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How Canada can make a difference in the Middle East

There's one country in the Middle East that's a lot like Canada – Jordan. The Hashemite Kingdom, as it is known, has a relatively small population compared to its neighbours Egypt, Iraq and Syria. Its people are friendly, highly literate and law-abiding. Indeed, the World Bank says Jordan is the least corrupt of all the small and medium-sized nations in the region. Like Canada, much of Jordan is almost uninhabited, with 90 per cent of the people concentrated in less than 10 per cent of its territory. Its head of state is a monarch, and it's the cleanest country in the Middle East.

Like Canada, Jordan is dependent on foreign trade, foreign investment and maintaining good relations with many different countries. It values international organizations, is helpful to other countries and is very keen on keeping the peace. To that end, also like Canada, it is known for its willingness to compromise.

There's one big difference: Jordan operates in a pretty tough neighbourhood, and even though the country does its best to stay out of trouble, trouble has a way of finding it and people have a way of taking advantage of it.

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A series of conflicts in neighbouring states has led to streams of refugees seeking sanctuary in the affable kingdom. They seldom are turned away.

In 1949 and again in 1967, it was Palestinians who flooded across the Jordan River taking what they thought would be short-term shelter from Israel's war of independence and the Six-Day War. Decades later, there still are 10 camps in Jordan that house Palestinian refugees, but most people have melded with native Jordanians. With most given citizenship, these Palestinians now constitute 50 per cent of Jordan's population of more than 6 million.

In the past two decades, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled from Saddam Hussein, sanctions and war to the safety of Jordan. Many still remain. Most recently, some half a million Syrians have crossed into Jordan to take refuge.

Unlike Canada, Jordan lacks the kind of resources needed to support an influx like this. As King Abdullah told the United Nations General Assembly last week, Jordan is the fourth water-poorest country in the world.

"Jordanians have opened their arms to those in need," he said, "as we have always done.

But I say here and now that my people cannot be asked to shoulder the burden of what is a regional and global challenge."

This is where Canada comes in.

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While Canada contributes substantially to international organizations to administer emergency relief for the Syrian refugees, including those in Jordan, it could do much more.

Indeed, there could be a program of "twinning" Jordan with Canada – elevating the status of the country so that more aid and economic co-operation are focused on Jordan, so that greater opportunities are provided for Jordanians to study in Canada and for technical assistance to be provided to Jordan. Jordanian hospitals could be twinned with Canadian hospitals and surgeons in Amman could consult during medical procedures or diagnoses with Canadian doctors. Universities of both countries could be twinned and lectures beamed from one campus's auditoriums to the other.

Canada has made a start with aid in many of these fields, emphasizing advances in educational standards, good governance and gender equality. But Jordan needs more.

And partnering to provide more support would be in Canada's interest.

Not only does Jordan house millions of homeless people, but it maintains peace with its neighbour Israel. It is one of only two Arab countries to have a peace treaty with the Jewish state. And it maintains this relationship despite growing popular pressure to slam the door on Israel. Helping Jordan would also help Israel, a country that successive Canadian governments have championed.

Jordan also is struggling against a radical Islamist movement that would like to destabilize the country. While once it was the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood that challenged the King's authority and sought greater democracy, that movement has lost popular support in the past year. A substantial minority are turning now to Salafi jihadists for answers.

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Hundreds of these jihadists are believed to be fighting in Syria against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. If the opposition in Syria is victorious, Jordan fears it could become the next target. If they fail to overthrow the Assad regime, the fighters are likely to return to Jordan and set their sights on the Hashemites.

Not only does Jordan need assistance, it also needs a way to unload a lot of its refugee population. That means political resolutions to the war in Syria and the conflict in Palestine.

Some people have suggested that Canada should step forward as it did to rescue tens of thousands of the so-called "boat people" who fled Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War, or to give refuge to the thousands who ran from the civil war in Lebanon. Why not help some of the thousands who are victims of the war in Syria, they ask.

But even such a program would make no more than a dent in the vast scale of refuge-seekers Jordan is enduring. Better, it would seem, to partner with a Jordanian twin and help it through this time of need.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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