North Africa, West Asia

Overlooking Jordan

Revolution and regime change may not have come to Jordan, but its politics and people are still a key part of the Arab Awakening.

Katie Welsford
10 December 2013

The Temple of Hercules/Wiktor Szymanowicz. All rights reserved.

As you stand on the hilltop at Um Qais on the topmost tip of Jordan, Israel-Palestine to your left and the sound of shelling from southern Syria carrying across the Golan Heights, the tranquillity of this popular tourist site makes Jordan feel like an oasis of stability in a chaotic region.

In the west it is easy to disregard Jordan in discussions about the Arab Awakening. Its protests in 2011 were quickly diffused with the promise of reforms from the government, and its westernised monarchy (with a king who even had a cameo in Star Trek in his youth) appears unthreatening. Jordan's status as a centre of tourism, a base for Arabic language learning in the Middle East, and a US ally has increased since turbulence rendered so many of its neighbours inhospitable, and Amman is an easy and pleasant place to live as a foreign traveller.

But Jordan must not be overlooked in relation to the Arab Awakening, precisely because it is not immune from the tensions that inspired other revolutions in the region. Economic dissatisfaction is perhaps the most obvious overlap. The cost of trying to make your way in Jordan as a citizen is a topic so frequently bemoaned by Jordanians that it becomes like a mantra. Every taxi driver in Amman comments on high living expenses. The vast sparkling malls and boutique-lined shops in west Amman are in stark contrast to the east, testament to the divide between rich and poor.

And it is getting worse. The influx of Syrian refugees to the country has increased economic strain to the extent that some Jordanians are resentful of Syrians leaving the camps to live in cities. Fuel prices are set to rise in the new year, and many government schools now split the school day in half so that twice as many students can attend – half in the morning and half in the afternoon. While there is no dictate governing which students should come in when, usually Jordanians attend at the normal time, and Syrians in the afternoon. Charities such as Generations for Peace have been employed in combatting the violence that sometimes breaks out between the two shifts.

High level corruption, dissatisfaction about the degree of freedom allowed, and disagreements about what it means to be a citizen are just a few more issues mirroring the causes of Arab Spring revolutions across the region. The law of lèse-majesté forbids overt criticism of the king, but Abdullah’s traditional support base of East Bankers (and particularly Bedouin tribes) have begun to feel betrayed by market reforms that benefit the city-based economic elite, who are mainly Palestinian Jordanians. Some Bedouin in Wadi Dana now blame the government for the abandonment of the mountainside village of Dana (elsewhere put down to population moves on account of new industry), with a few speaking of being ‘forced’ out of their homes. The age old social strain between East and West Bankers often gets inflamed, and Syrian refugees of Palestinian origin are currently not allowed into the country proper, but must stay in the Cyber City facility near Ramtha.

Revolution has not come to Jordan, but this is a result of particular time- and place-dependent circumstances rather than a lack of connectivity with the rest of the region. While in Syria and Egypt the knee-jerk reaction of those in power was suppression of protests with varying degrees of violence, the Jordanian government has, to its credit, not gone down this path. Instead it tends to promise reform – after the protests in 2011 and currently in 2013’s launching of the National Anti-Corruption Strategy - though there is a general scepticism about how far these promises actually go. What is perhaps more important currently in staving off revolution is the effect of the war in Syria to the north, and Egypt’s chaos in the south. Stability is, for now, infinitely preferable. 

Revolution is not the be all and end all of the Arab Awakening, just as the initial protests in Tahrir Square were neither the pinnacle nor the end of Egypt’s political journey. The waves currently rocking the region come in many shapes, good and bad, dramatic and contained – and, crucially, all affecting each other. They will continue to impact on Jordan for much time to come.

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