A little less than a year ago the friendly little monarchy of Jordan looked like it might come tumbling down. Its traditional supporters rioted, challenging the legitimacy of the crown. The opposition, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, was on a roll. The region’s chaos encroached from all sides.
But Jordan is perversely lucky, and so is its king. Today, the monarchy is not only surviving—Jordan’s looking like just about the only Arab safe haven in the middle of the Middle Eastern storm.
To King Abdullah’s credit, carefully prepared and limited general elections in January defused some of the domestic unrest. But so did the spectacle of savage violence in Syria, Iraq, and finally, even Egypt: a collection of cautionary examples suggesting to many Jordanians that there but for the grace of, well, their monarchy, go they.
To underscore the dangers in the neighborhood, Abdullah often warns that if Syria’s war drags on next door, Damascus risks being taken over by “the new Taliban.” (It’s not that Abdullah wants Syrian President Bashar Assad to stay, he just doesn’t want to see the crazies replace him if he falls.) By comparison, Amman does seems quite cozy.
The international Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, has come under pressure throughout the region and is in retreat, its affiliates overthrown in Cairo, shaken in Tunisia, and isolated in Gaza, leaving the Jordanian branch lonely and defensive.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which sees the Brotherhood as a longtime threat to its own monarchy, has been funding efforts to undermine and crush the organization, and Jordan has received more largesse from Riyadh than usual. But there’s also a risk that Jordanian Islamists more radical than the Brotherhood will proliferate under Saudi tutelage, and some of them will embrace violent jihad. Indeed, it’s already common to see death notices in Jordan’s newspapers announcing the “martyrdom” of young men who’ve gone to fight in Syria among those “new Taliban” that Abdullah warns about.
So, it’s complicated, this web of relationships and threats. And for the moment, Jordan is safe. But it’s a fragile country—and sometimes, it seems, almost a virtual one.
The British essentially created Jordan by drawing lines on the map during the break-up of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s. They installed the new nation’s first Hashemite king, also named Abdullah, from a line of emirs that had ruled, then finally lost, the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. But Jordan is long on desert and short on natural resources. So the monarchy has always been something of a charity case, dependent on the aid of richer kings and countries.
Over the years it has learned to benefit from the misfortunes of others. Waves of Palestinian refugees fled there after the Arab-Israel wars of 1948 and 1967. For a brief, bloody moment in 1970 known as Black September, Palestinian militias tried to take over the country, only to be crushed by the forces of King Hussein, the father of the present King Abdullah. But since then many people of Palestinian descent have thrived in Jordan and developed its substantial entrepreneurial middle class. They are also widely believed to make up a majority of Jordan’s 6.5 million people, but the government never admits that.
In 1991 came hundreds of thousands more Palestinians expelled from Kuwait in the aftermath of the Gulf War. These people would be a huge burden, the Jordanian government said. In fact, they transformed Jordan’s capital, Amman, from a dusty, provincial city—a backwater with next to no water—into something resembling a real Arab metropolis. World Bank figures show Jordan’s GDP growth soared from 1.8 percent in 1991 to 18.37 percent in 1992 as a result. (Among those Palestinian refugees from Kuwait, by the way, was the young woman who is now Queen Rania.)
In 1994, King Hussein signed a peace treaty with Israel, which helped open the doors to tourism and business, and, he hoped, would prevent right-wingers in Israel from trying to turn the Hashemite Kingdom into “the Palestinian state.”
In 2003, when Iraqis fled to Jordan during and after the American invasion, they raised fears once again that the country would be unable to cope. But the net result was another boon to the economy, as GDP growth jumped from 4.2 in 2003 to 8.6 in 2004.
Today there are some 535,000 Syrian refugees registered in Jordan with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Of those, about 175,000 are in a windblown tent city called Zaatari built near a desert airstrip just south of the Syrian-Jordanian frontier. Two other camps are taking shape, but most of the Syrian refugees are joining what already is a very large Syrian immigrant population living in Amman and other cities.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh told potential donors at a U.N. conference in Geneva at the beginning of the week that, all told, including both refugees and earlier immigrants, there are 1.3 million Syrians in Jordan, roughly equal to 20 percent of Jordan’s population.
That may be an exaggerated claim, but there is no question that in the short term they will be a strain on Jordan’s resources, including water in desert aquifers that cannot be replenished. Judeh warned of “enormous pressures that are reaching unbearable levels unless the international community intervenes”—meaning with donations—and that process has been slow. The UNHCR is trying to raise almost a billion dollars to keep its operations going, but so far has received only half of that. Meanwhile the Syrian war shows no sign of ending.
Judeh also hinted at the deeper strain that’s likely to develop: competition for “opportunities,” as he put it. Many of the Syrians are educated, cosmopolitan, and highly Westernized. Indeed, those who make it to Europe are finding themselves welcomed there as few other Middle Eastern refugees have been before. One growing concern in Jordan is that Syrians will start pushing Jordanians out of their jobs and even out of their homes.
Abdullah’s father, Hussein, who ruled Jordan for more than 46 years, used to be referred to by the Brits with patronizing affection as the PLK, or “plucky little king.” Abdullah might just be the lucky little one. But there’s no telling how long that will last. “The king is doing well—this week,” says one of his longtime associates, who asked not to be named. “Ask me again next week.”