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Jordan Starts to Shake

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Moises Saman/The New York Times/Redux
Protesters carrying a portrait of King Abdullah II, Amman, Jordan, July 15, 2011

To measure the sturdiness of King Abdullah of Jordan against the tide of upheaval sweeping the Arab world, go to Tafila, an impoverished town tucked into a sandy bowl encircled by the Moabite Mountains 110 miles south of the royal seat of Amman. Outside the courthouse where four youths recently awaited trial on charges of cursing the king, a crime punishable in this hitherto deferential kingdom by up to three years in jail, one hundred protesters continue cussing the king, until the order comes from on high to let the four go.

Such protests are growing in intensity and geographic reach, degrading the royal stature with every chant. Last season’s innuendo against his courtiers and queen has become this season’s naked repudiation of the King. In September, demonstrators chanted S-S-S, a deliberately ambiguous call for both the regime’s islah, Arabic for reform, and isqat, overthrow. The protesters outside Tafila’s courthouse dispense with such niceties, spicing the crude one-liners with which Egypt’s revolutionaries toppled Hosni Mubarak with cheeky Bedouin rhyming couplets: “O Abdullah son of Hussein/Qadaffi’s a goner, whither your reign?”

Among the flashy young men who staff the royal court, it is common to dismiss the protests as coming from unruly poor peasants after money and jobs. But in the more sober milieux of their parents where much of Jordan’s business is conducted, the King’s inability to impose his will on the south is a cause of greater unease. For though peripheral and small in number, comprising 10 percent of the kingdom’s six million subjects, the tribesmen dominate the ranks of his security apparatus. If their dissatisfaction grows, some might be tempted, as in Egypt, to jettison their leader in order to preserve their power. Doomsday may yet be far off, but, a former senior Jordanian intelligence official tells me, each month seems worse than the last. By way of comparison he cites Black September of 1970, when an armed force rose up against the King, only this time the forces challenging his rule are those already running the country, not Palestinians opposing it.

Under Abdullah’s father, King Hussein, the alliance between the monarch and his East Bank tribesmen was so sacrosanct that Jordan was often called the Bedouin Kingdom. Perhaps because the tribes seem so secondary to King Abdullah’s grandiose plans for modernization and economic expansion, he has had much less time for them. He and his Palestinian-born wife, Rania, have publicly campaigned against tribal law such as honor killing and actively forged a new patronage network, rooted in the Westernized urban high life of their mushrooming capital.

Beyond their immediate playground in West Amman lies a conurbation stretching twenty-five miles and incorporating over half of Jordan’s six million people, the great majority of them Palestinian (but now including hundreds of thousands of refugees from Iraq). Much of it is a morass of teeming Palestinian refugee camps, the largest in existence. Senior officials call it Jordan’s Tora Bora, for the Muslim militants it has fostered. But over the decades the squalor has receded. With few opportunities for Palestinians in the public sector, some turned to private business, and with the economic liberalization of King Abdullah’s early years they found fresh opportunities for work. And as incomes have risen, many have left the camps and built their own homes in the capital’s sprawling suburbs.

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Mike King

While the lot of Jordanians of Palestinian origin has improved, that of Jordan’s indigenous East Bankers has slumped. The public sector—where most hitherto found work—has either stagnated or disappeared, thanks to the King’s privatization of public utilities and the mineral companies in the south. Fadi Ubaydeen, one of the young cursers in Tafila whom the King tried to prosecute, is a jobless twenty-three-year-old who emerged from Tafila’s courthouse wearing shredded plastic sandals. Married with three children, he lives with his parents and sister’s family—fourteen people crammed into a single-bedroom hovel. Their front door is a dirty brown blanket, strung up like the flap of a tent. When I visited, his mother was stirring four plastic tubs of milk she pasteurizes for a few dollars a day. Light splinters through the bedroom ceiling, where the rains have eroded the algae-green plaster.

The Ubaydeens’ deprivation is far from unique. Indeed, Fadi’s father considers himself relatively prosperous, for he has a television and scrapes together enough to cook mansef, the tribesman’s traditional staple of lamb’s head doused in goat yogurt, for the Muslim Festival of the Sacrifice. For others, the prices of meat, electricity, and water from the privatized utility companies are rising beyond reach. They look with envy at the health care and education—the means of upward mobility—that the UN doles out to Palestinian refugee families. None of the students with the top one hundred highest marks in last year’s tawjihi, or final secondary school exams, were southerners.

In the past the Hashemites bought their East Bankers’ acquiescence by doling out titles and stipends in the security forces and political establishment. Thanks to flagrant gerrymandering, rural areas with Bedouin Arab populations were awarded disproportionate representation over the urban areas where Palestinians are concentrated. Though a minority, East Bankers received 85 percent of the parliamentary seats in the elections a year ago, and were awarded twenty-two of the twenty-eight posts in the last government.

But the King is finding it hard to make the old contract stick. The financial burden is too great for a kingdom in the grip of recession. So far this year, a Jordanian fiscal expert told me, the King has added over a billion dollars to subsidies, created 21,000 new security positions, and inflated the bureaucracy with a welter of new municipalities. Even so, the birth rate is climbing far faster than the state can create jobs. For want of finance, the large-scale infrastructure projects of which Abdullah is so fond have stalled.

Money is not the King’s only problem. A government job or legislative seat is not worth what it was. King Abdullah has repeatedly treated parliament as an inconvenience, dissolved it, and ruled by decree. On the Freedom House’s scale of political rights, the kingdom has slid from 3 at the time of King Abdullah’s accession, when it was one of the most progressive regimes in the Arab world, to 6, a classification for “not free.”

In place of the old political structures, the King and Queen prefer consulting their coterie of predominantly Palestinian business associates, who East Bankers fear are set on taking over the country plot by plot from its indigenous inhabitants. From their seat of power in West Amman, they allegedly want to turn Jordan into Palestine, thereby settling Israel’s refugee problem at Jordan’s expense. “We’re red Indians in our own country,” says Hamoud al-Faiz, a sheikh from Bani Sakhr, a desert tribe southeast of Amman that, perhaps because of its reputation for martial prowess, has played a prominent role in arousing the resentment of East Bankers. He says he feels like a foreigner in his own capital, estranged from the moneyed youth who cast the keys of their fancy convertibles to liveried valets at the gates of Amman’s bars.

By regional standards the turnout of protesters has been puny. Few rallies attract more than five thousand demonstrators; many are attended by only a few score. It is possible to visit the capital and not hear their cries. East as well as West Bankers appear reluctant to join a movement whose slogans are openly seditious. But what the protests lack in numbers, they compensate for in tenacity and depth. Across the kingdom bushfires have erupted that the King seems unable to quench. When at the end of October I took the desert highway from the capital down to Tafila, I encountered tales of unrest along the kingdom’s north–south spine. A few minutes outside Amman, tribesmen had blocked the airport road, denouncing the omission of their hamlet from the group of new municipalities the King’s men had announced would be established for rural areas. Further south, more tribesmen blocked access to a Saudi-owned cement plant, in protest at its refusal to hire more local labor. Further on, hundreds of head-high iron tubes stand in the desert, abandoned by a Turkish company building a pipeline for groundwater from the Saudi border. Its workers had fled after two of its Syrian laborers were killed, apparently by locals who wanted their jobs.

Moreover, the protesters claim they tap a hidden groundswell of support, which sometimes breaks through the fear barrier. At a rally last month in Amman, Ahmed Obediat, a former prime minister and an ex-chief of the Mukhabarat, the intelligence apparatus, stood in the front row. In a country where the Mukhabarat’s grip is so omnipresent that even a taxi driver needs its approval each year to keep his license, his presence was remarkable. In Tafila, garbagemen at work down the hill from the courthouse uniformly repudiate the protesters as traitors and profess their loyalty to the King, but later one catches up with me and apologizes that an informer had been in their midst. “The protesters speak for all of us,” says the road-sweeper. “We know the King is a thief.”

Such backstabbing is audible at all levels of the kingdom’s hierarchy, from garbage collectors to bankers’ boardrooms. “King Hussein used to be our father, this king is our son,” says a senior politician who worked with him closely in the early years of his reign, but now doubts he is up to the job. “He’s still riding a motorcycle, swearing, and playing the Internet. And after ten years he has not changed.” Once-loyal East Bank parliamentarians, too, are increasingly acting like an opposition. In October they forced through a law banning Jordanians with dual nationality from holding senior positions. This was read not only as a move against Palestinians, who as refugees are more likely than East Bankers to hold second passports, but the King, whose Welsh mother I found chatting with friends in a tearoom near the American embassy in Amman. “There’s no place for double agents in our palace,” a former parliamentarian from Tafila told me.

The jibes are increasingly personal. After a decade on the throne East Bank critics still deride Abdullah as an outsider who does not represent them. Despite the King’s improved fluency in Arabic, protest leaders often switch into English, in order, they say, to help him understand. Another chief object of their bile is Queen Rania, a Palestinian born in Kuwait, whom East Bankers condemn for her Parisian-style extravagance, and regard as the power behind the King, or as they dub him, the Queen’s husband. “Divorce your wife,” cry the crowds at some of their rallies, a sign of contempt in a society where family honor is paramount. Their seventeen-year-old son, Crown Prince Hussein, faces similar calls for his dismissal: since his mother is Palestinian, he must be too, and thus ineligible to be Jordan’s king. While still insisting that they remain loyal to the Hashemite family, many tribesmen openly flaunt their preference for the King’s half-brother, Hamza, who was crown prince until King Abdullah rescinded his status seven years ago. Some tribesmen openly call for Hamza’s restoration, citing his better Arabic and uncanny likeness to his father.

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