Big surprise: the political atmosphere in the Middle East is delicate, complex, and strongly tied to people’s emotions. Jordan is no exception, and in fact plays an interesting role in the politics of the region. Jordan is unique in its role as a harbor for refugees, its relationship with Israel, and its form of government. This is not something I like to bring up here because it is an extremely emotional topic for people to discuss. That being said, I’ve still managed to learn much I did not know about the political situation here.
One thing many Americans would not know is that most people in Jordan’s capital, Amman, are actually of Palestinian descent. I am told that millions left Palestine, often as war refugees (in 1948 and 1967, most notably) and were at other times forcibly moved. Jordan is seen as the most stable entity in this part of the world and has been so for decades, thus attracting these Palestinians, as well as refugees from other wars in the region such as Iraq and Lebanon. The result has been the rise of Amman from a relatively small city to a metropolis that has seen rapid growth and development in recent years.
My host family and the vast majority of friends I have made here either come from the West Bank and northern Israel or have family members who have done so. As such, their identity can be a point of political tension. If one is born and raised in Amman but has parents from Bethlehem, is she Palestinian or Jordanian? Most will tell me first that they are Palestinian, though a few identify as Jordanian. This identification may not match what appears on their national ID card, however, which designates the national origins of that person with a single letter. Jordan is distinct from other Arab countries in that their Palestinian refugee population has assimilated (the same cannot be said for Lebanon or Kuwait, for example). Politically, the biggest division I have witnessed here has been not between Christians & Muslims or whites, blacks, & browns, but between Jordanians of Transjordanian descent (“natives”), and those from Palestine and Israel. This is the cause for great tensions, indeed I am told that while Palestinians have essentially been able to dominate private enterprise, government remains the domain of native Jordanians and is a microcosm of the vying for power that goes on between Jordanian tribes, a topic I will return to shortly. This seems to be the most pressing issue for the future of Jordan. How will the king accommodate Jordan’s largest ethnic group into its political realms while remaining Jordanian? My professor told me that tensions between the two groups came to a head recently, and the king was forced to make reforms (what, exactly, I am not sure) and overturn parliament. Another friend told me that he has been to soccer matches were fans of the de facto Palestinian team were beaten for getting too rowdy or flashing the v for victory sign—a symbolic gesture for Palestinians.
This issue carries over to Jordan’s relations with its neighbors, perhaps the most intriguing being its relations with Israel. The two have officially had peace for about twenty years, though I imagine it is difficult for the government to get too friendly with Israel precisely because of its large Palestinian population. In my program we had a guest lecture talk to us about the normalization of relations between the two countries, I assume this means freeing up trade and normalization of business relations. He mentioned that while there have been several anti-normalization movements in Amman the only pro-normalization group is the government. From my perspective, the country is in great need of positions for educated workers (many young people with degrees, low demand for their services) and opening up of trade with its rich neighbor—Israel—would be of great benefit for Jordan’s unemployed educated youth. On the other hand, I cannot say I would feel the same way if my parents had been evicted from their homes in Israel and forced to move. It is truly a dicey situation with conflicting interests at stake.
With these problems before it, the government here seems to have its hands full. The structure of this government consists of the king (at the top) & a parliament with a few political parties allowed (including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Front Party), but I have heard that it is mainly a game of thrones between the native tribes in Jordan. Native Jordanians belong to one of several tribes. The tribes have their roots in Bedouin tradition, come in varying sizes (the largest of which, Bani Hassan, I am told has one million members), and vie for power in the parliament. The king has repeatedly overturned parliament and its speaker (I believe three times in the past year), which leads me to believe people are not happy with much of what the government has (or has not) done. This is not surprising if the interests of the majority of Jordanians are indeed not represented. Especially in light of the events elsewhere in the Middle East, it will be interesting to see what concessions the government will be pressured to make.