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The tale of two Ammans

Jordan’s growing gap between the haves and have-nots

by Peter Speetjens


Jordan is often said to be divided, both demographically andpolitically, between so-called “real” Jordanians and those of Palestiniandescent. Yet that is hardly the only fault line lurking below the relativepeace that has reigned over the Hashemite Kingdom in recent decades.

The capital, Amman, for example, is like an apple split intotwo unequal halves. West Amman is rich and spacious, dotted with grand villascomplete with lavish lawns and pools. Here one finds French supermarket chains,luxury hotels and foreign embassies. Here live the diplomats, aid workers andjust about every Jordanian who “made it”. Here when they eat, the choice isbetween sushi, steak or pizza.

East Amman, on the other hand, is a giant beehive of cheapconcrete in desperate need of a lick of paint. Here live most of Amman’s 2.8million people on a variety of bread and beans. The city’s east and west meetat the Husseini Mosque in downtown which, though not even 100 years old, is oneof the oldest buildings in the young capital. The mosque was also the center ofrecent demonstrations that have attracted a few thousand people — and nearly asmany policemen. Yet so far people have not taken the streets en masse.

“I have no time for politics. I have three kids to feed,”said a taxi driver, Ahmad. To do so, he works an average of 10 hours per day, 6days a week. Every morning, he rents his yellow cab for JD 24 ($33.8) and buyspetrol for around $22. On a good day he goes home with nearly $30 in profit, ona bad one with about $10. “You know the difference between Bahrain and Jordan?”he asked. “In Bahrain people have money but no freedom. In Jordan they havefreedom but no money.” Still, as if to illustrate the limit of liberty à laJordanienne, he insisted that his full name not be used.

Based on 2008 figures, the 2010 Jordan Poverty Reportdetermined the national poverty level as below an income of $80 a month for anindividual, and below an income of $5,473 annually for an average family of 5.7members. The average annual family income in 2008 in Jordan was just $8,706.The report concluded that the number of people living in extreme poverty in2008 increased by 0.3 percentage points to 13.3 percent, despite the fact thatgross domestic product that year increased by no less than 7.6 percent,prompting economist Yusuf Mansur to conclude that “economic growth has nothingto do with poverty reduction.”

Purchasing power in the different spheres of spendingbecomes clear at a market in east Amman, where one Jordanian dinar (equal to$1.4) will buy four pairs of large underwear, six pairs of socks, 10 kiwis or10 kitchen knives “made in China”; for the same amount in west Amman one canbuy half a hamburger in an American fast food joint. The rift between east andwest, rich and poor, is perhaps more profound than between “real” Jordaniansand “Palestinian” Jordanians, given that these groups live on either side ofthe city’s socio-economic divide.

However, the divide between haves and have-nots is alsolinked between capital and country, said Nawaf Tell, head of the Center forStrategic Studies (CSS) at the Jordan University. A recent CSS study concludedthat the tribal regions of Ma’an in the south and Mafraq in the north of Jordanare by far the country’s poorest. For people living there, west Amman is likeanother planet, with even poor east Amman a step up the social ladder.According to Tell, the government’s development policy and constant focus onAmman is only exacerbating the divisions; the provinces have seen hardly anydevelopment and the north and south threaten to become a “chain of ghostcities” as the poor continue to migrate to the capital city.

“Amman does not have the resources to absorb such growth,”he said. In this era of regional unrest, one can only wonder how long thisincreasingly lopsided tale of two Ammans can remain a stable one.

PETER SPEETJENS is a Beirut-based journalist


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Peter Speetjens

Peter Speetjens is a Dutch journalist & analyst based in Brazil.

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