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A few years ago, I moved back to an apartment in Amman that I had lived in some years previously. When I had rented this apartment the first time, I asked a friend to help install a fireplace. My friend, who was an officer in the Jordanian Armed Forces Royal Corp of Engineers, did a great job. Workers came in and out drilling through a concrete ceiling, putting up a tall chimney, and stone-casing the mantel. A couple of weeks later, and after profuse apologies to the neighbors who bore the construction noise in silence, I had a fully functioning wood fireplace and those Amman winter evenings were never better. My friend passed away some time after that from cancer. He was a member of a small minority in Jordan called Circassians (or Cherkess). The Circassians are an ethnic group that has inhabited the Caucasus Mountains for millennia. A valiant and proud people, they were forced to leave their lands in the 1880s during the Ottoman-Russian wars. Some migrated into inland Russia and some into Ottoman territories. Today, Circassians can be found throughout the Middle East – in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine. The Circassians settled Amman, which was a mere old ruin with no permanent inhabitants, in 1878 and built it up from scratch. Both of my grandmothers are Circassians. Russia has recently, and quietly, allowed Circassians to return to their old territories in the Caucasus, granting citizenship to those who wish to resettle in their ancestral homelands. Surprisingly, or not, large number of Circassians are applying for and receiving such privileges, and are gradually moving back, leaving the Middle East. This is driven by more than one factor. The headwinds facing the Middle East in the coming years and decades are expected to be rough and it is prudent to hedge one’s bets. We see this not only where Circassians are concerned but also in the numbers of Arabs applying for residency and citizenship in Western countries that would take them – the US, Canada, and some European countries. Australia and New Zealand are also destinations. When I moved back into that Amman apartment, I was pleasantly surprised that the fireplace was still functioning well. Which brings me to one particular winter evening. The temperature was close to zero Celsius and I had piled a few large logs on top of each other to make a fire. I tried to light the fire but it kept going out. After about an hour or so of trying, I had one last twig to use as kindle and I inserted it amongst the pile of large logs thinking that its small flame would die out along with the rest of the pile. Lo and behold, that small twig, for no apparent explanation, lit up the whole pile and I had a roaring fire brining back memory of friends, past and present. The roaring fire of that evening also started me thinking about small twigs and how unexpected they can be – a small, scrawny, dried up twig can make a big fire out of a pile of old, lazy, dried up bunch of logs, piled on top of one another.
Sep 20, 2022 · 3 min read
The US and Jordan
“The Asia Scotland Institute is delighted to be joined by Bruce Riedel, of Brookings, and Majd Shafiq to discuss his latest book, 'Jordan and America: An Enduring Friendship. This is the first book to tell the remarkable story of the relationship between Jordan and the United States and how their leaders have navigated the dangerous waters of the most volatile region in the world. Jordan has been an important ally of the United States for more than seventy years, thanks largely to two members of the Hashemite family: King Hussein, who came to power at the age of 17 in 1952 and governed for nearly a half-century, and his son, King Abdullah, who inherited the throne in 1999. Both survived numerous assassination attempts, wars, and plots by their many enemies in the region. Both ruled with a firm hand but without engaging in the dictatorial extremes so common to the region. American presidents from Eisenhower to Biden have worked closely with the two Hashemite kings to maintain peace and stability in the region--when possible. The relationship often has been rocky, punctuated by numerous crises, but in the end, it has endured and thrived. Long-time Middle East expert Bruce Riedel tells the story of the U.S.-Jordanian relationship with his characteristic insight, flair, and eye for telling details. For anyone interested in the region, understanding this story will provide new insights into the Arab-Israeli conflict, the multiple Persian Gulf wars, and the endless quest to bring long-term peace and stability to the region.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4RAkVYqgMM
Sep 13, 2022 · 2 min read
Life is sacrifice. As we go through life, we tend to give up something for another. Whether we are aware of this or not is another story. The practice of sacrifice is found in the oldest human records and is common to most religions and cultures. Our ancestors used to offer animals, plants, material possessions or human life to deities in exchange for some gain or benefit. As such, the act involved the surrender or destruction of something precious for the sake of attaining or retaining another that enjoyed a higher value - material or otherwise. Somewhat surprisingly, or perhaps not, the Latin origin of the verb sacrifice means to make something sacred. Joseph Campbell’s explanation of marriage in terms of sacrifice is noteworthy. Campbell states that the main objective of marriage is not the birth of children or the raising of families. He invokes the image of marriage as being an ordeal in which the ego is sacrificed to a relationship in which two become one. This, he states, is a mythological image that embodies the sacrifice of the visible for a transcendent good. On this, Campbell does not depart much from Iris Murdoch. Murdoch says that god can and should be found in the ability of one human being to fully and unapologetically accept another. It is difficult to imagine life without sacrifice. We give up from and of ourselves to support, elevate and nurture the existence, maturation and prosperity of another, or some other - a partner, child, business relationship, friend, protégé, country. In doing so, we lose and give up not only privileges but cherished items like our time on this earth, our energy, reserves of patience, tolerance and love, in the hope of attaining that transcendent good - or finding god. And sometimes we succeed at this, but many times we fail. And when we fail, perhaps we will not miss what we sacrificed and lost in the immediate. But once we reach another fork in the road and we have to take a new turn in new company (personal or professional), our accumulated losses become theirs; they bear part of our cross and we part of theirs. Sometimes, what does not kill you does not make you stronger; it makes you a different person, with less and more to offer. And it is the latter that makes all the difference.
Sep 6, 2022 · 2 min read
I read a LinkedIn post by a someone saying that he is part of a growing group of professionals living and working across several countries in the Middle East. No doubt this is a healthy development for the region. It denotes the creation of regional enterprises and regional investment vehicles and clusters. It also indicates that Arab societies are opening up and are becoming more accepting of the “other”. Many of the Arab World’s challenges can only be addressed via regional initiatives, with water and food security dominating. Crossing boundaries to transact trade, learn, and discover has been part of the human experience for as long as we were able to document our histories. That was the positive side of crossing borders. The other side was more atrocious. Wars to conquer and pillage and subjugate, with ramifications of such acts of aggression still with us today. Crossing borders in the 1980s was called globalization – a trend that accelerated with the end of the Cold War, the ease of travel, the primacy of the Chicago School of untrammeled free trade and free markets (aka minimum regulation), and the politics of borrow and spend – by everyone: governments, companies, and individuals. Globalization, as an economic concept, was sold to the middle and working classes in the West as improving their consumer choices in terms of quality and price. Also, improving the earnings of companies they work for and that their pension plans own shares in. The other promise made was investments in upgrading the skills of the middle and working classes so they can graduate to producing higher value-added products, with jobs to replace those lost to middle and working classes in Developing Countries. The latter did not materialize in meaningful ways and the massive economic letdown suffered by the middle and working classes in many countries spawned extremist politics, fueled by identity issues and nationalism. Brexit was one result. Trump’s presidential win and the ensuing political divide within the United States is another. When one is thrust upon new horizons, the move up the learning curve can be steep. Learning to speak the language of a new place may not prove to be an easy exercise. It is not so much the language of the letters that we need to learn but that of the soul, the mind and the spirit. These are the levers that we use to negotiate the structures of our relationships and the parameters within which our relationships function. Human relationships are tender constructs. They can be forged with blood, sweat and tears or with something as simple and powerful as a smile or a handshake. And they are malleable. The same bonds that can break with the first drops of rain can sustain Mount Ararat. Human relationships are the veins and arteries of our universe. They are the conduits through which we live and breathe. And through them, we connect to the quarries of our souls and mine the seams of whatever is good in our lives. They are too precious to be subjected to the withering winds of whims, prejudices and greed.
Aug 30, 2022 · 3 min read
Islamic Finance in Jordan
Many years ago I was an undergraduate student at the back then only university in the UAE - the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain. For those who remember Al Ain in the early 1980s, it was an oasis in more ways than one. Two hours inland by car from both Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Al Ain’s greenery and water fountains, its cool breezes, and friendly social life gave living there a special flavor. Back then we did not have internet or streaming services, or satellite TV for that matter. My windows to the world were two publications in print form: the Atlantic Monthly magazine, and a great daily newspaper called the International Herald Tribune. Both reached me in Al Ain by regular mail several days, or weeks, late. The print edition of the Tribune was an amalgamation of articles from the New York Times, the LA Times and other media. It was principally sold outside the United States - in Europe, the Middle East and other geographies. It spoke to a global, English speaking audience and covered politics, economics, finance and had a cultural section detailing latest theater and opera productions, art exhibits by international city, as well as book reviews. It was in the Tribune back then that I read an interview with a western banker working in the Gulf explaining Islamic finance to western readers. The banker, whose name I no longer recall, said that Islam treated money as a medium of exchange and not as a commodity. A medium of exchange can be used to exchange goods and services and benefits (profits) can be had from such exchanges. But, not being a commodity, Islam does not allow for the buying and selling of money for a price (i.e. interest). And that is the key philosophical underpinning of Islamic finance. Globally, Islamic finance started in the 1960s in Pakistan and Egypt, with special banks focused on the agriculture sector giving farmers interest free loans. The Jeddah Conference in 1975 was a milestone and an event that put in place Islamic finance rules and regulations. The establishment of the Accounting and Auditing Organization for Islamic Financial Institutions (AAOIFO) in 2000 in Bahrain is another major milestone in the development of Islamic finance worldwide. The emergence of Islamic banks, non-bank Islamic finance institutions, and Islamic trusts followed with the setting up of the Dubai Islamic Bank in 1976, Faisal Bank (Saudi and Egypt) in 1977, and the Islamic Bank of Sudan in 1977. In Jordan, the Jordan Islamic Bank was established in 1978 under a temporary law. The Banking Law for the year 2000 had articles (50 to 58) that regulated Islamic banks in the Kingdom, with four Islamic banks currently in operation: Islamic International Arab Bank, Safwa Bank, Jordan Islamic Bank, and Al Rajhi Bank. Additionally, 17 non-bank Islamic finance institutions and 3 Islamic insurance companies offer their services to clients under the supervision of the Central Bank of Jordan. Two main products are used by Islamic banks in Jordan: Murabaha and Ijara. In a Murabaha contract, the bank buys an asset or a commodity and resells it to the client at pre-agreed upon price and time period. The asset or commodity ownership transfers to the client immediately upon sale. In an Ijara (lease) contract, the bank buys an asset or a commodity, leases it to the client, and the client makes monthly payments to the bank over an agreed upon period of time. The ownership of the asset or commodity transfers to the client after the final lease payment. As to sukuks, the legal and regulatory framework in Jordan has been in place since 2014. Sukuks are financial instruments (contracts) between Islamic fund providers and fund users, with three main contracts in use in Jordan: Murabaha and Ijara, as well as Istisna’ (build/construct/manufacture an asset and sell it to a client over time by installments). For funding from Islamic banks in Jordan: As to funding via sukuks in Jordan: The process of obtaining funding from Islamic banks in Jordan starts out with an application submitted by the client, followed by a credit analysis and a cashflow analysis conducted by the bank. Guarantees are also required. These can be Government of Jordan or other third party guarantees, land or real estate, the project or the asset to be financed, or ring fenced cashflows of the project or its owner. For sukuks, a feasibility study is required, coupled with a risk assessment, a prospectus, as well as guarantees. A salient feature of a sukuk issue in Jordan is the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) structure. A Special Bylaw regulates the establishment and management of Sukuk SPVs, which are private shareholding companies established with the purpose of separating the financial accounts of the sukuks from those of the issuers of the sukuks. As such, the SPV is an intermediary between the issuer of the sukuks and the investor (sukuk holder). The SPV acts as an agent on behalf of the sukuk holder to collect payments from the issuer (both interim and final payments). The SPV also manages the extinguishing of the sukuks at maturity. The SPV Currently, there is a total of JD 584 million of sukuks outstanding in Jordan, all issued by the Government of Jordan and related entities. These are: Market estimates indicate that the four Islamic banks in Jordan have around JD 2.45 billion in dry powder, with an additional JD 220 million at the 17 non-bank financial institutions, all looking for funding and investment opportunities.
Aug 23, 2022 · 7 min read