This article was originally published at SISMEC.
Hejazis, Palestinians, Iraqis, Chechens…and now Syrians
Sometime in the morning of June 21, Syrian pilot Colonel Hassam Merei al-Hamade walked across the tarmac of the al-Dumair military airport and climbed into the cockpit of a Russian-made MiG-21 fighter jet, determined to desert.
The colonel took off rapidly to avoid radar detectors and flew 110 miles south. Air command lost contact with the jet as it left Syrian airspace at 10:34am. By 11-o’clock, the colonel had landed at the Mafraq airport just inside the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. He was quickly granted asylum, Damascus demanded the jet’s return, and the Syrian paramilitary shabi7a (“ghosts” in Arabic) threatened the pilot’s family, who successfully fled to Turkey.
The deserting pilot landed in a city, whose name means junction in Arabic, not known for, well, much. But Mafraq is now hosting tens of thousands of Syrians as one of the two main refugee centers in Jordan. The other is Ar-Ramtha, where a 16-year-old attempted firearm suicide over poor conditions in the Cyber City camp. Compared to the lavish generosity of Turkey, Jordan’s refugee system is taxed.
It has been so for its entire history.
Jordan is a kingdom of refugees. The ruling family are displaced royalty from the Hejaz, a short-lived and internationally-recognized state in what is now western Saudi Arabia, when the Hashemites were chased out by the forces of Ibn Saud and Abd al-Wahhab. Reeling from this displacement, and the betrayal of Ned Lawrence and Sykes-Picot, the family took up office in Baghdad and Amman with substantial British military assistance.
After its own Mandate period, these royal refugees’ new kingdom of Transjordan was 23 when more than 700,000 Palestinians crossed the Green Line, fleeing the violence of Israel’s birth in 1948. Thirty nine years later, Israeli forces preemptively struck Syrian, Egyptian, Jordanian and American militaries and expanded its borders to include the West Bank of the River Jordan. Another 300,000 Palestinians, some twice-displaced, entered Jordan then in 1967. This population, part of which lives in refugee camps, has doubled since to 2 million.
Tensions between Jordan’s communities exist – and there are socioeconomic divides between Hashemi or Bedu Jordanians, typically in government, and those of Palestinian descent, who are merchants and by far the largest of many groups. Chechens and Circassians came in the meantime, escaping Russian persecution, and whatever else it did, the US invasion pushed many Iraqis, some with cultural ties to Jordan, into the kingdom. Their numbers surged with the violence in 2003 and 2007. The UN estimates 32,000 currently live in Jordan. In total, Jordan’s population is at least a third current or heritage refugees.
Four years later, another conflict on another border means Jordan is once again hosting.
Colonel al-Hamade is a single figure in a mass exodus of soldiers and civilians from the 15-month conflict in Syria which has killed over 15,000. A high-ranking general defected to Turkey June 25 with 22 officers and about a hundred family members, joining an unknown number of other defectors. Over 90,000 Syrians have fled the country, with roughly a third of these refugees going to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan each. The United Nations expects helping them will cost $193 million – and that this refugee population will double by the end of the year.
(These are fuzzy numbers – especially if you’re the Kingdom of Jordan. It stated it has 120,000 Syrian refugees, or a quarter of the UN estimate, and they conflated the numbers of Iraqi refugees, too, in 2007, by perhaps a factor of five to ten.)
These huge influxes of people have real effects – both political and environmental. The kingdom slaked the thirst of the new Palestinians in 1967 by draining the Azraq Oasis, once an enormous, diverse wetland. More competition for resources has pushed prices up for water and energy – and everything in between. Fearing the Arab Spring, the kingdom had subsidized the difference, but in May it, led by the IMF, doubled gas and electricity prices. Rising costs have mixed with the Arab Spring “virus” to fan popular discontent, like a tribal coalition who criticized Queen Rania – perhaps a nativist attack on her Palestinian origins – and her glamorous 40th birthday party.
To bend in the Arab Spring’s wind, if you will, King Abdullah II has promised slow reform of its parliamentary monarchy. He has replaced the prime minister three times since Ben Ali and Mubarak were toppled, given up some of his powers, decentralized the government and announced a package of election reform laws.
On June 28, the king asked parliament to hold an extraordinary session to answer protests from leftists, tribes and Islamists about one of the new election laws focusing on the national legislature. The legislative branch will increase member size from 120 to 140, and each citizen can vote locally and nationally on representatives, but the current law limits the effect of these national votes for political parties to 17 chairs. The Islamic Action Front, which with five percent of the vote is Jordan’s largest single party, called this law “cosmetic.”
Confused? So are Jordanians, who see the complex voting system as an stalling tactic of a worried regime. However, change is coming to Jordan. The question is how much for the the dry and diverse kingdom. As more and more Syrians stream across the border, summer heat further strains resources, and political parties rally, will Amman repeat the haphazard, mistaken destruction of Azraq – or manage a peaceful democratization?