Saturday, January 12, 2013

A quiet weekend in Amman

I have been in Jordan for just over 24 hours now. My first proper visit here since 1999. I don’t count the total of 16 hours in Queen Alia airport in 2008 on my way to and from a Jerusalem wedding (I was living in the UAE at the time; direct flights are not available), nor a couple of nights in 2007 chewing the cud with some colleagues with little focus on Jordan other than its hospitality).  

In Amman snow still lies on the ground, while I walk around in little more than my clothes for the Saudi leg of the trip plus a woolly cardigan purchased in Jeddah. There are times when this trip to the region has reminded me of being stuck for three months in the California Hotel in Dubai (see March-May 2007 entries). Staying in middling hotels, pounding my laptop, trying to make sense of barely legible notes, perpetually on the outside of things, never hitting a stride, speaking bad Arabic. At least in Jordan my bad Arabic has a point – for one thing it is actually spoken to Arabs, and they appreciate it, but mostly speak back to me in English. I arrived at the Jordanian weekend – being exhausted I was delighted to take Friday off, and after a desultory nap I headed by taxi to the Downtown area. A sweet laid back old guy (probably my age) drove me there. He told me the upcoming elections were important and a duty to take part in (an East Banker taxi driver?).

After dark the wet, cold streets should perhaps have been full of foreboding but were strangely welcoming after the stultifying blandness of Saudi (aside from Batta’ – see below). Downtown Amman feels like Ramallah pre “peace process”, but writ large. An incredible warren of life where probably anything can be bought, even if it mostly appears to be mobile phones, cheap clothes and cigarettes. I found a hole in the wall and enjoyed a great meal of kebab, homous and salad where, despite being the only Inglayze in the place, nobody gave a tom tit about me (which is how I like it). Washing hands afterwards – an obligation that I often don’t feel in London – was the Deira/Bur Dubai recognisable fair of cold tap and grease-proof paper to dry your hands. To the streets and a ride with a younger driver whose surname, Abu Ghosh, spoke to his family’s roots in a pretty Jerusalem village that he will never see. He, however, is more desperate to get a visa to the west. He has never voted, and won’t be doing so this time.

Back at the hotel I relaxed, enjoying the warmth and a well-fed and pleasantly tired feeling, at least until I muffed it and started stressing about the next day and ended up speaking to an old contact with whom I then made a cocked up arrangement that I spent the subsequent half an hour trying to rectify.

Today has been a damp squib – a pleasant time in the gym, although talking to an Iraqi about the war is not an easy thing to do (his second home is Australia, he told me, although most of his family escaped Iraq for Jordan after the war and he is studying in Amman). Nothing has come through this afternoon by way of a meeting. A walk to a local shop for an alternative to the tap water allowed me to take in a street full of car show rooms. My repeated calls to a local Muslim Brotherhood official have unsurprisingly not been picked up or returned. Tomorrow will be a more structured day, in sha-Allah.    

The state is moi

"I am the state; the state is moi," so, apparently, said Louis 14th. The state in Saudi Arabia is orientated toward the royal family, the al-Saud, but it has a life beyond the ruling family, or so says a well placed observer of the Saudi scene. The state has taken on the patronage role of the tribal sheikhs who once used their loyalty purchasing power to mark out their territorial domain. If the Saudi state can send security forces into every home and to operate on its extremely long and sometimes insecure borders, then it is a state and not just a family business, goes the rationale of those close to official sentiment. Yet take away a budget surplus, that according to genuinely modest official projections will be $1bn in 2013, then the Saudi state would seem a lot weaker. In neighbouring Jordan an IMF aid package requiring the slashing of domestic fuel subsidies resulted in riots and calls for the king’s head. While the government in Amman managed to retain much of its intended cut, aided by the restoration of cheap gas from Egypt, its tight fiscal situation makes it dependent on Saudi and other Gulf largesse. 

The Jordanian state, a frail entity born of a British strategic adjustment 90 years ago, and vulnerable to successive refugee influxes since the creation of Israel 65 years ago, is more than the sum of its Hashemite masters and their patronage games. However the key reason it looks vulnerable in the face of the Arab Spring and the latest refugee crisis, this time from Syria, is its lack of cash. As Abdulrahman al-Rashed, the head of Saudi satellite news channel Al-Arabiya, put it in his latest column in Al-Sharq al-Awsat, the Saudi state receives in a week from its oil what Jordan earns from its meager mineral industry in a year. This breeds complacency, or the so-called curse of the black gold.

Corruption is the virtual talk of the town in Saudi Arabia; the exact details do not have to be understood for most people to believe that it has a disproportionate hold on the top. The political impetus for change is not there among the business elite however, whose interests are intertwined with the royal family. However corruption could corrode a state legitimacy that, while about more than the Al-Saud, is bound up with their historic role as providers and territorial unifiers.

Unemployment is a real problem, yet the perceptibly progressive labour minister says 80% of the jobs in the country aren’t “suitable” for Saudis. The current succession crisis shows signs of being resolved by a switch to the next generation of competing relatives; this time it will shared between cousins not brothers, which could be a more fragile arrangement. The need for an institutional and rule-bound basis for determining the royal leadership – beyond personalities – is increasingly discussed among the non-royal elite, but such “solutions” look very far off indeed.       

I hired a bedu driver from Batta'

I hired a bedu driver from the the Batta’ area of Riyadh to take me 500kms to Qateef and Dammam on the Gulf. I haggled hard to ensure that this last minute change of plan for Friday did not rip a gaping hole in my budget. Begrudgingly agreeing to my price, Abu Abdullah has hardly gone 200 metres before he’s trying to up the price again. Halas, I shout, indicating that the journey was over. OK habeebi, ok, he reasons. But there will be an additional price to be paid. First it’s breakfast for us both, squatting on the floor eating foul (pronounced fool) as members of that amorphous genre rarely known as the Saudi working class file in and out, accompanied by the occasional Pakistani. The beans are damn good, as is the hot, sweet, milky tea. I relax, a little, despite the acute discomfort that an apparently fit middle aged guy feels adopting a seating position that Abu Abdullah, who I think is older than me but I really have no idea, finds effortless, even though he struggles to get his leg and his gut in and out of his own car. We then spend the next half an hour circling the area for other passengers so he can recoup his perceived losses from my hard bargaining.
Batta’ is a poor area of Saudis and Asian labourers notorious for some westerners and quite a few Saudis as the place that was hot with militant Islamism that occasionally fed acts of terror ten years ago. It is where BBC journalist Frank Gardener was shot. 

As we circle an abandoned car park and a series of abandoned buildings I get a frisson of excitement mixed with not a little dread as my understanding of the success of Saudi security forces in crushing Al Qaida at home gives way to the notion of a sudden revival in their capabilities. Abu Abdullah eventually gives up the ghost however and we are finally on our way to the capital of Saudi Arabia’s alternative reality: Qateef, an almost solely Shia city in a vast peninsula that, while peppered with different communities, is overwhelmingly Sunni, quite a few of whom embrace a highly conservative variant of it. If Abu Abdullah realised where he was driving me, I don’t think he would have agreed. I note later his comment that there is no where for him to pray.

Conversation is difficult as we begin to pick up the pace. He speaks Arabic, badly. I don’t really speak it all beyond very basic conversation. However Abu Abdullah’s version is so guttural that I can’t even understand the simplest of phrases – a bit like an American trying to get directions from a barely coherent Glaswegian. A series of entreaties are made, some genuine curiosity, others, I think, intended to encourage benevolence. However what really gets me is his attempt to get all the money up front. My worst side is brought out as I assume that he won’t wait the three hours required in Qateef as I conduct a series of meetings, and I have the possible prospect of hiring another driver or seeking a flight back. He gives way and accepts half up front.

In Dammam, a bustling and not especially prosperous looking Saudi city, even compared to much of Qateef and its surrounding villages, I meet with an old acquaintance, the brother of an influential cleric. Abu Abdullah is waiting for me as I take my leave of our meeting in the husseiniya. There then, inevitably, follows a long period trawling the bus station for extra passengers. Abu Abdullah strikes a hit, eventually, with two guys needing to get to Riyadh. He is hell bent on a third before I put my foot down, or rather suggest that he does. He obliges and we wend our way in what proves to be the wrong direction. Four exhausting hours later we are back in Riyadh. Of course he won’t be dropping me off where I am based, although he would for an inflated price. However the advantages of the anarchy that sits alongside conservatism in this part of the world is that he absolutely no qualms about forcing another taxi driver to stop his car in order to get me a more reasonable deal for the journey to my hotel.