By Ghazi Jarrar (twitter:@ghazijarrar)
It has long been known that Jordan depends on Western aid for its survival. One government report shows that in 2010 only, Jordan received 635.367 million dollars of aid from the United States. In fact, Jordan is on the top 10 list of America’s aid recipients. As a result, the Western public opinion towards the kingdom, particularly in the United States, should be of interest to Jordanians and their governments. In the light of the Arab Uprisings, some have started to wonder whether Jordan is losing the favorable public opinion that it once enjoyed in the West. There are legitimate reasons to be wondering- many in the West are finding that Jordan’s reform process is too slow, even if compared with countries, such as Morocco, which have traditionally been less responsive to their people’s demands.
My task here is to determine whether this is true. In an attempt to study the perception of Jordan in the US, I examined as many articles as I could acquire in the archives of the New York Times (NYT) and the Washington Post (WP). My research covers articles in the New York Times since 2000, and in the Washington Post since 2005.
Before getting into the details of my findings, it is important to state the following initial impressions– one, there is a noticeable change in the frequency of articles about Jordan in both newspapers. According to my findings, the Washington Post had four articles about Jordan in the month of November 2012 only, while throughout the year of 2005 only eight articles made direct references to the country. In addition, the number of articles that are solely dedicated to Jordan and its domestic affairs increased dramatically after 2011. There were, of course, exceptions to this, such as the aftermath of the Amman bombings in 2005.
When King Abdullah II took over in 1999, the Post and the NYT seemed to go the extra mile in introducing the new monarch. For instance, both newspapers covered the King’s undercover trips to hospitals and on taxicabs with enthusiasm. In 1999 and in 2000 each newspaper drew similarities between the King and Caliph Harun al-Rashid, who was also known to disguise himself at night to check on his people. Interestingly, a few Jordanian sources reported recent undercover trips by the king to impoverished regions. Nonetheless, those were nowhere to be found in the two American papers.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the NYT published an article by the title “A Nation Challenged.” In the article, Jordanians are described as “America’s best friends in the Arab World.” Further, the writer portrays Jordan as “the definition of the moderate Arab country.” Despite acknowledging Jordan’s role in counterterrorism, the article makes no mention of the state of democracy in the kingdom. It does however point to the fact that many Jordanians are opposed to the US foreign policy of the time.
A WP article concerned exclusively with the domestic affairs of Jordan is titled: “Jordan’s King Abdullah Pushes for Moderation.” The 2005 article presents King Abdullah as “a voice of moderate Islam.” It intensively quotes the King during a visit to the United States. For instance, he is quoted saying, “In Jordan, we always believe that dialogue is the way to go….” The same language was echoed a year earlier in a NYT article. This article acknowledges King Abdullah’s success as a leader “whose message of moderation has found an echo, especially in Western forums.” Once again, however, there is no mention of the state of democracy, or political reform, in Jordan.
Later in 2005, Jordan was back in the spotlight – that time in the wake of the November 9th bombings in Amman. In this Op-Ed column, David Ignatius speaks rather highly of what he describes as “the fearsome Mukhabarat.” He says that the intelligence agency “proved its worth” having captured the failed Iraqi suicide bomber. However, in another 2009 opinion column, Ignatius does speak of the Jordanian intelligence’s reputation for torture.
And while all of the articles discussed so far paint a rather positive image of Jordan, this tone did not always persist. A 2007 WP article speaks of fears that Jordan is “only superficially democratic.” As far as my research is concerned, this article is the first time the Post voices fears that Jordan has used counterterrorism as an excuse to delay democracy. Nonetheless, the title of the article, “Jordan’s limited democracy leaves voters discontented,” shows a hint of the newspaper’s impression that Jordanians enjoy at least some democracy.
After the 2007 parliamentary election results came out, the Post published another article titled “Jordan’s Vote Reflects Islamic Parties Slide.” There are two noteworthy issues about this article. First, despite its title, the article admits “official manipulation” through the “disproportionate” electoral system and alleged fraud. Second, there is a hint that the article tries to paint the Islamic Action Front as rather extreme. For one, it highlights the IAF’s signs bearing the slogan “Islam is the solution.” In addition, the article features a Jordanian, who claims to have been an IAF supporter until she discovered that a few IAF members attended the funeral of the Jordanian terrorist, al-Zarqawi.
In yet another example of articles that combine criticism with sympathy for the government, a NYT article reports the 2009 dismissal of the parliament and shuffling of government. It states that this happened as “an effort to free the government from a recalcitrant legislature so it could push through financial measures.” Despite this undertone of sympathy for the poor economic situation of the time, the newspaper states that such actions are not unordinary in the region, “where kings, emirs, sultans and presidents rely on elected institutions to claim legitimacy and give citizens the perception they have a stake.”
With the eruption of the Arab uprisings in 2011, the frequency of demonstrations and protests in the kingdom took an unprecedented spark- so did the number of articles in these two papers. This NYT article describes the king as “clearly shaken by events in the region.” However, being titled “King Moves to Widen Outreach in Jordan“ the article highlights the king’s effort to establish dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood. Interestingly, in a November 2010 article, the same newspaper blamed the slow pace of democracy in Jordan on “the need to check a powerful Islamist movement.” The Post echoes the same language in a 2011 article where it describes the king as “bowing to anti-government protests.” And here, the newspaper acknowledges that the King needs to cope with “a tricky straddle.” While the two articles voice Jordanian skepticism of the King’s move to appoint Bakhit as PM, the first article ends with a quote from a Jordanian citizen, “The King listens.”
As protests picked up momentum, there was a hint of change in the tone of the two newspapers. On the one hand, both newspapers agreed that the King is not the target of the ongoing protests in the country. Here, the WP describes the King as a “vital unifying force in a country with a large Palestinian population.” Echoing the same tone, the NYT noted that tribesmen are “careful not to attack Abdullah himself.” However, the Post points to the fact that insulting the king is banned in Jordan. Further, there is a noticeable increase in the newspapers’ effort to quote protesters and reform-demanding voices. One protester is quoted saying, “we want the liberty to express ourselves, and we need justice in the distribution of resources.”
Critical language only increased as protests continued. This NYT article describes King Abdullah as having “sweeping powers.” While this WP article claims that the King “wields supreme authority and rules by decree.” And with more protests in the summer of 2011, the Post continued to quote outspoken protesters and activists. In a July 2011 article, one activist is quoted saying, “The King has not responded to the demands of the people.” Even more interestingly, the same article ends with a gloomy quotation from a tribal figure, who says, “it can erupt any moment.”
This tone of increased skepticism continued into 2012, even after the appointment of PM Khasawneh, which is covered here by the NYT. In May 2012, the Post published an article titled “In Jordan, growing discontent over pace of reform.” In an unprecedented move, the newspaper refers (and provides the YouTube link) to the “Ali Baba and the 40 thieves” dance performed by Jordanian protesters.
Finally, the protests that followed the November 2012 price hike resulted in increased attention to Jordan. In a rather bizarre article, the NYT claims that Jordanians “dream of shifting” the throne to Prince Hamza. And while the are many questions to be asked about why the NYT portrayed the enthronement of Prince Hamza as a major opposition demand, the article shows a major shift in the newspaper’s language towards Jordan. For one, the paper draws the similarities between King Abdullah, Gamal Mubarak, and Saif al-Islam el-Qaddafi as heirs “to political power in the Arab world whose embrace of privatization and economic liberalization shook up an old elite.” The paper also argues that the November demonstrations attracted a wide selection of young people, “just as the first riots of the Arab Spring did in Tunisia and Egypt almost two years ago.” Although less dramatic, the Post also published a strong worded article titled “Jordan calm for now, but new storm looms.” The WP claims that the November demonstration revealed “deep-rooted public dissatisfaction with the Jordanian political establishment.” However, unlike the NYT, the WP did state that the situation was “a far cry from the massive uprisings that toppled regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen.”
In conclusion, with the exception of some rare criticism, the two newspapers have traditionally portrayed Jordan rather favorably. Yet, as the Arab Uprisings brought protests of bigger size and frequency to Jordan, the tone seemed to change. Despite the country’s reform efforts, the two newspapers became increasingly critical, and rather pessimistic about the country’s future. And while I acknowledge that there is a huge room for error in pinning down such patterns, Jordanians ought to be mindful of what is at stake if the US public opinion towards the kingdom is indeed changing.