Talisman Gate

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Trouble in the Land of Moab

Copyright 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

December 9, 2004 Thursday


LENGTH: 1420 words

HEADLINE: Trouble in the Land of Moab

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


All is not well in the Kingdom of Jordan. The sudden change in the line of succession for the Hashemite throne of the Kingdom of Jordan is a troubling sign that this oasis of stability in the Middle East may be about to pop a geyser.

On paper, Jordan, even by Middle Eastern standards, should not be a stand-alone country. Not only does it not have oil or some other viable natural resource, it doesn't even have enough water. Named for the biblical Jordan River, where John the Baptist and Jesus Christ waded some 2,000 years ago, its namesake is no longer even a rivulet, but rather more of a sluggish, shallow stream. Yet, its capital of Amman - built around the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Philadelphia - is one of the Middle East's prettiest, trendiest, and cleanest cities.

The first settlers of Amman in the modern era were Circassian refugees fleeing imperial Russian expansion into the Caucasus Mountains several hundred miles away. The ailing Ottoman Empire, in its role as the inept protector of Muslim peoples, decided to award that inhospitable piece of real estate to the blonde and blue-eyed huddled masses and see if they could eke out a living. The Bedouin tribes in the area of Amman found all this amusing, and eyed another target for their raids of pillage and looting. They soon found out that the Circassians didn't ascribe to the tribal manual of war that stipulated much plunder and few casualties, since blood ransoms were expensive. The warriors from the mountains retaliated with mass murder of Bedouin encampments, which moved further a field from the new den of these feisty immigrants and left them to their own affairs. For them, Amman was a way station until history brought about an end to Russian expansionism and they could go back to their auol, or village, in the mountains. A city was born.

The British inherited the land they called Trans-Jordan from their vanquished foes, the Ottomans, after World War I, and they had a very difficult time giving it away. This was not always the case; many civilizations had fought over this land, roughly known as Moab in the bible, ranging from the Ammonites, the Nabateans, and the Greeks to the Romans. The latter built three major cities in this land, but alas, it was prone to earthquakes and the water was running out. The various Muslim empires, and the Crusaders who came to battle them, treated this land as an outpost for fortified garrison towns. Since that time, it has been underpopulated and forgotten except for some lingering Bedouins, Circassians, and some transplanted urban Arabs from the western bank of the Jordan, or Palestine, who came to cultivate the few arable valleys.

After the Great War, the British had some disgruntled Arab allies to appease. Foremost among them was the Hashemite Sherif of Mecca, who believed that he would become King of All the Arabs after the Ottomans were kicked out. Some enterprising British bureaucrat decided to award the meager prize of Trans-Jordan to one of the Sherif's less fortunate sons, Abdullah the I, who became prince, then king, of the newly fashioned Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, with its capital in Amman. It was supposed to be a temporary buffer state, whose status was to be determined after history had unfolded in the larger Middle East. A country was born.

Amman was a settlement devoid of any large body of water, whether stationary or flowing. Such bodies of water are good for allaying the angst of urbanites flocking to a newly minted city: it put the volume of their tears into perspective. Even today, for all its flashy cars and hot night clubs, Amman is awash with the ambiance of despair and pessimism. The closest body of water is the Dead Sea; not very uplifting.

The genius of the King Hussein, who succeeded his grandfather after his own father was diagnosed as unfit to rule, was to turn Jordan's identity as a buffer state and a way station into a profitable business. His stroke of luck was the creation of the state of Israel across the Jordan River, and the advent of dispossessed huddled masses of Palestinians fleeing the zeal of Zionism. The descendants of these refugees still possess the keys to homes in villages that had been razed long-ago in the turf battles of Jews and Arabs. Jordan was suddenly turned into an overpopulated land much at the center of world attention. And like the Circassians before them, the Palestinians waited for Lady Fortune to smile upon them as they went about eking a living from this inhospitable land. Their talent and hard work transformed Jordan into a modern state. Today, they form the majority of Jordan's population.

The Americans succeeded the British in running the Middle East, and Jordan's status as a country straddling the confluence of many trouble points was useful for intelligence purposes, shady banking, and arms-dealing. The CIA station in Amman was, up to the recent Gulf War, the largest in the Middle East, and in lieu of rent, Jordan got $200 million dollars of American taxpayer money every year.

Today, Jordan is still making a living off the misery of others. It is home to the defeated Iraqi Baathists and their stolen loot, as well as hundreds of thousands of Iraq's upper middle class fleeing the post-liberation chaos. Most of Iraq's allocated reconstruction money is being spent in Amman, as investors and contractors wait out the turmoil sipping margaritas in Amman's trendy bars while endlessly debating and requoting their plans for a new, prosperous Iraq.

But times are a-changing in the Middle East, if President Bush's vision holds. As democracy strikes roots in Iraq, and the peace process is furthered, there will be fewer trouble spots and pan-Middle Eastern misery for Jordanians to profit from. The very fate and identity of Jordan is in the balance: will it continue to be a buffer state and a way station, or will it finally become a home?

Prince Hamza would have a made a fine new king for a fine new Jordan. However, his older brother, the current king, Abdullah II, defrocked him last week of the title of crown prince and heir apparent. King Hamza I was to be the embodiment of the late King Hussein's vision of for a Jordanian homeland; 'the darling of my eye' he used to call his younger son, and in effect placed the untested elder son as a temporary regent until young Hamza was old enough, and wise enough, to rule and reform. Hussein took the added step of leaving his accumulated fortune to Hamza as an added safety mechanism to ensure his succession. Some Arab commentators have pegged greed and infighting over this king's ransom as the reason for Abdullah's sudden change of course.

Longtime observers of Jordanian affairs like Rob Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy have spun Abdullah's gambit as his own coming of age. The move is supposed to reflect his maturity and the stability of his reign. But Mr. Satloff is way off the mark. Abdullah has demonstrated that he is listening to the counsel of a gaggle of advisers who have embarked on this rearguard action to lock Jordan in its current, unviable identity. These advisers, who are mostly Circassians and "real Jordanians," that is descendants of the Bedouin tribes and the farming communities of pre-Israel East Bankers, are busily protecting and helping themselves to the coffers of Jordan's long-standing business of being a temporary haven rather than a home.

Hamza is interested in a Jordan of the future, where the descendants of the Palestinian refugees, or the younger generation he grew up with, can also claim to be "real Jordanians." The village keys will remain a venerated family relic, but the keys jingling in their pockets fit their homes in the apartment blocks of modern Amman. Young Hamza, handsome, smart, forward-looking, and the spitting image of his much-beloved father, was privately making his views known and mapping out a vision for a democratic Jordanian homeland, where new misery-free avenues of wealth and prosperity, as well as water shortages, were to be shared by all. He was becoming too popular, and too much of a shining foil for the current insecure set-up, and as such was deprived of his chance to lead.

Abdullah II is in Washington for talks with President Bush, and he should be asked: Will it be retro or reform? Stability will come when more Jordanians have a stake in the future of the land of Moab, and through Hamza's vision, all Jordanians, regardless of where they came from, can shout, "the kingdom is dead, long live the kingdom."