By Suleiman al-Khalidi
AMMAN (Reuters) - Under a Bedouin tent in the dusty desert city of Maan, Western-educated King Abdullah pledges $20 million to build a hospital nearby to cheers from tribal chiefs who form the ruling Hashemite family's power base.
Shouts of "Long live his Majesty," ring out at the ceremony, one of an increasing number of royal visits to tribal areas where demands for state jobs and services have been piled on a king, torn between the desires of traditional Jordanians and addressing calls for reform inspired by the Arab uprisings sweeping North Africa and the Middle East.
Abdullah, who has ruled since 1999, has opted for timid steps toward democracy in response to regional turmoil, constrained by a tribal power base which sees reforms as a threat to political privileges and economic benefits.
Palace insiders say that more than ever during his reign, the monarch has been frustrated by the efforts of an old guard -- entrenched in the state bureaucracy and intelligence apparatus -- to block reforms.
They say the old guard have stepped up demands for favors and patronage since the protests began this year, threatening the finances of Abdullah's resource-poor kingdom.
"Every time the king expresses pro-reform leanings they raise the ante and ask for unreasonable demands that only add to the already strained budget and aggravate the political scene. They put spikes in the wheel," said Jawad Anani, a former royal court chief and prominent economist.
Jordan witnessed weeks of protests earlier this year calling for an end to corruption and wider political freedoms. In recent weeks hundreds of youths have also taken to the streets in the country's tribal south demanding jobs and decrying what they term as inequality in favor of a more prosperous capital.
Critics dismiss the argument that the monarch is a reformist shackled by conservatives around him, seeing it as an excuse for a lack of progress toward greater democracy since Abdullah succeeded his late father, King Hussein, in 1999.
"Democracy has retreated to a degree that the regime, from the monarchy to the government to the security apparatus, treats Jordan as if it was a farm or a corporation they own to ensure the regime's longevity," said Musa al-Hadeed, a retired general in the Jordanian army and a leading advocate of a reduction in the executive powers of the monarchy.
OPPORTUNITY OF "ARAB SPRING"
Abdullah's supporters insist an old guard who effectively run the country through the security forces stand in the way of deeper reform, seeing sweeping changes in the Arab world and Jordan's moves toward a merit-driven economy as a threat to their decades-old grip on power.
Abdullah, in contrast to autocratic rulers elsewhere in the Arab world, has long complained about his frustration over the pace of reform and saw the Arab uprisings across the region as a chance to finally surmount resistance, palace insiders say.
"The Arab spring gave me, in a way, the opportunity that I've been looking for the past 11 years," he said in an interview with the Washington Post on June 16.
Earlier this month Abdullah said that he was committed to pushing ahead with democratic reforms, but a vague promise he would devolve some of his executive powers to parliament failed to address wider political demands from Islamists -- the country's largest political force -- and other groups.
In a country where the monarchy is a guarantor of stability among feuding tribes who seek his protection and acts as a balance between the country's majority Palestinian and East Bank native Jordanians, no one wants to topple the king.
Jordan has largely avoided much of the turmoil that has swept through the Arab world this year and saw nothing on the scale of protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen or neighboring Syria. The demands of street demonstrators were limited to calls for an end to absolutism and corruption.
Politicians say Abdullah's room for maneuver is limited and that the powerful mukhabarat (intelligence service) have even disregarded his calls to curb their involvement in politics.
They say security officials meddle in university appointments, harass and expel student activists, and play a role in revoking citizenship for Jordanians of Palestinian origin despite reprimands from the king.
Even the monarch's immediate family has not been spared the attacks of some ex-military members of the old guard who have criticized his high profile Palestinian wife Queen Rania. Irked by her high international profile, advocacy of women's rights and image among westerners as the savvy face of Arab feminism, they say she is too vocal and interferes in politics.
"He is handcuffed and they have raised the ceiling of extortion to get more from him," said one former official.
More significantly, the old guard continue to play on the long-standing fears of their East Bank and tribal allies that rapid political change would allow the country's Palestinian majority to dominate Jordan's national identity.
They have been accused of being behind the countermobilization of loyalist demonstrations across the kingdom to overshadow small opposition rallies.
This has not only helped fragment popular pressure for reform in recent months and undermined the monarch's efforts to move faster, but also helped divert the reform discourse toward ethnic polarization, analysts and politicians say.
"Some agencies within the state have accentuated the fears of East Bankers and linked their demands for political reforms with losing their political gains," said Mohammad Abu Ruman, a researcher at Jordan's University Center for Strategic Studies.
But old guard figures argue the regime's stability depends on thwarting any calls to empower Palestinians in Jordan under the guise of a democratic agenda.
"There are suspicious demands for reforms coming from some people that will not serve the interests of the Jordanian people and we oppose it," said Nayef al-Qadi, a prominent conservative politician, tribal leader and former minister.
"Any reform that leads to the permanent settlement (of Palestinians) in Jordan would be a coup d'etat attempt that we will never allow," Qadi added. "Anything that allows Jordan to become a victim of resolving the Palestinian problem at Jordan's expense we would not accept."
The kingdom's powerful traditional political elite representing East Bank tribal groups have forced the monarch to lean more and more to their side.
Their biggest victory was to frustrate efforts for a more representative electoral law that was publicly backed by Abdullah as a key democratic reform
The law would have had to address the long-standing grievances of Jordanians of Palestinian origin, including their under-representation and discrimination by the state.
A proposed new electoral law charted by a government-appointed panel will ensure the East Bank power structure and status quo remains unchallenged.
The state already extracts more taxes from Jordanians of Palestinian origin, who remain pillars of the business community but feel increasingly abandoned by the state.
In contrast native Jordanians who depend on state jobs and are the backbone of the security forces and state bureaucracy have become the focus of government's largesse.
A cabinet headed by conservative ex-security chief Marouf al-Bahkhit has raised civil servant salaries and created more jobs in an already bloated civil service that eats into the country's $8.98 billion budget, threatening to sink Jordan into greater debt.
Some analysts say this will further polarize the country, as a government that is seen as serving East Bankers further alienates the country's large population of Palestinian origin.
So far pliant and shunning politics, their continued exclusion from any future discourse on Jordan's future bodes ill for the country's long term stability, they say.
(Editing by Dominic Evans and Paul Casciato)