I just got done with a week’s holiday in Jordan, the only country in the region not to have suffered catastrophic civil war, conquest, or some other kind of military disaster in recent years.  I saw a variety of Free Syrian Army coffee mugs (with little slogans etched into them with a nail, like “Damascus is the key to victory”), a few Jordanian army tanks, and a lovely series of quiet tourist traps that were both off season and suffering from the reputation blow the Arab Spring’s been for the region.

As I drove from Wadi Rum in the south to Jerash in the north, I saw signs that pointed me to the al-Qaeda-held towns in Iraq and the burning ruins of Syria and realized they were just a few hours drive away.  Imagine you’re in, say, New York, and Boston is a no-go zone, or you’re in London and it’s no longer safe to visit Wales.  The distances were tiny; it was weird to think about this oasis of security in a region not known for that.

So how did Jordan get so lucky?  A few lucky (and clever) kings helped, but demography and geography helped shaped their choices.

The Levant was doomed prior to World War I to being a borderland or a minor region in greater empires, with all the cultural and demographic hangups that entailed

Perched on the edge of desert and sea on the way to greater glory.

Borderlands are regions where trade, culture, religion, and politics mix people up into a big ol’ bag of humanity and pour them out in quite the mess.  They are places where the stability of a capital city, with its relatively stifling conformity, breaks down, and where people can break cultural, social, or even official rules and get away with it, because power is concentrated elsewhere or too busy attempting to simply do the basic task of holding the frontier to notice.

In the Levant, despite being part of truly awesome powers like Rome, the early Caliphs, and the Ottoman Turks, the role of being a borderland created a myriad of cultures that split into subcultures while allowing other identities that were wiped out elsewhere to thrive.  It’s no accident that the Levant holds secretive sects like the Alawites and Druze, both of whom are not to be found elsewhere in the Middle East.

Borderlands, by their nature, have to be controlled by someone willing to crack skulls and build schools with the cash and troops to keep on doing that routinely

The U.S.-Mexico borderlands are currently controlled by two strong, centralized powers with capable militaries and functioning local governments.  They won’t be slipping into chaos anytime soon.  But if central power on either side were to weaken and state institutions were no longer able to perform, you’d get just that.  The cartel violence that plagues the area is symptomatic of a weaker-than-it-should-be Mexican state.

The Levant was given independence just after World War II as colonial systems worldwide decayed.  Last to be colonized, they were among the first to be dumped onto the world stage by French and British governments eager to rid themselves of their trouble.  With so many cultures, tribes, and religions in play as a legacy of their status as a borderland, nobody was really ready for independence.

Lebanon didn’t even get to the 1960s before America was called in to settle scores and stabilize the government.  As for Syria, coup after coup resulted in a marriage and then a divorce with Egypt, followed by some nasty defeats from Israel.  Israel, incidentally, has a higher degree of stability in its pre-1967 borders because it has a largely homogeneous society free of any borderland hangover.

And little Jordan was, early on, no exception

Jordan was a British reward to the Hashemite family for a job well done in World War I.  Thanks to its dry climate, Amman and its environs, the heart of the Jordanian state today, were always part of some territory connected to Jerusalem or Damascus, since the former was closer to the sea and the latter was a better situated regional power center.  Most people were Bedouin or simple farmers and the population was low.  Jordan was protected by British power from French encroachment from Syria or Saudi invasions from the south until just after World War II, when Britain withdrew from Palestine rather suddenly and the state of Israel was born.

Hoping to buy security with more territory and people, Abdullah I grabbed what’s now known as the West Bank in all that chaos.  For it, somebody shot him.  His successors were left to tangle with the problem of an Arab Palestinian population that outnumbered the original inhabitants of Jordan.  It all came to a head in 1970 with Black September, when the Jordanian army smashed up Palestinian political opposition once and for all, expelling Yasser Arafat and the PLO to Lebanon, which a few years later sank into chaos.

That brings us to about today

How has Jordan escaped the crazy that surrounds it?  Much of that has to do with its relatively unattractive landscape.  The vast majority of Jordan is desert and the Jordan River itself is shrinking.  With water at a premium, the country has a hard time developing into a more advanced economy.  No leader of Jordan has ever been deluded into thinking they have a potential great power under their feet, unlike Iraq’s Saddam or Egypt’s Abdel Nasser.  This has made Jordanian leaders more risk adverse and less likely to accidentally take on challenges they end up losing catastrophically.  To really nail that fact in, Jordan’s kings have lost two wars (’48 and ’67) against Israel.

Black September started off with a bang as Palestinian guerrillas blew up empty airliners in front of TV crews.

Moreover, in a perverted sort of way, Israel has served to absorb the expansionist tendencies of other nearby states, accidentally shielding Jordan from threats from Syria or Egypt, traditionally places where powers could and have expanded into what is now Jordan.  Neither Damascus nor Cairo, both stronger power centers, have been able to turn their attention away from balancing themselves against the Israeli threat.

During Black September, Syria sent forces to Jordan to support the PLO, but was hamstrung by its defeat just a year prior at Israel’s hands, as well as by the necessity of holding the line in the Golan Heights.   Syria couldn’t afford to throw too many tanks or troops into a fight it was not certain of winning, lest it open itself up to another defeat by Israel.  So Jordan was given a freer hand to crush the Palestinian challenge to the throne and prevent Syria from gaining the kind of influence it enjoyed in Lebanon prior to 2005’s withdrawal.

So far, the King Abdullah II has managed to stave off the Arab Spring

This is a lot of credit to his astute political leadership, giving way when necessary and cracking a few heads when called for.  Jordanians are well aware of the costs of instability.  Permanent Palestinian refugee camps within the kingdom remind the people of the costs of defeat, while the flood of Syrian and Iraqi refugees is an object lesson in what happens when a society stops getting along.  There’s no a huge movement for revolution these days because revolution has so rarely worked out in the Arab world.

As I learned when two Bedouin had a go at me in Wadi Rum over Obama’s inaction in Syria, Jordanians are more interested in what’s happening next door rather than what’s happening inside their borders.  If Iraq and Syria could provide solid examples of functioning democracy, Jordanians themselves might be more willing to try it.  But Jordan is too well acquainted with what happens when one gambles with a country’s future.