01/05/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Jordan First: A King's Modernization Motto Obscures a Palestinian Past and Iraqi Present.

For Arabs, our national identity is perhaps the most divisive and debilitating issue preventing our collective and individual advancement in today's modern world. Carved by the British and French colonial powers, most Arab countries today have superficial borders that both struggle to unify those within them and often prevent those on one side of a given line from identifying with those from the other despite a shared history, culture and what should be a shared interest. Nowhere is this more true than it is in today's Jordan, yesterday's Ottoman empire, and the long past Kingdom of Petra.

Since leaving the West Bank via Beirut 36 years ago my grandmother has lived in the same two-story apartment building in Jabal al Weibdeh, one of the seven hills that originally made up Amman, Jordan. For me, visiting every few years, some things seemingly never change. When they first moved here in 1972, my grandparents paid 60 dinars rent (about 85 bucks). A decade later, at the request of her landlord she agreed to double it to 120 dinars and five years ago the government passed a law that raised it to 240 dinars. But aside from the rise in rent, much has stayed the same here. The tablecloth draped on the dining table, the boiler that heats the bath water and the maroon Chams brand soba (a diesel-powered heater) from Damascus that brings water to boil in her kettles all will remain here as long as she does. And every morning Abu Ibrahim, the shopowner of the dukan across the street, opens his tiny shop once filled with knick-knacks we treasured as children, making it a point to ask about my family no matter how flushed his face or thin his blood may be.

Two weeks ago, I walked through the front gate anticipating the scents of lamb and grape leaves that were surely awaiting my arrival, but stopped abruptly in the courtyard. Spray-painted on the short wall separating our building from our neighbors were the words "Jordan First", with a large crown directly adjacent.

I assumed this was perhaps in protest to the large numbers of Iraqi refugees entering Jordan since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But soon, I would learn that the "Jordan First" initiative, first launched in 2002 with the stated goals of reform and democratization, now carried a meaning much deeper than that of political or economic reform in many Jordanian circles. An article in an October 2002 issue of The Jordan Times quoted the newly-crowned King Abdullah's declaration that the launch of the slogan "Jordan First" would be a working plan designed to mold citizens in "a unified social fiber that promotes their sense of loyalty to their homeland."

But for the majority of Jordanians the term "homeland" is still associated with Palestine. At the time, the King wrote a letter to Prime Minister Ali Abul Ragheb that demanded that "Jordan First" should be "the common denominator between all Jordanians regardless of their origins, orientations, views, talents, faiths of races."

Built by the steady flow of Palestinian refugees, Jordan used to function under the motto "Jordan is for everyone". After the Six Day Way, Jordan lost the West Bank and east Jerusalem to Israel, and despite a shattered military and reputation King Hussein was able to maintain support thanks to the rapidly growing Palestinian population. Naturally in life, in order to move forward, it is required to leave the past behind (often a self-pronounced criticism that is lacking in the Arab world). But even this transition must come naturally. Dwelling on the Palestine of the past may not facilitate a flourishing future for the country. But for many Jordanians who are, or whose families are, originally Palestinian refugees, the present remains invariably connected to the past.

Generally, a country's paper bills feature significant national leaders or monuments, and in Jordan today, a 20 dinar note proudly shows a picture of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem - just one example of how prominent Palestinian culture and history remains in Jordan.

To jump start his new plan for the country King Abdullah II brought Jordanian leaders in the public and private sectors together to create a document containing principles and methods for modernizing Jordan domestically with a clear shift in focus to "national priorities" while accommodating American interests and foreign investment to keep the country's economy afloat. Unlike its Arab counterparts, Jordan lacks natural resources, with no significant oil reserves it is obliged to capitalize on its geo-strategic location by increasingly cooperating with the U.S. and Israel to maintain economic and political security. Ironically, in order for the "Jordan First" program to succeed in convincing the public to identify as Jordanian first and support Jordanian interests, the government, some would argue, must put "America First" in order to sustain its economy, and in doing so, appease its citizens.

Generating a nationalist movement to unite a divided people is hardly a novel idea in the Middle East. Jordan's program, like Lebanon's Lubnan l'lubnani-in (Lebanon for the Lebanese), is a slogan that signifies a turn inward socially, while the government reaches out to foreign investors, and some would argue, allows for foreign entities to nearly dictate foreign policy as compensation.

The Arabic terms sometimes used by local cynics to describe the policy is "shahateen," which translates to "beggars." And as the proverb goes, "beggars can't be choosers." By encouraging Jordanians to concern themselves with internal affairs rather than the complicated, sensitive regional affairs that previously dominated the public's mindset, the government hopes it will stimulate the people to better serve their own national interests. In theory, this is an admirable policy. As the country modernizes, covers its debts, and attracts foreign investment, the King's intention to move Jordan into the league of "developed" nation seems more plausible as previous obstacles such as the allegiance of its citizens to the plight of Palestinians, and now Iraqis, both struggling under occupations is lessened. Instead, like all nations, Jordan can focus on the more immediate threat facing its rapid development - the global economic crisis.

The ubiquity of the "Jordan First" slogan, on flags, buildings and a long with pictures of the new King plastered around the capital city of Amman is enough to provoke skepticism of more subtle goals hoping to be fulfilled. A facebook page and several songs performed by Jordanian artists are part of a longstanding PR campaign promoting the program. But many Jordanians, particularly those of Palestinian origin (a heavily contested number, though they may account for up to 60-70 percent of the population) see the initiative as an attempt to erase the cultural identity of millions of Palestinians living in Jordan, a large number of whom still live in one of ten official refugee camps. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees puts the number of registered refugees living in Jordan at 1,930,703. Since Arab refugees first came across the Jordan River to what was known then as Transjordan, the camps, originally tent cities intended to be temporary, have become permanent urban neighborhoods that make up large swaths of the city and other respective populated areas.

The Jordanian Embassy's Web site in Washington, D.C. describes the initiative as an "attempt to define a new social accord between Jordanians, as it emphasizes the pre-eminence of Jordan's interests above all other considerations, and reformulates the state-individual relationship." Or as a young business entrepreneur told me over a latte at a coffee shop overlooking a large development funded by wealth from the Gulf in Abdoun, Jordan's poshest neighborhood, "They want people to choose Jordan first, then America...they don't want them to be concerned with the Palestinian problems, or Iraq."

In conversations with several dozen Jordanians in the past week, young entrepreneurs, taxi drivers and business owners have suggested to me that the number of Iraqi refugees that have entered Jordan (despite being well into the hundreds of thousands) has been overestimated to justify the large amounts of aid given by the United States. In 2008, Washington raised its aid to Jordan by 48 percent. This year the total rose from $532 million to $663.5 million -- $363.5 million in economic support and $300 million in foreign military financing, continuing the trend of a drastic increase in aid to Jordan despite budget cuts in USAID programs for other nations.

My cousin, who has lived in Amman all of her life, except when she studied in Beirut, told me, "America has a very strong, though subtle presence here. Israel too. Ask anyone."

In Amman, it is hard to find those that are willing to criticize the government, and even harder to find anyone willing to go on the record. The reason can be summed up in one word, "Mukhabarat." Because my Arabic accent is rusty, it easily identifies me as someone who has been living abroad, and I've been told by some locals after gaining their trust, that I should be careful since some may assume I am a spy of sorts, for America, or as someone suggested, for Israel.

On, a site that intends to offer analysis of development and reform challenges in Jordan from a social democratic perspective, a disclaimer can be found in fine print at the bottom of the page that reads, "Comments are not pre-approved. However, any comments including personal insults to the royal family members and insults based on Jordanian-Palestinian divisions will be deleted immediately. This is a platform for civilized dialogue, if you are not up to it go away."

But across the region there is a backlash towards close ties to Israel. In just the last few weeks, large groups of Iranian university students stood outside the Jordanian embassy (following similar protests at the Qatari and Saudi embassies) in Tehran to object the Kingdom's growing relationship with Israel, breaking a window at the embassy in the process.

In Amman, the Mukhabarat, or secret police, are in charge of keeping Jordan secure and keeping dissidence nonexistent. The Mukhabarat are everywhere, maintaining the people's loyalty to the King and his government. Along with the Mukhabarat, there are thousands of pictures of the King plastered around the city, even more than there are trees, despite a recent planting frenzy that is part of the new Greater Amman Municipality's plans to revamp the city's landscape. All photographs of the Kings are placed high above the heads of the people, forcing people to look up to him at every corner, implying an invitation of utmost respect. People do not criticize the royal family, even though, the Mukhabarat are hardly noticeable, it is widely acknowledged that they are everywhere. Undercover as shop owners, taxi drivers, garbage men and bus drivers, they are often placed in roles that would allow constant interaction with the people. But my grandmother seems convinced that most of them work undercover as drivers since they have you in an enclosed space (the perfect setting to ask unassuming questions without your being particularly aware) - kind of like taxi-driver confessions, gone interrogation style.

One certain change in Amman in just a couple years are the prices. Inflation is rampant. In all my conversations with locals, the most widely and passionately discussed topic is the increase in prices. A quick glance at the local newspapers reflects an unmistakable inflation trend. Food, travel and rent have all increased considerably. Jordan"s Department of Statistics recently said the inflation rate increased to 15.6 percent in the first 10 months of 2008 as compared to 2007. Fuel and electricity are up 57 percent, dairy products and eggs are up by 33 percent, causing most people to worry that prices may not drop as soon as the government predictions claim.

Having come from New York, I find many things cheap here, specifically food. Just the other day, on an early morning outing with my aunt to buy some bread to prepare our Friday lunch of "Imsakhan," golden roasted chicken placed on a special Arabic bread, soaked in olive oil, spread with an onion saute and seasoned with summac. I was surprised that a dozen loafs of fresh bread cost us less than one dinar and a half (around 2 U.S. Dollars). The following evening on a quick trip to the local falafel stand, my uncle and I bought 30 falafel, freshly dipped from a tub of bubbling oil for less than 2 dinars (just under 3 dollars). I told my uncle how cheap that seemed, to which he replied, "It used to be even cheaper. It used to be 2 qirsh a piece, now it is 5. It's more than doubled in just a couple years," he said. "This is the people's food, it's how they survive."

Another factor contributing to inflation is Jordan's new refugee community, Iraqis, that are stretching civil services, while also undeniably providing a new inflow of large amounts of cash, whether stolen from Saddam's regime or lawfully brought into Jordan. This trend, along with new developments such as the Abdali Downtown Development, have jump-started a struggling economy.

Yet today, the Kingdom stringently controls the inflow of Iraqis into the country. New legislation requires that to gain entry into Jordan, Iraqis must be over 40 or under 20, must demonstrate they have sufficient funds to support themselves in the country - a number which varies arbitrarily I'm told. And perhaps the most difficult requirement is a new passport, which is hardly an easy endeavor in today's Iraq.

The "Jordan First" campaign, as described by the government, is an investment in the Jordanian people, in their education, training, health and well-being. The slogan, whether directed exclusively at Palestinians or not, has played a convenient role in establishing a collective sense of unity at a time when local tensions created by the influx of hundred of thousands of Iraqi refugees.

But the stated goals of building a modern state through economic, social, and political development, fighting poverty and unemployment, and improving the standards of living of all citizens, have also brought changes such as a revised school curriculum that glazes over the past and present struggles of Palestinians as well as other minorities in Jordan.

According to the program, the changes in curriculum are intended to "teach youth and the upcoming generations the principles of democracy, justice, equality, and citizenship" but is hard to deny the reality that some of the changes may provoke new divisions and resentment between Palestinian-Jordanians and the original Jordanians. Back in the seventies, a large portion of the Palestinian population was trying to overthrow the Hashemite government in Jordan, prompting King Hussein to expel the Palestine Liberation Organization from the country. Known as Black September, it is a day that remains a memory for many Jordanians that they would rather not relive.

Historically, as in many parts of the world, nationalism in the Arab world has served as both a reason to go to war and a reason to avoid wars. Pan-Arab nationalism has often taken the back seat to any one particular country's nationalism. By launching the al-Urdun Awalan campaign, King Abdullah II made a clear and swift effort to inform all Jordanians where their allegiances should lay. His father, King Hussein believed that the pan-Arab dream would only succeed if the special characteristics of different Arab countries were respected and valued.

"Arab nationalism can survive only through complete equality.... It is in our power as Arabs to unite on all important issues, to organise in every respect and to dispel friction between us..." he said in 1962.

It remains to be seen how the program will eventually transform Jordan. King Abdullah claims to be pushing to move Jordan into a democratic state with global influence and power, including a proposal to decentralize Amman's political control and rezone the kingdom into several geographic . The program, whatever its ultimate goals may be, seems to be a successful nationalistic movement. Perhaps the fact that the King's wife, Queen Rania, was born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents originally from Tulkarem, may offer many Palestinians an example of how one can move from the Palestinian past to the Jordanian future.

But on my last long drive ride back to Amman from the outskirts, after a short English lesson, which I gladly gave to my especially friendly and talkative driver, who claimed learning English was his lifelong dream (although he emphasized that I teach him using "the British one"), I found myself eventually comfortable enough to ask him about the Jordan First program. For the 40 minute cab ride, we discussed life in America, the possibility of being exploited in foreign countries, language, his family business back in Nablus, women abroad and even religion. He spoke sincerely, though hesitantly, when he switched to broken English. We slapped hands several times, nudged elbows, and laughed at our rare, but ridiculous moments of misunderstanding, but as we entered the city limits of Amman I asked casually, "So what does the King's al-Urdun Awalan program really mean...I mean to you. I don't understand it." He tightened his shoulders, gripped the steering wheel with both hands, glanced in my direction for a fraction of a second before refocusing his gaze at the road ahead and answered, "al-Urdun Awalan is good," he said coldly. "It is good for us."