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.
The expansion of humanitarian aid in Syria and its neighboring states has gone hand-in-hand with a growing restriction on refugees’ right of movement and ever-stricter control over refugees’ personal information and biometric data. UNHCR and the Syrian and Jordanian governments share two interests in particular: to raise humanitarian funds and to centralize information and control over refugee populations.
What had started as protests over a taxation draft law and an increase in gas prices quickly led to a popular uprising against the neoliberal path on which the state has embarked.
Activism in the modern Arab world saw its peak in the Spring of 2011, but Jordanians have returned to the streets in a new round of protests triggered by recent economic policies and long standing grievances. How should we understand these protests?
In January 2011, hundreds and sometimes thousands of Jordanians began protesting like clockwork on Friday afternoons; they continued to do so for nearly two years. The crowds were small compared to those in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Bahrain, but the turnout was sustained and marked a significant uptick for Jordan, where peaceful protest had not been uncommon. But by 2013 the demonstrations declined in both size and frequency. The regime weathered the main storm of the Arab uprisings, and without having resorted to violent repression. Many in the regime credited top-down reforms, including a revised constitution and amended laws on parties, public gatherings and elections. The political elite, including King ‘Abdallah II, spoke in terms of a reformist democratic march, through which Jordan would show the region a third way between the stark alternatives of revanchist authoritarianism, on the one hand, and upheaval and civil war, on the other. Jordan’s “Arab spring” would be about evolution, not revolution.
In late 2015, hundreds of Sudanese staged a sit-in outside the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Amman, Jordan. Their hope was to obtain recognition of their rights as refugees and asylum seekers, and to receive better treatment from the agency. A previous protest in 2014 had ended when Jordanian police persuaded (or compelled) the Sudanese to leave the site. This time, however, after the Sudanese had camped out for a month in the posh neighborhood of Khalda, the police arrived in force in the early hours of a mid-December morning. They dismantled the camp and transported some 800 protesters and others—men, women and children—to a holding facility close to Queen Alia International Airport.
Despite promises otherwise, in the past four years, King ‘Abdallah has peeled the veneer of parliamentary governance off an increasingly autocratic system.
The typical image of the Syrian refugee camp in Jordan is one of suffering. Journalistic account after account introduces spectacular stories of devastation and loss. While perhaps dramatized, these tales are not false. Syrian refugee camps have forced hundreds of thousands of strangers to live together in austere, unequal and artificially constructed communities, which are subject to new national laws. To live in the camps is indeed to endure or have endured some form of suffering—but also to be part of a collective of survivors.
Hasan bounces in his chair, pencil tapping against the table as he bends over the first page of a math exam. He hesitates, before stretching his hand frantically into the air as he waits for help from the program facilitator busy with one of the handful of other boys scattered across the classroom. Hasan is a student at one of over 90 Non-Formal Education Centers opened in Jordan by the education NGO Questscope in partnership with the Jordanian Ministry of Education, funded by a grant from UNICEF. The program, aimed at providing tenth-grade equivalency certificates for refugee and Jordanian children who have spent years without formal schooling, has witnessed a dramatic expansion since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011.
Two quiet but revealing developments related to Middle East water were announced in the spring and summer of 2015. On February 26, Israeli and Jordanian officials signed an agreement to begin implementation of the long-awaited and controversial Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project. And, on June 9, a civil society-based coalition led by EcoPeace, a regional environmental NGO, released the first ever Regional Master Plan for Sustainable Development in the Jordan Valley. The two schemes represent very different approaches to solving water problems in the region—the first is an old-school engineering fix requiring massive new infrastructure, while the second is a river restoration project rooted in sustainable development principles.
Regional responses to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, have varied depending on regime perceptions of threat, not only from ISIS itself, but also from other potential rivals, challengers or enemies. Despite the jihadi group’s extensive use of violence in Syria and Iraq and its claims of responsibility for bombings and attacks in Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkey and Yemen—as well as France in mid-November—it was not necessarily the top security priority for any of these states.
Umm Anas’ four-room apartment rings with the muffled laughter of children told to hush. Her six sons and daughters and four neighborhood children huddle around a tiny, rickety television in the otherwise unfurnished living room. Arabic-dubbed episodes of the “How to Train Your Dragon” television series play in the background while the little boys chase each other around the room with plastic toy guns. Umm Anas’ two-year old daughter clings to her mother’s skirts and watches as humanitarian workers survey the broken doors with no locks and the jagged remnants of windowpanes. The toilet behind the house is open to the rest of the complex, and the family’s water tank allows them only 20 gallons per week for seven people.
When refugees from the Syrian war first began to stream into Jordan, the Jordanian Ministry of Interior registered the newcomers and placed them in the care of families, under the kafala system, mainly in the capital of Amman. The kafala or guardianship system has roots in Bedouin customs, but in modern times the term refers to how many Arab states handle migrant workers. A citizen or a company, known as a kafil, sponsors the migrant for a work visa and residency permit. At first this system accepted everyone, regardless of nationality or legal status—including 55 Palestinian families coming from Syria.
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.
A grassroots movement has been growing in Jordan, aimed at putting a stop to a major gas deal between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom. In the wake of the Israeli elections, which returned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power, this movement can be expected to get larger still.
Jordan’s government this week approved an application to make the Society of Muslim Brothers a licensed, local charity, paving the way for a break between the Jordanian branch of the Brothers and the regional organization based in Egypt. The move was resisted, however, not by the Jordanian government, but by the Brothers’ own leadership, the Shura Council. The Council rejected the decision and condemned what it viewed as government interference in the affairs of Jordan’s largest Islamist movement — underscoring a deepening divide between the movement and the state, and also within the movement itself.
The daily lives of Syrian refugees in Jordan have always been difficult, but until the winter of 2014-2015, they were defined more by concern about making ends meet than outright panic.
Imagine living in a refugee camp. For most, that phrase is enough to conjure images of makeshift tents, dusty pathways, queues for water and food, and above all, fear. Now imagine living in Zaatari refugee camp in a northern part of Jordan 7.5 miles from the Syrian border and Dar‘a region, sharing an area only about three square miles with 100,000 other refugees in one of the most densely populated “cities” in the Arab world, with near-constant shuffling and reshuffling of households, food and water distribution points, and other services, and refugees arriving and leaving all the time. Who, would you imagine, is responsible for keeping you and your family safe, fed and housed? Who will help you make sure your children can go to school, and do so safely?