Between continuing atrocities in Syria and the ongoing battle to dislodge Islamic State fighters from Mosul — Iraq’s second-largest city — politicians and pundits often overlook the crippling impact of the region’s turmoil on a third Arab country: Jordan.
But it’s hard for Dina Kawar to think about anything else.
As Jordan’s new ambassador to the United States, Kawar knows the dangers all too well. For the two years preceding her current assignment, she represented her small desert nation before the United Nations Security Council, with the last six months of that period as co-facilitator specifically on the refugee crisis.
“Our refugees are living for the most part in cities, so we must share our resources even though we’re the second-poorest country on Earth in terms of water per capita,” she told The Washington Diplomat in an interview at her Kalorama residence. “We’re opening up our schools to everybody, meaning they now have to do morning and afternoon shifts. Hospitals are offering free health care to Syrians. This puts a huge burden on the government. We have a hard time maintaining our budget.”
About 20 percent of Jordan’s GDP now goes to help Syrian arrivals, she said, estimating that the refugee influx is costing the kingdom about $2 billion a year — not to mention the social and political upheaval it has sparked.
According to a national census conducted in November 2015, Jordan’s population now stands at just over 9.5 million. That includes 2.9 million foreigners, of which the biggest group by far is Syrians (1.3 million, or 13 percent of the total population). Jordan is also home to large numbers of Palestinians, Egyptians, Iraqis, Yemenis and Libyans.
Syrians can be found mainly in Amman, the capital, and in the northern governorates of Irbid, Mafraq and Zarqa. About 640,000 are registered with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and 9 percent of them live in refugee camps. Not only are the refugees straining Jordan’s social services, budget and patience, the violence in neighboring Syria and Iraq has cut off critical trade routes, further squeezing the economy.
In early February, Jordan secured $1.7 billion in grants at a London conference aimed at strengthening the country’s resilience in dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis.
“This Jordan Compact was supposed to boost the economy so that Jordan itself could offer the Syrians employment, health care and education. The problem is that our own unemployment rate is about 15 percent, so we have to be careful in how we go about this,” said Kawar, noting that Jordan has actually received less than a third of the money donors have pledged over the last five years.
“While Syrians didn’t cause the spike in Jordanian unemployment, they exacerbate the problem,” wrote David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Only a small percentage of the refugees live in camps; the vast majority of them live in the kingdom’s cities and towns, where they rent homes and participate in the local economy” — and compete for both high-skill and low-skill jobs.
“There are employment opportunities in Jordan — but not for jobs Jordanians want,” Schenker added. “Part of the problem is a mismatch of skills and vacancies: More than 90,000 students register for university every year, leaving 16 percent of college graduates unemployed. Even more are underemployed. The dearth of appropriate local opportunities drives many Jordanians abroad. Today, according to the Jordanian government, half of the kingdom’s engineers work in the Gulf. The numbers are comparable in other professions.”
At the same time, Jordanians have witnessed a worrying outbreak of radical Islamic extremist activity at home — even among Sunni Muslims who belong to the minority Hashemite sect that has long ruled the country. While the attacks have been sporadic, they’ve raised fears that the wave of radicalism sweeping the region could engulf Jordan, an island of relative calm and a key U.S. security ally.
In December, gunmen in the southern city of Karak killed at least 10 people, including seven security officers and a Canadian tourist, and injured over 30 after a shootout with police, who were sent to check on a suspicious house fire. A large cache of weapons and explosives were later found in the gunmen’s apartment. Four of the gunmen were captured or killed; authorities are still investigating the motive behind the attack.
In November, a Jordanian soldier at a military base killed three American soldiers who were part of a CIA program to train Syrian rebels; officials are still investigating whether the incident was a mistake or whether the shooter had links to terrorist groups. Last year, a Jordanian police officer killed two Americans and three others at a police-training center in Amman. In June, five people were gunned down at a national intelligence office branch in the Baqa’a refugee camp for Palestinians, just north of Amman. Later that month, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a car bombing on the border with Syria in which seven Jordanian soldiers died.
In August, a Wall Street Journal article quoted a State Department report accusing Amman of being “reticent to acknowledge domestic radicalization.” The article went on to warn that Jordanian jihadists are speaking out more openly these days in support of the Islamic State.
“That openness, along with a rare spate of terror attacks, illustrates how the threat of Islamic extremism has spread in this relatively stable U.S. ally, which has long served as a bulwark against terrorism in the Middle East,” the newspaper reported. It noted that unemployment among the under-30 crowd — more than 70 percent of Jordan’s population — now stands at 30 percent, more than twice the global average, according to a 2015 report by the International Labor Organization.
Perhaps as a consequence, Jordan now ranks third among Arab countries — after Tunisia and Saudi Arabia — in the total number of foreign fighters it has sent to Syria and Iraq. About 2,500 Jordanians now bear arms on behalf of the Islamic State.
The task of trying to keep the threat of Islamic radicalism at bay falls to King Abdullah II, Jordan’s moderate, pro-Western ruler who took over the country after his father’s death in 1999. Although there have been grumblings about Abdullah’s rule, most Jordanians aren’t agitating for the type of Arab Spring-inspired change that upended the region, especially now with the Islamic State on the loose.
“There have been attempts to infiltrate the country, but luckily our security forces are doing a great job,” Kawar commented. “His Majesty [King Abdullah] has always said that to fight Daesh [a derogatory Arabic term for the Islamic State], you need a military approach in the short term, a security approach in the medium term and in the long term you have to work on the ideology — and on changing the mindset,” she said. “The youth must realize that all this Daesh propaganda is rubbish, and that it’s not worth joining.”
To that end, Kawar defended her government’s decision to shut down mosques whose imams preach radical Islam or advocate violence to achieve their goals.
“It’s not about censoring their preaching; it’s about making sure the correct Islam is being preached. It’s been used in the wrong way,” she said. “We need programs to preach and counter what Daesh is doing by using what most youth use: social media.”
Kawar says she considers herself lucky in that her government has a strong voice in Washington.
“Jordan has strong ties with the U.S., with this administration, with Congress and with both parties. That makes our work very enjoyable, but I wouldn’t say easy,” she said. “At least our concerns are heard and taken seriously. People here realize that in the fight against Daesh, Jordan is pivotal. But in spite of our difficult situation, we have to continue with the reform process. We just finished our elections not too long ago, and we’re working a lot on improving gender issues.”
Jordan, one of only two Arab countries to have signed a formal peace agreement with Israel (the other is Egypt), also managed to avoid the bloodshed that gripped much of the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia in late 2010 and later spread to Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen.
“His Majesty reacted very quickly to the Arab Spring by opening up a dialogue and allowing demonstrations to take place,” Kawar explained. “They went on for weeks and weeks, in a very peaceful way, with no deaths. The police were there to make sure everybody was safe. For Jordanians, security is sacred. They realize the importance of making sure Jordan does not fall into chaos.”
Indeed, a Dec. 21 report in the Christian Science Monitor following the Karak attack noted that ordinary citizens picked up guns, clubs and stones to help security forces flush out the suspected Islamic State fighters — a sign that the group has had problems establishing a foothold in the country.
“After watching cities, villages, and vast regions in neighboring Iraq and Syria fall to the jihadist group as their residents turned on each other, Jordanians instead reached for national unity to confront IS [Islamic State],” wrote Taylor Luck, noting that numerous attacks have been foiled thanks to public tips. “Jordan’s relatively small population of 9 million and the intermarriage among various tribes and families … make much of the country act like a cohesive family unit in times of crisis.”
In a sense, Kawar embodies this national cohesiveness. The new ambassador (who is related to Karim Kawar, Jordan’s envoy here from 2002 to 2007) is a Christian woman representing a male-dominated, Muslim society in which Christians make up only 4 percent of the population.
“I’m only reminded of this by Westerners. Otherwise, in Jordan, I don’t feel it,” she said. “I am Christian, but I feel Jordanian more than anything else.”
Kawar speaks impeccable English; she’s also fluent in French. She spent seven years in the United States getting her master’s degree at Columbia University and doing post-graduate work at Harvard. For 12 years, she also lived in Paris, where she was Jordan’s ambassador to France with accreditation to Portugal, the Vatican and UNESCO. Kawar was then transferred to New York to represent Jordan on the Security Council before arriving in Washington in 2016 to take up her current position.
Kawar was only the sixth woman in U.N. history to occupy a seat on that council — and the first woman ever from the Arab world.
Gender inequality continues to be a problem in the Hashemite Kingdom, along with an unequal distribution of income and much higher consumer prices ever since the first waves of Iraqi refugees began arriving in the early 1990s. Per-capita income today stands at around $5,000, yet the costs of real estate, electricity and even water have gone up sharply in recent years.
To offset the coming water crisis, in 2013, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed a water-sharing deal authorizing construction of a canal linking the Red Sea to the shrinking Dead Sea. This “Red-Dead” canal project — whose first phase alone costs $900 million — involves building a conveyance system to transfer 300 million cubic meters of water annually from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, which could completely evaporate by 2050 if nothing is done. The plan also envisions building a desalination plant that could produce up to 85 million cubic meters of fresh water a year.
“This project has taken 15 years, and we’re now in the process of getting funds,” explained Kawar, whose country is 92 percent desert. “The level of the Dead Sea is falling one meter a year because its sources from the north have dried up.”
Jordan is also energy-poor. Unlike Egypt to the west and the wealthy Arab Gulf kingdoms, sheikhdoms and emirates to the east, Jordan has no oil or gas. To cope with that problem, the country is trying to develop nuclear power while diversifying into wind and solar power. It has also signed a highly controversial $10 billion, 15-year deal with neighboring Israel to import liquefied natural gas from Israel’s Leviathan offshore gas field in the Mediterranean.
But the more immediate threat to the economy is the spillover effect from Syria, whose six-year bloodbath continues unabated. With that in mind, we asked Kawar what she thinks of President-elect Donald Trump, who, among other things, has promised to work with Russia to defeat the Islamic State, even it means keeping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power.
A seasoned diplomat, Kawar was measured in her response.
“It’s no secret” that Washington and Moscow are already cooperating in their efforts to destroy the Islamic State, she said. “The problem is the Syrian issue and getting to some sort of transitional government. Assad will not be able to stay forever. That’s something we cannot discuss ahead of time or predict ahead of time.”
She added: “I think most diplomats — whether from the Arab world or otherwise — are holding their breath. We’re all very curious. A campaign is a campaign, but when one comes to the Oval Office, the reality is different. The president-elect has in many of his speeches referred to [King Abdullah] as an example of good leadership.”
Kawar spent one and a half years on the U.N. Security Council representing Jordan as one of the council’s 10 rotating members. During her term, which ended in December 2015, she followed Syria closely.
“There is no way out of this problem without negotiations and getting both the Russians and Americans to sit down and talk reasonably,” she told us. “If the Russians do not cooperate with the Americans, it will be very difficult. Once the fighting stops, we’ll be able to get in just to offer basic humanitarian help — even in the Palestinian refugee camps near Damascus. The second challenge is to get all the parties — the regime and the opposition — to sit down together. This discussion phase might take years.”
Kawar insisted that any form of transitional government must stabilize Syria.
“There are no miracles,” she said. “If there were, of course, we would have known about it. What’s important is to fight Daesh together.”
Yet the ambassador said that the region’s problems “should not blind us” from solving one of its most intractable conflicts — the one between Israelis and Palestinians.
“Just because the issue is relatively calm now, it doesn’t mean everything is forgotten. There needs to be a return to the Middle East peace process. The longer we take, the more complicated it gets. And [Israel] needs to stop building settlements.”
Pointing out that King Abdullah is officially the custodian of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque — the third-holiest site in Islam after Saudi Arabia’s Mecca and Medina — Kawar said “it’s not a political as much as a moral patronage. All major issues need to be discussed: Jerusalem, borders and refugees.”
She added: “We have a peace treaty, but everybody knows that normalization between the Arabs and Israel is slower than it should be. Jordanians need to see progress on the Middle East peace process. We always feel like the Arab Peace Initiative was a missed opportunity. Israel had the chance to normalize its relationship with many countries to the benefit of everybody.”
Incidentally, Israel, with which Jordan shares a 238-kilometer land border, also happens to be its neighbor in Washington; both countries have embassies fronting International Drive, NW. Asked about the nature of her relationship with Israel’s ambassador here, Ron Dermer — who has a reputation for supporting hard-line positions on West Bank settlements — Kawar told us: “I say what I think; he says what he thinks. They know what our positions are.”
And if she happens to run into Dermer at a reception or cocktail party, is the encounter generally friendly?
“It’s not violent,” she replied, then quickly added: “When diplomats stop being cordial with each other, it’s the end of the world.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.