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Jordanians feel pain from war next door

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 25, 2003

PETRA, Jordan -- Life is anything but rosy here in the "rose-red city half as old as time."

The soaring canyons, where the ancient Nabateans carved a city out of stone, are silent but for a donkey's bray.

At the Indiana Jones Coffee Shop, whose namesake hero was filmed nearby in the Last Crusade, owner Mohammed Fudul hasn't made a sale all day.

And at the five-star Marriott, high on a hill overlooking Petra's spectacular ruins, there's not a single guest, though rooms have been slashed to 25 dinars -- about $35 -- including breakfast.

This should be the peak season in Jordan, when the air is still cool and pink blossoms are exploding from the branches of plum trees. But the war in neighboring Iraq is already taking a heavy toll on Jordan's tourism industry, a bulwark of the economy, and further hurting a country that has long suffered from being between "Iraq and a hard place."

"Any strike in the region will cause a serious problem in Jordan, and we will be the most affected party in the region after Iraq," said Samer Tawil, the national economy minister.

"A military strike on Iraq will be a disaster for Jordan."

All of Iraq's neighbors are feeling the effects of war. But Jordan is especially vulnerable because it is small, poor and in the dicey position of serving as a buffer between Israel and the Arab world.

Jordan is one of only two Arab countries -- Egypt is the other -- that has a signed a peace treaty with Israel. As such, it enjoys strong relations and gets substantial aid from the United States, Israel's closest ally.

But Jordan's 5-million people include a huge number of Palestinians who fled here between the 1948 and 1967 Mideast wars. They are united in their hatred of Israel and their support for Saddam Hussein.

Trying to balance these conflicting interests is Jordan's King Abdullah, whose wife, Queen Rania, is herself Palestinian. Although he has quietly allowed U.S. troops to operate out of his country, Abdullah publicly has opposed the war on Iraq as a threat to the entire region.

"Dear brothers and sisters, I know the pain and anger you are feeling because of the suffering and ordeal that the Iraqi people are facing," Abdullah said in televised speech last week to his restive subjects. "I am one of you, I share the feelings of every one of you."

However, in a clear warning to demonstrators who have taken part in antiwar rallies in recent days, he said the government's main obligation "is to preserve the security and stability of our homeland."

Jordan is also trying to keep a lid on a small but violent extremist element. Last fall, a U.S. diplomat was gunned down as he left for work. And in 2000, Jordanian intelligence foiled an al-Qaida plot to blow up the Radisson Hotel in Amman and kill Americans and Israelis gathered for a millennium party.

"There won't be enough body bags in Jordan to carry away the dead," one of the suspects reportedly boasted to police.

The opposition to war here is not just political but economic. With no oil of its own, Jordan gets all of its petroleum from Iraq at half price under a deal approved by the United Nations. The caravan of tankers from Iraq has stopped in the past week, fueling concern that when supplies run out Jordan will pay far more for oil on the world market.

But one of the biggest worries is tourism.

Foreign journalists have long called the country "Bore-dan," for Amman's limited amenities and architectural blandness.

But other parts of Jordan have a wealth of natural and man-made attractions, including the Dead Sea and Mount Nebo, where Moses reputedly is buried.

Like Israel, Jordan hoped to capitalize on a surge of millennium-year interest in the Holy Land. Dozens of new hotels were built in anticipation. But in late 2000, Palestinians began their intifada, or uprising, against Israel, the first in a string of regional conflicts that have kept away visitors by the millions.

"First the intifada, then Afghanistan, then this," said Ali Mohammed, who runs the Peace Shop tea house near Petra's fabled ruins. At 2 p.m. on a recent day, his tables were empty except for a young couple from France -- the first customers he had all day.

When times were good, "I was open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m," he said. "Now I open from 10 to 1:30 or 2, and in another few days I may not open at all."

As many as 4,000 visitors a day used to gape at the Treasury -- familiar to movie buffs from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade -- and other massive structures carved from pink rock more than 2,000 years ago.

As of noon Sunday, fewer than 40 tickets had been sold.

The war-related slump has also thrown hundreds out of work in the modern city of Petra. The four-year-old Golden Tulip, one of many new luxury hotels, has closed indefinitely. The Grand View, another five-star hotel next to the Marriott, will open only if it gets a group reservation; it can't afford to keep staff on duty for a few individual guests.

Most people here say they would welcome back American tourists even as they blame the American government for the war.

"Americans make the business bad for everybody," says the Peace Shop's Mohammed, gazing at empty tables and empty canyons. "We have a small radio but now that this news is terrible we don't listen. We just sit and enjoy the air."

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at .

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