Unrest is spreading in the Middle East, but everywhere it displays a unique character. Take Jordan. In an unprecedented public letter to King Abdullah II, thirty-six of the country's tribal leaders have warned that "Jordan will sooner or later be the target of an uprising similar to the ones in Tunisia and Egypt." The chiefs cite the "suppression of freedoms and looting of public funds" and—boldly—accuse Abdullah's queen, Rania, of "building centers to boost her power and serve her interests, against the will of Jordanians and Hashemites." They conclude by demanding that the guilty parties be brought to trial, "regardless of who they are and irrespective of their rank and importance."
Tribes? Complaining to a king about abuses committed by his queen? What century are we in? And what country? Isn't Jordan a modern nation-state, with a flag, a parliament, and a gross domestic product approaching $34 billion? It is indeed all of those things, on the surface; underneath, something much older is going on.
In some sense, the territories east of the Jordan River mirror those to the west, with one notable difference: instead of the Mediterranean Sea, there is desert. Like the sea, the desert is both a barrier and an open space where groups move according to their own rhythms. The farther one goes from the plateau, the more quickly towns and villages and the agricultural way of life give way to pasturage and finally to the vastness of rock and sand. From year to year the amount of rainfall can vary so widely that rich agricultural lands become pasture, shifting the movement of herders accordingly.
These are the lands of the tribes. Long before Islam, they herded sheep and goats and camels, farmed a little, protected oases and caravanserai, and, for a price, guarded passage through the desert. They were at one with the towns but also apart, ebbing and flowing across the austere landscape and holding a special power over the towns that both feared and relied on them.
Tribes still exist in places like Jordan because the environment is precarious, requiring that risk be shared among families who unite into clans through marriage and imaginary shared ancestors. When times are good, individual parts may keep to themselves; when bad, they support one another. The role of the Emir—commander—is to maintain the elaborate network of alliances from breaking down into (excessive) violence. He accomplishes this through force, persuasion, and the maintenance of a rudimentary form of justice.
It is an ancient pattern, but it persists. In his book on the subject, Lt. Colonel Frederick Peake, who commanded the Arab Legion from 1920 to 1939, noted a bewildering assortment of such tribes, ancient and modern. In all, they make up about 40 percent of Jordan's population—the rest is Palestinian—and supply most of the manpower in the military. They comprise, in short, the "Jordanians," who may be thought of as a kind of tribal confederacy in a nation-state framework.
The king himself descends from one of these desert tribes: the ancient Hashemites, centered in the Hejaz area of the western Arabian peninsula and named for Hashim ibn Abd al-Manaf, the great-grandfather of the prophet Muhammad. The Hashemite chiefs occupy a unique place in Islamic history and Arabian politics. From the 10th century on, they were accorded the role of Sharif (religious leader), as well as Emir of the holy city of Mecca. The arrangement lasted some nine centuries until falling to the surging challenge of nationalism in the early 20th century.
In World War I, sensing larger opportunities, Hussein bin Ali, the Hashemite Sharif, revolted against the area's Ottoman Turkish hegemons and joined the British. But Hussein's gambit, betting the British would back his creation of a vast Arab nation, failed in 1925 when tribes from the interior of Arabia led by Ibn Saud annexed the Hejaz, seized the holy places, and drove out the Hashemites. In the 1930s, when oil was discovered in "Saudi Arabia," the usurpers went on to wield power of a sort the Hashemites had never dreamed of.
In the meantime, as a reward for the Hashemites' help, the British had put one of Hussein's sons, Faisal, on a throne in Damascus in 1920, shifting him a year later to Baghdad. There his ill-fated dynasty ruled until, in 1958, his grandson and family were put up against a wall and shot. Another of Hussein's sons, Abdullah, was luckier, being appointed in 1946 to rule the British-created Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Abdullah was a more talented leader and politician than his brother, though he, too, would succumb to a bullet, in his case delivered by a Palestinian assassin as he was entering al-Aqsa mosque.
Abdullah was succeeded by his son, the late King Hussein. The Abdullah now on the throne is his grandson, born in 1962 to Princess Muna al-Hussein, the former Antoinette "Toni" Avril Gardiner, whom King Hussein met on the set of Lawrence of Arabia in 1961 and divorced a decade later. Like his father before him, Abdullah studied at England's Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and served with British armored forces in Germany. Upon his return to Jordan he reorganized the country's special forces, and today the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center is the largest such facility in the world, its rapid-reaction training being particularly useful for internal security and border defense.
The king has his work cut out for him. If Jordan is a system more than a country, its economy remains a shambles. With a population approaching 6.5 million, less than 4 percent of its land is suitable for agriculture, water shortages are endemic, all of its energy resources must be imported, and unemployment stands at over 13 percent. Corruption, despite token efforts to combat it, is pervasive.
Then there is the 60 percent of the population made up of Palestinians, who are either native to the limited agricultural areas of the East Bank or refugees from the conflicts of 1948 and 1967. Since 1950, when Jordan unilaterally annexed the West Bank, Palestinians have been able to become Jordanian citizens. But they are not Jordanian—a fact of which the tribes' letter reminded the king even as it alluded to his wife's questionable background and activities. (Rania was born in 1970 to Palestinian parents living in Kuwait; she worked in banking and information technology before marrying Abdullah.) Although Abdullah's father repudiated any Jordanian claim to the West Bank in 1988, casting off Palestinians is no easy task, any more than is overcoming Jordanians' hostility to them.
And now events in Tunisia and Egypt have empowered the kingdom's domestic opponents—above all the Muslim Brotherhood, which has led protests alongside the trade unions and professional associations it dominates. At the same time, as the tribes' letter shows, a backlash has begun on the part of Jordanians themselves. Angry at corruption and economic stagnation, fearful of the Muslim Brotherhood, utterly unwilling to be sacrificed in a peace deal with Israel that might see Jordan settling Palestinian refugees once and for all, the tribes, heretofore Abdullah's mainstay, have sent a message from an older Jordan to the modern one: share or we all go down together. It is a statement also about Palestinians and, by extension, Israel.
How Abdullah or any king could square these circles is unclear. But historically, when tribes become angry, the settled zones pay the price.
Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.
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