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Last Updated: Sunday, 30 April 2006, 12:29 GMT 13:29 UK
'Privatising' the peace process
by Jon Leyne
BBC News, Qatar

Amman, Jordan
Jeans made in Jordan are exported to the US without duty
On an industrial park in the middle of Jordan, rows of factory workers stitch jeans for the American market.

On a good day they can turn out thousands of pairs and put in a shipment to New York and the mid-west.

For the owners of this factory, the economics make good sense but this is really a political project designed to change the Middle East.

More than a decade ago, Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty. But it is cold peace - there is little trade or travel between the two countries.

Among ordinary Jordanians, the treaty is deeply unpopular.

Hence this scheme designed to encourage interaction between the two countries.

Politically speaking, it is an excellent tool devised by the United States to privatise the peace process
Montaser Oklah, Jordanian Ministry of Industry and Trade

The jeans being made in Jordan are allowed into the United States without duty or quota restrictions.

To secure that valuable concession, they must have 8% Israeli contents.

"That's a big advantage - one of the main reasons we came here," explained the director of the company, Ali Imran.

"Ultimately, we are business people, we have to look after our business."

Businessmen like Mr Imran have helped produce a huge expansion in Jordanian exports to the United States.

Poverty and unemployment

They now stand at just over US$1bn a year.

There is just one small problem. Almost all of the factories set up under the scheme are foreign-owned. And most of the workers are foreign as well.

At the factory I visited, it was a veritable United Nations.

On the sewing machine are workers from India, Taiwan or Bangladesh. In the canteen, a stream of Sari-clad women queue up for lunch - ferociously hot curry.

Map of Jordan
Jordanian exports to the US now stand at just over US$1bn a year

This is truly globalisation in action - at one desk a Sri Lankan woman operates a Japanese sewing machine, which was made in China for a Pakistani company to export clothes to the United States.

It is easy to forget this factory is actually in Jordan, and easier still to question what benefit comes to Jordan.

In this workplace, less than a third of the workforce are Jordanian - who congregate around jobs seen as more prestigious.

Yet this is a country where poverty and unemployment are major problems.

"People say there is unemployment in Jordan but when you advertise the vacancies the workers are not available," explained Mr Imran.

"If anyone is desperate to do the work, the jobs are available."

'Menial work'

Many Jordanians are reluctant to take on jobs in which the basic wage is only US$80 a month.

But there are cultural issues as well. Jordanian men are cautious about allowing women to go to work especially for a foreign boss.

They are even more reluctant to take on for themselves menial work on a sewing machine.

When you go out into the streets and speak to the average Jordanian citizen, he or she will start talking about the number of people that are being killed... not tell you anything about the new jobs being established
Montaser Oklah

Despite the problems, Montaser Oklah, of the Jordanian Ministry of Industry and Trade, extolled the virtues of the scheme.

"Politically speaking, it is an excellent tool devised by the United States to privatise the peace process," he explained.

"What is meant by that is to allow people from both sides - the Jordanians, the Israelis as well as the Palestinians - to feel and realise the benefits of the peace process."

Mr Oklah insists the scheme boosts exports investment and job opportunities in Jordan.

But even he admits it has done little to change attitudes in Jordan towards Israel.

"When you go out into the streets and speak to the average Jordanian citizen, he or she will start talking about the number of people that are being killed, the number of bombs that are being exploded and they will not tell you anything about the new jobs being established, about the total exports that have been boosted as a result.

Israeli Labour Leader Shimon Peres
Shimon Peres spoke of the potential for a common market

"Unfortunately, this is a conflict that has been taking place for quite some time. You cannot forget or expect people to forget that overnight."

Israel dreams of being accepted in the Middle East as just another country.

Former prime minister and architect of the Oslo peace process Shimon Peres has spoken about the potential for a Middle Eastern common market.

In that happy scenario, as Israel sees it, the people of the Arab world would reject extremism in favour of the jobs and prosperity, which Israel could spread across the region.

But it is clear from the experience of Jordan, that the goal of interdependence between Israel and its Arab neighbours is still a very, very long way away.




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