A Taxi Driver Told Me: “Let’s see what the policeman says…”

by Alex Ray

“Let’s see what the policeman says. Maybe he’s in a good mood and he’ll allow us to stay; maybe his wife gave him a hard time this morning and he’ll be in a bad mood,” said my Careem driver when I asked him to take me to the airport and drive me back to Amman.

Amman’s airport is the final frontier for Uber and its recently acquired Dubai-based subsidiary Careem. They are now licensed to operate freely in Jordan after several years of semi-legal but highly successful activity. However, picking up fares at airport arrivals is the one remaining area where police will still fine Uber and Careem drivers.

The airport taxi company owned by senior military figures has a monopoly on the roughly 21JD service to Amman – several dinars more than the Careem tariff. Their influence has so far been strong enough to retain this profitable monopoly.

Such a patchy approach to the law is not uncommon in Jordan and the region, with rules often up for negotiation depending on the circumstance. Barriers to reforming monopoly arrangements are common.

Lebanon, for example, is replete with the dead-ends of protective monopolies making big money off bad practices. The minivan transport industry, the obligatory diesel power generators and again, airport taxis, are well-known cases.

Enforcement of a monopoly can take different forms depending on the country.
In Lebanon’s structural anarchy, monopolies are often sustained through criminal violence. In Jordan, police and unwritten understandings maintain a modicum of public authority – in Amman at least. Outside of Amman, police often prefer to let local leaders mitigate conflict as in cases of tribal and family violence.

It is telling to observe which rules authorities prioritise enforcing. In one discussion with a Jordanian taxi driver I raised the issue of employers undercutting the pitiful minimum wage by employing Syrians and other foreign labourers*. “The police don’t have the power or capacity to enforce it everywhere,” he said. Yet Jordanian police can and do conduct raids on restaurants serving food during fasting hours in Ramadan and individuals can be fined or imprisoned for a month for eating or drinking in public.

One way to understand the broader dynamics of these examples is to think of modern Arab states as ‘unauthoritative authoritarians.’ Harshly policing certain areas – like political dissent – portrays an image of defined and decisive power. Yet “authoritarian” Arab governments are largely built on power structures that pre-date or parallel the modern nation-state. This overlay of national authority often requires consent from other power brokers in order to gain the cooperation of segments of society. Power can be exercised through the form of family, tribe, village, religion, sect or ethnicity and can even cut across more modern groupings of business and political networks.

This often results in contradictory policies and practices at different levels of authority, delay in implementing government decisions, heavy patronage in return for cooperation and persistent barriers to any reform that disrupts the status-quo. There is no clear line between a ‘lack of authority’ and governance that relies on delegated authority, co-optation or patronage.

Jordan’s Hashemite Royal Family – originally from the Hijaz region along the western coast of modern-day Saudi Arabia – had to gain the cooperation of local tribes in order to establish its rule following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Today, Jordanians are well aware of unofficial power that still operates in parts of the country, due to tribal affiliations, connections to the royal family and the weak reach of central authority. For example, tribes in the Jordan Valley are quietly permitted to grow marijuana, while young men local to Petra have long caused concern over their persistent sexual harassment of female tourists, with little redress from government or police.

A related issue is poor coordination of authority and decision making, which can affect everything from large projects to individual cases. Take the example of Hazem Hamouda, an Australian held in prison in Egypt for over a year. After being released without charge, seemingly with the help of diplomatic pressure, Hamouda was taken back into custody when trying to depart Cairo airport in the presence of Australian consular officers. He was accused of not having the correct papers.

In Syria, government offices display copies of a presidential edict that bans smoking. Yet a friend who visited the Damascus immigration office said the notice could barely be seen from the other side of the room due to thick tobacco smoke.

*Recent data shows that Syrian refugees actually replaced the roles taken by Egyptian guest workers, not Jordanians.

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