By Raed Al-Tabini, PhD, SIT Academic Director in Jordan
Friday, March 22, 2013, marked the first visit by President Obama to an Arab country in his second term. In a sign of respect and continuing friendship, Obama met with the Hashemite Kingdom’s head of state, King Abdullah, to discuss the Syrian situation and peace process in the region.
The visit was highly scrutinized by observers, as Jordan’s continued stability in lieu of geopolitical conflicts and its reliable role as a refugee haven are considered cornerstones of US policy in the region as well as a mitigating factor on the spread of conflicts internationally. As more Syrian civilians die daily and, consequently, more Syrians flee to Jordan, the resource-scarce Kingdom finds its ability to provide sufficient housing, water, and food increasingly strained. This forces the question, from external commentators and residents alike, “When will Jordan close its doors?”
It is unlikely that Jordan will stop admitting Syrian refugees anytime soon. There are a few reasons for this, beyond the already compelling case for taking in women, children, and the elderly.
An under-reported, but important narrative that continues to contribute to the status of Jordan as a refugee haven is that of pan-Arab solidarity, particularly among the Levantine Arab states. While Jordanians are hospitable by nature, there exists a particularly strong bond between Jordanians and their neighbors, namely the Syrians and Palestinians, as a result of the region’s history.
Prior to 1916, the region was administratively referred to as “Greater Syria” by the European powers or, in Arabic, bilad as-sham. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, which arbitrarily divided the region into spheres of influence and control for France and Britain, resulted in the creation of fictional entities and regional denominations virtually overnight.
In many cases, the borders of these newly created states were at odds with tribal boundaries, and, as a result, many tribes were split, for example, with half of one tribe finding itself in Syria and the other half in Jordan. In some cases, a person found him or herself suddenly possessing a different nationality (a new concept at the time) than his or her sibling.
This is why, prior to the peace agreements with Israel, brokered first with Egypt in the late 1970s and later with Jordan in 1994, Arab states had been largely unified politically. National policy differences notwithstanding, a spirit of cooperation remains strong among the countries in the region. As such, to forsake the Syrian people, in the eyes of many Jordanians, would be to sacrifice sisters and brothers, not merely neighbors.
A second current underpins and strengthens the argument that Jordan is unlikely to close its doors to Syrian refugees in the foreseeable future. The country of Jordan, like the United States, has a significant population of residents whose families did not reside within its borders during its inception. Out-migrations in the region following conflicts in nearby Palestine (from 1948 on) and Iraq (during the 1990s and 2000s) sent large amounts of refugees to Jordan. Moreover, Jordan’s economy has attracted large amounts of guest workers from both Syria and Egypt.
Consequently, Jordan’s current population includes 3 million people of Palestinian descent; 500,000 Iraqi refugees; nearly 500,000 Syrian refugees; and 1 million Egyptian guest workers. To deny additional Syrians entry would create a double-standard and undercut Jordan’s legacy as a haven for refugees.
Jordanian hospitality comes at a large cost, however. The number of Syrian refugees in Jordan, at present, is around 500,000. That number is expected to double by the end of the year, resulting in a total of 1 million, if no resolution to the Syrian conflict is reached soon. These numbers may seem trivial to residents of larger Western countries. To Jordanians, however, 500,000 people is around 8% of the country’s total population. Providing for them would be similar to the US government providing housing and nutrition for an additional 25 million people. Should the total number of Syrian refugees reach 1 million, it would be akin to the US providing for an additional 50 million people. Proportionally, the numbers are staggering.
These numbers are put in further perspective by the cost. King Abdullah recently estimated that the current Syrian refuge population is costing Jordan around $550 million a year. For an indebted country, such a large price tag could be prohibitive.
Significantly, as President Obama’s visit demonstrated, the United States recognizes Jordan’s influence as a moderating factor in the region and will act to ease the present refugee challenge facing the Kingdom as a result. On Friday, Obama pledged $200 million in assistance for the Syrian refugees. Meanwhile, King Abdullah rejected closing the Jordanian border with Syria. If these events are indicative of future trends, it is likely that we may see Jordan continue to fulfill its role as a haven for refugees.
Dr. Raed Al-Tabini is academic director of SIT’s Jordan: Modernization and Social Change program based in Amman.