23 August 2008

Holiday in a conflict zone

By Nicola Pratt

I am spending the summer in Jordan — mainly for reasons of work but also for pleasure. The Norwich taxi driver that took me to the airport was rather bemused by the latter idea. After all, Jordan has borders with Iraq to the north east and with Israel and the Occupied Palestinian West Bank to the west—thereby sandwiching the relatively small country of 6 million between the two major regional conflicts. In addition, it shares a border with Syria (a target of US and Israeli hostility) in the north. Yet, Jordan is one of the safest places to visit in the Middle East.

It is impressive what the country has achieved given its geographical location and its limited natural resources, including being one of the only countries in the region not to possess oil reserves. In the past, Jordan, alongside other Arab states, fought wars against Israel (in 1948, 1967 and 1973). The wars of 1948 and 1967 led to an influx of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees into Jordan, making up approximately half of the country's population. At the time, the strain on the country was enormous, with families living in tents, without any infrastructure, and imagining that they would soon return to their lands. Gradually, as it became clear that a deal with Israel that would allow for the return of the refugees would not be imminent, tents were replaced by concrete houses in densely-built refugee camps, cared for by a dedicated UN agency. Today, 13 refugee camps, home to 280,000 people, remain. The vast majority of Palestinians, unlike their compatriots who fled to other Arab countries, were granted Jordanian citizenship, enabling them to re-establish their lives. The majority have been able to move out of the camps and to escape poverty. Peace with Israel in 1994 promised to bring great economic dividends. Yet, people have told me that the benefits have not materialised due to Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which makes cooperation almost impossible.

It is the war raging beyond Jordan's north-eastern border since 2003 that seems to be uppermost in the minds of most Jordanian citizens. Not because of the violence, which spilled into Jordan only once when al-Qaeda in Iraq members set off bombs at several major hotels in the capital, tragically killing 60 people. Rather it is the economic impact of the war that is crippling Jordanians. You only need to step into a taxi to hear about the increasing cost of living and the difficulties of making ends meet. The war signalled the end of subsidised fuel from Iraq at a time of rising international oil prices. Jordanian farmers are exporting food to Iraq, whose agricultural sector has been damaged by the conflict. The shortfall in food in the Jordanian market is being met by more expensive imports from the international market. The rising cost of food and fuel prices meant that inflation increased from 1.6% in 2003 to 6.25% in 2006 with dramatic results for ordinary Jordanians—particularly those living outside Amman who have not benefitted from increased expenditure by some wealthy Iraqis escaping the conflict at home. Jordan is haven to possibly over half a million Iraqis—not only a result of the 2003 war but also as a result of dictatorship and sanctions previously. However, exact figures are difficult to come by since the Jordanian government treats Iraqis as guests and not refugees. Earlier this year it was reported that there were only 160,000 Iraqis in Jordan and it is possible that the government has overestimated numbers in order to attract international aid to meet the additional costs of hosting them. Whilst some Iraqis residing in Jordan come from the richer sections of society and have bought apartments in posh West Amman as well as frequenting upmarket restaurants and bars, significant numbers of Iraqis are living in poverty, unable to work. Their 'guest' status has made their plight invisible.

Despite the wars and conflicts that wage on Jordan's doorstep and the often negative spill-over effects of these on the lives of Jordanians, the country is undoubtedly a pleasure to visit. It is home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Petra, the 'Red Rose City' carved out of rocks by the Nabateans over 2 millennia ago, and Jerash, one of the best preserved Roman cities in the Middle East. Only yesterday I was visiting Wadi Rum, a national park with breathtaking scenery. It is this image of Jordan that the government is keen to emphasise in order to increase tourism revenues. However, only a real and lasting regional peace will help to bring prosperity to the country.