'Bread and Circuses'? The Hidden Utility of Jordan's Shadow Economy

Published May 29th, 2019 - 11:23 GMT
Hamoudeh DVD - Amman's Shadow Economy
Hamoudeh DVD - Amman's Favorite Film Store /Flickr Commons


“[The] law is anything I write on a piece of paper.”

Such was the hubris of Iraq’s strongman Saddam Hussein. The aforementioned quote echoes the sentiments of a president who ruled over a populous Arab nation with up to 90% of revenues derived from oil wealth.

Bordering Iraq, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan survives not as a dictatorship but as a monarchy. Saddam Hussein shared close relations with the kingdom, providing most of Jordan’s oil imports under generous discounts to ensure his poorer neighbors could still prosper.



As I found from my time in Jordan, survival (as opposed to prosperity) punctuates much of life. Here Saddam Hussein’s infamous quote does not apply. Rather, in Jordan it is reversed: The law is written, but not always followed.     

In this desert dwelling of almost 10 million inhabitants, there are no natural resources. Jordan’s neighbors include conservative Saudi Arabia, warring Syria and fragmented Iraq. With average salaries in 2017 standing at 451 JD (around 637 USD) and Amman ranked the most expensive city in the Arab world (2016), the government and its subjects are both strapped for cash. The start of many revolutions is often socio-economic, and Jordan’s brush with the Arab Spring (2011-12) was sparked by government cuts to subsidies and the lack of employment.  

Nonetheless, during my four years in Jordan, I witnessed only two concentrated but peaceful protests. Some gatherings in 2012 saw as few as 300 participants. Neighboring Syria continues its rising death toll. According to the UN, the body count exceeded 400,000 in 2016. Jordan’s 2011-12 protests, however, saw more injuries than deaths, some incidents not exceeding 14 wounded. King Abdullah II is under pressure. Unemployment. Subsidy cuts. Refugees. ISIS. Jordan’s mosaic of Bedouins, Palestinian descendants and Arab settlers must be carefully balanced. For the Hashemite Kingdom, socio-economic problems require socio-economic distractions.  

Take a walk through Amman’s Downtown district and you will find one of Jordan’s largest businesses. The popular DVD store Hamoudeh sells Arab and Western films, TV series, music. Whatever they lack, they can download and deliver. And all for one dinar (1.50 USD). For anyone surviving on a few hundred a month, such a distraction is cheap. Want the latest Simpsons season? “Sure,” a staff member confirms. “One dinar per disk, so six dinars in total (8.50 USD).”  

Hamoudeh’s Downtown branch rises like a concrete castle out of the dusty streets. Two storey’s high, it is the kingdom’s most successful film store. It’s also illegal. Every film sold by Hamoudeh is pirated, yet as one Jordanian film buff observes, “[at] the start of each movie, the owners have shamelessly inserted a commercial for Hamoudeh that usually runs right up to anti-pirating ads.”  

Hamoudeh’s Downtown branch rises like a concrete castle out of the dusty streets. Two storey’s high, it is the kingdom’s most successful film store. It’s also illegal. Every film sold by Hamoudeh is pirated, yet as one Jordanian film buff observes, “[at] the start of each movie, the owners have shamelessly inserted a commercial for Hamoudeh that usually runs right up to anti-pirating ads.”    

That is not to say Hamoudeh is never under the nose of the authorities. Rather, it survives through a tacit understanding with the government and due to its popularity with the masses. “Official copyright laws in Jordan forbid piracy,” explains the same film buff, “and threaten fines of up to 6000 [dinars] (8500 USD)”.

Nonetheless, popularity with the public transformed a nascent cycle of closure and reopening into a compromise of tolerance, provided Hamoudeh sold only foreign and not locally-produced films. Their expansion into Amman’s wealthy Abdoun district lends credence to rumors that “one of their business partners is high up in the government, and that this person deters the police with their influence.”

The lax approach of Hamoudeh staff is echoed by the same laidback attitude of Jordan’s moviegoers. The first time I watched a film at City Mall, the film’s copyright notice or tahthir evoked chuckles from the three men behind me. Once I’d started to live in Jordan, I wasn’t surprised. After all, Hamoudeh provided new films before they hit the big screen. And it wasn’t that long ago that the men in the audience would have laughed while lighting up smuggled cigarettes.  

In a country where over half the male population smokes (including in parliament), cigarettes are prevalent and cheap. No wonder that a 1989 price increase on tobacco provoked riots. When I first arrived in Amman in 2012, it appeared the government was now doing the opposite. “Gas prices are going up,” observed one local. “But at the same time, tobacco prices are going down. I doubt that’s a coincidence.”

“They always do that,” confirmed a Jordanian friend. “Tobacco and alcohol. Even then, there are places in Downtown that sell smuggled cigarettes from Lebanon. The price difference encourages official tobacco firms in Jordan to lower their prices even further.”
 

When I first arrived in Amman in 2012, it appeared the government was now doing the opposite. “Gas prices are going up,” observed one local. “But at the same time, tobacco prices are going down. I doubt that’s a coincidence.” 

In 2014 and 2017 tobacco prices were raised, yet the government must be wary of how such moves will affect discontent. The higher the price, the more risk that consumers will cling to smuggled smokes, robbing the state of much-needed tax revenue, which accounts for up to 75% of a tobacco product’s cost.

In other words, distraction and consumption should prevent revolution. Should this formula be threatened, the country has one final resource it can commodify: the unrest along its borders.    

The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq pushed up to 3.8 million Iraqis out of their homeland. By 2013, neighboring Jordan continued to accommodate up to 250 Iraqi refugees per month, according to Jordan-based NGO CARE International. While the more affluent Iraqis are blamed for increasing Amman’s property prices, they and other refugees from neighboring Syria act as a reminder of what regime change or revolution can bring. By 2007, Jordan had absorbed almost half a million Iraqis (UNHCR). Syrian refugees, on the other hand, totaled almost 700,000 in 2016 (Amnesty International).

By 2007, Jordan had absorbed almost half a million Iraqis (UNHCR). Syrian refugees, on the other hand, totaled almost 700,000 in 2016 (Amnesty International).

“[The refugee crisis] is getting to a boiling point,” warned King Abdullah II in an interview that same year. “Sooner or later, the dam is going to burst.” That cautionary message was as much for domestic as for international consumption. It built upon Jordan’s brush with the Arab Spring and the fear that supported the status quo rather than change.  

In 2011, vigorous protests aimed at the monarchy were decried by Iraqi settlers in Jordan. “I was twelve or thirteen at the time,” recalls one Jordanian university student. “I remember a few protests happened at Dakhlia Square [in Amman] and the police [responded with] water cannons. The next day, the government rebuilt the square with fountains and paths. No more than three people will fit across each path.” And refugees who had fled Baghdad pointed to Iraq’s instability as proof that the status quo was the only choice for peace. Stagnation was better than revolution.

The reminder of Iraq’s fragmentation has been heightened by the fearful proximity of Syria’s ongoing civil conflict. By 2014, the rise of ISIS ensured the prospect of spillover violence became a frightening reality, with a 2016 bombing by Jordan’s border with Syria confirming the ISIS threat. In response to such attacks, His Majesty vowed to retaliate “with an iron fist”.      

As with many Arab governments, and perhaps more so than its oil-rich neighbors, Jordan’s monarchy attempts to counter the prospect of revolution with the promise of security. This final layer complements the socio-economic ‘breaks’ of cheap films, cigarettes and booze with a cautionary tale that is hard to ignore. 

In a 2010 interview with the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, King Abdullah II half-joked that Jordan was located “between Iraq and a hard place.”

In a 2010 interview with the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, King Abdullah II half-joked that Jordan was located “between Iraq and a hard place.” But it is precisely this geographic placement that allows him to turn instability into stability. As one Jordanian journalist notes, Jordan has evaded the Arab Spring because “[the] kingdom has exploited the chaos in the region to guarantee the perpetuation of the status quo.”

Jordan prides itself for being an oasis amid anarchy. This depiction is not a mirage as such but a carefully balanced mosaic of socio-economic and legal compromise, political segregation and fearmongering that draws on adjacent examples of revolutions gone wrong. But all mosaics are fragile. Eventually its tiles begin to shatter.   


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