Fate Like a Sandstorm: Jordan and the Middle East

Photograph Source: DVIDSHUB – CC BY 2.0

Japanese writer Haruki Murakami said fate is like a small sandstorm: ‘You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts.’

As fate would have it, these past 12 months have seen so much chasing and adjusting for Jordan and the mother of all political sandstorms has run amok. Not only an alleged coup but aggressive scrutiny over the Pandora Papers. They say particles of sand vibrate in a sandstorm. Jordan has been royally convulsing.

Every week King Abdullah of Jordan is under attack in the media from some quarter or another. Last week it was Quin Hillyer in the Washington Examiner, showing particular disdain for Jordan’s imprisonment of US citizen Bassem Awadallah, at the same time as pointing out the country is receiving $1.5 billion in aid from the US each year.

Though King Abdullah has refused in one interview with CNN to implicate Saudi Arabia in the case, Awadallah was working as an adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

I’ve always had a soft spot for Jordan. It strikes me as essentially moderate, a place where women are not obliged to cover or wear the veil and abortions are legal. However, what’s happening right now leaves a number of its friends feeling queasy.

For what it’s worth, my natural proclivity for the country comes from the hospitality shown to me in the foothills of Gulf War One. It is a predilection I feel that remains true.

Over thirty years ago, I turned up unannounced to speak to a police chief while trying to make contact with local Bedouins for a film I wanted to make — in Saudi Arabia as well as Jordan — juxtaposing, once in Saudi Arabia, Bedouins in the desert with American F-111s.

Jordan was the perfect place to start.

Years later, it appears under fire. It’s not just Iran and the Palestinians missing out in last year’s Abraham Accords, it’s the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. A terrain inhabited, I am always keen to remind myself, for at least 200,000 years.

‘Hashemite’ — a member of an Arab princely family claiming descent from Hashim, great-grandfather of Mohammed — is maybe the key word here. It’s a solemn connection for the people of Jordan. This was the case when I was first there and it is still the case today. For some it is a source of time-honoured pride.

‘If you start questioning the legitimacy of every nation in the region that didn’t exist 100 years ago you’d soon have quite a list,’ points out Middle East historian Eamonn Gearon, based at the University of Oxford: ‘Libya, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, for starters.’

As everyone knows, the Middle East is a region where instability creates global unrest. Stability in Jordan, like the right to self-determination, is seen by independent observers as indispensable to peace.

Eamonn Gearon also reckons the region is going through a period of uncertainty now on a scale it may not have seen since the First World War and the end of the Ottoman empire. Like Murakami’s sandstorm, things are in perpetual flux.

For my part when discussing Jordan in western company, I like to ask who people believe Jordan’s immediate neighbours are. Few offer the full house of Israel and the West Bank, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia as their answer.

Even less known is the fact that Jordan is presently housing, according to the UN, more than 600,000 refugees from the war in Syria, many still from Iraq, on top of which are two million UNWRA-registered Palestinian refugees.

One prominent Jordanian journalist who wishes to remain anonymous said for this article: ‘Jordan’s geography alone often forces it to make regional and international political decisions. Being in a bad neighbourhood, surrounded by Syria, the West Bank and Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia makes the country vulnerable, therefore it is often just trying to be neutral. It relies on Egypt for natural gas through the Arab Gas pipeline. Also, it is a country with few resources and depends a lot on foreign aid, which also impacts its ability to make its own regional and international decisions. It is also the US’s second largest aid recipient and Germany’s second or third largest aid recipient. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf also contribute to the country itself and to the King personally. It’s a country that cannot afford to take a strong stance, to be itself, if you will. It’s like someone who can never have an opinion.’

It’s not as though Jordan isn’t already struggling. It was already water-poor before the most recent mass influx of people in desperate need of help, which Jordan immediately gave.

So why are we getting these sudden and more pernicious gust fronts and strong winds carrying so much loose sand and dirt into the kingdom? In a desert world, fine particles are transported by saltation and suspension. The only suspension right now should be of disbelief.

On a bad day, and most days right now are pretty bad for Jordan, it is almost as though the kingdom has been selected for sacrifice. Is it just me or haven’t some Arab leaders appeared to become more powerful at the same time?

When I arrived in Jordan for the very first time, there were no visitors. Places like Petra, albeit still exotic, were like empty shells. This wasn’t because of Covid back then but because of plans to flatten neighbouring Iraq.

Fortunately for me the police chief liked my gall and gave me warm advice plus a letter of introduction. Something he typed out himself on an old typewriter on an adjoining table. As a result, my colleague and I disappeared with a kind of tiger in our tank into the desert. We couldn’t believe our luck.

But what would the chief make today of what is happening? On first look the Abraham Accords were essential and impressive, but also enabled Netanyahu and Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mohammed (MBZ) to position themselves successfully with the then US administration.

Netanyahu needed somewhere other than Israel to park the Palestinian problem, and the US needed it parked, not least to retain its role as a regional influencer, with leverage over the entire Arab world, but also to provide a strong foothold to counter both Iran directly and Russian influence in the region through Syria.

More adventurous observers today say Saudi Arabia may also have made a power play with the arranged marriage of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to the Ruler of Dubai’s — Sheik Mohammed’s — daughter Sheika Jalila.

Such a union could provide the Saudis with a legitimate claim to the Hashemite bloodline, and with that, in the absence of Jordan, custody of the Holy Sites in Jerusalem, though none of this, it has to be said, is proven fact. Saudi Arabia would then have held the full house of Holy Sites in the Islamic world, a winning hand, if you like, against Iran.

One further question that remains unanswered is the one about why Princess Haya absconded. Was this to protect both Jordan and her daughter rather than herself?

With my letter of introduction in the belt-looped wallet pouch round my waist, I trudged through the warm sand and clambered up dry red rocks.

I adored my time in and around Wadi Rum, where not a single tourist padded through the sand. I had a fellow Brit with me who was a horseman. I wanted to bond with the famous horse-loving Saudis across the border. I’d also never been with such a good band of men as the Bedouins I was with; not since filming the mujahideen in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan.

Another police chief in Aqaba was also into horses. I learned this while watching his facial expressions as my friend galloped one of his prize horses round a small track.

Some of my new Bedouin friends even allowed me to show what a lousy shot I was with one of their weapons, using carefully piled stones as targets one hundred meters away. Trust became our currency pretty fast. Trust, I was learning, makes for good desert.

It is therefore with a heavy heart that I wonder now if any of them will have taken umbrage at the Abraham Accords. After all, several issues arose within these, not least how to keep Palestine out of Jerusalem and ensure the Islamic world was content with the custody arrangements for the two Holy sites, currently under the charge of Jordan, and specifically the Hashemite bloodline. Jordan, a non-signatory, is now, as a result, considered by some to be an obstacle to its success.

‘The Abraham Accords pose a dilemma for Jordan,’ admits Eamonn Gearon. ‘If Arab states normalise relations with Israel without preconditions regarding the Palestinians, it weakens Jordan’s position as a broker between Israel and the Palestinians. Any such normalisation might also lead to unrest among the Palestinians in Jordan, both citizens and refugees.’

Gearon rightly adds that Jordan is heavily dependent on financial assistance from the Gulf states: ‘Which makes it difficult to speak out too loudly against the Abraham Accords,’ he says.

The prominent Jordanian journalist says of the Accords that they are bad because of the way Jordan was bypassed completely when it came to them: ‘The Trump administration and Saudi Arabia completely neglected Jordan’s traditional role as the mediator and peacemaker in the region. By bypassing Jordan, and without any deal or preconditions for a peace deal with the Palestinians, it was bad. There were papers written in the aftermath about Jordanians questioning their role in the region and even its relevance.’

After Wadi Rum my colleague and I paid for two Bedouins to cross into Iraq. This coincided with the so-called western fugitives eventually brought home by plane. I was wanting the film to be as genuinely ‘Bedu’ as possible. Any kind of wild journeying was valid to me and therefore legitimate. I wanted the desert to be seen as one single vast space inhabited in parallel by an essentially nomadic and unrestricted spirit. This was before our planned trip south across the border into Saudi Arabia.

The ghosts in the ether were not just Bedouin, either. Some, inevitably perhaps, had the likes of Gertrude Bell and T. E. Lawrence attached to them, and we were close to Lawrence’s famous railway line anyway, even his former house.

Every time since when I see David Lean’s film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ again, I am transplanted back to my time there but never can I consider any of this through rose-tinted glasses.

I felt greedy and undeserving. The region’s history, like its natural beauty, felt immense. The goat meat on beds of rice was sumptuous too. I was tiresomely curious. Under those eventful desert night skies, I would ask my hosts so many questions.

One night for example drinking tea made from the dried leaves of various desert plants, I prodded my hosts for their feelings towards Saudi Arabia. We’d just finished discussing Jordan’s Hashemite king.

’The moon is sad tonight,’ declared Ibrahim al-Hirsh, looking up. ‘Why is it sad, Ibrahim,’ I asked? ‘Because he come from Saudi Arabia,’ he said.

It saddens me greatly now to see Jordan so sidelined. Only a car crash back then prevented me from continuing into Saudi Arabia but I had already gained much from my experience. (I was looked after so well by the Jordanians.) At least a part of my Bedouin story was picked up by former CBS News president Susan Zirinsky — Holly Hunter’s character was inspired by Susan in the film ‘Broadcast News’ — and put out across the US.

I wonder though if any of the people in the film are pointing fingers at anyone now. Would they not think the recent wave of accusations pinned on Jordan for example only helps create division in the Royal Household between King Abdullah and his unfortunate half-brother Prince Hamzah?

’There are those at home and abroad who question the legitimacy of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan but that is the view of a small ill-informed minority,’ says Eamonn Gearon.

King Abdullah of Jordan is now forced to punish both internally and publicly, creating animosity on the streets as well as within the Household. But people do say he has more resolve than expected and is showing signs of rallying, despite being isolated from family and distrustful now of key advisors.

By even the wildest stretch of imagination, Jordan cannot be considered the worst culprit in the region. It is as though present media coverage is only intended to upset the people of Jordan.

Even King Abdullah’s longest and most objective ally — the UK — has been on the end of a £14 billion investment charm offensive from the UAE, which coincidentally comes right across exposure of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s abduction and imprisonment issues.

It is also noteworthy that nearly £400m was pushed directly at Cambridge University whose very streets saw the abduction of Sheik Mohammed’s daughter Sheika Shamsa. (Talks over the £400m have since broken off, according to the university’s vice-chancellor, after claims about the use of controversial Pegasus hacking software.)

People also know that these tensions are not only created by regional players but also played out by the US and Russian states in a bid to ensure dominance in the area where arms sales are annually in their billions.

That is why it is so sad for me even on a purely personal scale. To witness folk seemingly prepared to sacrifice the only King in the game arguably worth saving is heartbreaking. Imperfect but impartial, King Abdullah of Jordan has been a constant voice of calm and reason in the region. Who would not want that?

As noted, Japanese writer Murakami said when you change direction the sandstorm still chases you, that if you turn again, the storm adjusts. But what if the sandstorm itself changed direction?

Peter Bach lives in London.