In July 1979, the Union of Jordanian Engineers held a forum in Amman on the “Economic and Technical Consequences of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Accord.” The participants expressed the fragile hope that the meeting would lead to similar activities in the future, for Amman is a city bare, not only of green grass, but also of political discussion and activity.

When Palestinian students at Jordan University, for example, attempted to organize an art exhibition on Land Day, March 31, to show solidarity with their brothers and sisters under Israeli occupation, they were assaulted by intelligence agents. During these protests, the university was closed. In one incident, a large number of students were forced to lie on their stomachs and were beaten by the police. Some of those arrested still wait behind prison bars. Next year does not promise relief. In his commencement address, which drew little applause, King Hussein delivered stern warnings against “extremism” and “sabotage” (takhrib), the same term used by Israel to describe the Palestinian resistance.

The media is extremely restricted. Newspapers can publish complaints about water shortages, a real problem especially in summer, or they can carry articles criticizing the developmental policies of the Arab world. They cannot, however, criticize, even by allusion, the “rational course” set by His Majesty, nor can they include any other material which the censor would classify as “insinuation,” like demands for freedom of speech, free election, or the return of the guerrillas to Jordan. The Camp David Accords, and its principals — Carter, Begin and Sadat — provide the main expressive outlet for cartoonists and editorialists. Otherwise, writers remain silent or risk being jailed or emigrate to London or Paris, where a series of Arab publications have sprung up recently as a result of the inflow of exiled Arab journalists.

The portrayal of King Hussein as a “moderate” in the American press only masks these brutal realities. Regimes must be assessed on the basis of their relation with their own people, not with Israel and the United States. Political repression is the “stick” with which the monarch props up his regime.

The “carrot” is an economic one. Remittances from over a half a million Jordanians working abroad are coupled with aid from the governments which have a stake in maintaining the status quo in Jordan. The Hashemite dynasty, installed by the British as an integral part of its imperial dominion of Palestine and the Arab east, continues to serve as a loyal client of the leading Western power, and is in turn bolstered by it. Britain was replaced in that role by the United States after World War II. Israel counts on Hussein to preserve peace on its eastern border and never ceases to make clear its readiness to intervene on the king’s behalf should the throne be endangered. The kingdoms and sheikhdoms of the Arabian peninsula, themselves western clients, have an intrinsic interest in a stable monarchy in Jordan.

More recently, Syria has joined the list of the king’s backers. Since Hafiz al-Asad took over in 1971 and began to orient Syria more toward the West, he has forged a logical alliance with Jordan, no doubt with some ambitions for a “greater Syria.” Iraq has also been drifting in that direction. In a period of increasing economic ties with Western Europe and Japan and virulent anti-communist campaigns inside the country, Iraq has been subtly moving away from its “rejectionist” line on the Palestinian question, in practice if not in rhetoric. The Iranian revolution and the Egyptian-Israeli treaty, signed under American auspices, compelled the ruling Baathist parties in Syria and Iraq to shelve their seemingly irreconcilable differences at least temporarily. As a corollary to these developments, Iraq sought to improve its relations with Jordan. For Jordan, these political approaches have economic equivalents. At the Baghdad Summit conference of Arab states and the PLO opposing the Sadat-Begin pact, the Jordanian government was promised an annual check of $1.25 billion for the next ten years, an increase of $.5 billion over previous years, ostensibly to strengthen the country’s military posture against Israel. Arab aid accounted for over one half of the government’s 1979 budget. If we consider US financial aid, UNRWA expenditures and remittances from Jordanian emigrants, the dependence of Jordan on foreign capital becomes almost total. US aid to Jordan has been running over $200 million per year, with the largest share for military expenditures. UNRWA expenditures in Jordan are approximately one third of the total UNRWA budget of $143 million. Remittances from Jordanians working abroad were estimated at $500 million in 1977.

This foreign capital has engendered palpable changes in the country’s social structure. The middle class of small property owners, civil servants and professionals has expanded rapidly. Although, characteristically, no official figures are available on income distribution, this class can be discerned in the sprouting concrete houses on the hills and valleys of Amman and other major cities, despite astronomical land prices. A dunum (1 acre=4.05 dunums) in a residential area can sell for over $60,000. In the highly laissez-faire economy of Jordan, the big bourgeoisie and the middle class have expended their revenues chiefly on imports and real estate. Jordan’s imports ($1,400 million) exceeded its exports ($200 million) in 1979 by seven to one. Only lately have some investment allocations begun to find their way to productive, medium-size industry. Apart from military spending, the government itself augments the imports bill by opting for “prestigious” projects — American-style highways, ultra-modern telecommunications centers — which are of little value to the majority of the people but can be built only by foreign contractors and with imported equipment. Thus Jordan, itself producing no petroleum, exhibits economic phenomena similar to many oil-producing countries: meager production, massive consumption and imports, and high inflation rates.

The shops, cafeterias and streets of Amman and other major cities abound with imported consumer goods: German automobiles, Japanese tape recorders and television sets, Chilean apples, American television programs. Foreign products bring culture with them. Along with political repression, they have stifled the growth of indigenous culture. Violent American, sentimental Indian and sterile Egyptian films are what the movie theaters and television show. A book worth reading is likely to have been printed outside the country. While the West Bank is witnessing attempts to revitalize national culture in the form of theater, music, poetry and painting, despite the obstacles raised by Israeli military occupation, Jordan silences all these forms of cultural expression because they inevitably evoke “nationalist” sentiments anathema to the monarchy. This “cultural alienation” may help explain why religious organizations, which otherwise do not seem to have made any serious headway, find recruits mainly among the youth of the middle class.

There is an uncertainty about the future political course in the area, which in turn affects the inflow of foreign capital. The lack of a productive base and rampant inflation place the middle class in a precarious position. At this point, the Palestinian segment of this class does not appear willing to jeopardize its material gains by confronting the regime over its “Palestinian” policy despite its long-standing hostility to the Hashemite monarch. Should its economic position deteriorate, or should the king decide to join Sadat’s caravan, the middle class might assume an active role in opposition to the regime.

The absence of a significant industrial base and the fact that more than 28 percent of Jordan’s workers have migrated to the Gulf and elsewhere renders the working class a fragmented force. Urban workers have won some advances, like overtime and severance pay, but wages for unskilled and semi-skilled workers are held down by the influx of Egyptian and Syrian labor, especially in the construction sector. Physically, the Jordanian section of the class is sparsely distributed across the country. Its Palestinian counterpart is amassed in the refugee camps, crowded slums which endure as a cradle of militant Palestinian nationalism. In the face of a powerful repressive apparatus, the army in particular, the refugee camps would find it extemely costly to challenge the regime on their own. They must be joined by effective parts of the Jordanian and Palestinian working and middle classes.

In the countryside, which harbors about one third of the population and a similar fraction of the total labor force, foreign aid has benefited the big landowners and the rich peasants, those who own 200 to 1,000 dunums. These classes control the rural cooperatives and can secure government loans to pay the climbing costs of modern machinery, fertilizers and seeds. Poor peasants, having no access to credit, fall into debt and are finally driven to the urban centers. By nurturing the middle-rich farmers and making them dependent on it, the government has been successful in establishing a loyal social base in the countryside, something leftist parties have not generally been inclined to do.

The combination of external and domestic forces has situated the Jordanian regime in a vital yet vulnerable position. None of the parties in the Middle East conflict seem able to afford alienating the Hashemite throne, but neither does the throne seem able to afford alienating any of them. The regime recognizes the Palestinian Liberation Organization as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and holds protracted negotiations with its leadership, but has not permitted even the publications of the PLO to be distributed in Jordan. The king receives Yasser Arafat on the border but does not allow him to visit the camps. Jordan has not taken part in the tripartite talks on “self-rule” for the West Bank and Gaza, yet retains its “good neighbor” policy with Israel. Jordan’s free-wheeling client capitalism does not preclude plans for economic integration with “socialist” Syria. While Crown Prince Hasan, the chief amateur planner of Jordan’s development, visits the Soviet Union for a week and signs trade deals, the royal family remains an incorrigible satellite of the West.

How to cite this article:

A Special Correspondent "Letter from Jordan," Middle East Report 84 (January 1980).
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