Jordan's King Abdullah a biker, warrior and statesman

Jordan's King Abdullah being briefed last week by Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mashal Mohammad Al Zabin on the air strikes carried out against ISIS. (Below) A poster of the King at a candle-lit vigil held for Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh, who
Jordan's King Abdullah being briefed last week by Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mashal Mohammad Al Zabin on the air strikes carried out against ISIS. (Below) A poster of the King at a candle-lit vigil held for Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh, who was burned to death by ISIS.PHOTOS: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY, REUTERS
Jordan's King Abdullah being briefed last week by Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mashal Mohammad Al Zabin on the air strikes carried out against ISIS. (Below) A poster of the King at a candle-lit vigil held for Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh, who
Jordan's King Abdullah being briefed last week by Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mashal Mohammad Al Zabin on the air strikes carried out against ISIS. (Below) A poster of the King at a candle-lit vigil held for Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh, who was burned to death by ISIS.PHOTOS: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY, REUTERS

King Abdullah a popular ruler who is engaged in a tough balancing act

Jordan, the locals often remark, has not been treated kindly by fate. Unlike many of its Arab neighbours, it has little oil or gas. Most of its territory is desert. Water is scarce and resources are dwindling. But it has one huge asset: its kings who, over a century, have successfully shielded this vulnerable nation from the troubles of the Middle East.

That much was in evidence again during the past few days, as Jordanians exploded in anger after the terrorist organisation, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), burned to death a Jordanian pilot it held prisoner.

Jordan's King Abdullah vowed to wage a "relentless war" and, within hours, pictures of the King dressed in military fatigues swamped local websites. Many Jordanians genuinely believed that their monarch was personally conducting military operations to avenge the murder of his pilot; he wasn't, but the episode illustrates just how close the bond between the monarch and his nation is.

The 53-year-old monarch embodies all the vagaries and uncertainties of his country. He was the first-born son of King Hussein, who ruled the nation since the 1950s and, as such, automatically the heir to the throne. But his mother was the daughter of a colonial British army officer, not exactly the best recommendation for a future Jordanian king at a time when the Middle East was burning with anti-colonial fervour.

So, although Ms Antoinette Avril Gardiner converted to Islam, adopted the title of Princess Muna and continues to work for good causes in Jordan to this day, it was considered politically expedient to deprive the half-Brit of his inheritance. It was an early lesson for the young Abdullah that everything about what he does or who he is carries huge political consequences.

Shorn of official duties, he spent most of his childhood outside Jordan; he trained at the prestigious Sandhurst Royal Military Academy and served as an officer in the British army. He even had a walking role in an episode of the Star Trek series in 1996.

Like his late father, King Abdullah enjoys dangerous sports like sky-diving or motorcycle racing. But unlike his father who had an eye for the ladies, King Abdullah's marriage to Queen Rania has been both affectionate and politically astute. The Queen, 44, is not only very attractive and well educated, having worked previously as an investment banker, but she is also of Palestinian descent, representing a large community in Jordan previously excluded from the Hashemite ruling family.

Matters took a sudden turn for Abdullah in 1999, as the cancer afflicting his father reached its terminal stage. On his deathbed, the king amended the succession law and made his son crown prince again. Within a week, Abdullah went from anonymity to power.

Following in his father's footsteps was always going to be tough, since the diminutive King Hussein was a towering political figure, admired by friends and foes: The day the monarch died, flags flew at half-mast in every Middle Eastern country including Israel, an honour no other regional leader ever received. But King Abdullah found the challenge even tougher, since he was never groomed for the job: His halting first speech to the Jordanian Parliament, delivered in foreign-accented Arabic, was not a success.

And some of his other moves were less adroit. He came under heavy political flak for allowing his wife, who does not cover her head, to engage in diplomatic missions. And he was buffeted by regional crises, from the two wars between Palestinians and Israel, the US-led invasion of Iraq and the revolutions which swept through the region since 2011.

But King Abdullah proved to be a fast learner. Many of those who, like this author, had reasons to brief him in the past, were struck by how he often knew more about the subject than the people briefing him. He is a fast learner, but also thoughtful: He was the first Arab leader to predict the rise of a "crescent of instability" extending from Iraq through Syria and Lebanon, precisely what is now the reality in the Middle East.

And, like his father, he is an adroit manager of his domestic image. In a society which is still male-dominated, pictures of the King in battle fatigues, jogging during military exercises with his soldiers, play well.

However, ruling Jordan is like walking on eggs: One wrong move can still smash the entire edifice. The country faces massive challenges created by the civil war in neighbouring Syria: almost 700,000 Syrian refugees are on its soil. Other challenges include chronic high rates of poverty and unemployment; Jordan may well be the best-governed Arab country, but it is also very poor.

Meanwhile, domestic politics is in ferment. Palestinians dislike the King's policy of keeping diplomatic ties with Israel, while Muslim extremists denounce him as a Western stooge. And although ISIS' killing of the pilot drew the nation closer to the King, the important Kasaesbeh tribe from which the pilot came feels neglected. Despite its image of modernity, the monarchy depends on a carefully poised balancing act involving about 14 different tribes.

Tribal leaders hold powerful positions in the police and security services, with promotions in the army calculated to give each tribe its due weight. The King, like his father, likes to socialise with tribal elders, and to portray himself as a paramount tribal leader. The relationship between sovereign and tribes is intense and the King remains very popular, but he cannot take this for granted.

Still, few Jordanians can imagine life without the Hashemites on the throne. Furthermore, the one Middle East objective on which all Western and regional governments agree is that of upholding Jordan's stability: The US has just announced it is ramping up economic aid to the country to US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) a year.

Either way, the doubts governments had about King Abdullah's ability to run the complicated country he so suddenly inherited are no longer there: The biker and the warrior is also a statesman.

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com