To host ever more refugees, Jordan wants extra cash - no strings attached

Jordan, on track to house 1 million Syrian refugees by the end of 2014, desperately needs foreign aid, but is tired of the demands that come with it.

Khalil Hamra/AP/File
A group of Syrian refugee children pose for a portrait at Zaatari refugee camp, near the border with Syria in Mafraq, Jordan, April 17, 2014.

Its coffers depleted, Jordan's government is requesting another $4.3 billion in international aid to weather spillover from the Syrian crisis next door.

The three-year request is part of a new "National Resilience Plan," hinting at Amman’s goal for the Syrian war: ride it out. By the end of 2014, the country expects to host between 800,000 and 1 million Syrian refugees. That will require an additional $471 million this year alone.

New aid money will be vital, but Jordanians are chafing at demands, including pressure from oil-rich Gulf country donors to join them in backing the Syrian rebels. Until now, Jordan has remained neutral, at least in public, fearful of emboldening extremist groups and getting dragged into a regional proxy war. Meanwhile, loans from international donors come with demands to cut popular public subsidies. 

Juggling donors' expectations has become a key part of Jordan’s survival. 

“The Jordanians have become adept at navigating regional crises and balancing their dependence between Western and Gulf allies,” says Faysal Itani, resident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Reluctant alliance

The Gulf countries have been the most important source of aid to Jordan since 2011, when the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) promised Amman $5 billion over five years to protect a wobbly Jordanian monarchy against Arab Spring-inspired protests and an economic crisis.

“The Gulf had established a theoretical red line in terms of monarchies,” says David Schenker, director of Arab politics program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They couldn’t afford to have one [kingdom] fall because of the dangerous precedent it would set for themselves.”

As Saudi Arabia and Qatar threw their weight behind the Syrian rebels, they pushed Jordan to do the same. But Amman has balked at playing an overt role.

“We walked a very tight rope. There was so much pressure – the Gulf was squeezing us. They wanted to remove [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad,” says Musa Shteiwi, director of Jordan University’s Center for Strategic Studies.

One reason for Jordan’s reticence is its experience with Islamic militants. In 2005, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) claimed responsibility for coordinated hotel bombings in Amman that left nearly 100 dead. Amman fears extremists within the Syrian opposition, including a group that grew out of AQI, could gain the upper hand.

“The Jordanian government did not want the Syrian regime to fall, because it knows the alternative is not the moderates but the extremists,” argues Alaa al-Fazza, founder of the investigative Jordanian news site Khabar Jo and an expert on its security forces. 

Jordan is also concerned about its Salafist community. Some 1,400 members are fighting with rebels in Syria, according to former Jordanian information minister Abdallah S. Abu Romman. “If the war is over, they will come back home and they will be trained soldiers with a doctrine against the regime,” he warns.

Jordan joins in

Still, Jordan has allowed the moderate Syrian opposition to coordinate some operations on its soil through a joint international operations room that includes Gulf intelligence agencies. The country has also accommodated a covert US training program for selected rebels.

And on Monday, Jordan became one of the last members of the Arab League to expel the Syrian ambassador. Bahjat Suleiman was ordered out for his “insults to Jordan and its leadership,” a foreign ministry spokesman said.

Mr. Abu Romman, the former information minister, says that Gulf countries finally understand Jordan’s quieter support for the Syrian opposition.

“The Saudis realized that we had more complex calculations,” he says. “Jordanian involvement in the crisis would have impacted the stability in Jordan.”

Money woes

Meanwhile, the promised Gulf money has started arriving, but very little in cash. The bulk of the $5 billion grant will be directed to long-term infrastructure projects, such as the expansions of hospitals and a new rail system. 

The National Resilience Plan requests $1.23 billion to cover 2014 alone. But this time Jordan the funds directed straight to its treasury, the final draft of the plan says.

“Gulf aid usually trickles in,” says Mr. Itani. “The money is promised, it takes a long time, and it is dependent on a lot of things politically. It’s tedious.”

For more immediate help, the Jordanian government in 2012 accepted a $2 billion loan, delivered in phases, from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In exchange, the IMF mandated that Jordan lift fuel subsidies, and raise electricity and water prices. The price hikes are particularly unpopular among poorer Jordanians who are simultaneously competing with Syrian refugees in cities for jobs and housing. 

And the number of refugees in Jordan continues to climb. The United Nations requested $1.2 billion for programs in Jordan in 2014, but the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation says just $220 million has been received so far.

A new aid plan

The strain of hosting so many refugees is visible in nearly every public classroom and health center in Jordan. Roughly 100,000 Syrian children are now attending a second shift of school in Jordanian classrooms; a further 8,000 are on waiting lists.

“At hospitals, you see the Syrians accessing all our services at our expense,” says Feda Faleh Gharaibeh, director of the Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation. Jordan's aid request would merely pay to maintain current services.

“No international donor or entity will say, ‘We’ll compensate for the cost’ of providing services to refugees," she says. 

Shteiwi of the Center for Strategic Studies says many Jordanians begrudgingly expect Gulf countries to send more aid. 

“Jordanians will welcome the day we are not dependent on anyone," he says. 

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