THE FAMILIAR RHYTHMS of the Jordanian capital, Amman—the rustling of Aleppo pines and pistachio trees, the insouciance of taxi drivers careening down the city’s steep hills while simultaneously sipping coffee and smoking—were stilled in mid-December by a sweep of arctic white. It had been snowing for hours—the heaviest snowfall in decades—bringing the city to a standstill. Outside my window, the Aleppo pines, which grow across the Eastern Mediterranean, had taken on the majestic stature of totem poles in a tundra. The trees were between 100 and 1,000 years old—enough to have witnessed Ottoman rule between 1516 and 1918, the subsequent British mandate, and independence in 1946. Over the centuries, they would have provided timber for aspiring nation-builders, and shade and sanctuary for trade caravans. Today, they are more likely to induce nostalgia among the many refugees Jordan has taken in from Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and, increasingly, Syria, which lies just two hours by highway north of Amman.
I had last been in Amman in 2010, on a trip that took me through Jordan and Syria on the eve of the Arab revolutions and the Syrian civil war. In the four years since, more than 100,000 people have lost their lives in Syria, and over 3 million have become refugees. Jordan has accepted 600,000 of them—a full tenth the number of its own population of 6 million. About 70 percent of the new arrivals are staying with host families and communities across the country, with the remainder in camps. The Jordanian government has given the refugees the same access as its citizens to free healthcare and education, and to food and fuel subsidies. Amman, a city of 3 million people, has taken in 150,000 Syrians, who at first glance were conspicuous by their absence. The city was booming, there was a fancy new airport in the shape of a desert palm, and, except when interrupted by the snow, the restaurants—Blue Fig, Sufra, Café Strada—were always full. Private consumption, according to a 2013 World Bank report, was “buoyant”—as was the mood. Foreign aid for the refugees had, according to the UN, brought in $700 million. A European diplomat I met, when prodded for his analysis on Jordan, responded simply, “chi-ching.”
But, as the same World Bank report stressed, Jordan’s situation is precarious. The refugees cost the country one billion dollars in 2013 alone, outstripping the influx of aid. The land route from Amman to Beirut through Damascus—a major trade channel—is closed, and many of Jordan’s agricultural exports can no longer reach their markets in Lebanon, Turkey and Europe. Syrian refugees are competing with Jordan’s poor for unskilled jobs and driving down wages, even as additional demand from the new arrivals is elevating rents and consumer goods prices. National unemployment stands at 14 percent—38 percent among youth. Jordan’s debt-to-GDP ratio is significantly high, and its budget deficit is immense. Disparities are increasing, and the government has embarked on a series of austerity measures that have sparked unrest, most recently in November, when protests broke out over a rise in fuel prices. The outlook remains bleak even for affluent young Jordanians who have attended universities in the UK and the US. At a pre-Christmas lunch I met Sarah Khatib, a lawyer and recent returnee from London who described herself as a rare breed and talked of the small percentage of her friends in Amman who were young professionals. She remarked that those who returned did so either because they had political aspirations, or possessed the financial resources to start their own businesses. The Syrian refugees, of course, have neither.