Letter from Jordan

by Karen Pfeifer
published in MER167

“Can you help me get a job in the United States?” “We like Saddam because he is a man of his word: He stood up to the Kuwaiti cheaters and now he is standing up to foreign domination and US intervention in the Arab world.”

I heard these two statements repeatedly -- often from the same person -- during my stay in Jordan this summer. From college professors, whom I knew from two months’ research at Yarmouk University, to shopkeepers and taxi drivers, these sentiments were sincerely held, fearlessly expressed and, to my surprise, apparently unanimous. It became a challenge for me, a US citizen, to comprehend the simultaneous attraction/repulsion ordinary Jordanians have for the United States and to explain the universality of their feelings.

The Jordanian economy, which has been in a slump for about four years, is one factor. Dependent on its oil-exporting neighbors for trade, aid and jobs for its surplus labor force, Jordan has been hit hard by the declining rate of growth in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in the last few years as oil revenues stagnated. Jordan’s own rising debt service burden, high unemployment (20 percent) and IMF-mandated austerity measures put further strain on the economy. Public confidence had been repeatedly shaken by the scandal of the size of the kingdom’s external debt -- kept secret until 1989 -- and by devaluations of the dinar and the Petra Bank collapse.

Jordanians are well aware of Saddam Hussein’s nasty human rights record, but they support him in the current crisis anyway. Opposition to foreign domination, an Arab nationalist sentiment still powerful among Jordanians, is part of the reason. But it is underpinned by economic, political and historical factors that go much deeper.

Please note that I did not include “religious reasons” in my list. In my time in Jordan, I encountered very little exclusionary Islamic religiosity, and I saw no evidence that Jordanian people’s political actions were religiously motivated.

Saddam Hussein became a popular hero because he put his finger on the pulse of resentment that runs deep among ordinary people over the distribution of Arab oil wealth and what they see as the arbitrary carving up of their world by the West to protect that unequal distribution. Many Kuwaitis and other wealthy Gulf families vacation in Jordan or pass through on their way to more elegant places in Europe. They ostentatiously display their wealth -- the Mercedes and BMWs waiting outside the luxury hotels in Amman, the gold bangles clinking at the edge of black abaya sleeves. The very fact that non-laboring Kuwaiti citizens leave for European vacations while Kuwait’s non-citizen laborers have to leave to find work elsewhere rankles the ordinary Jordanian.

These person-to-person inequalities reflect the inequalities among Arab member countries of OPEC and are reinforced by their governments’ policies. As Jordanians see it, the Kuwaiti government had been exceeding its OPEC quota for most of this year in order to keep the price of world oil down for the sake of the US and European economies in which wealthy Kuwaitis are heavily invested. Repeated demands from the less wealthy oil-exporting countries with larger populations, such as Iraq, that Kuwait halt this practice were scorned.

Iraq’s further grievance, that Kuwait was pumping oil from the pool that lies across their common border, contributed to the animosity. Kuwait also rebuffed Iraq’s attempt to secure a better port facility by leasing part of the Kuwaiti territory that abuts Iraq’s small outlet to the Gulf. Jordanians share the Iraqi belief that, since Kuwait benefited from Iraq’s war with Iran, its rulers should help defray Iraq’s military expenditures.

From the point of view of many in the Arab east, these conflicts originated when the British carved a previously non-existent “country” of Kuwait out of the former Ottoman province of Basra. The British did this to secure a pro-Western regime in a tiny country controlling major oil reserves, leaving independent Iraq significantly less viable economically.

Jordanians and Palestinians here continually compare this history of Iraq/Kuwait to the duplicitous British role in mandatory Palestine which led to the establishment of an exclusively Jewish state in what had been an Arab country. In both cases, they argue, a foreign power arbitrarily allocated political power and national wealth in a way beneficial to the West and harmful to the Arabs.

Their opposition to today’s US-led military intervention in the Gulf follows logically. It appears to ordinary Jordanians that the United States is trying to protect the privileged Kuwaitis (and Saudis) against the just redistribution of the proceeds of what they think of not as Kuwaiti or Saudi oil, but Arab oil. US imperialists are preserving what the British imperialists created -- client states which help the West control the Arab world’s most valuable economic resource.

Furthermore, they charge, the US has supported and even financed military occupations by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza and by Morocco in Western Sahara. It is hypocritical and self-serving for the US to oppose Iraq’s occupation and annexation of Kuwait and to defend Saudi Arabia, models of neither democracy nor respect for human rights. Perhaps what Saddam Hussein did was wrong, these Jordanians maintain, but this is a matter for the Arab world and not the US to decide and to correct.

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