More than any other Arab country, Jordan was linked to nearly every major twentieth-century war in the Middle East. War in the Arabian Peninsula propelled the kingdom’s future rulers, the Hashemites, to come to British-controlled Transjordan in the 1920s. The Palestinian Arab revolt in the 1930s and then World War II helped to solidify the nascent state east of the Jordan River. Jordan was an active combatant in the Arab-Israeli wars, which brought waves of Palestinian refugees and lasting change to Jordanian society. The country was rocked by a brief but bloody civil war in 1970 and belatedly entered the 1973 Arab-Israeli war as well.
In the four decades since, the Jordanian military has had no overt or sustained engagement in regional wars, meaning that Jordan is often portrayed as the only stable patch in a chaotic Levant. Thus, the country’s announced participation in the bombing of ISIS in Syria appeared to mark an historical turning point. But war is more than what the US military refers to as “kinetic action” or “steel on steel.” In fact, the bombing campaign is but a flashpoint in Jordan’s longest war, inaugurated by the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980.
That invasion set Jordan on the path on which it continues today. Spared involvement in the battles but not the consequences, the Jordanian state served as Iraq’s most important trading partner throughout the fighting. The war economy provided crucial support to the Hashemite political coalition in the lean 1980s: Urban merchants feasted on re-exports to Iraq while labor in the south, particularly the chronically restive town of Maan, took up trucking at a time when public-sector employment began to stagnate. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and King Hussein’s initial stance against the US-led liberation marked the last time a Hashemite voiced real opposition to the policies of his patrons in Washington. The term “client state” is not quite sufficient to capture Jordan’s international position since that time.
With the new status came increased external funding, which invigorated the ruling elite and its clients. The notorious US-led sanctions of the 1990s decimated Iraqi society but also deepened the socio-economic ties with Jordan that lay outside state supervision. And even while official Jordan was wary of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, important segments of Jordanian business welcomed the “opening” of the Iraqi market. More than a decade later, Iraq burns and Jordan smolders.
The effects of the short-term boost in exports to Iraq, followed by Iraqi capital flight into Jordan’s banking and real estate sectors, have gradually passed. The vital truck route from Maan through the Anbar province to the Iraqi river valleys fell prey to organized militias. While US forces battled the militias, Jordanian truckers paid those same bandit-insurgents to get through to Baghdad. Today, not much has changed. Trucking industry sources claim that while the Iraqi government mans the official border crossing, just beyond lurk ISIS fighters, who charge $200-300 per truck for passage. And ISIS is not alone. Other, lower-profile gangs along the roads extract their own duties and frequently redirect trucks to their preferred destinations.
The ebb and flow of war finance has only aggravated Jordan’s socio-economic decline. Massive public debt and declining public revenue increase the government’s dependence on Gulf and American capital. In return, Jordan is drawn farther into war, hosting more and more US soldiers and equipment. As the Jordanian state sinks deeper into financial crisis, military and civil service pensions, already stretched thin, hardly make up for the stress on a dwindling middle class. Along with unemployment, educational inequality affects nearly every Jordanian family. And corruption—well, that is perhaps the most dynamic sector in the country. The combined political effect is to hollow out the monarchy’s coalition of urban merchants and rural labor. The kingdom’s latest political intrigue concerns the sacking of the interior minister, Husayn al-Majali, over murky events in Maan. While local observers link the Majali firing to elite factionalization, it rests on a foundation of profound structural problems.
There is no easy way out of the Middle Eastern wars of the twenty-first century. Jordan’s divided opposition came too late to the 2011 uprisings. At the recent World Economic Forum, the monarchy and its ministers rolled out warmed-over 1980s rhetoric about increasing employment, engaging the private sector and educating youth for the future. Meanwhile, the best and the brightest flee to the Gulf, provided that the host governments there remain pleased with Jordanian policy. Jordan’s longest war looks far from over.