In a region he sees as troubled by extremism, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has picked an Arab country to support: Canada is giving aid to bolster moderate Jordan as it copes with an influx of thousands of Syrian refugees.
The $105-million aid package, announced as Mr. Harper made his first visit to the palace of King Abdullah, is not direct humanitarian assistance for Syrians who are lodged in camps in the country's north. This is money for fragile Jordan, to help fund its overburdened education system and for security.
Mr. Harper arrived Thursday to a brief blast of trumpets that broke the royal hush in the courtyard of the white-stone Al-Hummar palace. He was welcomed by an honour guard in long tunics and kaffiyeh, and strolled quickly into a meeting with King Abdullah.
At the outset of a larger meeting that included ministers and officials, Mr. Harper made it clear he's seeking to bolster Jordan with more aid and trade, and co-operate on regional security issues.
"We view the Kingdom of Jordan as certainly one of the most important partners on all levels, in terms of commerce, in terms of development, in terms of security in this part of the world," he told King Abdullah.
King Abdullah, who visited Mr. Harper in Ottawa in 2007 to launch talks that led to a free-trade agreement, cited the long history of close ties with Canada and co-operation on past Mideast peace talks. "There are major challenges ahead of us in this region. We continue to look to Canada's support, working with us together to try to solve these challenges," he said.
Those challenges include the pressures from almost 600,000 Syrian refugees now in Jordan, but they are not the only challenges. King Abdullah has long had to balance tensions between East Bank Jordanians and Palestinians who now make up roughly half the population. There are also calls for greater democracy, and, in a relatively poor Arab nation, discontent over the economy and stretched public budgets – strained further by the large numbers of Syrian refugees.
Ottawa has seen that as a cause for deep concern. In a region Mr. Harper described Wednesday as riven by a Shia-Sunni sectarian divide and extremists, Mr. Harper's government sees Jordan as a bulwark of moderate stability and a country that has been willing to engage in some co-operation with Israel. The Hashemite kingdom is not a full democracy, though it has legislative elections, but it has greater freedoms than many Arab states. King Abdullah, according to Mr. Harper's aides, outlined "impressive efforts to foster democratization and economic development in Jordan."
Most of the aid promised Thursday, $100-million, is for development programs, notably putting money into the education system, the government said – noting that about 35 per cent of Syrian refugees are school-aged children.
Another $5-million is to go to security, including unspecified "equipment, infrastructure, technology, and training," which it said was to "mitigate" the threat of Syrian weapons. The government has not yet said whether that means the money will go to the Jordanian army.
Mr. Harper's agenda also included a roundtable with Jordanian business people, including the chairman of Royal Jordanian Airlines and Al Ahli Bank.