

 

 

Following Sermon, Hilayel Is Replaced As Chief Islamic Justice; Officials: He Was Speaking Only For Himself

The official daily Al-Rai reported, on January 22, that his statements expressed his own opinion only, as an imam and a jurisprudent. It added that he had made this explicitly clear in the sermon, and that he had never claimed to speak in an official capacity.

On January 22, two days after Hilayel's sermon, the Jordanian press reported that he had resigned from both his positions, as chief justice and as imam of the royal court. Later that day, a Jordanian royal decree confirmed the government appointment of Jordanian Grand Mufti 'Abd Al-Karim Khasawneh as the new chief justice.[1] However, some reports in the Jordanian press and the general Arab press stated that he had not resigned and had been fired because of the sermon.[2]

In a Jordanian TV interview, government spokesman Muhammad Al-Momani noted that officials resigning from their posts is an everyday occurrence in public service – one steps down, and another is appointed. Jordan, he added, is an open and democratic country where officials can express their opinions. With regard to Jordan-Gulf relations, he called these countries' bilateral relations with Jordan exemplary, and added that that the Gulf countries greatly respect Jordan. Gulf officials are always talking about how deep the relationship between the sides is, he noted, and Jordan too respects and esteems these countries' role and stresses that relations with them are excellent on all levels.[3]

Additionally, the online Rai Al-Yawm daily stated, on January 22, 2017, that Jordanian Prince 'Ali bin Hussein's visit to Kuwait[4] the day after the sermon, and statements by Jordan's new foreign minister Ayman Al-Safadi on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos that Jordan opposes Iranian involvement in the Arab countries' internal affairs were both part of Jordan's efforts to preempt Saudi and Gulf outrage at Hilayel's sermon.

The Sermon Came Against A Backdrop Of Hard Economic Times In Jordan And Anger At Saudis, Other Gulf Countries For Not Providing Economic Aid

Although his associates in the regime stated that Sheikh Hilayel was expressing his own opinion in his sermon, some did not rule out the possibility that his sermon was actually a message from the Jordanian regime to the Gulf countries. Omar Al-'Ayasra, a columnist for the Muslim Brotherhood publication Al-Sabil, wrote that it was not clear whether Hilayel's statements were actually his own and reflected solely his own feelings, or were actually made on instructions from the authorities.[5] The online daily Rai Al-Yawm also quoted Jordanian political sources as saying that Hilayel's statements could be an indication that the Jordanian government was perturbed about the absence of economic aid coming from the Gulf, and particularly from Saudi Arabia.[6]

It is notable that Jordan's severe economic situation has worsened even more over the past year, with a budget deficit of $1.1 billion and a $37 billion debt to foreign parties.[7] Furthermore, in recent days, the Jordanian parliament approved a budget, termed by the government "austere,"[8] because of Jordan's obligations to the International Monetary Fund, that is making further economic assistance contingent upon Jordanian budgetary restraint. This austerity budget has also forced the Jordanian government to raise prices on some products, and increase taxes, angering the population. This anger is echoed in the Jordanian media, and in parliamentary debates. that sharply criticized government mishandling of the economy and its hitting of the citizens in their pockets. There have also been attacks in social media on the government, and even on King Abdullah himself, and this criticism prompted a wave of arrests – including of retired generals and former MPs, who have been charged with attempting to bring down the regime.[9] The recent reshuffling of the Jordanian government also has not helped, and it is feared that the economic situation may deteriorate even further. On January 20, 2017, there was a sizeable march in Amman in protest against the recent price hikes.[10]


Amman protest march against price increases (Ammonnews.net, January 20, 2017)

Against this backdrop, there has been occasional open criticism of Saud Arabia and the Gulf states for not sufficiently supporting Jordan economically, despite previous agreements guaranteeing such support. In April 2016, King Abdullah and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman met in Aqaba, agreed on closer cooperation in various areas, and even signed a memorandum of understandings on establishing a Jordanian-Saudi investment fund.[11] A few weeks later, at a Riyadh summit, King Abdullah and King Salman signed an agreement for establishing a Saudi-Jordanian coordination council, led by the Jordanian prime minister and the Saudi deputy crown prince, to develop the ideas agreed upon at the Aqaba meeting.[12] The Jordanians expected an increase in Saudi investment in Jordan, and in Saudi economic aid to it, and were disappointed when these did not come.[13] According to Arab press reports, the Jordanians became angry as Saudi Arabia dragged its feet on Jordan-Saudi issues that are still pending.[14]

Jordanian criticism of Saudi Arabia also came in the wake of Sheikh Hilayel's sermon. For example, parliamentary finance committee chairman Ahmad Al-Safadi criticized Hilayel's sermon by saying, "Even if they feed us dirt, that is no way to talk." He went on to censure Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, noting that while Jordan defends Saudi borders, it receives nothing in return, and warning that "if anything happens to Jordan, God forbid, the Gulf will collapse within days."[15] Also, a week earlier, in budgetary debates in parliament, MP Tariq Al-Khouri noted that Jordan had defended the Saudi border but had received nothing for doing so.[16]

It should also be noted that this is not the first time that Jordanians have criticized the lack of aid to the country from the Gulf. Thus, for example, in March 2015, against the backdrop of then-Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh's visit to Iran,  Jordanian journalist Nidal Mansour wrote that one of the messages that Jordan was conveying during this visit was criticism of the lack of sufficient aid from the Gulf states to Jordan, while Egypt was receiving considerable aid from them.[17] Around the same time, Samih Al-Ma'aitah, former government spokesman and information minister and editor of Al-Rai, stated that Jordan felt abandoned by some of her Arab sister states, who had not provided it with sufficient economic aid.[18]

Likewise, in October 2012, the political editor of the Al-Dustour daily argued that Jordan was not receiving sufficient economic aid from Saudi Arabia. He noted that Jordan was keeping Saudi Arabia's northern border safe, and hinted that it would not be able to continue doing so unless it received more aid from the Saudi kingdom.[19]

Jordanian Press After The Sermon: We Must Rely On Ourselves Alone

Editorials in Jordan's official and semi-independent press discussed Jordan's relations with the Gulf states indirectly, calling on Jordan to stop relying on the promises of its allies and to rely mainly on itself.

In its January 23, 2017 editorial, the official daily Al-Rai discussed the dire economic situation in the kingdom, and tried to allay growing fears by stating that Jordan is capable of meeting all the challenges it faces. It concluded ended with a call for Jordan to rely on itself alone, and implicitly criticized the Gulf states for promising aid but not delivering it. It said: "The only way out of the cycle of crises that is besetting our national economy is to rely only on ourselves, for there is no point in continuing to count on the grants, aid, and promises of Arab allies and others who fail to deliver and who invent pretexts and excuses that make us say "Enough, we are fed up with the foot-dragging and the promises."[20]


January 23, 2017 Al-Rai editorial 

On its front page on January 23, the Al-Dustour daily published an article by its national affairs editor also urging Jordan to rely on itself and to realize that the countries of the region have economic crises of their own: "National efforts must focus first and foremost on preserving our achievements, increasing our self-reliance, and matching [our actions] to our capabilities and income, so as to ensure our ability to adjust to the surrounding circumstances while maintaining the [current] level of public services. [This,] especially in light of the dropping oil prices that have plunged the region's economies into a slowdown and have affected investments in most of the neighboring countries...

"The management of the country in the present and future cannot be conducted with the tools of the past. We must understand the situation and the circumstances of the neighboring countries, those that are experiencing internal strife as well as those that are dealing with unprecedented economic [crises]. Given the situation in the region and its implications, we must leverage our national sources of power with full force in order to preserve the great heritage and achievements of the Jordanian state..."[21]

Al-Dustour also published an article by its editor for local affairs that emphasized the "brotherhood" and the "close relations between Jordan and its sisters, the GCC states," and listed the reasons these states should invest in Jordan.[22]

 

* H. Varulkar is Director of Research at MEMRI; Z. Harel is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.

 

[1] Al-Ghad (Jordan), January 23, 2017.

[2] Raialyoum,com, Alhurranews.jo, January 22, 2017; Jbcnews.net, January 23, 2017.

[3] Assabeel.net, January 23, 2017.

[4] Al-Rai (Jordan), January 22, 2017.

[5] Assabeel.net, January 23, 2017.

[6] Raialyoum.com, January 22, 2017.

[7] Raialyoum.com, January 21, 2017.

[8] Aljazeera.net, January 21, 2017.

[9] Al-Ghad (Jordan), January 17, 2017.

[10] Ammonnews.net, January 20, 2017.

[11] Al-Rai (Jordan), April 12, 2016.

[12] Al-Rai (Jordan), April 27, 2016.

[13] Raialyoum.com, January 22, 2017.

[14] Raialyoum.com, September 5, 2016.

[15] Allofjo.news, January 22, 2017.

[16] Raialyoum.com, January 17, 2016.

[17] Al-Ghad (Jordan) March 22, 2015.

[18] Al-Rai (Jordan), March 15, 2015.

[19] Article appears in full on Ammonnews.net, October 31, 2012.

[20] Al-Rai (Jordan), January 23, 2017.

[21] Al-Dustour (Jordan), January 23, 2017.

[22] Al-Dustour (Jordan), January 23, 2017.