We are just about ready to wrap up our second full day on the ground in Jordan, getting ready to head to the American Embassy in Amman for a reception in our honor that will end an amazingly informative and exciting two days of meetings and briefings.
I will not bore you with all the details, but I thought I’d try my best to hit the highlights.
Our day started early and some of us were hurting from the jet lag heading over to Jordan. We began with a tour of the King Abdullah Special Operations Training Center- KASOTC for short. This base on the outskirts of Amman was designed to train forces using state if the art reality based training for special operations forces, counter-terrorism units, law enforcement and others. During the tour of the 25 square kilometer site we entered what is known as the urban area that contains a wide range if urban and village facilities for forces to train in a variety of typical urban environments. When we arrived at this section of the facility, the gates were down and we heard explosions in the region – simulations that we assumed were underway.
Our guide raised the gate and said we were heading in anyway because the explosions and exercise should cease before we reached the area. It was one of the more frightening and realistic sounds I have ever heard. You could only imagine how complicated working in this environment would be with loud explosions and the sounds of gunfire ricocheting through the buildings and down the streets. As we passed a simulated gas station, it exploded. I then realized it was our hosts just messing with us and setting off the simulation as we drove through. Nevertheless, I was glad when we exited this part of the center!
A highlight of this day was a briefing with His Royal Highness (HRH) Prince Faisal Bin Al Hussein, Special Assistant to the Joint Chief of Staff of the Jordanian Armed Forces. Our meeting was packed full of details and insights on he challenges that Jordan faces in the region.
Apparently, the Jordanians do not eat on the same schedule that we do and previous groups who have participated on this trip explained that we generally cannot miss breakfast go at 100% all day and not eat until 3:00 pm. So our embassy host was planning on having sandwiches on the bus in between meetings until we could grab lunch. We invaded a small shop and had some local snacks as our “lite, before lunch meal,” but it turned out to be a full meal and no one thought we could actually handle a real lunch. Thanks to some persistence on our part, and a willingness on behalf of our hosts, we “adjusted” the schedule during the time set aside for the real lunch to visit the King Hussein Bin Talal Mosque, the national mosque here. The mosque was built on the highest hill in the King Hussein gardens. The mosque can host 6,000 worshipers and the caretaker of the mosque allowed us to visit the mosque. It was beautifully constructed and remained true to Islamic architecture.
We also had briefings with the Jordanian General Intelligence Department and a very lively discussion with Civil Society Leaders on issues related to Development, Youth, Women, & Political development arranged by the Royal Hashemite Fund for Royal Development. The perspectives and outlooks on the challenges facing Jordan were really brought home during this meeting.
Before heading back to the hotel for a political briefing with our Ambassador, we participated in a USAID briefing and sunset tour of the Citadel. Tourism in Jordan is a strategic industry that has taken a slight hit as a result of the Arab Spring. But its 14% of GDP here and generates $3.4 billion annually. Tourism is also the largest generator of employment in the country and projects like this are critical for Jordan.
The Amman Citadel national historic site is one of Amman’s oldest sites perched on top of one of the city’s hills. Excavations reveal that the summit has been used as a settlement and fortress dating back 7,000 years and represents a passage in time with an astounding open-air museum to explore as a part of our collective heritage. Historic structures, tombs, arches, and walls dot the landscape. Towering above downtown Amman, the site includes remains from the Middle Bronze Age (2nd mill. BC) and the Iron Age (8th century BC), as well as from Hellenistic (2nd century BC) and late Roman to Arab Islamic Ages.
The Citadel is located at the top of a hill and the views of Amman from there were amazing, particularly at sunset! We looked down the valley and viewed another ruin, a Roman Amphitheater built during the reign of Antonius Pius (138-161). The structure seats – and is still used today – about 6,000 people. It’s built into the hillside visible from the Citadel.
Our second morning began with a severe case of the nerves for me. The most important meeting of the trip was about to happen and I was our leader for it – meaning I was to introduce the group, sound intelligent and ask the first question. Everyone else on the trip had done an amazing job when it was their turn to lead, but my nerves were due to the fact that this meeting was with His Majesty, King Abdullah II ibn Al-Hussein, the King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
King Abdullah ascended to the throne in 1999 upon the death of his father King Hussein. Luckily for me, I did not create an international incident and the meeting was fantastic. His Majesty was generous with his time and answered all our questions.
Before meeting the King, we were privileged to meet His Excellency, Dr. Ibrahim Saif, Minister of Planning and International Cooperation and Minister of Tourism and Antiquities. The ministry is tasked with coordinating all the foreign assistance that Jordan receives. Jordan’s political and economic challenges makes this ministry one of the most important ones we visited. Jordan receives aid from many Arab nations and the United States. The Minister’s insights were extremely helpful.
We also visited with the Prime Minister – the first one elected in Jordan by the parliament instead of being appointed by the King – part of the post-Arab Spring reforms put in place by King Abdullah. Then it was on to a fascinating development organization designed to assist young entrepreneurs fulfill their dreams of starting a business. Unemployment is high in the Kingdom, and the influx of refugees from Syria have strained the job market and the economy here. Having an organization dedicated to assisting start-ups was refreshing.
The morning began with perhaps the most fascinating and eye opening meeting of the day – a visit to the Department of Palestinian Affairs. This department oversees the services provided to refugees and displaced persons in Jordan. What was shocking to me was the level of services and the number of people we are talking about.
To understand this better, you have to take a slight leap with me – think back to Hurricane Katrina and remember those who filled that stadium when they escaped the storm, now multiple that by 500 times and keep everyone there for years or decades and you have a better sense of the refugee issue in Jordan.
In addition to the 500,000 Syrian Refugees in the country, Jordan is home to 2 million Palestinian refugees. But to provide services to these refugees, there are 172 schools, 24 health centers, 300,000 metric tons of garbage collected annually, Micro finance programs, and Teacher training facilities. Only 18% of the 2 million live in camps, so one can only imagine the burden on services that all of these temporary residents create in a country.
Our next day is filled with visits to our counterparts in the legislative branch. Reform will be the topic of the day….