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US caught in crossfire amid flaring Jordan-Saudi tensions

US Vice President Mike Pence heads to the Middle East next week in an effort to quell regional tensions over the Donald Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But Pence will also face rising turmoil between Saudi Arabia and Jordan, two longstanding American allies.

Last month, Jordan’s King Abdullah II was forced to shoot down rumors that he had arrested two of his brothers because of their alleged communications with Riyadh. The crisis came amid rising Jordanian distress over Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s policies, including his reported support for revoking Jordan’s custodianship over Islamic sites in Jerusalem as part of a potential US-backed peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

Abdullah has insisted that the departure of Prince Faisal bin Hussein and Prince Ali bin Hussein were part of long-scheduled retirements from Jordan’s army — an effort to bring younger blood into the force, not the defusing of any Saudi plot. But Pence’s visit has raised questions about where the United States stands amid the rivalry.

“I’m intrigued by the fact that Pence is going to be in Jordan, which I suspect is a recognition that the Jordanians were feeling a bit unloved recently and it would feel that it is a friend of the US and it should not be treated callously,” said Bruce Riedel, the director of the intelligence program at the Brookings Institution and a 30-year CIA veteran. “The [Trump] administration certainly understands that the Saudis have been reckless in their treatment of Lebanon, Qatar and Jordan. The more sane parts of the administration don’t see it as being in our national interest to have our allies devouring each other.”

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Jordan may also be animated personal enmity, spurred by King Abdullah’s pride in his military service, said Riedel, who is an Al-Monitor columnist. The king has commanded Jordan’s special forces and he graduated from Sandhurst, Britain’s elite army training academy.

“He always felt that he was a real soldier’s soldier, that he’d trained with Jordan’s special forces,” Riedel told Al-Monitor. “I can imagine the image to him of this pampered Saudi prince becoming defense minister and pretending he was a general at 29, he must find that odd.”

If Jordan is feeling unloved, it hasn’t shown up in US arms commitments to the region, which continue to surge in the Trump era. US security assistance to Jordan for fiscal year 2016 topped $921 million after the Global Train and Equip fund provided for UH-60 helicopters and other equipment, according to data obtained by the Security Assistance Monitor. And the State Department is seeking $350 million in foreign military assistance for Jordan in its fiscal year 2018 request, while Congress wants even more.

But Trump’s Jerusalem decision could threaten Saudi Arabia’s role as a longtime financial guarantor for resource-poor Jordan, which relies on international loans to stay afloat. While the Saudis have maintained some distance from Turkey-led efforts to organize the Islamic world against Trump’s decision, the Jordanian king was among several Muslim heads of state who attended an Organization for Islamic Cooperation gathering in December that recognized East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.

“What these events portray are a more complicated environment for US allies to play in,” said Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based consultancy with a focus on the Gulf. “What was once seen to be a very tight relationship may be interrupted by regional politics.”

Karasik believes that Jordan might scale back partnered military operations in the region, such as efforts to back the Saudi-led air campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

“Jordan now knows what it’s up against in the neighborhood,” Karasik told Al-Monitor. “They’re probably going to pull out of Saudi operations in Yemen to send a message that we’re brothers, but there are limits.”

But the Pentagon still sees Jordan as a key partner in the counterterrorism fight in the Middle East and Africa, particularly as the Islamic State is pushed out of its safe havens in Iraq and Syria. In early December, US Defense Secretary James Mattis attended the Aqaba Conference in Jordan, where Arab and African leaders discussed strategies to undercut violent extremism.

The United States also has a significant troop footprint in the country, with more than 2,300 US forces in Jordan. New satellite imagery published in the past year indicates a base on the border with Syria that could support drones, helicopters and special operations.

In light of turmoil stemming from the Jerusalem decision, experts say, Pence will want to use his trip to strengthen US military ties in the region.

“Trump has already thrown gasoline on the stability of the kingdom with the Jerusalem issue,” Riedel said. “The fact that Pence is now adding Jordan to his agenda is a recognition that there’s a problem and the US wants to demonstrate support for the king.”

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