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Friday, February 5, 1999 Published at 12:32 GMT

World: Middle East

Jordan: The challenges ahead

Bread riots in 1996: Jordan faces deepening poverty

By former Amman Correspondent Kumar Malhotra

Surrounded by threatening neighbours, starved of resources and with a population that includes large numbers of refugees, Jordan hardly seems a viable proposition.

King Hussein speaking after reaching a peace accord with Israel in Washington (1994)
The desert kingdom emerged out of the post-World War I carve-up of the Middle East by Britain and France. The population at that time was largely bedouin tribesmen, who were followers of King Hussein's grandfather, Abdullah - himself originally from Arabia.

Jordan's sorrow
Today, these families - known as East Bank Jordanians - are outnumbered by the descendants of Palestinian refugees from Israel and the West Bank.

The numbers of people of Palestinian origin remains a highly sensitive subject. The real number is not known, but most estimates say at least half of the five million population may have Palestinian ancestry.

The Palestinian majority

Successful in business and trade, these Jordanians of Palestinian origin are largely excluded from the key centres of power. The army, the police, the security services and top government positions are dominated by East Bank Jordanians.

[ image: Palestinians form the majority]
Palestinians form the majority
There are other groups with links outside the Kingdom - Chechens and Circassians who migrated from Russia, Syrians who left to escape political turmoil back home, and Iraqis who have sought refuge from the misery of sanctions in their country.

But it is the Palestinians - particularly the poor inhabitants of the refugee camps - who are potentially the most disaffected element.

Economic stagnation

[ image:  ]
Economic well-being largely disguised the lack of common interest between these groups. In the 1970s and 1980s, Jordan was kept afloat by foreign aid, money sent back by Jordanians working in the oil-rich Gulf states and trade with Iraq.

But the aid and the jobs dried up after the Gulf crisis, when Jordan refused to back the use of force against Iraq.

Since then the country has struggled against deepening poverty. Its own meagre resources are limited to phosphates and agricultural produce.

It has no oil of its own, relying on cheap imports from Iraq under a special barter deal.

The advent of peace with Israel has not produced the bonanza many Jordanians hoped for, although there has been some increase in tourism.

A sign of the rising level of discontent came in August 1996, when the south of the kingdom was rocked by riots after an increase in the price of bread. King Hussein called in the army to put down the protests.

To add to the sense of impoverishment, water supplies are under increasing pressure. The peace treaty with Israel provided some extra water, but with a high level of population growth, Jordan is likely to face a crisis in years to come.

A difficult inheritance

Increasing numbers of Jordanians believe their country must modernise its institutions if it is to tackle these challenges successfully.

[ image: Jordan has no oil of its own]
Jordan has no oil of its own
King Hussein began a process of liberalisation in the early 1990s, allowing political parties to operate, freeing up the press and holding elections.

However, fears over internal stability, growing criticism of the peace process with Israel and concerns over Iraq caused the king to hesitate.

The trick for Abdullah will be to balance the growing calls for reform with the stability which his father worked so hard to maintain.

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