King Hussein's neutrality hurting Jordan's economy Monarch must pacify pro-Iraqi population WAR IN THE GULF

January 27, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

AMMAN, Jordan -- Although King Hussein's halfhearted neutrality has kept Jordan out of the gulf war, it also has led his nation to the brink of economic collapse.

Exports are off 80 percent to 90 percent, virtually shutting down the mainstay industries in potash and phosphates. Oil reserves have dwindled to a one-month supply, even with consumption plodding along at half the normal rate. The government is studying rationing.

Tourism has disappeared, unless one counts the few hundred foreign journalists in Amman. The national airline, one of the few carriers in the region to brave the gulf war with three flights a day, is operating "on a shoestring," a government official said.

[Finance Minister Basil Jardaneh told Reuters yesterday that Jordan is relying on foreign aid and its foreign reserves to ride out the economic crisis.]

Western experts say the downward spiral can last only for about another month before a crash occurs.

"It's a disaster. All the underpinnings of the economy have been knocked out," said Rami Khouri, a Jordanian writer who is documenting the human costs of the slump for the United Nation's Children's Fund.

Six months ago, Mr. Khouri said, one in five Jordanian families lived below the poverty level of roughly 80 dinars a month (about $120). Now one in every three does and the figure is mirrored by an unemployment rate of "well over 30 percent" among the nation's 3.2 million people, he said.

The victims, as often as not, are children, he said. "I have found kids who faint in school because they haven't eaten in the past day, andpeople who can't afford to send their children to school at all."

After Iraq invaded Kuwait last August, King Hussein joined the economic sanctions against Iraq. But he refused to join the U.S.-led military alliance, infuriating Jordan's biggest trading partner and oil supplier, Saudi Arabia. The Saudis cut off Jordan's oil supply, and other allied neighbors joined the snub.

Since October, Jordan has received its only oil by truck from Iraq, and last week the flow stopped when Iraq inexplicably closed its border to refugees and all other traffic.

Adding to Jordan's woes was the post-invasion crush of hundreds of thousands of refugees, that drained supplies and clogged transportation last fall, at a cost of about $55 million. The United Nations has pledged enough aid to keep that from happening during the gulf war. About $400 million in aid from Europe and Japan also has helped.

But in isolating his nation's economy, the king has at least pacified the pro-Iraqi emotion of his populace. While carefully crafting his own statements on the war to show favor only occasionally, he has given Jordan's state-controlled media free rein in bombastically supporting Iraq. Similarly, he says little about Iraq shooting Scud missiles across Jordan to Israel, but warns Israel against retaliating with air flights.

The result, say government officials and diplomats, is that Jordanians are generally satisfied with the government and have felt little need to take to the streets.

Even a pro-Iraq demonstration of several thousand people last Friday at the Baka Palestinian refugee camp -- a 100,000-person caldron of anti-Western feelings -- was notable for its control and orderliness.

But Western diplomats here worry that such stability will disappear if the economy falls apart. The longer the war lasts, the greater the likelihood that will occur, they say.

Some Jordanian officials suggested that last week's visit by trouble-shooter Richard Armitage of the

U.S. State Department may have addressed ways the United States could help ease Jordan's woes, such as pressuring the Saudis to resume trade.

But in return, the officials said, the United States would likely want a change in King Hussein's public statements on the war.

Relief now might be too late anyway, Mr. Khouri said. "Even if the war suddenly stops, this is going to take a year or two to get back on track."

He said his country was "fed up" with domination by the West, "and we're going to stand up. The consequences may be rough, but it's time for us to stand up and pay the price for freedom and sovereignty."

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