on the World Today
IN JORDAN as in Israel, the most important question today is water. Water links the fate of the Arab people of the desert inextricably with that of the children of Israel. Both are intent on making the desert bloom. Both must depend on the limited waters of the Jordan River to work this transformation.
In the Middle East desert areas, water constitutes the main object of property ownership. Land becomes merely an accessory. This is implicit in the desert code, which recognizes the right of nomads to water their flocks regardless of boundaries. Thus for years tribes in southern Jordan have moved on into Saudi Arabia for water despite unfriendly relations between the two governments.
Water rights have been an element in every dispute over Palestine since 1923. Surveys undertaken during the mandate period showed that although the Jordan and its principal tributary, the Yarmuk, could be dammed and canalized to irrigate lands in the Jordan Valley, which runs for a hundred miles between Lake Huleh and the Dead Sea, there still would not be enough water.
For this reason, Zionist planners both before and since Partition have pushed an entirely novel and during solution to the Jordan water shortage. Their plan envisioned taking the water out of the Jordan altogether and piping it to the coastal plain and the Negev Desert in the south. To replace Jordan water in the valley, they planned to draw water from Lebanon’s Litani River into the Upper Jordan. Thus the absorptive capacity of the Promised Land would be expanded to meet the needs of mass immigration.
Arab resistance to this contemplated development scheme has been understandably adamant. On the eastern side of the Jordan, the country’s only asset is its water. By Partition and the subsequent Palestine war, Jordan lost access to Haifa harbor and all the other economic advantages which close relationship with mandated Palestine had provided. Subsequent incorporation by Transjordan of the remnants of Arab Palestine west of the Jordan did not improve the situation. In mandate days this part of the country benefited from the more prosperous economy of the coastal region. Deprived of this connection it has become a liability.
In western Jordan, scores of frontier villages were cut off from their productive lands by the armistice lines imposed on the late King Abdullah under threat of resumed hostilities by the Israelis in 1949. The withdrawal of the Arab Legion from its positions for two miles along this sector widened the coastal plain and gave Israel control of the road to Galilee. But at the same time it made economic refugees of thousands of border villagers on the Arab hillsides.
500,000 people on relief
Jordan’s economic troubles have been compounded beyond repair by the influx of 500,000 refugees, who now make up over a third of the country’s population and who constitute a grave economic and political problem.
On the surface, in the capital of Amman, grown now to a city of 200,000, this economic stress is not apparent. Impressive stone buildings line new avenues. Hotels are jammed. Traffic lines, neon lights, and a general air of progress present a deceptive appearance of prosperity. Behind this attractive façade a deep anxiety pervades the atmosphere. How can this desert country, with only 10 per cent of its land potentially cultivable, support its own growing population and become a going concern without indefinite extension of the subsidies it now receives from Britain and the United States?
A short taxi ride in any direction out of Amman reveals the artificial and unreal character of the capital city. At Zerka a small valley town is overwhelmed by surrounding refugee settlements. Toward Jericho some of the largest camps appear, sheltering families which have existed there on UN rations for seven years.
The only bright spot in this direction is the Arab Development Society training center. This center, evolved from one begun ten years ago in Palestine with Iraqi funds, trains orphaned Arab refugee boys to reclaim and cultivate desert land. Its founder and leader, Musa el-Alami, a Cambridge-educated lawyer, was granted 4000 unpromising acres of land by the Jordan government six years ago. His discovery of fresh water, where experts had said none could be, led to a new method of simultaneous desalination and cultivation which the center now trains Arab youths to operate. Mr. el-Alami carries on with the aid of Ford Foundation grants, giving both agricultural and selected vocational training to 250 student farmers at a time.
On toward Jerusalem, unrelieved poverty prevails. New roads and hotels, built with U.S. Point Four aid, have helped to revive tourist traffic, the city’s only remaining resource. But Arab business establishments, schools, and hospitals arc beyond the barbed wire in Israel.
The frontier question
Along the frontier in the west, economic and social deterioration are overwhelmingly apparent. Jordan’s border with Israel extends for 350 miles. In this region 360,000 refugees cling tenaciously to the land nearest their former homes. In many border villages there are more refugees than local inhabitants. The latter, numbering about 120,000, do not qualify for UN relief, on the ground that the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is not authorized to help Palestinians who still occupy their own houses.
This stipulation ignored the fact that these villagers no longer had access to their lands. Their only help, aside from charily dispensed by philanthropic agencies, has come from a system of small loans arranged by the British Middle East Office in Jerusalem to enable them to terrace some of the rocky hillsides left to them for cultivation. By no stretch of exertion or money can such measures make these villages self-supporting. This is the bleak reality which haunts both Jordanian leaders and UNRWA.
Seen from Jordan there may be two possible solutions to the frontier question. One involves rectification of the border with Israel, restoring farmlands to divided villages. This is the most modest of the claims that Jordan must make in any future peace talks. It is not part of Jordan’s program to take this territory by force — if, indeed, it were possible. On the contrary, the Jordan border, protected by a well-disciplined home guard, has become relatively stable during the last year, with infiltration incidents reduced to a minimum.
There is quiet talk of eventual settlement with Israel, for economic reasons, if this border remains tranquilized. But the talk is necessarily guarded because it touches on the most divisive point in internal Jordanian politics. This point is the absolute intransigence of the dispossessed Palestinians with respect to any agreement with Israel. These Palestinians now constitute a real force in Jordan polities, providing the more sophisticated and educated element in what was previously a purely pastoral society. Any tendency toward settlement with Israel must reckon, therefore, with the opinions of the West Jordanians.
Union with Syria or Iraq?
Jordan’s second possible way out of its economic impasse lies in union with Syria or Iraq. There are sentimental and dynastic reasons for union with Iraq, which is ruled by Hashemite cousins of Jordan’s young King Hussein. But the obstacles are also formidable. The desert between the populated sections of both countries is forbidding. And the position of impoverished Jordan in a union with oil-rich Iraq would obviously be difficult. Nevertheless there is continued talk of union, encouraged by the tireless efforts of Iraq’s veteran statesman, Nuri el-Said.
Union with Syria presents fewer geographic difficulties but seems more remote politically. The economic advantages for Jordan would be considerable. But Syria’s political instability and the division there between union and anti-union elements preclude any immediate action.
Jordan’s young ruler has so far exhibited none of the flair for intrigue which characterized his grandfather, king Abdullah. Hussein has chosen a wife from among the young intelligentsia. By profession Queen Dina is a teacher and social worker. It is reported that for a wedding present she asked for a university for Jordan. If the queen gets her wish, Jordan will be the gainer. The lack of a university in the country since Partition has driven the abler youths abroad, and many have become expatriates. Thus the educational system starves for local teachers, and the schools subsidized by UNRWA and Point Four, or run by Christian missions, carry an overwhelming load.
Dividing the waters
Jordan’s dependence on outside aid poses a fundamental question about forced development of countries with poor natural resources. The burden of population is four persons per acre of cultivated land (twelve times that of the U.S.). The most optimistic recent estimates are that some 125,000 additional acres of land in Jordan could be irrigated with 760 million cubic meters of water a year from the Jordan river-system. Cost of this development is estimated at about $1000 per acre. In return, production from the valley in Jordan would rise an estimated twenty times its present value and support between 100,000 and 150,000 refugees.
It is on this basis that negotiations have been going on between Eric Johnston, representing the U.S., and the states concerned — Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Points particularly at issue have been where the Jordan and Yarmuk should be dammed and how the waters should be divided. The Arabs contend that storage in Jordan must be primarily under Arab control. Israel argues \ that more efficient use of the system would result from storage in Lake Tiberias. Both claim more water than can be made available.
Even if agreement can be reached on division of the waters and a beginning made on reclamation in the valley, Jordan’s basic economic situation will not be salvaged. For its indigenous population will be no nearer solvency if the newly developed acreage goes to the refugees, as is contemplated. Its yearly trade deficit of some $39 million will be no less, and its own population increase in another ten years can reasonably be expected to exceed 300,000, thereby increasing hopelessly the load on the land. Thus, even on the most optimistic hothouse basis of support from outside, Jordan simply has not enough cultivable land to feed itself, nor enough resources to keep its people employed.
At present, British loans, Point Four aid, and outright U.S. grants keep Jordan going financially. Last year Jordan had $8 million in direct economic aid from the United States. This year a severe drought has made further aid essential.
In addition to these subsidies, UNRWA plays a vital role in Jordan’s general economy. To feed the halfmillion refugees there and house about a third of them, UNRWA spends about $14 million a year in Jordan. It buys all the wheat available in Jordan and has 3500 local employees on its payroll, many of them teachers and doctors. Of the 181,000 students who will be taught in UNRWA-subsidized schools during 1955-56, the greatest proportion will be in Jordan. It has contributed substantially to the Jordan Development Bank and financed a five-year antimalarial campaign, an exhaustive agricultural economic survey, and a housing program for such refugees as can be coaxed out of camps.
Its most difficult assignment has been to try to spend the $200 million reintegration fund appropriated for resettlement of refugees. Without the prospect of a settlement of the water question or of an overall compensation program for the refugees, its efforts to persuade refugees to leave their miserable “security” in camps have been abortive.
The turn of events
The suggestion in Secretary Dulles’s August statement on the Middle East, that the U.S. would help underwrite both water development and a compensation fund, may require further time for acceptance. But it marks a new preoccupation in Washington and London with Middle East problems, and foreshadows fresh Western initiatives when the Palestine issue comes up for debate in the General Assembly.
There has been a significant turn of events in the Middle East too. In Arab eyes Bandung has become as symbolically important as Geneva is to the West. The first meeting there this year of Arab-Asian leaders brought forth no new treaties or alliances. But its political importance as a catalyst of Asian attitudes and purposes should not be underestimated. What evolved there was well expressed in the final communiqué stressing economic and cultural equality, tolerance and reform, and above all peace.