Reporting from Washington — With protests rocking the Middle East, the Obama administration is reaching out to King Abdullah II of Jordan, trying to reassure a badly shaken ally of its support even as it calls for greater political freedom across the Arab world.
Abdullah has been among the leaders alarmed by the popular uprising that toppled Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, expressing his anxiety to Washington over the steadiness of U.S. support for its friends in the region.
Seeking to ease those fears, President Obama called the king over the weekend and has dispatched a procession of top officials to Jordan to reassure him of Washington's support. The emissaries included the State Department's No. 3 official, William J. Burns, and the top U.S. military officer, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael G. Mullen.
Jordan's royal family is facing popular demands for more open government while also coming under pressure from the nation's tribal leaders, traditional supporters of the government. At the same time, the Obama administration is pressing for changes that could discomfit the king and his aides.
"You can't maintain power through coercion.... At some level, in any society, there has to be consent," Obama said at a Tuesday news conference, adding that people armed with nothing more than "a smart phone and Twitter account can mobilize hundreds of thousands."
American officials say they do not consider Jordan one of the Middle Eastern governments most threatened by recent anti-government demonstrations, pointing out that the Hashemite monarchy retains substantial popular support. But they acknowledge that the leadership has been badly shaken.
U.S. concern over Jordan became apparent last month, when the administration abruptly increased its annual aid contribution of $363 million by an additional $100 million, targeted primarily at the country's poor.
Obama made the weekend call to Abdullah to assure him of U.S. support, but also to say that Washington wants Jordan to move toward reform. Obama said "democracy will bring more — not less — stability in the region," the White House reported.
The king's alarm over the political unrest sweeping the region was plain Feb. 1 when, after a stream of demonstrations, he sought to placate the protesters by abruptly dismissing his unpopular prime minister, Samir Rifai. The new prime minister was given instructions to carry out "practical, swift and tangible steps to launch a real political reform process," the state-controlled news agency said.
The interior minister this week acquiesced to another demand of the protesters: Marches will no longer need government permission.
The most alarming element of the political pressure, from the monarchy's viewpoint, has been an attack by some tribal leaders on Queen Rania, breaching long prohibitions against criticism of the royal family.
Last week, 36 leaders of Jordan's tribes, traditionally key supporters of the government, posted a letter on a Jordanian website demanding basic freedoms, condemning corruption and complaining about Jordan's huge debt. The kingdom has taken an economic battering from the global recession.
For the monarchy, the tribal leaders' letter cut too close to home by criticizing Rania for alleged excess in a country suffering dire water shortages and a stressed economy.
It singled out her 40th birthday party, held last September in a luxurious oasis called Wadi Rum. The letter provided no details of the event, but news accounts have recounted that 600 guests were fed fresh lobster in desert tents with no fear of sandstorms because water trucks "had been brought to douse potentially pesky sands," according to a former U.S. official who has been an advisor on the region.
At his news conference Tuesday, Obama bluntly warned Middle Eastern leaders that their young people will no longer put up with authoritarian governments and top-down economies. He urged governments to "get out ahead of change," especially at a time when their people are far more informed from using social media and other new technologies.
"The world is changing," he said at a White House news conference. "You have a young, vibrant generation within the Middle East that is looking for greater opportunity.... You can't be behind the curve."
Obama also used the occasion to contrast the Egyptian example of peaceful demonstrations with the Iranian one, where an authoritarian government has arrested opposition leaders and attacked protesters.
On Monday, one person was killed in Iran as police shut down a banned demonstration. And on Tuesday, Iranian hard-liners called for the arrest or execution of opposition leaders involved in the protests.