juliette kayyem

The nimble king

A teacher at a UNICEF-run school for Syrian refugees rang a bell in October at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan
Getty Images
A teacher at a UNICEF-run school for Syrian refugees rang a bell in October at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

AMMAN, Jordan

The Mafraq highway leads away from Jordan’s capital city of Amman to the border. On the other side is Syria. No one visits there anymore; to be at the checkpoint now, as a civil war rages in Syria, is a disquieting experience, as if by taking one more step in you would tumble into a vortex towards hell. The flow of people, the terrified citizens who chose — if choice is the right word — to leave their land is one-way only, to a refugee camp in Jordan.

I came here because I believed the hype: Jordan is next! Many people believe that the dual stress of the Syrian exodus and a bad economy will turn the Arab street in Jordan against its beloved king. After November’s uprisings in Amman in response to increases in fuel prices morphed into a rally against King Abdullah II, the conventional wisdom in policy circles and the media turned heavy with anticipation: This king will fall.


But there should be no conventional wisdom about Jordan, no clear assumption of where it might be heading. The green signs on Mafraq to help guide drivers seem like mirrors into Jordan’s destiny: straight to Syria, turn right to Iraq, hard right to Saudi Arabia, a left to the West Bank, and a U-turn to Egypt. Take your pick.

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It seems, at least for now, King Abdullah is choosing “none of the above.” Given his neighborhood, it’s as good a plan as any.

On a flat plain of makeshift tents, 40,000 or so Syrians seek comfort at the Zaatari refugee camp. Relief workers and volunteers distribute blankets for the mostly women and children who will spend the winter here. The entire camp is easy to miss from the highway as it lies a few miles from the road, tucked under a small hill. Drive over the hill, and the scene is a vast tent city, exposed to the cold and wind at odds with the desert sand.

There is no easy way to find Zaatari; it is simply not marked and visitors are not welcome. The Syrian refugees, possibly 200,000 of the estimated 500,000 who have fled Bashar Assad’s assaults, are nothing new for Jordan. This is, after all, a country that managed nearly a million Iraqi refugees during the war that began in 2003; Palestinians, who arrived when Israel was created in 1948 and ever since during uprisings and dislocations, outnumber Jordanians now. Jordanians are circumspect about the camps; they are seen as a tragedy, but not necessarily Jordan’s to remedy alone.

The stress that King Abdullah finds himself under is not from these Syrian visitors. The challenge is how to manage reform without managing himself out of power. His stated philosophy, tailor made for an anxious West, is that the Arab Spring has actually liberated him to push through reforms that a recalcitrant bureaucracy has historically opposed. It is a tricky balance for any monarch: In Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, for example, the royals will have none of this freedom talk. The younger monarchs in Morocco and Jordan are experimenting in fitful starts and stops.


Syria’s unrest is not only a burden, it also provides the king with a cautionary foil: Change can be managed, or it can be deadly. The Jordanians, at least for now, are handing Abdullah the luxury of time. The uprisings are not pervasive, and the king is trying to head off larger protests by addressing systemic concerns over corruption and transparency. Parliamentary elections will be held in January. Abdullah announced last Thursday that he was releasing all the protesters arrested in November’s uprising. He is, if nothing else, a nimble king.

And he has an eldest son. The picture of King Abdullah with his heir, Crown Prince Hussein, is on billboards, building facades, and even scarves. I had never seen them together before; Hussein just came of age this summer.

Are the pictures meant to comfort Jordanians surrounded by chaos, remind them that this king is family-friendly, or serve as a threat that the next leader has already been chosen? It is difficult to decide whether the pictures are a reflection of an underlying insecurity or certainty that Prince Hussein will one day sit on the throne. This is a kingdom where the signs lead in all sorts of directions.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem.