Lobbying 2017: King Abdullah discovers his limits as Jordan’s chief lobbyist to Trump court

With the friends it has in Washington, Jordan has long felt it didn’t need lobbyists to cultivate US presidents. Donald Trump's move to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is testing that proposition like rarely before.   Throughout the first year of Trump's term, King Abdullah II has acted as his country’s chief salesman in regular visits to the nation’s capital, just...

al-monitor U.S. President Donald Trump greets Jordan's King Abdullah II during a joint news conference in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, April 5, 2017.  Photo by Reuters/Yuri Gripas.
Jack Detsch

Jack Detsch


Topics covered

Dec 12, 2017

With the friends it has in Washington, Jordan has long felt it didn’t need lobbyists to cultivate US presidents. Donald Trump's move to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is testing that proposition like rarely before.  

Throughout the first year of Trump's term, King Abdullah II has acted as his country’s chief salesman in regular visits to the nation’s capital, just as he did during the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations. The king was the first Arab ruler to meet with Trump just days after his inauguration, and the two met again at the White House in April and once more on the margins of the UN General Assembly session in New York in September.

“The Jordanian government doesn’t need a lobbying firm in Washington,” David Schenker, the director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute, told Al-Monitor this summer. “The king is the best lobbyist that Jordan has.”

The outreach to the Trump team appeared to pay early dividends, with the president initially postponing his campaign promise to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem soon after his first encounter with the western-friendly king. But the limits of that relationship became all too apparent on Dec. 6, when Trump went through with his unilateral decision despite the king's personal lobbying before Vice-President Mike Pence and congressional leaders the week before. Jordan is a key backer of the Palestinians’ claims to East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.

“I call him the Henry Kissinger of that part of the world, and we do always love to listen to his view of the region,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told Politico in February. “He's got a lot of investment with his own citizens in the two-state-solution, so anything that flies in the face of that could be seen as a diss to him. So he's very sensitive about it."

The king’s other top priority is shoring up the US assistance package that has helped keep his aid-dependent country from buckling under pressure from the massive inflow of refugees from the Syrian civil war next door. The Barack Obama administration signed a three-year Memorandum of Understanding with Jordan in February 2015 that calls for up to $1 billion a year in economic and security assistance, and Trump’s State Department has requested the same amount for fiscal year 2018, which started Oct. 1.

While a new long-term agreement on US-Jordan security cooperation remains in limbo, the Trump administration is still committed to boosting Amman as a major regional leader in the terror fight as the Islamic State nears military defeat in Iraq and Syria. In early December, Defense Secretary James Mattis traveled to the Aqaba Conference in Jordan, where Arab and African leaders met to undercut the spread of violent extremism in West Africa.

The Pentagon has also begun pouring weapons and equipment into Jordan to assist the effort, using a little-publicized authority to send more than $19 million to the kingdom in October, according to a review of congressional records by Al-Monitor. This includes equipment to enhance close air support, as well as explosive rockets and night-vision devices to enhance special forces, which will be delivered over the course of the next two years. The notification builds on a nearly $85 million arms package in March supporting Jordan’s UH-60A helicopter program and 105mm howitzer cannons.

Congress has been even more generous.

Lawmakers appropriated “not less than” $1.28 billion in State Department funds (including $812 million in economic assistance and $450 million in foreign military aid) this past fiscal year, as well as “up to” $680 million in Defense Department funding to help battle the Islamic State (IS) and other threats. The House foreign aid spending bill for the coming year again seeks $1.28 billion in aid, while the Senate requests $1.5 billion.

The US government has also helped Jordan cope with the influx of Syrian refugees, offering more than $1 billion in humanitarian assistance since the war began. The war has also placed a tremendous strain on Jordan’s economy, with more than 650,000 refugees registered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and perhaps as many as 1.4 million total. As many as 50,000 of them are stranded in a deserted no man’s land known as the “berm.”

Together the US aid packages add up to a substantial part of Jordan’s $12 billion annual budget.

In exchange, the kingdom provides the United States with basing for F-16s and other equipment essential for the campaign against the IS, which has a large presence on Jordan’s southern border with Syria. The militant group has occasionally launched strikes from its hideouts on the Jordanian frontier, most notably killing seven security officers and three tourists in a December 2016 shootout in Al-Karak.

Defense ties continue to grow.

For 11 days in May, the United States and Jordan engaged in the seventh so-called Eager Lion military exercise that included thousands of American troops and a flyover by B-1 bombers escorted by Jordanian fighter jets. Some 2,000 US troops are based in Jordan, most of them engaged in the American-led anti-IS campaign.

Members of Congress that Abdullah has long cultivated are also pushing to deepen ties. In May, retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., introduced legislation to extend bilateral defense cooperation and authorize the president to establish and operate an enterprise fund “to attract private investment to help entrepreneurs and small businesses create jobs and to achieve sustainable economic development.”

The military relationship has yet to extend to drones, however, despite growing pressure from lawmakers to reverse Obama-era export restrictions. Jordan has formally requested the MQ-9 Reaper, the state of the art unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designed by California-based manufacturer General Dynamics that US special forces have outfitted with Hellfire missiles, which Amman has already acquired. The Trump administration is currently reviewing arms export controls, including for drones.

“They’re an entrepreneurial and scrappy country that makes due,” Schenker told Al-Monitor. “With Jordan, UAVs are useful. They will meet a need on a cost-effective basis.”

Despite the king’s deep Washington connections, however, the Jordanian Embassy is having to shell out tens of thousands of dollars to protect Amman-based Arab Bank from terrorism charges.

The embassy hired international law firm Hogan Lovells in October 2016 and paid the firm $130,000 in December to offer counsel about the bank’s appeal of a 2014 decision by a Brooklyn court that found it liable for financing terrorist attacks by Hamas in Israel that harmed US citizens. Arab Bank, one of the largest financial institutions in the Middle East, has set aside $1 billion for the case but the final settlement remains in dispute.

The firm is also representing Jordan in a related case, now before the Supreme Court, that hinges on whether corporations can be found liable under the 1789 Alien Tort Statute. Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., respectively the chairman and top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Crime and Terrorism panel, filed a friend of the court brief against the bank in June.

In other banking news, Capital Bank of Jordan hired McLarty Inbound in April 2016 to help the firm access deposits in Iraqi Kurdistan. McLarty Inbound, part of former President Bill Clinton chief of staff Mack McLarty's consulting business, was paid $80,000 in 2016.

Separately, Jordan’s Queen Rania hired public relations firm West Wing Writers in August 2016 to help draft “public remarks and written communications.” The firm, which is also run by former Clinton aides, was paid $44,000 last year.

And the Jordan Tourism Bureau, a public-private partnership, hired travel marketing firm MMGY Global in October 2015 although lobbying disclosures were only filed last month. The contract is for $183,500.

Finally, the embassy paid public relations firm Vivien Ravden $24,000 last year as part of a longtime contract to provide “editorial consults to the Royal Hashemite Court of Jordan for various documents.”

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