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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 November 2005, 12:07 GMT
'Kingdom of boredom' no more

By Jon Leyne
BBC Amman Correspondent

Jordan used to be known as the safe haven of the Middle East, but not any more. On Wednesday night, suicide bombers attacked three popular hotels, causing heavy casualties. For many people it was the attack that was waiting to happen, and yet somehow it took everyone by surprise.

It was the same conversation I always seemed to have with visitors to Amman.

An injured man is escorted from the Grand Hyatt hotel in Amman, Jordan
Jordan's hotels were seen as safe havens by Westerners
Those hotels would be such easy targets, we always used to say. There's nothing to protect them. It's only a matter of time.

And there really was absolutely nothing to protect them. Nothing remotely to stop a car bomb. Not even any metal detectors at the entrance - standard practice almost everywhere else in the Middle East.

Because, of course, these sort of things never happen in Jordan, do they? It's the place tourists come to, in order to visit part of the Holy Land yet stay safe.

It's the place the UN and the aid agencies moved to once Iraq became too hot. It's the place for a little R and R when you're on your way out of or into Iraq.

Sure enough, the BBC's Baghdad Correspondent, Caroline Hawley, was in Amman on her way back to Iraq when it all happened. She was just sitting down to supper in the Grand Hyatt hotel when a suicide bomber set off his explosives on the floor above.

How ironic, after years in Baghdad, that she witnessed the worst, most awful scenes of her career in quiet old Amman. The Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom, as we always complain.

Secret police

The other big myth about Jordan is that it's a nice, liberal democracy. The good guy among the tyrannies of the Middle East. Well, not exactly.

When I first arrived in Jordan, all my phones were bugged so heavily I could barely carry on a conversation

It's actually illegal to criticise King Abdullah, and people are more afraid to do it than Syrians are, for example, to criticise President Assad.

In fact, Jordan is regarded by many as the most efficient police state in the region. And that's not all bad. It's probably only the power of the mukhabarat, or secret police, that's prevented these sorts of bomb attacks from happening ages ago.

The local mukhabarat headquarters is just near my office. The radio signals they put out are so strong, the satellite TV company almost despaired of getting me a clean signal.

When I first arrived in Jordan, all my phones were bugged so heavily I could barely carry on a conversation. In fact everyone getting a job in this country, however lowly, must get a letter of clearance from the mukhabarat.

The other thing we always say about Jordan is that's it's not really a country at all - just a colonial invention. It has no natural borders, no history as a country, no natural resources, and precious little water. Indeed, a majority of Jordanians think of themselves as much Palestinians as Jordanians.

So here you have a population mostly Palestinian, almost entirely Sunni Muslim (so, sympathetic to the insurgents in Iraq), socially very conservative. And they are ruled over by a king who is best buddy of Britain and the United States, and his lovely wife, who is a favourite on the fashion pages of the glossy magazines.

A recipe, you might think, for disaster. But that's not the way it worked after the bombs went off.

Own goal?

On that first, terrible morning after, there was a fairly half-hearted demonstration against violence - almost certainly government sponsored.

But then the real Jordanians came out, more and more of them, to protest against the violence and terrorism. As they gathered steam, they really seemed to be enjoying themselves, gathering for candlelit vigils, driving around waving flags and hooting horns, sitting together singing patriotic songs.

The other, slightly bizarre thing is that the al-Qaeda offshoot group that said it carried out the bombings seems to have been genuinely surprised by the reaction
They even chanted swear-words against Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant apparently behind the attacks, who had a fair bit of sympathy here before they happened.

There is no doubt that before these attacks, there was a very ambivalent attitude in Jordan to what most people in the West would call terrorism. When I visited the home town of Zarqawi, or went out in Amman to ask people what they thought of about, for example, the London bombings, I would get the same answer trotted out.

"Of course we don't condone the killing of civilians," they would say, "but the numbers involved are tiny. What about the thousands of Muslims being killed by the Americans in Iraq?"

That's a rather harder line to defend when a suicide bomber has just walked in among the guests at a wedding of local people in your capital city. So these attacks really do seem to have changed attitudes.

The other, slightly bizarre thing, perhaps, is that the al-Qaeda offshoot group that said it carried out the bombings seems to have been genuinely surprised by the reaction - as if it somehow thought the people of Jordan might welcome having a few dozen of their citizens blown to pieces.

So maybe this will change the perception of al-Qaeda in the Middle East. Maybe this was the day that al-Qaeda finally managed, even by its own strange standards, to harm its own cause.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 12 November, 2005 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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