AMMAN, JORDAN — AS King Hussein meets with President Bush in a last-ditch mediation effort to avert an all-out confrontation in the Gulf, his tiny country is bracing itself for hard times. Jordan, which has openly opposed the US military presence in the Gulf, faces mounting pressure from the United States and Israel on one side, and harsh economic realities on the other.
The King first indicated his nation would comply with United Nations-imposed sanctions on Iraq, but evidence that supplies were still passing through Jordan via the port city of Aqaba has brought sharp US reaction. Jordan is now seeking an exemption from the UN plan because of the dire economic consequences compliance would bring.
Longstanding close relations between the two countries have become severely strained over the King's close ties to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his unwillingess to join the attempt to isolate Saddam.
On Aug. 14, President Bush offered Jordan and other small countries financial aid if they join the embargo against Iraq.
Excluding cement and phosphate, Iraq receives 40 percent of Jordan's exports, while the country imports 90 percent of its crude oil from Baghdad. Thus a blockade against Aqaba, as President Bush has threatened, would be disastrous for the Jordanian economy.
While Iraqi trade constitutes 45 percent of the goods handled by the port, a blockade would also damage the transportation sector and related land transit industries and services. A former senior trade official estimates that annual losses from a blockade would exceed $500 million, not including transportation-sector losses.
In addition, the debt-ridden nation is losing an important source of external income: remittances from Jordanian expatriates working in the Gulf. Remittances from expatriates in Kuwait have dropped to nil, while Saudi Arabia is introducing measures to restrict Jordanian labor.
Considering the decline in foreign aid and remittances, a Jordanian blockade against Iraq would be ``tantamount ``to suicide,'' says Fahed Fanek, a prominent Jordanian economist.
Mr. Fanek believes that an embargo against Iraq would increase Jordan's current 20 percent unemployment rate to 32.5 percent, plunging the country into an unprecedented economic crisis. US threats of a blockade and fears of an Israeli attack have reportedly already led to a drop in the number of the ships positioned at Aqaba, from an average of 35 a day to a present 16 vessels.
Jordanians express little faith in a possible US-approved negotiated settlement, and do not rule out the possibility of US sanctions in an attempt to change the king's position.
``They want us to bow to their demands to accept the American hegemony in the region, but the days of a master and a slave relationship are gone,'' a former senior Jordanian official says.
Jordan's position is expected to cost the country dearly, both economically and politically. Jordanians expect their opposition to the US military intervention could bring an end to financial aid from the US, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states.
``They're punishing us for our nationalist position. They will use all means to make kneel on our knees,'' says the owner of a Jordanian shipping agency.
Despite the country's relatively weak military capabilities, Hussein seems to be relying on emerging strong popular support to maintain his position. The country entered a vigorous democratization process last year, including a new parliament and liberalized press. Strong public backing for the Arab nationalist posture of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, evident in numerous protest rallies, puts additional pressure on the king. His stand against Western pressures has earned him the support of a large number of intellectuals in a country which boasts one of the highest levels of education in the third world. Prior to his departure for Washington, the king called for all-out mobilization, including the formation of a popular army and civil defense training, and urged Jordanians to economize.
The question, however, is why Jordan, unprepared for war, is taking such big risks.
``It is the simple and eternal question of to be or not to be'' says a Jordanian official.
In a candid meeting with the Parliament at his palace, King Hussein indicated that his decision to oppose foreign control in the region was irreversible, according to press reports. In a stunning gesture of determination, Hussein asked the Parliament to refer to him as ``Sherif'' Hussein instead of King Hussein.
By invoking the image of his great-grandfather, Hussein sent a strong message both to his people and the US. The first Sherif Hussein led the great Arab revolt of 1916 against the Ottoman Turkish empire. He later sacrificed his title as the ruler of Mecca when Britain pressured him to compromise the dream of a greater unified and independent Arab nation.
Hussein's words have further fueled sentiments against the American intervention.
In general, and despite deep-rooted concern about the future of the country and prospects of war, the majority here share Hussein's conclusion that if the Arabs did not oppose foreign intervention, the natural resources of whole area would be under Western control and Israeli power would be unchecked.
This conclusion reflects Washington's lack of credibility in this region as a viable mediator to the Israeli-Arab conflict. Jordanians from all walks of life believe that the presence of US troops in the Gulf and the isolation of Iraq will only serve to consolidate an already existing power imbalance in favor of Israel.
Ironically King Hussein, whose alliance with the US had incurred him the wrath of radical Arabs and Palestinians, is enjoying tremendous support even from those who fought against him.
``We have always resisted his pro-American policy, but to be honest, we are now worried about the possible consequences of his daring attitude on himself and the regime,'' says a veteran Jordanian communist who had spent 12 years in prison for opposing Hussein.