Articles - May 2017


Roland Flamini talks to Ambassador Dina Kawar

Jordan is an oasis of relative stability in a region in turmoil – a fact that has made it a magnet for refugees fleeing from considerably less peaceful neighboring countries. The Hashemite Kingdom's Palestinian majority is the result of an influx of refugees from the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967. Iraqis flooded across the border following the U.S. offensive to bring down Saddam Hussein; and most recently 1.4 million Syrians have sought refuge in Jordan from the ongoing civil strife in their own country. The Syrian Refugee Camp at Zaatari, an hour's drive from the Jordanian capital, Amman, is large enough to qualify as Jordan's fourth largest city, with some 80,000 inhabitants. But that's only one part of Jordan's refugee problem, says Dina Kawar, the Hashemite Kingdom's ambassador in Washington. Ninety percent of Jordan's Syrian refugee population lives outside the camps and the UN support system. Instead, they are spread all over the country and many of them have been there for the past seven years, straining Jordan's already hard pressed economy, and undermining its education system by overcrowding its classes. At a recent conference in London, the Jordanians successfully laid out a plan for receiving direct aid from wealthier participating countries to make support of these refugees more sustainable within the national budget. For all its problems, the country experienced a different kind of Arab Spring from that of its more volatile neighbors – peaceful and generally constructive. A variety of reasons brought this about including the popularity of Jordan's constitutional monarch, King Abdullah II, who quickly promised to press ahead with political, economic, and social change (still a work in progress); the fact that there is no sectarian rivalry; and as Ambassador Kawar points out, the vested interest of the largely prosperous Palestinian majority in maintaining stability. Though the Jordanian economy is improving, there is still a reliance on foreign aid, including $1 billion from the United States. With the Trump administration threatening to slash foreign aid in its first budget the issue inevitably came up when King Abdullah met President Trump in the White House early in April. But the situation in Syria and the Syrian refugee problem overshadowed the discussion because President Trump was still in shock from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's poison gas attack on his own people. Dina Kawar described the meeting as "constructive" and said Trump also seemed determined to get to grips with the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. In Ambassador Kawar, Jordan has a seasoned diplomat in Washington. She was the Hashemite Kingdom's ambassador in Paris for 12 years, before moving to the United Nations as permanent representative in 2014 – just in time to occupy a seat as non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, and its president. In 2016, she was co-facilitator of the UN's high level conference on refugees. The same year, she moved to Washington as Jordanian ambassador. She began her interview with Diplomatic Connections by describing the refugee situation in Jordan and the pressures it exerts on the country's economic and social fabric.

Ambassador Kawar: It's the seventh year in the (Syrian) war and we're almost at 1.4 million Syrians in Jordan, which is about 20 percent of the total population. Of that number, there are 630,000 that are registered refugees with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the rest of the Syrians are de facto refugees because they cannot go back home. Ninety percent of the refugees live outside the camps -- throughout the country. Only 10 percent live in the camps, mainly situated in norther Jordan. The rest are living all over the place; therefore, they are part of our community and are the responsibility directly of the government. They're sharing our resources, benefitting from all our subsidies, they are in the cities: there's an infrastructure that has to cope with 20 percent more population.

Diplomatic Connections: In other words, an unforeseen burden.

Ambassador Kawar: Last year, there was the London Conference (on Refugees) and we said, okay, let's look at this paradigm of refugees and see if we can deal with it differently. Usually the UNHCR and NGOs get together and start helping refugees, sending food, money, etc. But we argued 90 percent are living in the country [outside the camps] and education needs to be provided, we've had to have double shifts in schools, with classes that were almost 40 plus students, if not more, which is a burden on the facilities and on the teachers. The quality was suffering. So we said, you want to help the refugees, then help the host country: make Jordan more resilient. That was a new way of looking at the problem – perhaps a first in the history of how to deal with refugees that might in the future change the circumstances in other situations. The conference in London involved many nations including Kuwait: fund raising was done for this meeting. And we said we will give education, help, and also employment. You ask how are you going to offer employment when Jordan already has high unemployment? We have 11 economic zones which survive by having a certain percentage of foreign labor. Instead of importing other foreign labor, let's get the Syrians to do the jobs. Secondly, some of them are already getting jobs in the market: 30,000 firms are employing Syrian refugees. Heads of families want to feel that they are providing. What the government doesn't want is for black market to grow, so we have to establish minimum wages.

Diplomatic Connections: So you're attempting to create a more realistic approach to the refugee problem, which others can follow.

Ambassador Kawar: And this has been an example that will probably become the norm. Otherwise it's impossible to deal with that large a number -- you look at Lebanon: they have an incredible problem with refugees, you look at Turkey, same thing, but Turkey is a bigger country, and it's a bigger economy.

Diplomatic Connections: The assumption presumably is that they are not there permanently?

Ambassador Kawar: Of course. The Syrians definitely want to go home. The UN has done studies that show that any refugee has 17 years out of his or her country because of war. We're already at the seventh year, but we know that it will be many years before they can go back. Some of them might want to return to help build the economy. Others might say, our kids are in school; we're fine here now, we want them to finish and we'll go later. When these people leave their own country, where do they go for refuge - to a neighboring country which is an extension of their own.

Diplomatic Connections: Is Jordanian citizenship open to them?

Ambassador Kawar: No, it isn't. One day most of them will go, and likely in two phases. The number of refugees had stabilized, but I'm worried now because there's another battle in Raqqa, in northern part of Syria.

Diplomatic Connections: The Syrians are the second, and most recent, wave of refugees. Before them, came the Iraqis, during the Iraq war. What, if any, are the differences between the two groups?

Ambassador Kawar: Many of the Iraqis came with lots of means and they opened businesses which contributed to the economy. The Syrians were not as wealthy but they are very skilled. They're good with their hands, they have become active in the restaurant industry. In Amman, the restaurant sector is strongly influenced by Syrians who have contributed to the quality of the food. I think with every refugee influx you also get something good, they contribute.

Diplomatic Connections: What do think is needed to reach a solution to the Syrian crisis?

Ambassador Kawar: There's always the chicken or egg business with Syria. Do we stop the Islamists and make the country secure, and then we hold political talks, or vice versa? We feel there are two tracks that need to go parallel. The Astana talks (the International Meeting on Syria Settlement in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan) which are Russian, Turkish and Iranian have to concentrate on the cease fire part and stopping all sorts of violence. You need to stop the violence for the political process to become valid. The opposition forces in the south are in a strong enough position to have a positive part in any fighting against the extremists, and secondly to take part in the political process. There is this question whether the opposition is capable of taking over (once Bashar al-Assad goes). Well, the opposition is part of the Syrian population, and so what needs to be done is for like minded people, the Americans, the Russians and other countries that have a stake in that country should each use leverage on the forces they have to induce them to sit down and talk. But until the U.S. and the Russians will force them, it will not happen. These are the two countries that can influence the situation in Syria. I think Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has gone to discuss what the Russians have in mind, and whether they are willing to cooperate and work together.

Diplomatic Connections: Jordan was one of the few Arab countries that was not swept up in the turbulence of the Arab Spring. How did your country manage to avoid it?

Ambassador Kawar: At the beginning of the Arab Spring, the king understood the street, and listened to the demands – what the people wanted. He went ahead with many of the reforms in the country which he had wanted to do when he came to the throne in 1999, but then we had 9/11 and on the world stage there was a frenzy over security that stalled many of these changes. But he changed the constitutional court, the voting laws, and many of the articles in the constitution, along with several other things. And he allowed people to demonstrate. During the entire year, every Friday there were Jordanians out in the streets. One man died from a heart attack but there was no violence, the police were there, the gendarmerie, and they made sure that everything was peaceful; they could go ahead and do what they wanted to. That, in my opinion, was one of the big factors. The second thing is that Jordanians are very united: most are Sunni, with a minority of Christians. We do not have the internal complexity of other neighbors.

Diplomatic Connections: You don't have the sectarian divide of some of your neighbors between Sunni and Shia factions?

Ambassador Kawar: We only have Sunnis, and the Christian minority who are well protected. The Palestinian factor in our society played a stabilizing role. Considering the investment they've made they want to make sure that Jordan is stable. The Palestinians have come a long way. Many Jordanians are of Palestinian origin. But the identity of Jordanian Palestinians has become… more Jordanian. Most of them are in businesses, or professors, in liberal arts, and are committed to the stability of the country. They're very wise and extremely careful.

Diplomatic Connections: What can you tell us about the economy generally?

Ambassador Kawar: The economic side is worrisome. The king has said that what keeps him awake at night is the need to make sure there's employment and opportunity for all the youth where most of the unemployment is today. Add that to the pressure of the refugees on the budget because you have to spend more. The gas pipeline with Egypt has been cut (by sabotage) and we've had to find alternative resources. The economic zones are a positive contribution. One day, hopefully we will become energy independent, which will give our economy a definite boost.

Diplomatic Connections: What can you tell us about King Abdullah's two meetings with President Trump?

Ambassador Kawar: The first was more of an informal meeting during a prayer breakfast. The second one was more substantive with more advisers attending. The president was very curious in hearing His Majesty's opinion on many issues, and he was asking questions. Obviously, he has a real wish to tackle the Israeli-Palestinan issue, and he was very serious about this; also the issue of terrorism and how we can finish them (ISIS) off; he discussed the Syrian situation from a political stance as well as a humanitarian one. He was affected, highly affected by the gas attack. And he mentioned it again in the press conference that followed, and it was obvious that it had influenced his response. And we have our bi-lateral issues, but he was curious to hear the king's views. It was very constructive.

Diplomatic Connections: What do you mean by bi-lateral issues?

Ambassador Kawar: The technical things. Military aid, the fight against terrorism, border security and the economic aid that we get. But he didn't go into details. He asked questions, not to learn, but to get the feel of the king. "What do you think of this; I think that, but I want to hear your opinion." Getting to know the king more in depth about issues.

Diplomatic Connections: With regard to the peace process, did the king come away with the impression that anything was going to happen soon?

Ambassador Kawar: I wouldn't say soon, because it's much more complicated. What is happening is the start of a "reconnaissance" -- trying to see where we can go, what are the difficulties, where are the obstacles that can be overcome, which ones can't. It's literally putting the cards on the table and I think they want to do it. Or at least they want to push both sides to try to find a solution.

Diplomatic Connections: What part would Jordan play?

Ambassador Kawar: We are involved in many parts. Border security, water issues, refugees, we're involved, Jerusalem, because of the custody of the Hashemites, we're involved. Not in a political sense but in the religious arrangement. All the religious Muslim and Christian sites are under the Hashemite custody or patronage. All the administrative staff that work in the churches or at the Muslim sites belong to our ministry of religious affairs.

Diplomatic Connections: So Jordan would be at the table?

Ambassador Kawar: At the Arab summit held in Jordan (April 2017), we discussed the importance of the Arab peace initiative (2002). We're saying (to the Israelis) you make peace with the Palestinians on the basis of the peace initiative and in return (Israel) gets normalization with 22 Arab states with the chance to open up to all these countries, plus you have the guarantee of these countries. So Jordan would be part of this. But when it comes to the negotiations there are actually certain factors that do concern us: you have, as I said, the refugee issue, the water issue as part of the area. We're not going to negotiate for the Palestinians, but it's the outer boundaries, the regional part that involves us.

Diplomatic Connections: How nervous is Jordan about Iranian interference?

Ambassador Kawar: They're not far from our borders in Syria and Lebanon.

Diplomatic Connections: Have there been any ISIS attacks in Jordan?

Ambassador Kawar: There was one attack in the northern part, and they try on our borders. They are in close proximity. We've lost a few soldiers to ISIS. The whole army and security are mobilized. We're somehow at war without being at war, and it's a heavy burden on our economy and resources.

Diplomatic Connections: As a Jordanian, what would be an ideal Middle East from your point of view?

Ambassador Kawar: You're allowing me to dream a little. I would like that we get to the point where the whole community can co-exist peacefully, and that the political system will be more agenda based on projects, parties, and issues, like you have in Europe. You can be whoever you like and belong to whatever party you want, and not sectarian based. That would be fantastic. And open borders so people can travel and work without having security issues. It would be wonderful to have a two-state solution for Palestine, and that Israelis become part of the Middle East. These are dreams, but why not?

Diplomatic Connections: The two-state solution is not just a dream, it's also an insistence, isn't it? And yet the latest signal from the Trump administration on the two-state solution is mixed.

Ambassador Kawar: People keep referring to one statement that the president said, but I think what he was meaning to say was that he would agree with what the parties agreed upon. What he was saying was I would like the two parties to get their act together, solve the problem and I will bless what they're happy with.

Diplomatic Connections: Ambassador Haley (the U.S. permanent representative to the UN) was much more emphatic in her insistence of the two-state solution. Does that mean you needed to advise Amman of a possible change in long-standing U.S. policy?

Ambassador Kawar: We are less confused than some people are here. The ambassador to the UN was going by the book of the state department policy and the president is being honest to what he is, which is more outspoken and out of the box, but it doesn't mean there's a change.

Diplomatic Connections: You were in Paris for 12 years. So is there much difference between being an ambassador in the French capital and in Washington?

Ambassador Kawar: The two were two different experiences but enjoyable in their respective ways. D.C. is a city of pure politics where we oscillate between administration, congress, think tanks and the press. Most of the discussions turn around current political topics. Paris has more variety in one place. It's political but also economic and cultural. Not to mention that the day lasts longer and so do the discussions over lunches and dinners. Moreover, the French love to entertain around cultural events and activities – which adds an enjoyable edge to our task.

FREE Digital Edition
See and read Diplomatic Connections Magazine
View Archived Digital Editions