Opinion | Jordanian journals: Despotism in the desert

How authoritarian states degrade quality of life for citizens.


Contributed photo Shahab Khan.

Shahab Khan, Opinions Columnist

In the midst of World War I, the British were looking to do what they do best: destroy a civilization.

Of course, that was not their only stated objective in the Middle East theater of World War I.

The British were concerned that their Ottoman and German adversaries would attack and capture strategic oil fields in Persia from Ottoman colonies in the Middle East. So, they decided to help the Arab tribes that were subservient to the Ottoman Turks stage a successful revolt.

This revolt, and the subsequent partition of the Middle East among the British and French, marked the beginning of the current political era in the Middle East — an era dominated by authoritarianism, poverty, and corruption.

The Hashemites, the family that the British installed on the Jordanian throne, claim to trace their lineage to the Islamic prophet Muhammad, a man who was considered generous, honest, and truthful. He built some of the first inclusive and proto-democratic institutions in the Middle East.

The current-day Hashemites are anything but that as they are authoritarians who flaunt their wealth by buying multi-million dollar townhouses in Washington, D.C. while leaving their people struggling.

The grueling life of a Jordanian refugee

Through my exploration of the many shisha cafes in Amman, I have come to meet several refugees from countries as far away as Sudan and Somalia. For these refugees, the Jordanian government is no friend.

In fact, when I sat down and discussed with these refugees about their life experiences, they all requested that their name be left out of publication.

The Daily Iowan granted anonymity to the refugees and interns out of fear of reprisal from the government.

“They do not let us open our own shops and restrict the professions in which we can work,” one refugee who fled his country of origin nearly 10 years ago told the DI. “Many of us are looking to leave Jordan because of the discrimination we face at the hands of the government as well as the Jordanian people. We are not even allowed to become Jordanian citizens.”

Another refugee I spoke to was recently fired from his job because of the pandemic and lamented about his experiences trying to find work.

“Before, when I lived in South Africa, I was able to sell anything I wanted out of my shop, but here, I cannot, because I do not have the necessary papers,” he said. These were papers he could not get because of his refugee status.

These are the lucky ones, as the Syrian refugees stuck in camps live an infinitely worse life.

When I spoke to five American interns who work for an NGO operating in the largest of these camps, they all stated the same thing: these refugees live in misery.

“Only the basic minimum needs are met by the camp, even though Jordan is getting billions of dollars in aid,” one said. “Very little of the money actually gets to the refugees and the camps are staffed by refugees themselves.”

The living conditions of these Syrian refugees is reflective of this. The interns described to me large sprawling shanty towns where houses are built of steel plates and tarp. These shelters are about the size of a university dorm room and house as many as 12 people. While water and electricity are accessible, do not count on it to be running the entire time.

Finally, there are few educational and employment opportunities for Syrian refugees. The Jordanian government has mandated that Syrian refugees can only work in three certain sectors: agriculture, construction, and services. To leave the camp, the refugees need to pay an exit fee that many refugees cannot afford.

This goes to show how the Jordanian government, despite receiving billions of dollars in aid from countries such as the U.S. is not using that aid money to support its people. Meanwhile, the King is splurging millions of dollars on luxuries as refugees and ordinary Jordanians barely meet their basic needs.

Destitution in the Desert

Wadi Rum and Aqaba, the site of the most important battles of the Arab revolt, are worlds apart in terms of development.

Pristine sand and rugged mountains dominate the landscape of the valley of the moon, or Wadi Rum as it is known by the local Bedouins.

The valley cuts through a rock formation in Southern Jordan, with seemingly coarse and rough sand that feels smooth.

The harsh sunlight beats down on weary travelers and tourists as the climate is near inhospitable.

Those that live in the valley, the remaining nomadic Bedouin tribes, are products of their environment. They possess a tough exterior yet are jovial, protective, and welcoming people. They also are amongst the people most shortchanged by their government.

Aqaba, on the other hand, is Jordan’s only coastal town. Sitting on the Red Sea, one is able to see Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia from the coastline of Aqaba.

Jordan’s government has taken considerable interest in developing and turning the resort town into Jordan’s version of Cancun, where tourists can come and relax on the beach side. Meanwhile, the Jordanian people suffer from a slow growing economy and joblessness.

This is the legacy of rentierism, a system which encourages economic corruption and malpractice. Political economists classify a state as a “rentier economy” when a large portion of that state’s national revenues is derived from outside the country.

For Jordan, that “rent” has come from two places foreign aid from the U.K. and U.S., the two states that have propped up the Hashemite dynasty.

As a result of Jordan’s status as a rentier state, the king does not need to implement sound economic policy or establish inclusive, democratic political institutions to take care of the kingdom’s citizens.

It is the reason why the Bedouins in Wadi Rum are living in destitution and why engineers in Amman are forced to work as Uber Drivers.

Furthermore, the king has continued to aggrandize his power as the royal court shepherded in new constitutional amendments which would essentially allow him to dismiss judges in Jordan’s court system with no checks on his authority.

This has led to an atmosphere in Jordan that is characterized by tension. Jordanians have become sick and tired of the vast unemployment and lack of opportunity.

To overcome this legacy of authoritarian corruption, Jordan can only follow upon one path, full democratization. The King must be willing to let all the people of Jordan rule as they are the ones entitled to the great wealth, he extracts from them.

There is no easy path democratization as it has proven incredibly difficult, particularly in the Middle East.

If the Jordanian state wants to survive peacefully, however, it is the only route that it can take. The people of Jordan, not the King, and most certainly not foreign powers, must be allowed to build inclusive political and economic institutions. In other words, the Hashemites must look to the teachings of their great ancestor, Muhammad, if Jordan is to not only survive, but thrive.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.