Amman is the main transit point for flights in and out of Baghdad. On my way out of Iraq this past weekend, I spent 24 hours in the capital of what many of my colleagues call “the Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom.”
True, Jordan isn’t nearly as flashy or flavorful as Egypt, Dubai or Lebanon, but it’s a safe and comforting whistle stop for travelers emerging from Iraq. This past week, Amman happened to be much more alive than usual.
The Iraqi national soccer team’s victory had drawn thousands of exiled Iraqis to the streets of this typically sedate and orderly city. Iraqi refugees in Amman said Jordanian security forces roughed up and arrested several soccer fans who blocked traffic or who had shot guns into the air in celebration of the Asian Cup win. Some Iraqis complained that the authorities used excessive force in stopping the festivities, and warned that the incident was a harbinger of more troubles between police and the refugee community.
Jordan also played host to a conference on how Iraq’s neighbors can better cope with the influx of displaced Iraqis. Amman and Damascus each have an estimated 1 million Iraqi refugees, and both nations have begun girding their borders and cracking down on their “guests.” The governments of Jordan and Syrian say their health care, education and housing sectors are struggling to cope with the strain of so many new people.
Amnesty International and other advocacy groups have urged the international community to help ease the crisis. The NGOs also apply pressure on the host countries to grant Iraqis the full rights of refugees and asylum-seekers. Save the Children’s Amman office announced one long-anticipated reform: Jordan has agreed to grant all school-age Iraqi children access to its public and private schools for the academic year that begins this month.
A different variety of foreign guest appeared much more welcome in Amman. Because of the trouble brewing in the favored holiday destination of Beirut, many rich Gulf Arabs have turned to Cairo, Damascus and Amman as substitute vacation spots.
Fancy restaurants, upscale boutiques and luxury hotels in Amman are filled with Saudi and Kuwaiti families this summer. Some Gulf men come alone and are notorious for fueling the underground sex industry (a planeload of Tunisian prostitutes disembarked while I was at the airport), while other men arrive with their fully veiled wives and requisite Filipina nannies to watch the kids. At the breakfast buffet of a five-star Amman hotel one morning, six Gulf families dined, each with a Filipina domestic worker looking on from a separate table.
Amman also was abuzz with domestic political wrangling. Jordanians had just voted in municipal elections, including the first-ever mayoral polls. Now, before anyone starts rejoicing over another “Arab spring of democracy,” we should note the hefty restrictions the government placed on candidates from the Islamist Action Front, the local political branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The electoral reforms didn’t fully extend to Amman, where only half the municipal council seats were on the ballot. King Abdullah, who appears to be growing increasingly concerned about the IAF’s popularity among Amman’s poor, will continue to appoint the rest of the council and the mayor.
The IAF claims the government committed several violations such as allowing military personnel to vote more than once. I have no idea whether the allegations are true, but I have spent enough time in Jordan to know that the rosy kingdom you see the gorgeous Queen Rania extolling to Oprah is not exactly true-to-life.
Jordan is a soft police state with very little freedom of expression or freedom of the local press. Those who openly criticize the king or the royal family get a one-way ticket to jail. Jordan is a destination for the U.S. practice of extraordinary renditions, the backyard of the U.S.-led war in Iraq and a breeding ground for militants such as its most famous terror export: Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the late leader of al Qaida in Iraq. Jordanian intelligence agents keep close tabs on Islamist and other opposition activists, and crackdowns on dissidents can be swift and brutal.
But it’s easy to see why the West latched onto last week’s polls as some kind of sea change in Jordanian politics. King Abdullah and Queen Rania have always had great success at peddling their authoritarian kingdom as a democratic oasis in the Middle East. The blue-eyed king addressed Congress earlier this year in easy, unaccented English. His stunning wife, Queen Rania, is portrayed as the Princess Diana of the Islamic world.
At home, however, the queen’s self-perpetuated image as a stylish Arab superwoman is wearing thin. She was just heralded as a hero in Glamour magazine, appeared on several international best-dressed lists and penned an unremarkable, Islam-is-a-religion-of-peace essay for the Washington Post web site. Everyday Jordanians, however, know her as a powerful operator whose focus on “Jordan’s children” really means a focus on creating opportunities for her own children, and those of her similarly wealthy friends.
I came across a transcript of Oprah’s show that featured Queen Rania right after the 9/11 attacks. The queen talked in vague terms about “honor killings,” which are still common practice in Jordan. Queen Rania pledged that, “once we have this open dialogue and we reach to the grassroots where people can understand this issue, we are hoping through democratic process to change these laws that we have in Jordan.”
That was in 2001. In a case last month, a Jordanian court sentenced a man to just six months in prison for killing his pregnant sister in a so-called honor case. From what I could find on the Web, there wasn’t a peep of protest from the thoroughly modern, Western-friendly royal couple.