Riding the Tides: Jordan Sits at a Crossroads of Middle Eastern Dilemnas

April 23, 2019

11 min read

Jordan watched the recent election results in Israel with some apprehension.

“Netanyahu’s next government can include parts of the occupied West Bank territory, as Netanyahu promised his voters,” wrote Fahd al-Khaitan at Al-Ghad, a Jordanian website on April 15. There is an “illusion” of peace with Israel, he titled his piece. At the same time, 13 defendants accused of being members of a terrorist cell in Salt in Jordan went on trial in Amman in late March.

The cell was arrested in August 2018 after allegedly bombing and killing two members of the security forces and then hiding in a house in Salt and shooting at police.

The King of Jordan, Abdullah II, puts on an upbeat face, expressing hope for security and peace in the region. He told an audience in Italy in March that Jordan was committed to harmony and peace in its international role, in “our fight against terror and hatred on all fronts within a holistic approach.” Jordan wants to work effective “solutions to global and regional crises” and is committed to a peace process that will result in a Palestinian state and a secure Israel.

Jordan is now facing the challenge that may be presented by a new Israeli government and a peace plan that the Trump administration has promised to put forward. It also is hosting more than a million Syrians, many of them refugees who fled the civil war in Syria in the last eight years. If that weren’t enough, it also faces steep economic challenges. In the aftermath of the Syrian civil war, the defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the looming US peace plan, Jordan wants to thread a needle that continues to bring peace to the small kingdom, but it faces a difficult balancing act.

I flew into Amman in early April. It was dark in the early evening. Queen Alia International Airport was full of pilgrims on their way to Saudi Arabia and returning from Mecca. There were more than 100 men and women from Indonesia and a line of Qataris all waiting at passport control.

There weren’t very many Westerners. Once out of the airport, the ride into Amman took around 40 minutes. In the dark, the hills are lit up by stately houses, some of them appearing to be small mansions, in gated communities. Poverty isn’t visible at night, only wealth. Amman itself is a congested city. Around half the population of Jordan lives in the sprawling capital.

In Jebel el-Weibdeh, where I stayed, the streets were lined with cafes and young people out for a stroll or stopping to have a sheesha (waterpipe). Amman is a relatively quiet city, but it has its small oasis of local hipsters and foreigners who live there. The city has attracted international support over the years, particularly due to the refugee crises in the kingdom. Amman is festooned with beautiful new murals, public art showing women, flamingos and children. It helps cover up some of the drab and dusty multi-story apartments. But there aren’t enough of the murals. I saw five of them. They need more to make the city more colorful.

Jordan presents itself as a cordial host of refugees – which it says are its Arab brothers – from neighboring countries. It has been this way since 1948, when Palestinians fleeing fighting, fled to Jordan and neighboring countries. Today there are more than two million of them in Jordan. In 2016, there were 2,175,491 refugees in Jordan, according to UNRWA. They live in 10 camps and UNRWA supports 171 schools for them. There are also an additional 10,000 Palestinian refugees who fled from Syria during the conflict there to Jordan; many came from the Yarmouk camp in Damascus.

The Palestinian refugees helped give Jordan some of its identity. But most of Jordan’s identity comes from the kingdom established in 1921. The first king, Abdullah I, was assassinated by a Palestinian while visiting Jerusalem in 1951. After a short reign as king by his son Talal, his grandson Hussein became king in 1952. Hussein was the formative modern ruler, guiding the state through difficulty of a Palestinian uprising in 1970 and signing a peace deal with Israel in 1994. When he passed away in 1999, his son Abdullah II became the fourth king to rule over the state. By that time, the country had around five million residents. Today it has almost 10 million.

Such rapid expansion of the population and the expansion of the capital city into a mass of urban sprawl means that the country must change with the times. But since the Arab Spring broke out in 2011, many countries in the region have been concerned about what change may bring. The Arab Spring fell hardest on Arab nationalist countries, toppling leaders such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and eventually Ali Abdullah Salah in Yemen and Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria. The long-term impact of the Arab Spring is still being felt, with the overthrow of the Sudanese regime. Only Syria’s Assad family remains in power of the old-style nationalist dictators in the region. Replacing these nationalist regimes has been a complex process, with military regimes and Islamists fighting for the spoils.

In many ways, the Kingdom of Jordan sits at that crossroads. It was formative in the era of the Arab revolt, embodying the legacy of that revolt in the 1920s. Abdullah I was a leader of the Arab revolt against the Ottomans and the kingdom was largely created, with the support of the British, out of that revolt. In the 1950s, as Arab nationalism swept the region, the kingdom was challenged by pro-Nasserist agitators. Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arab nationalism was sweeping the region. King Faisal II in Iraq was overthrown in 1958 and the UK deployed paratroopers to Jordan. Jordan survived the nationalist agitation and it survived the Palestinian groups that sought to use it as a base in the 1960s. Eventually, it was also able to outmaneuver Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood when those movements became more popular in the 1980s and 1990s. The main Muslim Brotherhood-inspired party in Jordan is the Islamic Action Front. It has 15 members out of 130 in the local parliament.
The balancing act of Jordan is thus one that has seen the state ride the different tides that have come and gone from the region over the years – from the revolt period of the First World War to Arab nationalism, Palestinian nationalism, Islamism and the Arab Spring. While it maneuvered through all of those eras, borrowing bits from each, it also inherited and came to host large numbers of people who came to Jordan for refuge.

My first day in Amman, I went to the offices of Caritas, a Catholic humanitarian charity that has helped support refugees and local Jordanians. Located in a multi-story building, their offices are adorned with slogans such as, “We believe in our total responsibility toward migrants and vulnerable people.” They operate a series of projects throughout the country helping refugees. This includes Syrians and Iraqis, as well as migrants. Volunteers and professionals help Syrian refugees, providing essential services such as rent allowances, counseling and a place for children to play while parents receive medical support. Seeing the work that Caritas is doing was a window into the larger challenges throughout the country.

I’d been to Jordan before to see how the country was facing the crises. In 2016, it was different. This was still a time when Syrians thought they might go home. But in 2019, things have changed. The Syrian civil war in southern Syria, where many of the refugees came from, is largely over. In the beginning, the million Syrians who came to Jordan, of whom around 670,000 registered with UNHCR as refugees, mostly came to avoid fighting in Dara’a and areas in southern Syria. Dara’a, a city visible across the border from northern Jordan, was one of the first sparks of the Syrian civil war. It was in March 2011 that hundreds marched in the city and were shot by the regime’s soldiers; protesters torched a local courthouse and cars.

The rest is now horrid history. Assad cracked down on the Syrian protesters and a war began. In southern Syria, that war largely became a stalemate when it was clear the Syrian rebels could not take Damascus and rule the country. By 2015, the Russians had intervened and Dara’a and its rebels settled down for a prolonged ceasefire.

The long, slow death of the Syrian rebellion in the south didn’t have a clear beginning. The Trump administration signed a ceasefire deal with Russia and Jordan in July 2017 that was supposed to prevent a Russian-backed Syrian regime offensive in southern Syria.

In June 2018, the Syrian regime, boosted by Russia, ended the ceasefire agreements and launched an offensive in the south. The inevitable came for the fighters in southern Syria in the summer. Assad’s tanks retook Dara’a in July 2018. Tens of thousands more Syrians fled the fighting. In October, Syria and Jordan opened a border crossing for the first time in years. Damascus also claimed it was offering amnesty to deserters and draft dodgers in the south, an amnesty that theoretically covered the Syrian refugees in Jordan.

When I went to northern Jordan in 2016, the refugees were wondering if the rebels could ever stop the setbacks they faced at the hands of the Russians and the regime. They didn’t know what the future held. But when I went to see the same areas in northern Jordan this time, in 2019, the refugees have come to understand what the future holds. However, their response to the situation is not that they want to return, instead they appear to want to remain in Jordan.

When refugees first arrived in Jordan from Syria, they were accepted as “brothers” by Jordanians at the border. Many locals were sympathetic. Many also had family relationships across the border. Trade had flowed back and forth. Everyone had fond memories of Syria and its products. Soon the trickle became a crisis. Jordanians could see the fighting on the other side. Syrians told horror stories of bombings. A woman I spoke to said she had put her children inside a washing machine to protect them. Everyone had stories like that. Brothers killed, cousins “disappeared” by the regime.

In Jordan, some first went to refugee camps. The largest became Zaatari, where up to 150,000 refugees were housed. But most refugees didn’t want to live in camps and some 80% moved to cities. Here the rents soon inflated to several hundred Jordanian dinars a month. The Syrians initially were prevented from working; the government didn’t want them competing with locals. Eventually some were allotted permits to work in agriculture and manual labor industries.

By July 2018, more than 100,000 work permits had been issued. This was to prevent a crisis. The UHCR was strained in trying to support the refugees and groups like Caritas could only do so much. The refugees needed health care. They also needed education. Jordanian schools were split so that there would be classes in the morning for Jordanians and classes in the afternoon for Syrians. A long-term response would eventually see integration of this process.

Today, the Syrians in Jordan are becoming integrated. With a high birthrate, Syrians in Jordan now have tens of thousands of children born locally. In 2016, fully 338,645 of Syrians registered as refugees in Jordan were under 17. It is thought that of the million, more than 50% are under 18 and many of the Syrians marry early, with 35% of Syrian women in Jordan married before age 18, according to a 2017 study. This leads to even more children born in Jordan by a demographic that is young and has a high birthrate.

Consequently, the million Syrians will soon have hundreds of thousands of children, and as those children grow up, they will form a whole generation of Syrian-Jordanians. They will likely not want to return to Syria and may become like Palestinians in Jordan – an important part of the social fabric.

The Syrians say they don’t want to go back because the thousands who did go back after October 2018 didn’t find that the Syrian regime had changed. Its amnesty was smoke and mirrors. Teenage men were taken off for forced conscription. Men were detained and interrogated. The Syrian regime knows that these Syrians have lived in Jordan for many years, the greater part of a decade. They have had access to critical media. They have certainly changed. And they have had more freedom than people had under Assad. They may not have supported the rebels overtly, but they likely supported them in their minds. The Syrian regime is wary of them.

Jordan won’t force the refugees to go back, but the kingdom knows that it is difficult to host them forever. It knows that there are many Syrian children born in Jordan who are now five or six years old. In a few years, they will be teenagers. They will want to be in university. They will feel Jordanian. They will grow up in classrooms adorned with images of the king. Why would they want to go back to Syria? It will take years to repair the infrastructure in Syria. And many Syrian refugees do not want resettlement in the West, which has shut its doors to refugees in recent years. At the same time, funding will be reduced by UNHCR and it is unclear how the refugees will make ends meet.

Another issue facing the kingdom as the refugees put down roots is concern over US President Donald Trump’s peace plan. The Trump administration has enjoyed close relations with Jordan. After Trump was elected, he spoke with the king frequently in 2017. However, when he announced the move of the US’s Israel embassy to Jerusalem, the kingdom was nonplussed. King Abdullah I flew to Turkey, one of the main countries opposing the US move.

The kingdom has also sought to cement its close relations with the Gulf monarchies. In recent months, it hosted two important meetings at the Dead Sea, one in January and another in April, with the World Economic Forum. The king issues loosely positive statements, but it is clear Jordan is concerned. Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi pushed back against Oman’s statements that appeared to express sympathy with Israel, which has been reaching out to the Gulf states.

Even though Israel has a peace treaty with Jordan, its relations are relatively cold. Jordan ended an agreement in October 2018 regarding two areas that Israel was allowed to use after the 1994 peace deal. One of these was the “Island of Peace” on the Jordan River. Is that symbolic of an end of the time of peace?

It may be something more. Jordan is not happy with changes in the status quo in Jerusalem. As guardian of the Muslim and Christian holy sites, it doesn’t want any tensions, such as those over a new mosque at the Gate of Mercy. Jordanian posters frequently spotlight the king and al-Aqsa Mosque; Jordan cares deeply about this role.

Jordan still cares about the two-state solution and continues to push for it. It is very worried about any annexation plans Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might have. It doesn’t want to see a Trump roll-out of a peace plan or “deal of the century” that would upset the status quo.

It also knows that the Palestinian Authority faces troubles. The PA is divided, with Hamas in Gaza. The PA security forces also now lack US financial support, part of the overall Trump administration withdrawal of support from UNRWA and the PA. Jordan must shoulder the burden to some extent, and it is aware of the importance of well-funded security forces. Its own security forces have a close relationship with the West and have benefited from support. It is that support and Jordan’s own deep investment in security that has cracked the terror cells and ISIS supporters, like those on trial for the Salt bombing.

Sitting at this crossroads of so many delicate issues – from the refugees, to the Palestinian Authority and the peace process – Jordan wants to see a new dawn of regional security, involving the Gulf states, Egypt, the PA, and potentially Israel and Syria. But that can’t happen if the boat is rocked by any kind of peace plan that harms Jordan’s interests or sees Israel annexing parts of the West Bank.

Jerusalem and Amman are less than a two-hour drive from one another. The countries both owe much of how they look today to decisions of the 1940s. They are keys to regional security. But they do not see eye-to-eye on many of the details that will determine whether Jordan remains stable and continues to play the role in wants in the region.

Do Israeli tourists really visit Jordan?

Israelis can and do visit Jordan – in not insignificant numbers. According to data provided by the Israel Tourism Ministry, 85,792 Israelis entered the kingdom in 2017, the last year data was available.

There are three border crossings into Jordan: the northernmost Sheikh Hussein crossing; the Allenby/King Hussein crossing; and the Wadi Arava crossing near Eilat, which is the least problematic and easiest for Israelis to use, as it does not require traveling through PA Authority territory. One should allot at least an hour to cross the border. It is also possible to fly into Amman from the Ben-Gurion airport.

Geographically, Jordan’s area (89,000+ square kilometers) is more than four times larger than that of Israel, yet nearly all Israeli tourism is concentrated in two sites in Jordan’s southwest region: Aqaba, located right across the border from Eilat, and Petra, about 135 km. to the north.

According to Mark Feldman, CEO and founder of Ziontours, Petra is probably Jordan’s top tourist site, famous for its legendary magnificent Nabatean ruins. Aqaba is a favorite destination among Israelis for its sun and sand – a touch of the exotic that is foreign, yet nearby, with hotels that are significantly less expensive than their Israeli counterparts. It is believed that Israelis hesitant to visit the Sinai due to terrorism concerns increasingly choose what they feel to be the safer Aqaba alternative. A taxi from Eilat to Aqaba costs about 10 Jordanian dinars (NIS 50); a taxi to Petra costs about 70 dinars, and it is strongly recommended to go there in a group with a guide.

Israelis need a visa to cross into Jordan; the cost is about 10 dinars.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Middle East Forum

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