The Impact of Supranational Identities on Interests in Jordan's Foreign Policy Making


When discussing Jordan’s role in the Middle East, observers and scholars often attribute a disproportionate large role to the kingdom despite its small size, lack of resources, and more powerful neighbors. Unlike neighboring Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, Jordan does not suffer from the presence of a variety of ethno-religious identities; instead, a predominantly Sunni nation with about 6% Christian community illustrate homogeneity on the surface. However, looking deeper into the demographic fabric of Jordan, we see a number of sub-state identities that play a large role in influencing foreign policy decision making. More specifically, Jordan is a home to a multigeneration Jordanians of Palestinian origins in addition to Jordanians or “East Bankers” or “Transjordanians”. Such a demographic makeup often transcends a common national Jordanian identity, resulting into major prevalence of supranational identities such as pan-Arab and Pan-Islamist identities. These demographics and identities along with its location and geographic proximity to many protracted conflicts in the region require cautious and very calculated foreign policy making, often taking the shape of omni-balancing. 

In this paper, I look at the dynamics between identities and interests in Jordan’s foreign policy making. I examine how Jordan’s supranational identities, namely Pan-Arabist and Pan-Islamist identities, shape and influence its interests. I argue that these identities intertwine and overlap, further complicating foreign policy decision making in a sense that such identities take precedence on the expense of state national interests and ultimately result in shaping these interests to align with these supranational identities. In furthering this argument, I explore Jordan’s role in the ongoing Arab-Israeli. More specifically, I analyze how the precedence of identities over interests impacts domestic dynamics, foreign policy orientation, and foreign policy outcomes. 

Theoretical Approach

In this case, supranational identities are those that transcend national identities. They are cross-border identities that often supersede nation states and their associated identities. Literature shows that this concept is vastly understudied, especially in the Middle East despite the fact that supranational identities are somewhat inescapable in the region given the underdevelopment of individual national identities. Instead, most literature studies this concept within the context of Europe. For instance, Zimmerbauer indicates that supranational identities contribute to the idea of bounded regions and regional identities, with Medrano, Ciornei, and Apaydin asserting that it implies solidarity, and Kennedy adding that supranational identities can be a stepping stone for democratization. Richard Lyons refers to supranational identities as an alternative form of identity, conversed with regional identities, national identities, place identities, historical and cultural identities, geographic identities, and socioeconomic and political identities, and together, they make “self-identity”. He asserts that a high degree of identification with a supranational identity may lead to a perceived conflict at the intra-national level.

Of the prevalent supranational identities in the Middle East and in Jordan, Pan-Arabist and Pan-Islamist identities are at the forefront. James Mellon indicates that these two identities provide a “supranational ideal transcending individual states as a focus of identity capable of shaping ends and means of foreign policy.” Adeed Dawisha in Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair looks at the foundation of Pan-Arab identity or Pan-Arab Nationalism as shaped by the rhetoric that Arab states can be stronger through economic, political, military, and cultural solidarity and cooperation. Arab Nationalists such as Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Baathists such as Hafez Al-Assad viewed Arab states as artificial entities, created by the West, to keep Arabs politically, economically, and militarily ineffective. This anti-imperialist narrative gave much attraction to this notion, propelling many Arabs to cling to this identity, as it remains a major draw until this very day. Ali Muhsen Hamed adds that much of this overarching consensus lies within the shared language and history that binds Arabs together, making the idea of transforming these bonds into political bonds appealing. Faheem Sheikh illustrates that while it has not been successful in achieving its goals (which have been contested in themselves), Pan-Arabism will remain prevalent as long as Israel remains in the region.

The second form of supranational identity is Pan-Islamic identity; that is the identification with the wider group of the Ummah. Cemil Ayden asserts that Pan-Islamist identity came into being as a response to the lack of leadership for the imagined Muslim World, which refers to narratives of geopolitics, civilization, and religious tradition. Ayden indicates that it is when Islam is under scrutiny or attack that Pan-Islamist identity is heightened. Moreover, Raymond Hinnerbusch reasons that historically, Arabs have identified with such groups far more intensely than they have with their territorial states. As such, many states and nonstate actors have worked towards utilizing this form of identity to rally support.

Supranational Identities in the Jordanian Context

How does Jordan view itself vis-à-vis these identities? Looking at the Jordanian constitution, Article 1 asserts that Jordan is a Hashemite Kingdom, it is an Arab state, and the Jordanian people is a part of the Arab Nation. Article 2 adds that Islam is the religion of the state. These two articles show identification and association with the overall Arab and Islamic identities. As for how Jordanians view themselves. The World Values Survey data shows that religion is very important for Jordanians, as stated by 95.4% of the general public, with 77.2% said unprompted that religious faith should be taught to children at home, 93.1% feel close to the Arab World, and 95.6% feel close to the Islamic World.

As such, it is evident that Jordan and Jordanians place great value and identify largely with Arabs and Muslims, but how does this affect foreign policy decision making? Mitzen asserts that states need to experience one-self as a whole to ensure their ontological security, Darwich adds that security is ensured vis-à-vis a stable conception of self-identity. Further unwrapping this conception, if a state has many competing identities, how does it maintain its security, let alone its interests. Acknowledging this challenge, Jordan prioritized people’s contestations of its identity and worked on shaping its interests as byproduct, as Lynch asserts “Jordan’s foreign policy can be best explained by incorporating public contestation of identity in which the interests of the state came to be defined rather than simply pursued.” Such a Constructivist method utilizes what is known as Steven David’s omni-balancing or Hinnerbusch’s domestic security dilemma. In essence, Jordan’s preferences are constructed through the intertwining and overlapping dynamics of these supranational identities, propelling Jordan to give its national interest in foreign policy making a passenger seat to the supranational identities, which in turn shape its foreign policy orientation to align more clearly with these identities, as they become the prime foreign policy determinants. 

The Case of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is Jordan’s most important foreign policy issue. Its importance stems from geographic proximity posing a security threat. It also stems from Jordan’s Pan-Arab and Pan-Islamic identities, along with the presence of a sizeable Palestinian community in the kingdom. Within this conflict, Jordan exhibits a major struggle between identities and interests, particularly through its dealings with Israel. Marc Lynch indicates that there are “sharp contradictions between demands of identity and of interests,” whereby Jordan’s identities would place Israel as its eternal enemy while its interests would view Israel as a necessary strategic partner. Jordan has carried out its dealings with Israel privately, “cautious of open collaboration that would place Jordan outside the Arab consensus and in violation of its own identity.

With the two options in mind (enemy or partner), Jordan approached the conflict cautiously. For many years, Jordan has been a strong advocate for the Two State Solution, particularly since its first official participation in direct Palestinian-Israeli peace talks that resulted in The Wye River Memorandum in 1998. King Abdullah, since ascending to the throne in 1999, placed major priority over the Two State Solution, often asserting that it is the only option and the only solution to the conflict and to peace in the region. He indicated numerous times that Jordan’s stance will not change. This is attributed to many reasons, as indicated earlier, but another reason is the Hashemite custodianship over Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, a near century long responsibility of the Jordan monarch, a source of legitimacy domestically, and a bargaining piece within the conflict. This custodianship has been contested; in fact, in 2017, the Saudi monarchy made public assertions that they look to challenge it. This can be explained through Darwich’s ontological insecurity of similarity argument, that Saudi’s leadership of the Islamic world is hindered in the presence of the Hashemites’ custodianship over Jerusalem’s religious sites. 

Saudi’s remarks followed the United States’ decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a move that preceded its declared “Deal of the Century”. Trump’s election into presidency saw a disruption to the peace process and associated resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as he essentially argued that a Two State Solution should not be the only option on the table. The Deal of the Century is proclaimed as the ultimate solution to the conflict, but it essentially ends the Palestinian quest and their right to return, with more Palestinians will be expelled from their homes into Jordan as their “substitute home.” One can argue that King Abdullah retrospectively warned of such an alteration. In fact, in his book Our Last Best Chance: The Pursuit of Peace in a Time of Peril, he argues that “if we do not seize the opportunity presented by the now almost unanimous international consensus on the solution, I am certain we will see another war in our region-most likely worse than those that have gone before and with more disastrous consequences.”

The departure from the previously quasi-unanimous Two State Solution poses major complications for Jordan’s foreign policy making, particularly with the aforementioned supranational identities intact. Essentially, following the reveal of the proposed deal, Jordan has been pressurized by various world and regional leaders to alter its position on the deal, with various accounts conforming attempts to penetrate Jordan’s political and security institutions to weaken its position on the Palestinian cause. King Abdullah’s response to the Deal of the Century has been manifested through three No’s: “no to giving in on Jerusalem”; “no to alternative homeland for the Palestinians in Jordan”; and “no to settling the Palestinians in Jordan” which received an average of 94% strong support among Jordanians, as shown by a national poll conducted in August 2019.

Jordan’s seemingly unshaken position is driven by the fact that Jordan holds a vast majority of Jordanians of Palestinian origins and Palestinian refugees. As such it is imperative for Jordan to advocate for their rights. The alternative homeland rhetoric also poses a threat to Jordan’s own sovereignty as well as to the Palestinians’ right of return. In exchange for this firm stance, Jordan has been under massive pressure; for example, the Saudi-owned Ritz Carlton luxury hotel project in Amman has been halted and listed for sale for “government stubbornness”. There have also been many reports of an attempted coup or infiltrations into the Jordanian system. Many international nongovernment organizations have reduced their work in Jordan, particularly in the humanitarian sector. Additionally, with the rising unemployment rates in Jordan and the stagnant economic situation, it has been reported that Jordan would be financially pressured into agreement, as the United States can stop its annual $1.275b financial aid package to Amman while the Gulf States have been pumping endowments into the Central Bank of Jordan to further lure in the kingdom. Moreover, Jordan has been promised a share of the Saudi pledged $50b mega projects in Jordan, Egypt, Gaza, the West Bank, and Egypt.

Domestically, countless demonstrations have further solidified Jordan’s stance on the matter. However, one additional matter was conflated with the Deal of the Century: a natural gas deal between Jordan’s NEPCO (National Electric Power Company) and the US-based Noble Energy to supply Jordan with natural gas, albeit imported from Israel. This deal, while would provide Jordan with favorable prices, it would both position Israel as a mega provider of natural gas in the region and place Jordan under further pressure domestically. In fact, following the unveiling of the Deal of Century, Jordanians took to the streets to protest the gas deal as well, under the slogan “enemy gas is an occupation”.

As such, Jordan’s foreign policy making in the midst of all of this is as complicated as ever. On the one hand, political and economic pressures mount with rising unemployment and deteriorating economic situation. The kingdom is risking not only its biggest financial provider in the United States, but also its most important political ally. It would also risk the $1.5b penalty clause for the gas deal along with the risk of going back to the international market, a move that saw tremendous daily losses, particularly following a series of bombings of the Egyptian gas pipelines during the Egyptian revolution. And most importantly, Jordan is risking its political role on the peace process map, as its political and military power relative to the rest of the actors entail that it cannot sustain the pressures for long. On the other hand, Jordan would gain tremendous financial and economic benefits from the United States and especially the Gulf States, but it would be risking domestic support, from both Jordanians and those of Palestinian origins. As such, the situation can be best described as a process of clipping Jordan’s wings. 

With that, if we were to look at the situation from the Realist point of view, it is mostly in Jordan’s best interest to agree to the deal to sustain its national, economic, and political securities. However, Jordan’s supranational identities are likely to trump such interests, with Jordanians’ closeness and identification and affiliation with the Arab and Islamic worlds add a serious dimension to be addressed. As a result, Jordan is left with the imperative to omni-balance the situation, with the spectrum leaning more towards the domestic security dilemma which is shaped by supranational identities. 

As such, it is more realistic to illustrate the situation through a Constructivist point of view. As indicated earlier, a Realist point of view would propel Jordan to sign off on the deal; however, with increasingly vocal demonstrators, Jordan had to proceed with caution. In essence, a strictly economic deal (i.e. NEPCO’s deal with Noble Energy) was faced with major public discontent, meaning the kingdom cannot even justify its signing on the Deal of the Century, regardless of how unlikely that is. In other words, Jordan’s deal with Noble gave a realistic indicator to further shape its foreign policy orientation in the conflict, in a learning process that further shapes its interests. This means that Jordan’s interests came to be rather defined through this conflict, and they are likely to sustain themselves, particularly that any change in Jordanians’ identities is unlikely. Ultimately, the king’s “Three No’s” represent Pan-Arab and Pan-Islamic identities and even interests, a process that shows an adoption and application of the public’s supranational identities onto its own national interests.  


Understanding that it cannot possibly emerge out of this crisis without losses, Jordan looks to balance its national security with its domestic security dilemmas while looking to ensure the most favorable outcome out of this unfavorable identity-interest dichotomy. Jordan’s foreign policy making toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict especially amid the Deal of the Century has been more shaped by its identities rather than interests. It prioritizes its supranational identities over its national interests, elevating the importance of domestic security dilemma higher than the traditional security dilemma, and further leaning the spectrum of omnibalancing domestically. As such, Jordan has and will likely continue to place greater priority on its supranational identities over its interests. Finally, given Jordan’s decision making resilience and history of forging middle paths, it has shifted its interests to align more clearly with its supranational identities, following a constructivist learning process of its own identities.


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