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Sunday, 1 February 2009

Philip Robins is a lecturer at Oxford University and, from what I can gather online, the primary expert in the field of Jordanian politics. A Slate.com article by Robins dated 2004 is the most recent appearance online but there is very little else about the man apart from book listings at retail sites.

A History of Jordan (2004) is a very good idea as a publishing venture. Jordan is a small, weak, authoritarian state that began life under the British mandate in the 1920s. Since then, there have been four kings, the most recent, Abdullah, coming to power in 1999. He was 37 years old. He seems to be popular overseas.

At home, the state is coercive and rigid, suppressing freedoms in the area of the press, especially. Abdullah thus continues a long tradition of cracking down on dissent using state organs.

Jordan has weathered a long time of troubles. Unlike in Syria, which was part of the French mandate, the Jordanian king has not seriously been opposed. But he is not comfortable with elected governments and can dismiss the incumbent cabinet at will. The upper house is appointed by the king. Political parties are barely tolerated.

Jordan is popular with America because it also distrusts Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation which emerged in Egypt in the 1950s during a period of increased politicisation after WWII. It was a time when many countries achieved independence from colonial overlords.

But Abdullah will not be tempted to tolerate too much partisanship. A stable economy is, apparently, his major goal. Press freedom and human rights will, as they do in China, have to wait. Jordan is not a democracy by our standards.

Robins is very good at writing but the book becomes hard to follow after about 1967, when the second Israeli war occurred. The problems faced by Jordan largely derive from the fact that it is surrounded on all sides by powerful neighbours. While once it got a large slice of its income from Saudi subsidies, nowadays they come from the US. Jordan, along with Israel and Egypt, is a major recipient of US aid.

An unsettled international environment causes disruptions at home, especially since Jordan's population includes a very substantial proportion of Palestinians. There are political and other social factions but the outside world sees almost nothing of their activities. The book is a good chance to see something of how they operate.

The other benefit of the book is that it gives flesh to the often confusing concerns of Middle Eastern politics. Covering the major part of the 20th century, Robins touches on all the main points of interest for a Western readership. The struggle between Israel and its Arab neighbours is, certainly, an important point of departure for anyone wishing to understand the dynamics of the Middle East today.

This book provides a sound starting point for the curious.

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