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Tourists wander outside The Treasury, an ornate king’s tomb carved into a rock face in the ancient city of Petra. Photo by Jocelyn Bell

Revealing Jordan

While other Middle Eastern countries convulse, this ancient kingdom offers an oasis of calm

By Jocelyn Bell

On the same evening in March that the United Nations declared a no-fly zone over Libya, preventing Moammar Gadhafi from bombing his own citizens, I was in Jordan — 2,000 kilometres and three countries away.

We had just completed a jeep tour through Wadi Rum, a stunningly beautiful desert of jagged sandstone mountains and powdery red sand. Our Bedouin guides built a small fire with dry sticks and boiled a pot of sweet tea over the flame. We watched the sun set beyond a distant mountain and the moon rise on the opposite side. Then we sat around the fire sipping the tea in quiet contemplation. Revolutions, violence and stubborn dictators were far from my mind.

On the tour bus the next day — I was on a 10-day trip with nine other journalists, sponsored by the Jordanian Tourism Board — our Jordanian guide, Kamel al-Jayusi, explained that Jordan has few natural resources: no oil and severe water shortages. “Water is the biggest problem in Jordan,” he said. “The second biggest problem is being in the Middle East — in the middle of the Middle East.”

We all laughed, but the point rang true. Travel in Jordan is a fabulous mix of world-class archeological sites, biblical landmarks and eco-adventures. But its reputation as a tourist destination suffers because of the political upheaval in the region and fears about safety. It was the tension between the country and the region, as well as the growing reform movement within Jordan, that captured my imagination and sparked the most interesting conversations on the bus rides between tourist destinations.

Think about the countries bordering Jordan, and it’s easy to invoke short-hand descriptors for each one. Iraq? Wartorn. Saudi Arabia? Oil rich and conservative. Syria? Revolution. Israel and the West Bank? Don’t get me started.

But Jordan? Well, Jordan doesn’t conjure up much. The beautiful Queen Rania has become a fashion icon, hobnobbing with Hollywood celebrities. Otherwise, Jordan is seldom in the news, except as an “also in the region” footnote. If North Americans think of Jordan at all, they usually assume it’s just like its Arab neighbours. And that’s not entirely fair.

Jordan is a moderate country situated in a tough neighbourhood. Ninety percent of its six million inhabitants are Muslim, but freedom of religion is protected in its constitution. Women vote, surpass men in their education and dress however they like. Many wear the hijab; many don’t. Nevertheless, the World Economic Forum ranks Jordan 120th out of 134 countries for gender equality because of women’s low participation in the labour force, their lower incomes and their scarcity in leadership positions, problems Queen Rania is working to overcome.

In many ways, Jordan’s moderate worldview is preserved and defended by the king himself. Everywhere we went in the country, we saw portraits of King Abdullah II  — in restaurants, outside gas stations, inside offices. In every photo, he is smiling, seemingly returning the love and admiration expressed by the vast majority of his subjects.

Abdullah can trace his ancestry back 43 generations to the Prophet Muhammad. But the king is no religious zealot. Born in the East and educated in the West, Abdullah claims a deep affinity for both cultures. In his recent book, Our Last Best Chance: The Pursuit of Peace in a Time of Peril, he writes, “All too often extremists on both sides frame the discussion and dominate the debate. All too often the voices of moderate Arabs are drowned out by those who shout the loudest. I will not shout, but I do want my message to be heard. I want to tell the world that while there are great problems in our region, there is also cause for hope.”

Of course, Jordan’s young adults also want to be heard, and revolutions throughout the Middle East have inspired activists here. More than two-thirds of the population in Jordan is under 30, and about 13 percent of the labour force is jobless. Every Friday since January, relatively peaceful protesters have marched in the capital, Amman. But unlike in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, the protesters — so far — are not asking for King Abdullah II to step down. They simply want progress on political reforms, such as a prime minister who is elected, not appointed by the king.

To my Canadian ears, an elected prime minister is a given, but there are arguments against this particular reform. First and foremost, more than half of Jordan’s residents are of Palestinian origin. Those who fled the 1948 and 1967 wars in Israel were granted citizenship. Those who came later — 1.9 million — are refugees. (Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, becoming the second of two Arab countries to recognize the state of Israel, but it still insists upon the right of return for displaced Palestinians.) If Jordan were to elect a Palestinian prime minister, it could undermine negotiations for land and autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza. “There are voices in Israel talking about a homeland for Palestinians in Jordan,” said al-Jayusi, himself the son of Palestinian émigrés.

Akel Biltaji, the charismatic chair of Jordan’s Tourism and Heritage Committee and a senator in the upper house of parliament, explained the second complicating factor to me over a glass of wine on the balcony of the Mövenpick Resort on the shore of the Dead Sea. “The reformers say the prime minister should be from an elected party, but the only party organized enough is the Muslim Brotherhood. And if they take over, you and I won’t be able to enjoy a drink.”

Still, when asked if the king is receptive to the reform movement, Biltaji nearly burst with enthusiasm. “The king is leading it! His majesty is a reformist by birth, by training and by conviction.”

In response to the protesters, the king appointed a new prime minister last February and created a 52-member national dialogue committee to study a broad range of reforms and strengthen democracy.

Back home, I’ve been following Jordan’s reform movement closely. In March, only a week after my return, one protester was killed and 160 were injured when another group calling themselves “loyalists” to the king hurled stones at the peaceful demonstrators.

“Suddenly, the issue was no longer about reform. It became about loyalty,” wrote Naseem Tarawnah, a 20-something Jordanian reformer, in his blog Black Iris. “Those that declared loyalty to the King were considered to be tribal Jordanians of Jordanian origin, while those calling for reform were said to be mostly Islamists, Jordanians of Palestinian origin, and thus ‘naturally’ had no sense of loyalty to the King. The conversation became binary. Not about ‘for’ or ‘against’ reform, but ‘for’ or ‘against’ the King.”

Soon after the protester’s death, however, the king tried to turn the perceived divide on its head in a meeting with his national dialogue committee. “Those who do not want reforms are not loyalist, and loyalists must be reformist,” he told the committee members.

Then, in mid-June, King Abdullah granted the protesters’ demand that future prime ministers would be elected, adding it wouldn’t happen for two or three years, giving time for parties other than the Muslim Brotherhood to establish themselves. It’s a bold leap forward — and yet, I wonder. Is it a manipulation of power to seed more favourable political parties before yielding control and allowing democracy to flourish?

Back in the Wadi Rum desert, we finished our sweet tea, watched the embers of the fire burn down and pressed our fingers into the soft red sand.  In that small pocket of time and space, shared by a handful of journalists and a few tour guides, we savoured the calm — the peace, if you will — in the Middle East.



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