My former life as an Army officer afforded me a myriad of opportunities to travel and see the world. My journeys to Iraq and Afghanistan may have added to the rich tapestry of my life experience, but they are far from what I would consider “enjoyable” adventures. Despite these experiences, I continued to immerse myself in the culture, language, and political affairs of the Arab World. For my efforts, I was rewarded with the opportunity to travel the middle east and work with the State Department for over a year. Digging through my records, I’ve uncovered some of my older pieces of writing on the matter (circa 2013-2014). Hopefully, it provides some interesting insights into the region.
Objectives of my Trip:
The purpose for my trip to Jordan was to assess the effects of the Syrian Crisis on the Kingdom of Jordan. I chose as my central research question: How is Jordan being affected by the Syrian Crisis and what are the chances for Jordanian intervention?
I coordinated with the [U.S. Embassy in Amman] who coordinated for my embassy briefs. At the time of my visit, Refugee Camp Visitations were strictly off limits to [visitors such as myself]. In order to prepare for my trip I read the Congressional Research Service’s Paper: “Jordan: Background and U.S. Relations (April 1, 2013).”
Note: The article, “Jordan: Background and U.S. Relations” has since been updated. Current issue is June 1, 2017. To those who have been consistently reading this series of articles, you’ll note I spend a lot of time preparing for these trips by referencing the Congressional Research Service. It is a great resource for gaining insight into U.S. Policy, as it is the comprised of various staff members that research and provide these reports to Members of Congress that either serve on various committees, but also used by Policy Decision-makers to prepare for meetings and travel.
From the very onset of my [life working and living abroad in the Middle East], I was encouraged to front-load my trip to Jordan in my [itinerary], due to instability in neighboring Syria. As a result, the question of Jordan’s own stability was foremost in my mind. In a country where the minority are the Hashemite Arabs and the Majority is comprised of Palestinians (many now patriated Jordanian citizens), Iraqis, and now Syrian Refugees, the kingdom is asking some very hard questions of itself in regards to reform in order to appease the largely non-Jordanian population. In addition to this, Jordan’s Resource-Poor environment is strained further with the influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian Refugees. This was further illustrated to me when I found that over $30 million dollars in Foreign Aid ($10 million for education and $20 million for water) is allocated for Syrian Refugees exclusively in Jordan. This financial aid is supplemented by a $200 million Cash Transfer to assist Jordan with the Syrian Refugee Crisis in general.
I would note the figures for U.S. aid provided to Jordan have changed. Yet, overall, Jordan continues to top the charts as 5th largest recipient of U.S. Foreign Aid (as of 2016); receiving over $1 Billion dollars in economic & development assistance and Security Assistance funds.
Jordan’s position in regards to refugees is further complicated by conditions imposed on Jordan (by the United States) regarding $200 million dollars in military aid: Refugees can neither be forced out of Jordan nor can they be refused entry, and basic services (medical and education) must be provided to them. When travelling further north, more and more people (mainly children in Jerash) will claim they are Syrian refugees/orphans from the Syrian Conflict. Whether these claims are all valid is up to debate, however, it does provide different perspective when conversing with these young people (just be cautious, as they will try and ask for money or a visa to the United States).
As an American private citizen abroad, if ever asked about a United States Visa, always, refer them to the U.S. Embassy or Consulate (or ignore them entirely). You neither possess the authority or influence to make any commitments to potential visitors/immigrants. Also, there are processes in place that you simply cannot bypass, nor affect by giving a complete stranger a recommendation or letter. We want to help and be empathetic, but you could ultimately do more harm than good by making promises you cannot fulfill.
Jordan remains stable for the time being (as of 2013). King Abdullah II is attempting to steer his country closer to a Constitutional Monarchy more akin to Great Britain’s where he would occupy the role of a symbolic Head of State, but these efforts require a great deal of his influence to set the stage for success in Jordan, so, for the time being the Monarchy in Jordan will continue to function as it; an office that holds very wide executive and legislative powers, the position of Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, as well as the authority to appoint a Prime Minister and heads of the security directorates.
I also had an opportunity to meet with representatives from USAID. An interesting detail mentioned in my briefing with USAID, was that they are not allowed to work or subsidize any United Nations Agency’s program. As a result, because Palestinians fall under U.N. programs, USAID is not involved with Palestinian refugees in Jordan (additionally, it was added that, for the most part, many Palestinians today enjoy Jordanian citizenship and thus are not given extra aid).
The question that one ultimately must ask when visiting Jordan is: Why is the U.S. Government investing billions of dollars into a middle-east nation with no strategic resources? The answer is simply that Jordan is the eye of the storm in a turbulent region rife with conflict. Consider Jordan’s Neighbors: Extremist Wahabis in Saudi Arabia, Iraq (and its various forms of sectarian strife and instability), Syrians involved in what some might assess as a “civil war” to the north, and Egypt with its habitual revolutions just across the Gulf of Aqaba. Consider also that Syria’s instability already is threatening Lebanon’s own internal security, and the ever-present boogeyman of Middle East Arab regimes: Israel lies just to the West. In comparison Jordan is a paradise of moderation and stability. The United States’ Government presence here is intended to support, foster, and ensure the continuation of this stability.
So to actually answer my central research question I will close with the following: Jordan’s resources (Water being a prime example of a resource we, as Americans, don’t fully appreciate or understand as being a catalyst for instability when it’s unavailable) are being strained by the Syrian Crisis. The influx of Syrian refugees starts raising questions of their status in Jordan and has also further exacerbated the questions of the legitimacy of the Monarchy among the Palestinian community. It is a tenuous situation that a pessimist can easily fabricate the worst case scenarios for…but it is also certainly within the realm of possibility that the world can at least facilitate a cease-fire or lessening of hostilities to a point where the entire region is not under threat of exploding into a regional conflict.
Ouch! So, revisiting this report drafted in 2013 really brings our current situation into stark contrast. I seem to have been considerably more optimistic four years ago.
Also, it was not covered in my report while in Jordan, but my visitations of the Jordanian International Police Training Center and Prince Al-Hussein Bin Abdullah II Academy of Civil Protection were particularly enlightening with regards to the level and type of support that the Jordanian Government provides to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. You will have to see my report (published sometime in the near future) from my trip to Isreal…my brief time in Israel took me back across the King Hussein Bridge into Jordan for a day.
Regional and Cultural Knowledge
In many ways the cultural shock came during my visit to the U.S. Embassy in Amman. Coming from a relatively small diplomatic mission in the Sultanate of Oman and having just visited Morocco, the U.S. Mission in Jordan is enormous. The embassy stands as a testament to the importance of the region (as a relatively stable and moderate actor in the middle east) and sheer volume of U.S. Aid that flows not only from the military but from organizations such as USAID. The U.S. diplomatic mission to Syria also hangs its proverbial hat at the Mission in Amman for the time being (as you will note, the Embassy in Damascus has been closed since 2012).
Driving through more remote areas of the country en route to Petra or Aqaba, the lack of government influence is readily apparent. In no way did I ever feel my life was in danger, but it was a reminder from my briefs that King Abdullah II had made agreements with tribal leaders in regards to their ability to police themselves. Which leads me to my final note about the Jordanian culture: Many times as we travel in the cities and centers of tourism, one forgets the tribal nature of the country and that this is an important aspect of Arab culture that sometimes we, as cultural novices, neglect in our regional studies.
When travelling to Jordan, please ensure that you do not go “off the grid” and consult with State Department security advisories. There are tribal areas that are dangerous and you should not pass through.
Travel Tips for Jordan
Take time to talk with the Bedouins living in Petra and running the shops out there, in contrast to my trip to Morocco, I found that the Jordanian people have a respect for your space and will not hassle you into buying something you had no intention of buying…yet conversation can still remain lively and interesting over some tea. Take the time to fully explore Petra, it is a massive site with many areas and tombs you can visit (most especially, make the hike up to the Monastery). You can very easily spend two full days exploring the vast stretch of ruins.
For gifts, the U.S. Embassy has a contract with a shop in Adaba (Salam/Peace Shop), the owner is gracious and you can spend a day visiting the workshops of the woodworkers/carpet weavers/mosaic artists. Adaba is renowned for its mosaic work, while high quality works are pricey, if you’re looking for a souvenir it is a worth the investment.
Finally, pace yourself in regards to the Ruins…it can be easy to get “Roman Ruin Fatigue” after a while (that is unless you are a Classics Major from school).
It’s amazing to me, upon reflection, how little attention I have placed on some of the highlights of travelling in Jordan. It was, by far, my favorite Arab nation I visited in the Middle East. Highlights would be:
- Petra (Note: I stayed at the Movenpick, which is conveniently located across the street from the entrance to Petra…if your driving yourself there, do be careful and patient. The road is full of turns and twists and barely enough space for two lanes of traffic).
- The Expansive Roman Ruins at Jerash
- Visitation of Mount Nebo where Moses allegedly died and from where he saw the Promised Land.
- A relaxing trip to the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea
- For those seeking a shorter, less expansive trip, the Citadel in Amman hosts smaller scale Roman Ruins
Something that I haven’t noted in some of my other writings on my trips would be to plug the Lonely Planet Series of Travel Guides. I planned many of my trips relying on the Lonely Planet Middle East Guide (which includes the countries of Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey) If however, you want something more targeted, the guide for Jordan is equally suitable and comprehensive.
Disclaimer: These writings constitute my own observations, opinions and viewpoints seen through the lens of a military veteran and shaped through my interactions with my professional colleagues. It in no way reflects an official statement by the US Government nor are any details being revealed that could constitute a breach in confidence or security.
Thank you for reading. Hopefully you liked this light departure from current US Domestic Affairs ravaging our country. More will follow as I continue to unearth my old records. Please comment, like, and share at your leisure. You can, as always, also follow me on Twitter @streamingdan82
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