The monarch, who has ruled since his revered father King Hussein died in 1999, issued a royal decree Thursday dissolving the tribally dominated Parliament halfway through its four-year term.
Abdullah, a key U.S. ally, was bowing to a growing clamor for reforms, after months of dragging his feet on and paving the way for early elections that political analysts fear could be divisive.
Prime Minister Fayez Tarawneh, a veteran politician appointed by the king in April, resigned Wednesday and was replaced by French-educated reformist Abdullah Ensour. He's Abdullah's third prime minister in the last year, reflecting the growing unrest over the monarchy's seeming reluctance to make substantive constitutional changes in line with reforms enacted in other Arab states like Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia since January 2011.
Led by the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood that has a hard-line leadership, the demand for meaningful constitutional change has been building up to a pitch the royal palace can no longer tolerate.
Adding to Abdullah's woes is a mounting economic crisis in his resource-poor nation and the spillover from the bloodbath in neighboring Syria, with tens of thousands of refugees pouring into Jordan, straining resources to breaking point.
The IAF, emboldened by the growing criticism of the monarchy, staged a major protest demonstration in Amman Oct. 5.
There had been feared it would trigger clashes with a planned march by royalists with links to the security services. But the king's supporters called it off at the last minute, defusing tensions -- for a while anyway.
Unlike other regional states torn by violence during the dictator-toppling Arab Spring, Jordan has been relatively unscathed and personal attacks on the monarch have been the exception rather than the rule.
But regional upheaval and the growing pressures on the kingdom are undermining Jordan's stability, leaving Abdullah with little room for maneuver.
"Discontent has spread beyond the cities, the main centers of opposition, to the tribal areas which have traditionally been the monarchy's main source of support," Oxford Analytica observed.
"Much of the political focus has been on placating demands to curb elite corruption. Despite a few high-profile cases, this has proved to be hard to achieve."
Still, Abdullah has moved in recent months to meet the growing popular demand for a greater role in decision-making.
He's changed 42 of the articles in Jordan's constitution to give Parliament more powers, including a say in selecting prime ministers, a prerogative the monarchy's been particularly reluctant to relinquish.
Abdullah and his royal advisers, along with the security services that are a pillar of the monarchy, see the parliamentary election as a key step toward gradual democratic change.
The recent constitutional amendments, they argue, enhance the power of the legislature, long dominated by Bedouin tribal leaders loyal to the king, while the creation of an election commission will ensure a fairer process.
Abdullah will retain the power to appoint and dismiss governments but he's promised to choose prime ministers who reflect the wishes of the new Parliament.
This hasn't satisfied the Muslim Brotherhood-led reformists. They say the new election law, passed in July, will mean a weak and splintered legislature dominated by royalists, with lawmakers elected in heavily gerrymandered districts designed to prevent national parties emerging.
The IAF has vowed to boycott the election, as it did in 2010. This could dangerously undermine the new assembly's legitimacy and escalate tensions.
Abdullah's problem is intensified by Jordan's ethnic makeup, particularly Palestinians who comprise around 60 percent of the population.
The so-called East Bankers, the Bedouin tribes, fear a Palestinian takeover -- the more so since Abdullah married Queen Rania, a Palestinian, in 1993. They adamantly oppose reforms that could give the IAF control of Parliament, challenging the monarchy and the royal patronage network they feed off.
"The regime will need to balance each element while navigating Jordan's economic challenges to demonstrate the durability and strength of its grip on power," the U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor observed.
"In this environment, intensified unrest in Jordan seems likely -- especially ahead of the elections."
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