contributor perspectives

Jordan Buckles Under the Weight of Refugees

Anisa Mehdi
Board of Contributors
9 MINS READMar 5, 2016 | 13:54 GMT
Prefabricated metal homes are seen at the Azraq camp for Syrian refugees in northern Jordan on January 30, 2016.

Prefabricated metal homes are seen at the Azraq camp for Syrian refugees in northern Jordan on January 30, 2016.

Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.

A joke of uncertain origin imagines that former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir had a complaint with God. "He led Moses through the desert for 40 years to the only place in the region that had no oil!"

That is partly true. Israel has recently discovered sources of fossil fuel. But its neighbor Jordan — an important part of Moses' trek — is truly bereft of liquid gold. In fact, Jordan is bereft of almost any natural resource besides sun and historical sites that are the envy of Greece, Rome and Egypt: Umm Qais in its northwest corner showcasing a second-century basalt amphitheater and perfectly preserved Byzantine mosaics; Jerash, with the best standing colonnaded street outside Rome; Madaba, home to the imaginative and surprisingly accurate sixth-century mosaic map of Jerusalem; a plethora of crusader castles; and the incomparable Nabataean capital, Petra.

But a tourism economy cannot make up for a lack of lucrative natural resources. Especially not now. The Islamic State looms at Jordan's gate. Refugees consume an increasing share of the nation's land, patience and essentials for survival. Even legendary Jordanian hospitality — giving without measure and invitation without introduction — is taxed to the breaking point by fleeing Syrians joining the Iraqis and Palestinians who sought sanctuary in Jordan before them. The tiny Hashemite kingdom — only slightly smaller in acreage than the state of Maine — is keeping its balance so far in a rising sea of chaos to the north and east. But to maintain its equilibrium, Jordan will need assistance to host the refugees arriving each day.

Resources Stretched Thin

For most of its history, Jordan has welcomed the tired, poor and huddled masses. Homeless and tempest-tossed refugees from the Palestinian territories arrived in 1948 and 1967. More began coming from Iraq in 1991, still dazed from bombs and sanctions, with their numbers swelling after 2003. For the past four years, scarred and scared people of Syria have poured over Jordan's northern border. Jordan's population, under a million in 1960, has now reached 6.9 million. Half the population is Palestinian, and now almost 21 percent is Syrian.

Mazen Homoud, Jordan's ambassador to the United Kingdom, takes pride in the fact that his nation is at the forefront of the global fight against terrorism. He wrote in the London-based Daily Telegraph, "We are a leading member of the international coalition fighting Daesh and all those who promote a hate-based ideology." But he also noted that the international community has delivered only 34 percent of the money pledged to fund Jordan's Syrian Refugee Response Plan, meeting only a fraction of what it costs Jordan to host refugees. With economic growth above 3 percent, Jordan is considered a middle-income country, ineligible for direct support. But its projected budget deficit for 2015 was 3.5 percent of gross domestic product. Most of the Syrian refugees are not living in Azraq, Zaatari or other refugee encampments; instead, they are hosted within Jordanian communities, working, attending schools and benefiting from national health services.

Jordan's population, under a million in 1960, has now reached 6.9 million. Half the population is Palestinian, and now almost 21 percent is Syrian.

And water? Jordan is already the fourth-poorest country in the world in terms of water resources. When I lived in Jordan in 2009-2010, we flushed the toilet only when needed and showers were short. Rainwater harvesting was the talk of the day, along with solar power. "When a country like ours imports 96 percent of its energy, it makes a big difference when we suddenly have to provide for 1.4 million more people," says Homoud.

Walking the Jordan Trail into Petra.

Walking the Jordan Trail into Petra.


Jordan is allied with the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel. The prospect of a weakened Jordan is a major concern for all. Yet although its government is far more stable than those of Syria or Iraq and its security forces have proved effective, if Jordan finds itself unable to care for its refugee population, there could be trouble.

A Complex Past, Present and Future

Like many of its neighbors, Jordan was established as a nation state at the end of World War II. Its 1946 independence from the United Kingdom turned sovereignty over to the descendants of Sharif Hussein bin Ali of Mecca's Hashim family. Since 1921, members of the Hashim family had been patient regents to the Iraqi and Jordanian thrones promised by British and French allies. They were denied kingship of Syria, despite a nascent pan-Arab parliament's election of one of Hussein's sons, Faisal, as its leader.

It was not until after World War II that the promise was honored. Seemingly arbitrary borders were drawn for Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian territories, Israel and Iraq. Complicating the matter, according to California State University professor David Klein, was that to weaken Arab nationalism,

"Britain blocked Iraqi access to the Persian Gulf by severing the territorial entity, 'Kuwait' from the rest of Iraq in 1921 and 1922. This new British colony, Kuwait, was given artificial boundaries with no basis in history or geography. King Faisal I of the new Iraqi state [who was denied Syria as noted above] ruled under British military oversight, but his administration never accepted the amputation of the Kuwait district and the denial of Iraqi access to the Persian Gulf."

We remain haunted by that truth: Iraq has lost over 155,000 civilians, and nearly 5,000 U.S. soldiers have died there. Meanwhile, many of Iraq's war-weary survivors have fled to Jordan. 

Iraq's Faisal was the younger brother of Abdullah I, eldest son of Hussein, who became the first king of Jordan. That story is a geopolitical soap opera that deserves greater attention than it will get here. Suffice it to say that from their shaky start on the east side of the Jordan River, the Hashemites have presided over Jordan and maintained their steady rule since the country's independence in 1946.

A dearth of natural resources and declining tourism in Jordan is putting a terrible strain on the economy, while external political challenges keep the population on edge.

Today's complexities seem to leave yesterday's in the dust. A dearth of natural resources and declining tourism in Jordan is putting a terrible strain on the economy, while external political challenges keep the population on edge. Jordan confronts reality nobly. But how long can that last?

A surge of the arts and culture that came with middle-class Iraqis fleeing their homeland was initially welcomed in Amman. But the honeymoon was short; wealthy Iraqis began building neighborhoods and rental rates rose. Towns in northern Jordan already feel the impact of crowding and employment competition, as skilled Syrians work for less and children become beggars. They worry about the possibility of recruitment to extremist groups among discouraged, disenfranchised youth.

Addressing the Wrong Problem

But rather than support Jordan's immediate need to provide food, water and shelter to hundreds of thousands of refugees, Riyadh plans to step up its military involvement in the Syrian conflict. At a news conference late last year, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced the creation of an Islamic military coalition. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has said the deployment of ground troops to fight the Islamic State is still a possibility.

The United States, having provided Jordan with economic and military aid since 1951, to a total of approximately $15.83 billion, continues aid in both arenas. In a nonbinding three-year memorandum of understanding between Washington and Amman, the United States pledged $1 billion annually in assistance, subject to the approval of Congress. The act also authorizes the use of U.S. Department of Defense funding for security along Jordan's borders.

But not water for the people who are thirsty there.

At the Zaatari camp, each refugee family is allotted three to four loaves of bread per family member. Rice, oil, lentil, bulgur and other rations are distributed to each family every 15 days, along with 9 Jordanian dinars' worth of coupons per person to buy items not included in the camp's distribution list. For people accustomed to strolling the balmy streets of Damascus in the evening, enjoying the scent of wisteria and lilac, rations and tents are stark privation. Instead of striving for good grades at school, young refugees are faced with the task of scrounging up clean water for their families.

The Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees.
The Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees.

Emergency supplies will not be sustainable should conflict persist. What are Saudi, U.S., European and Jordanian plans for five to 10 years down the road? Certainly, improving conditions for displaced persons closer to home is preferable to seeing flotillas flounder across the Mediterranean. What about long-term considerations of economics, available water, permanent housing, jobs and goodwill in hostile conditions? What about returning to "life as normal"?

A delegation from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on a study tour in Turkey in January 2015 found that for Syrian refugees:

"The problem is that even though this is an international refugee crisis, the international community is only providing funding to meet 29 percent of the refugees' needs. With very little livelihood, refugees — especially those who recently arrived — struggle to secure adequate housing, food, and medical care. And many refugee children, instead of attending school, work at a quarter the minimum wage under poor working conditions to help support their families."

There are campaigns underway to stem the impact of trauma and the tide of recruitment to extremist groups, but I will save those for a future column. For now, I suggest only this: With vision and commitment, trauma recovery efforts may become instrumental in mitigating the anger and mistrust that leads people to terrible acts of terror against perceived enemies and against their neighbors. These are the areas that Saudi Arabia and its allies ought to invest their billions if they hope to interrupt the cycle of anger that feeds the emotional poverty of hate.

Moses did not lead his people across the desert for 40 years to find oil; he aimed to bring them to safety, prosperity and wholeness. It is time to revisit that purpose.

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