For a country that only came into existence in its present form less than 100 years ago, Jordan has come far in terms of establishing an independent identity, distinct from neighbouring countries. Its citizens are proud of their nationality and the progress made, with relatively few resources, in developing modern infrastructure, health care and a regionally esteemed education system. It is this investment in human resources that has given Jordan the strength to thrive in a region of troublesome neighbours.
Jordan Circa 2017
With so much history wrapped up in this tiny desert kingdom, it’s easy to overlook the modern face of Jordan – something the government is trying to address by improving productivity, making Jordan a more attractive country for foreign investment, promoting Jordan as a high-tech service centre and by planning ambitious tourist developments. The current economic hardship and high unemployment, however, has led to many of these plans, including the 74-hectare astrarium theme park near Aqaba, being put on hold.
Home to a Seventh Wonder
When Petra was voted by popular ballot as one of the seven ‘new’ wonders of the world in 2007, it was a large accolade for a small country. But Jordan – straddling the ancient Holy Land of the world’s three great monotheistic religions, and once an important trading centre of the Roman Empire – is no stranger to punching above its weight. Stand on Mt Nebo, consecrated by Pope John II, and survey the land allegedly promised to Moses; unfurl a veil at Mukawir, where Salome is said to have cast a spell over men in perpetuity; walk along the King's Highway in the footsteps of legionnaires – go just about anywhere in Jordan, and you’ll find every stone bares a tale. Jordan's economic emphasis on tourism endeavours to find new ways to harness the attraction of its ancient treasures for the benefit of Jordan today.
The Arab Spring & Benign Dictatorship
For a brief moment in the spring of 2011, it looked as though Jordanians were set to join fellow protesters in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria in demonstrations popularly dubbed as the Arab Spring. Comprised largely of young students, and peaceful in their approach, Jordanian protesters argued on the streets of Amman for higher wages and a fuller embracing of democracy. The demonstrations soon petered out, however, leaving only weekly gatherings of diehards after Friday prayers.
Democratic reforms have long been in place in Jordan. In November 1989 the first full parliamentary elections since 1967 were held, and women were allowed the vote. Four years later most political parties were legalised and able to participate in parliamentary and municipal elections.
Despite these concessions, democracy in Jordan is still something of an alien concept. Perceived as promoting the interests of the individual over those of the community, it runs against the grain of tribal traditions where respect for elders is paramount. In common with other parts of the Middle East, Jordan traditionally favours a strong, centralised government under an autocratic leader – what might be called benign dictatorship.
Of course, benign dictatorship is only as good as the leader. King Abdullah II is widely regarded at home and abroad as both wise and diplomatic in his role – a modernising monarch in touch with the sensibilities of a globalised world, supportive of social and economic reform, and committed to stamping out corruption.
Jordan's Troublesome Neighbours
Like his father, Abdullah II has proved adept at handling foreign affairs – imperative, considering the neighbourhood Jordan shares. Occupying the calm eye of the storm in the Middle East, the country has a long tradition of absorbing the displaced peoples of its troubled neighbours – so much so, in fact, that the demography of the country has changed forever with a majority population now comprising people of non-Jordanian origin.
While refugees of Palestinian origin now belong to a prospering 'middle class' and wealthy refugees from the conflict in Iraq have mostly returned home, the country continues to contend with its fourth major influx of refugees in 50 years – this time from the civil war in Syria. Most of the more than 620,000 registered Syrian refugees are war-weary subjects, with little chance of repatriation in the foreseeable future, confined to camps such as Za'atari. As if these numbers were not headache enough, a government census at the end of 2015 showed that the refugee problem may be considerably larger than the registered figures suggest, with another 780,000 unregistered refugees trying to get by in the community, supported by already over-burdened local infrastructure.
According to a World Bank report in 2016, Jordan has spent in excess of $2.5 billion a year (6% of its GDP and a quarter of government spending) in supporting refugees, pushing up public borrowing to 95%. Little wonder, then, that stellar projects such as the astrarium in Aqaba have been put on hold as Jordan's economy struggles under this onerous responsibility.
Relationship with the West
During the most recent influx of refugees, provoked by the ongoing civil war in Syria, Jordan has repeatedly appealed for international aid to cope. This call to alms was taken up by Pope Francis during his visit in 2014, but there has been little appetite among those in the international community to help share the burden, although the US, among other countries, contributes aid to Jordan.
Jordan remains a staunch ally of the West, however, and it continues its role in the coalition of forces targeting Isis militants. A number of skirmishes have tested Jordan's resolve, the most significant of which occurred at the end of 2016 when a terrorist cell in Karak was flushed out, leading to the death of 10 people, including one Canadian tourist.
Since Jordan is seen as having a key role in potential future peace negotiations with Israel over the Palestinian Territories, it remains to be seen how discussions with US President Donald Trump, held twice in 2017, will impact on the prevailing political stalemate in the region.
A Bright Future?
The former characteristic optimism of Jordanians has been somewhat dented under pressure from the Syrian refugee crisis. According to one international poll (www.iri.org) carried out in January 2017, 71% of Jordanians describe the economy as 'bad' or 'very bad' while more than half feel the country has lost its direction. Many favour closing the border to Syrian refugees. Despite this, Jordanians remain implacably proud of their country and the modernisation it has achieved on minimal resources.