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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 December, 2000, 12:06 GMT
Jordan feels Mid-East tensions
By Tim Whewell
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Petra this Christmas is a forlorn place. The camels which normally take tourists for rides around the ancient rose-red city are sitting on the ground with their legs folded under them, spitting irritably into the dust.

Anti-Israeli demonstrators in Amman

A short distance away, below the towering sandstone columns of the Treasury, carved out of the sheer cliff-face, the beasts' owners are huddled round a brazier. For weeks, they have had almost no custom.

The problem at Jordan's biggest tourist attraction isn't the weather. Even in mid-winter, in the car park at the entrance to the Siq - the narrow winding ravine that leads to the 2,000-year-old ruins - there would normally be 50 coaches. The morning I was there, there was not even one.

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The reason, to the fury of guides and hoteliers, has nothing to do with Jordan.

The mass cancellations are caused by the violence across the border in the West Bank and Gaza, where the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis has cost more than 300 lives.
For better or worse, Jordan is inextricably linked with Israel by history, geography and people

For better or worse, Jordan is inextricably linked with Israel by history, geography and people.

The two states were once part of a single British-run territory. They share control of the Dead Sea and their twin Red Sea ports of Aqaba and Eilat are a few minutes walk apart. Even between the two cities of Amman and Jerusalem, it's only an hour and a half's drive.

More than half of all Jordanians come from Palestinian families who originated in what is now Israel, the West Bank or Gaza.

And the signing of a peace treaty between the two countries in 1994 led to a boom in tourism to Jordan, with more than 100,000 Israelis visiting each year, and many people from further afield taking in the sights of both states at once.

those Jordanians who do business with Israel are mostly unwilling to talk about it openly
Now, Bishara Sawalha, one of Jordan's leading tour operators, is devastated. He points out that his country is completely peaceful - but he accepts that he's unlikely to see much upturn in trade until the intifada - the Palestinian uprising - is over. No-one knows when that will be.

But the wider problem is that anti-Israel feeling in Jordan is now running so high that few people are prepared to admit that the peace treaty has brought any economic benefits at all. And those Jordanians who do business with Israel are mostly unwilling to talk about it openly.

One of the few who will is Omar Salah. Even before the treaty was signed, when such trips were still technically illegal, Salah, then in his late 20s, made a pioneering trip to Tel Aviv to seek new partners. He cold-called Israeli firms who were so amazed to hear from a Jordanian that they invited him round immediately.

Today, Salah owns a textile factory in Israel. And he's joint owner, with Israeli partners, of several plants in the north of Jordan.

Salah has also played a key role in the creation of QIZs - Qualifying Investment Zones. QIZs are areas within Jordan from where goods can be exported duty free to the United States, provided there's been an element of Israeli involvement in their manufacture.

The scheme is one of the many "carrots" America has offered to advance the peace process. And the first QIZ, where Salah's factories are based, has attracted $360m of investment and created several thousand jobs.

In the zone, near Jordan's second city, Irbid, local women sew together underwear bound for brand-name outlets in the West - Calvin Klein, The Gap, Victoria's Secret, and many more. The fabric comes from Israel and the finished goods, marked "Made in Israel," are shipped out via the Israeli port of Haifa.

Some of the seamstresses come from Palestinian families. But all those I spoke to insisted that their feelings about the intifada didn't affect their willingness to work for the company.

The security services do their best to ensure that protest in sensitive areas doesn't get out of hand
Nevertheless, even Omar Salah himself won't say he made the right choice in developing relations with Israel. And that's not surprising. His company, Century Investment Group, heads a blacklist compiled by the so-called "Anti-Normalisation Committee," which wants to end all links with the Jewish state. The list contains not only businessmen, but also cultural institutions and even a school which organised a peace camp for Jordanian and Israeli children.

The head of the committee, Ali Abu Sukkar, says Jordanians should boycott "normalisers," describing them as "outsiders" in the kingdom's society. It's hard to assess how much influence the anti-normalisation committee has.

It's backed by groups that should be pillars of the Jordanian establishment - professional associations representing such groups as lawyers, architects, doctors and engineers.

But although Jordan is one of the more democratic Arab states, the security services do their best to ensure that protest in sensitive areas doesn't get out of hand.

And foreign policy is generally accepted to be the preserve of the monarchy, which remains committed to the peace treaty with Israel as part of its general pro-Western orientation.

While the intifada continues, however, the government is in a difficult position. The deputy prime minister, Dr Muhammad Al-Halaiqa, describes it as "walking on circus wire."

"There is growing frustration among people," Dr Al-Halaiqa admits. "The number of peace supporters is diminishing." Even in parliament, he says, there have been calls for the treaty to be abrogated.

Nevertheless, while the government condemns Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza, and King Abdullah himself started a campaign to donate blood for victims of the conflict, Jordan has given no military or financial backing to the Palestinian fighters.

Dr Al-Halaiqa insists that he's still an optimist. In the long run, he says, the peace process will get back on track. But few Jordanians are currently prepared to look that far ahead. The anger is still too great.

And this is a country where for many people, politics comes before all other concerns. As one of Jordan's leading industrialists, Othman Bdeir told me: "If people are given a choice between having a good economy and seeing what the Palestinians are subjected to, most people would do away with economic progress."

Also in this edition of Crossing Continents: why many Jordanians - especially educated women - are becoming hooked on tranquillisers, and a peep into the little-known world of Arabian pigeon keeping.

call for the closure of the Israeli Embassy

condemns Jordanians who "normalise" with Israel

says Jordan should look to Iraq, not Israel

Crossing Continents


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Timeline: Jordan
07 Dec 00  |  Middle East
Israel withdraws Jordan families
06 Dec 00  |  Middle East
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06 Dec 00  |  Middle East
US-Jordan trade agreement
24 Oct 00  |  Middle East

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