An important detail of the December 30 attack on the CIA Camp Chapman is that the Jordanian intelligence officer killed, Ali bin Zaid, was a relative to Jordanian King Abdullah II. It cannot be a coincidence that a cousin of the king was personally in charge of this highly sensitive portfolio. This illustrates broad points about how much of Middle Eastern politics is in fact a “family affair,” but it also has specific implications for the Kingdom of Jordan.
Much of what passes for politics in the greater Middle East are in fact driven by family, clan, and tribal interests. There is a famous Arabic expression:
I against my brother;
I and my brothers against my cousins;
I and my brothers and my cousins against the world.
In other words, my family against another family, my clan against another clan, my tribe against another tribe and so forth. This is a fundamental organizing principle in the societies of the greater Middle East. (It has also existed in the West – consider Romeo and Juliet, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, and the Hatfields and McCoys – but has been ameliorated by competing values and institutions.) Religious and political splits (such as the Sunni-Shia) are often based heavily on clan affairs – the real tectonic forces of the region.
These dynamics are excellently described in a short article The Arab World’s Travails: The Desert’s Burden by Gideon Kressel of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Prof Kressel writes:
The huge role of male lineage and tribes in the Middle East derives from the desert milieu….
The logic is simple: the power and status of a nomadic patrilineal group depends principally on the number of combatant men available. The larger an agnate group, the larger the territory it can protect against competing groups, and therefore the larger its camel herd and the greater its power. Feuds are the chief mechanism by which tribes effect changes in status…
One can go further and argue that the framework of feuding provides the backdrop for conflict between states. The Middle East’s notoriously high incidence of fighting across international borders relates to this personal feuding; governments, like families, stress such matters as kinship, honor, and revenge. Most notably, these have been recent themes of the conflict between Iraq and its neighbors, Iran and Kuwait; northern and southern Yemen; and Morocco, Mauritania, and Libya. These themes were also critical in the delimitation of Saudi Arabia’s borders with its neighbors.
Implications for Jordan
For Westerners clan dynamics are abstract. For Jordanians the implications of the death of a royal at a CIA base at the hands of an al-Qaeda operative will be clear. It highlights the close relationship between Jordan’s royal family and the United State – an alliance that is not popular among many Jordanians. Emphasizing this partnership may spur greater opposition to the Jordanian regime. It a blow to Jordan’s vaunted intelligence service, which has been praised both within intelligence circles, in print, and on screen. The fact that a member of the royal family was killed is also a sign of weakness that may embolden the regime’s enemies.
A recent failed attack on Israeli diplomats in Jordan would, in this light, have been particularly disastrous. That attack would also have emphasized both regime weakness and the regime’s close relationship with an ally that is unpopular with the general public.
Besides being a reliable ally of the United States, Jordan has a particular significance. It, as much as any regime in the region, represents a viable, modernizing path. With its admittedly limited resources, the Hashemites have invested in education and science. By Western standards, Jordan is far from a liberal democracy, but within the Arab world it is towards the head of the pack for freedoms. Perhaps, most importantly, the Hashemites have attempted to build a legitimate regime that relies on more than force to hold power.
Threats to this regime are profound threats to American interests, but also to the future of the region.