If you say the words “Middle East”, you evoke a familiar set of images in a listener’s head. Violence, conflict, general poverty alongside significant oil wealth, arms, terrorism, corruption – an unstable mess where the next load of misery is just waiting to fall on you.
This creates problems for journalists, because there are only certain stories people will read. Few wish to remember that Lebanon was once the Las Vegas of the region, and still has the potential to be a powerhouse if left to its own devices. Nor do they wish to hear positive stories from conflict countries, because these can be seen as supporting one side or another, and that might turn out to be the wrong side, as far as those who bankroll the media outlets are concerned.
So why is it we do not hear more stories about the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan? After all, it ticks all the boxes. Muslim, autocratic, bang in the middle of all the regional conflicts, there should be a lot of interest in what Jordan is doing and what the effect of it is. Doubtless most Jordanians just want to live in peace, but so do most Syrians, Lebanese, Israelis and Iraqis. If others won´t allow that, and support their nnarratives through the world’s media outlets, the same should be happening in Jordan.
Yet the Kingdom seems to rise above it all – not exactly prospering, but not getting its hands too dirty. We hear about its involvement in the Arab League, one of the least effective international organisations ever, and it is thus implied that Jordan prefers diplomacy to conflict, and is therefore the neighbour other regional countries should also be. But we never hear much about the internal goings-on in Jordan, whereas we hear a lot about those in other regional countries because they are taken to prove a point.
As always, there is a good reason why Jordan is separated from its brethren, kept in some sanitised corner where it is just an accident that it is part of the “Middle East” and “Arab World”. No one wants to fit it into the usual boxes because it is too useful to others to let it be something else.
If Syria or Iraq were allowed to be Jordan they would not be a lot different to now, but no one would find the same problems with that which they currently have.
Jordan is left alone because it is ultimately the model the great powers want other regional countries to follow – but drawing attention to the fact would prove embarrassing, so they won’t say it out loud. Jordan needs to be there to show the model works – but as ever, it can only be judged to work if you have pretty one-sided criteria to begin with.
Much has been done in the Middle East in the name of supply routes for energy, arms and drugs. Obviously therefore the ideal Middle Eastern country, in the eyes of the other countries which interfere there, is one in which corrupt deals with the authorities, which bypass the rule of law, are an accepted part of life, but serve Western interests rather than those of the locals if there is a conflict between those two things.
In June Jordan’s government was forced to resign by massive protests against yet another IMF-imposed austerity programme – none of which have actually improved the economies of one single country they have been applied to. The new government is up against the same forces which prevail in Greece – it has to promise the earth, but will never be allowed to actually do things differently because the economics faculties long ago weeded out anyone who might propose different policies to the ones which keep failing, again and again, as their credibility rest on removing alternatives to that failure.
So to shore itself up the mew Jordanian government, popular but dim, it is using the usual trick of blaming the previous government for deep-rooted, longstanding problems without actually addressing those underlying problems. For this reason it has begun an investigation into what is known as the “cigarette case” – in which it is alleged senior members of the previous government conspired with a criminal syndicate to produce fake versions of various popular cigarette brands on a factory scale, an undertaking so significant in scope that only the richest and best connected could have been involved.
There will always be a global market for fake cigarettes. Developing countries have long been used as dumping grounds for the high tar products now banned in most Western countries, and Western branding is still as effective there as it was in the West itself when cigarette use was glamorised by film stars and the like. Tobacco farmers are not going to earn a living, or perhaps be allowed to operate, without Western sponsorship, even if the end products are not genuine, or inferior to those same branded products as sold in Western countries.
So who stands to benefit from such a trade? As with many other forms of agriculture and fishing, the vast proportion of the profits only seems to end up in Western pockets, not those of people in producer countries, who can be bought off for much less. When illegality is brought into the equation, even fewer profits trickle down to the producers: in the nature of things, if you don’t accept the unfavourable terms, the criminality of your work can be held over your head.
Any fake cigarette scheme in Jordan would have been conducted by Western brands which are trying to maximise their profits by avoiding laws and regulations – by any means possible, therefore. They may claim that the branding is counterfeit, the packaging produced elsewhere, but they all have known suppliers. You may be able to knock off authentic-looking rogue packaging, but you can’t get anything to put in those packets without the brand manufacturers knowing about it, and being complicit somewhere along the line.
Not only do tobacco profits fail to get down to producers. Strangely enough, the Western health push against tobacco coincided with an expansion of “agricultural development aid” to various countries which already have strong agricultural sectors, and a greater need for industrial and service sector development – these things generally come later, when the relationship trails have been set, if the countries concerned have been good.
These aid programmes have a long history of being conduits for illegal smuggling and funding activities which can scarcely be described as aid. On several occasions, over a period of decades, they have been investigated in their countries of origin. But they persist anyway, without apparently making any of their beneficiary countries richer or more self-reliant – merely imposing on them the same eternal dependency, at sword point, that IMF programmes do.
So again no one will be growing tobacco without it being an externally sponsored project, designed to serve Western interests above all. It might even be seen as sensible for a national government to get involved, and take its share of what’s available, if that is what has happened.
But if too much publicity is given to such cases the country where they take place loses credibility, and the sponsors have to look elsewhere. This explains why the cigarette case is arousing “significant public interest” in Jordan itself, but not so much that the newspapers elsewhere would notice.
Jordan is happy to play the game; its sponsors are happy to let it. If those sponsors (who are basically the USA and Saudi Arabia in another of their very strange alliances) were doing anything good they would shout it from the rooftops. But it suits everyone to keep quiet, so Jordan is presented as somehow different to its neighbours, a place where nothing happens which is worthy of comment.
Too many dead bodies
Maybe a single case involving cigarettes can be explained away as the generic corruption which takes place everywhere, not evidence of an unhealthy relationship with greater powers who have a long track record of using Third World countries to pursue such schemes. Until, that is, you see the other story going around at the same time, which is a stronger indicator of specifically political corruption.
On July 22nd a group of 800 White Helmets were evacuated from Syria to Jordan, via Israel. The official reason for this was that as Assad’s forces advance on Damascus there was an “immediate threat to their lives.”
As the White Helmets is allegedly a humanitarian organisation, established to help victims of conflict in conflict zones, it is difficult to understand how there was ever a time when the White Helmets were not under threat of losing their lives. What has changed now is not the danger to their personnel, but the danger to their reputation.
Most of the media still buys the idea that these people are performing the functions which many other groups who used to be responsible, such as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent societies and Medicins Sans Frontieres, are mysteriously not doing in Syria. The difference between these organisations and the White Helmets however is that you don’t hear reports of Red Cross staff fighting with one of the combatant forces at night time, or Medicins Sans Frontieres doctors treating alleged gas attack victims without protective masks.
The real humanitarian agencies all have operational agreements with governments which can include nasty and in appropriate small print. But even so, they cannot be trusted to do their jobs in Syria, for fear of being exposed to a narrative which contradicts the official one. One way or another they have been sidelined, even though the Syrian conflict is no more brutal than most others, and replaced by this new group whose one distinguishing feature, even to those who support them, is that they treat apparent victims of the Syrian government but are blind to the victims of the rebels.
The evacuated White Helmets will be resettled in the USA, Canada and the UK. It will be interesting to see how many of them will be allowed to work in hospitals in those countries, or called upon to advise other aid organisations. But “refugee resettlement” usually means exactly the opposite. They are allowed to stay in particular countries provided they serve a political purpose, and that is often far removed from the humanitarian purpose which is supposed to underlie such resettlement.
In 2007 British Home Secretary John Reid announced that he had “discovered” a situation in which immigrants who did not have the right to work in the UK were being employed as cleaners in the government offices. He tried to make a great scandal out of this, but few took any notice because he hadn’t just discovered this at all.
The practice was so well known that representatives of the catering trade had already made official complaints to government. Many of their own staff, whom they had not known were illegals, were being rounded up by the immigration authorities, forced to leave their jobs and then reappearing in these cleaning jobs, fulfilling government contracts.
Having been caught, these immigrants were allowed to stay in the UK, with government protection, provided they did as they were told. This usually meant being used against their own people: every illegal immigrant, or legal immigrant made illegal by working, could be used to tarnish others, without any action being taken against their own illegality unless they stepped out of line.
White Helmets are being evacuated from Syria to prevent the truth of their operations being found. They are being sent to countries which use refugees for their own purposes to fulfil the purposes of those countries, in exchange for not speaking out. The ratline which spirited so many war criminals out of Nazi Germany is alive and well.
But where do these rats go for processing? Not a safe third country, but Jordan, right next door to Syria, where their enemies can get at them just as easily, as every “terrorist group” Assad is supposed to like has cells in Jordan, just as in every other regional country.
Words without songs
If you don’t talk about Jordan, you treat its corruption as commonplace. The locals may not like it, but this is the price the country must pay to be left alone.
The price could be different: the threat of destabilisation could be linked to basic standards of human rights and democracy not being met. But Jordan can’t forge an independent path because it has too many troubled neighbours dragging it down, and is not going to turn down the bad offers made to it if they are the only ones available.
Jordan’s relative peace could make it into what it positions itself as: the honest broker between regional states, albeit strongly on the Arab side. But eventually that would mean bigger countries actually listening to Jordan, and taking a lead from it. Middle Easterners could run their own affairs as well as anyone else, but that is exactly why it will never be allowed to happen.
Jordan knows its place, and will stay in it. If few notice this, that doesn’t suit Jordanians but serves other interests very well. Noticeable achievement would be worse than failure if Jordan itself got the credit, and external successes there would also shine a light on other aspects of the country by default. So once again everyone goes on their merry way, doing their best to pretend right is wrong and vice versa, and that these concepts are purely ideals, with no real meaning.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.