Building a safe haven

29 July 2005
The headline in the Jordan Times on 20 June said it all: 'Jordan's security vital to US.' The previous day, visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a press conference in Amman: 'We have no better friend than Jordan, a good friend and a strategic partner in a shared vision of peace and stability and, increasingly, a shared vision of reform in this region.'

As far as Washington is concerned, the Hashemite kingdom is a regional success story. Not only is it a key strategic partner in the war on terror, but it has also embraced a liberal model of reform. Amman is a supporter of the US-sponsored Middle East Partnership Initiative, as well as the wider-reaching Middle East & North Africa Initiative. The kingdom has also gained US praise for the formation early this year of directly elected regional councils, as well as for its efforts to create a private sector led economy.

Along with Egypt, Jordan is a crucial intermediary in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - as much as 67 per cent of the population is of Palestinian descent, and there are nearly 1.75 million registered refugees living in the country, in 10 UN Relief & Works Agency (UNRWA) camps. The kingdom's 1994 treaty with Israel, and its support of the roadmap, are therefore key to the implementation of the Washington-drafted roadmap for peace. Following the Gaza withdrawal scheduled for August, Amman's involvement in the peace process is likely to increase. Four years after the eruption of the Al-Aqsa intifada, Amman returned its ambassador to Tel Aviv on 20 February.

In return, the alliance allows the kingdom to punch well above its weight on the international diplomatic circuit. Amman has privileged access to the corridors of power in Washington and, as a designated partner, is able to make its voice heard on issues crucial to its security.

But the real trade-off to Jordan is economic. Since 2000, Jordanian exports to the US have grown from $63 million a year to $1,100 million in 2004. The kingdom's free trade agreement with the US and its range of special economic zones (SEZs) and qualifying industrial zones (QIZs - see pages 28-29) give local manufacturers preferential access to the US market and are vital to the health of the economy.

This is not the only lifeline. Amman continues to grapple with a substantial budget deficit, while its outstanding external debt currently stands at JD 5,349 million, equivalent to 67.4 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP), according to Central Bank of Jordan statistics. This, and the impact of high oil prices, means that financial aid from Washington has been crucial. In the last fiscal year the US set aside $460 million in aid for Amman, with an additional $300 million in military assistance having already received Congressional approval.

But, in a region not known for its popular support of US foreign policy, the American alliance has its downsides. Amman's recent dealings with its neighbours suggest that its influence as a liberal go-between is limited. At the Arab League summit in Algiers in March, a Jordanian-sponsored pre-summit peace proposal was rejected out-of-hand by nine league members. The proposal left out the usual references to Israel's return of land captured during the 1967 war as part of any full normalisation of relations with Arab states. It was a step too far for most delegates, and the more conservative Saudi Arabian peace initiative was approved instead.

The authorities must also tread a careful line with their own population. Many Jordanians have distinctively ambivalent feelings about the US relationship, and while security is generally tight, there are clearly radical elements at large. On 12 July the trial began in Amman of five Jordanian men charged with plotting attacks against hotels, tourists and general intelligence officers. To the local press, those detained appear to have had l

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