Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Amman has absorbed influxes of refugees for decades, each perpetuating political and cultural tensions in a country already fragmented by tribal allegiances. While these divisions provide an easy scapegoat as to why the country continues to struggle financially, politically and developmentally, state policies and practices are at least as responsible as external pressures for exacerbating Jordan’s domestic troubles.

Most significantly, the state’s deregulated planning practices and its haste in undertaking neoliberal policies to attract transnational capital investment have resulted in numerous failed development projects. Instead of fast-tracking projects that might bring economic growth, deregulated planning practices have produced a series of incomplete and poorly planned projects, among them the Jordan Gate Towers and the Limitless Towers. These and other projects stand half-built as if frozen in time, icons of a trend of ruination that has swept across West and South Amman. East Amman, meanwhile, has remained largely underdeveloped, preserved as the “old city” to satisfy the touristic thirst for authenticity.

The conundrum lies in the fact that even in a state of incompleteness or failure, these projects can be financially desirable for the state and its oligarchic network. They can be made profitable through the state’s appropriation of public and privately held lands as “state domain,” in turn selling the properties to private developers at a premium.

Building a City of Lost Nations

The notion of a unified Jordanian identity has been challenged throughout the state’s short history. At least since British involvement in Jordan escalated in 1921, political allegiances have been arranged by systems of tribal communalism and parochialism. Although  ʿAbdullah I succeeded in establishing allegiance amongst Jordan’s various tribes during his brief reign as king (1946–1951), a united national identity was tenuous at best. Allegiances were further fractured as Amman’s Circassian refugee community, who settled there in the late eighteenth century, was joined by flows of Palestinians in 1948 and 1967, Iraqis after the Gulf war of 1991 and invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Syrians since the uprising begun there in 2011. These influxes of refugees have rendered the capital a city of lost nations and often conflicting identities.

In response, King Hussein, who ruled from 1952 until his death in 1999 and his son and successor ʿ Abdullah II embraced a series of urban interventions for Amman as a way to mold a citizenry and promote nationalist sentiment. For Hussein, those interventions took the form of subsidized public housing, while ʿ Abdullah II favored spectacular architecture that promised economic growth. While differing in impetus and consequence, the motives behind the development plans were similar. Both kings strove to produce a cohesive Jordanian identity—amongst a society fractured by political and tribal divisions—and to translate that identity into allegiance toward the state.

ʿ Abdullah II is often credited with tempering the influence of tribes and their village councils, but this effort began under his father. In 1988, Hussein established the Greater Amman Municipality in an effort to bureaucratize the city and the Greater Amman Comprehensive Development Plan to manage all planning and policy decisions. While these decisions were allocated to the state, so too were a series of urban interventions deployed as bureaucratic mechanisms of control. Most significantly, the Development Plan proposed a new satellite city called Abu Nuseir located approximately nine miles north-east of the city center. Constructed in 1988, the project represented a prototype for a modern way of life at odds with dominant traditional forms of tribal communalism. Abu Nuseir’s community design worked to dismantle longstanding systems of kinship and tribalism, directing allegiance and political reach away from tribal communities and toward the state.

Rather than generating economic prosperity and urban vitality, neoliberal modernization in Amman has reinforced structures of class power, exacerbating the disparities between the elite and the middle-to-low wage earners.

Upon his ascension, ʿ Abdullah II embraced a development agenda that also manifested in the built environment, once again transforming the city of Amman into a space used for the purpose of advancing a political project. To temper resistance to the ambitious development agenda, ʿ Abdullah II launched the Jordan First initiative that promoted a nationalist message aimed at capitalizing and building on sentiments of civic pride. Support for state-led development was also advanced in the follow-up campaign, We Are All Jordan. The most significant project begun in the wake of the Jordan First initiative was the Jordan Gate Towers. The project was facilitated by systems of deregulated planning and tenuous collaborations with private developers that have produced a series of failed neoliberal projects, the Jordan Gate Towers among them. Each of these projects illustrate how even failed projects can be made profitable through the state’s appropriation of public and privately held lands as “state domain.”

State-Led Urbanism

The emphasis of King Hussein’s government-subsidized public housing in the Development Plan—and, in particular, its Five-Year Implementation Plan—was to win favor among the public. The plans also strategically undermined the power long held by village councils. Each village council was led by a muhktar (tribal elder) and had its own political and social motivations. Hussein argued that these tribal councils limited the state’s ability to develop the capital city of Amman and to govern itself as a cohesive entity; and so the councils were subsumed by the Greater Amman Municipality.

By forming the Greater Amman Municipality and instituting new planning controls, the state was able to designate areas for vast amounts of new public housing and label these projects a public right and amenity—in other words, as a privilege of state citizenship. In this way, the state sought to redefine citizenship and craft a sense of Jordanian identity bound to the nation rather than to individual tribes. The Abu Nuseir public housing project was essential to the creation of a civic-minded society as it provided first choice of subsidized public housing to government employees and second choice to Jordanians in general. But the project also represented a prototype for a modern way of life, in contrast to dominant traditional forms of tribal communalism.

The state was able to subsidize housing due to the receipt of $550 million in the 1970s, increasing to $1.3 billion in direct fund transfers from neighboring Gulf states in the 1980s. The government steadily dispensed rentier capital in the form of subsidies to its citizens, in a sense purchasing the obedience of the population as if it were a commodity.[1] The social-welfare state model, however, was not sustainable as Jordan made its transition to a neoliberal economy based on a market-driven logic. ʿ Abdullah II did indeed carry on with efforts to limit the reach of tribal elites, but his embrace of neoliberal planning put him in a rather paradoxical position: He needed to promote a sense of nationalism and civic duty to mitigate domestic resistance to his modernization vision, but he also needed capital from Iraqis who settled in Amman after 2003 to achieve that vision. The persistent and profound effect of Iraqi investment in Amman, particularly in the real-estate sector, generated considerable resentment among Jordanian citizens who felt that Iraqi money, coupled with the lapse in state subsidies, had caused significant inflation to the economic detriment of the local population. The Jordan First initiative sought to inspire “a unified social fiber that promotes [citizens’] sense of loyalty to their homeland and pride in their Jordanian, Arab and Islamic identity.”[2] This unity tugged on the civic and cultural heartstrings of Jordan’s residents and encouraged them to come together in support of the king’s planning policies. The notion of unity implicit in the initiative was intended to transcend the tensions over national identity that had long fractured the city and nation.

Building Ruination

Perhaps the most troubling of all of the developmental undertakings in this neoliberal era is the Jordan Gate Towers. The land for the project was acquired through an inversion of the planning practice of eminent domain—that is, the government seized public land for private use. The state originally acquired the Towers site in 1959 through the process of eminent domain to build a water tank and public park to service the neighboring area. In 1978, a portion of that land was allocated by the Municipality as land suitable for tourism-related construction, and in 1984 the Amra Hotel was constructed on a portion of the plot. In 2004, the Municipality received a request for the construction of a mega-project on the remaining plot of land, and later that year the request was approved. Public land was again expropriated for private use.

The Jordan Gate Towers project, with its two iconic, glimmering, 500–foot-tall towers strategically placed atop one of the city’s many hills, was intended to be Amman’s landmark of prosperity and modernity. In addition to the 44–story towers, the project’s design included an office park and a luxury hotel accompanied by high-end boutiques. The Hilton International hotel would neatly bookend the project’s highly exclusive air as a privatized enclave within the mixed-use neighborhood. Construction on the project began in earnest in the spring of 2005 and continued without much incident until August 2006, when the first of many construction mishaps occurred: The eighth floor of the north tower caught fire. While no one was injured in that incident, a month later three floors of the same tower collapsed, killing four construction workers and injuring 16 others. Construction continued over the next several years until, in May 2009, one of the construction cranes—at this point as much a fixture of the skyline as the towers themselves—collapsed onto the street below. Neighboring buildings were evacuated and residents relocated to nearby hotels for several days until the broken crane could be dismantled.

The construction mishaps at the Towers and the dangers they posed to the surrounding community call into question the planning decisions that facilitated it. Planning across Amman is haphazard because it lacks basic guiding principles such as zoning, land-use and transportation policies. The construction of the Towers ultimately stalled when it was discovered that there was not sufficient access to water or electrical lines to service the building. Even more problematic, the construction site is surrounded by narrow one-way streets that would have been unable to accommodate traffic for an underground parking structure.

In 2018—seven years after the proclamation of the project’s imminent completion—the Towers stand half-built and the work site is deserted. The cranes loom over the city as if fixed in time, a liminal space of conception and incompletion. The Towers have become a monument not to a post-tribal and modern way of life, but to the entrenched system of privatized development, haphazard administrative decisions and, above all, disregard for public opinion and social welfare. The Towers is thus an unserviceable and inaccessible ruin, a relic of market-driven urbanism.

While other projects in Amman have been similarly interrupted, none stand as close to—and simultaneously as far from—completion as the Towers. Another project called Limitless Towers, for example, was composed of two towers housing apartment units and commercial space. The global holding company Dubai World—the project’s primary financier—held a groundbreaking ceremony in 2008 and began excavations. But the project never progressed beyond the excavation stage. The massive crater formed by the excavation process sits abandoned and surrounded by fading posters advertising the project.[3]

Neoliberal Economy of Craters and Cranes

Both Hussein and ʿ Abdullah II’s projects—Abu Nuseir in the 1980s and the Jordan Gate Towers in the 2000s—sought to advance a cohesive national sentiment and unified Jordanian identity. Abu Nuseir was designed to challenge communal and tribal structures, redirecting allegiances toward the state; the Jordan First Initiative urged citizens to accept without question the development of ill-planned and ill-sited projects, such as the Jordan Gate Towers. In the race to create the modern milieu, planning for projects like the Jordan Gate Towers and the Limitless Towers fell far short of achieving their goals.

These projects reflect a trend of ruination in which incompleteness or failure does not necessarily equate to economic loss—at least not for all parties. The process of neoliberalization in Amman in fact ensures financial success for the state and its oligarchic network whenever the state can appropriate public and private lands as “state domain” and then sell those properties to private developers. Even today, the state continues the dispossession of lands on the outskirts of the city that are sold for private development.[4]

Yet the profitability of ruination can also obtain for developers. While the main investor in the Towers—the Kuwait–based Al Bayan Holding Company—has not yet turned a profit, it remains steadfast in its belief that the project will one day be completed. In 2009, Al Bayan even purchased the Municipality’s ten percent stake in the project for $10.5 million. Despite the project’s mishaps and difficulties, Al Bayan announced in May 2016 that construction would eventually resume. The financial difficulties that once halted the project became a thing of the past when financiers forgave more than $100 million in debt owed by the developers.[5]

Rather than generating economic prosperity and urban vitality, neoliberal modernization in Amman has reinforced structures of class power, exacerbating the disparities between the elite and the middle-to-low wage earners. This growing disparity results from the undiminished power of the state in processes of private development and the network of elites that fund and facilitate these private endeavors. In this way, failed neoliberal projects—and the perverse manner in which market inefficiencies have become financially desirable—have been profitable throughout the 2000s despite being socially and developmentally detrimental.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of neoliberal urbanization in Amman is that government officials are not held accountable for administrative decisions about planning projects. The lack of regulation has allowed both public and private lands to be appropriated for private development with no political or financial consequences. The craters and cranes of both failed and ongoing projects speckle the city,[6] while detours along city streets divert drivers away from construction zones hidden behind temporary walls adorned with posters portraying the glimmering promise of a modern Amman.[7] While each failed project is the expression of a promise that has not—and cannot—be kept, ʿ Abdullah II’s own development agenda—and not the external pressures of conflict and refugee flows—is responsible for advancing the profitability of ruination.

 


Endnotes

1. Rex Brynen, “Economic Crisis and Post-Rentier Democratization in the Arab World: The Case of Jordan,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 25 (1992), p. 74.

2. “Jordan First Will Be Working Plan to Promote Loyalty,” The Jordan Times, October 31, 2002.

3. Eliana Abu-Hamdi, “The Jordan Gate Towers of Amman: Surrendering Public Space to Build a Neoliberal Ruin,” International Journal of Islamic Architecture 5/1 (2016), p. 95.

4. Najib Hourani, “Neoliberal Urbanism and the Arab Uprisings: A View from Amman,” Journal of Urban Affairs 36 (2014), p. 654.

5. Hana Namrouqa, “Construction of Jordan Gates Twin Towers to Resume After Years of Suspension,” The Jordan Times, May 23, 2016.

6. The term “craters and cranes” emerged in conversation with Rami Daher, whose work also focuses on the impact of development on the physical landscape of the city.

7. Christopher Parker, “Tunnel-Bypasses and Minarets of Capitalism: Amman as Neoliberal Assemblage,” Political Geography 28 (2009), p. 112.

How to cite this article:

Eliana Abu-Hamdi "Amman," Middle East Report 287 (Summer 2018).
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