MAAN, JORDAN -- "At times of need, they resort to the Bedou," complained Salfa Abu Tayeh, a tall woman with plain opinions, bitterly expressing the frustrations of some of Jordan's tribal people. "I, a Bedouin, feel we are like a winter fur. They wear us around their shoulders when it gets cold, and in the heat of summer they just toss us aside or over a sofa."
Jordan's Bedouins, especially clans living close to the Saudi border, are finding themselves political and economic victims of the Persian Gulf crisis, torn between their long loyalty to Jordan's King Hussein and their traditional friendships and contacts with Saudi Arabia. The crisis has tested the allegiance of several tribes to a king to whom deference has always been the glue holding the country together in times of adversity.
The tribes of Jordan -- not all of them wandering nomads, since many have settled in towns and established themselves as merchants, lawyers, engineers and politicians -- have long been the proudest and most intensely loyal of Hussein's subjects. They make up about 40 percent of Jordan's 3 million population.
While Hussein, listening to Jordan's Palestinian majority, has sided internationally with Iraq since its invasion of Kuwait, some Bedouin leaders have found themselves ostracized and detained by security authorities for expressing support of Saudi King Fahd. At the same time, international sanctions and Saudi retaliation against Jordan for backing Iraq have brought the Bedouins' thriving cross-border commerce to a halt, forcing some truckers out of business.
A Jordanian cabinet decision last week to disband the municipal council of the restive southern city of Maan because its mayor visited Saudi Arabia and messaged support to Fahd, underscored fears in Amman of Saudi influence and interference in the neglected townships and tribal areas of Jordan's southern fringe.
Mayor Mohammed Musa Fayyad Khalaf had driven to Tabuk, 60 miles across the border, in a government car with official license plates, at a time of icy Jordanian-Saudi relations, prompting Jordan's minister of municipalities to seek his resignation. A telegram Khalaf sent expressing support for Saudi Arabia's position in the conflict, which was read over Riyadh Radio, led to his interrogation by security authorities and his dismissal, with the other 11 members of his council.
Salfa's brother, Nayef Abu Tayeh, a Bedouin member of Jordan's parliament, was ostracized by his peers for sending a similar cable to Fahd several weeks ago. "Sending these telegrams, whether right or wrong, would have facilitated the affairs of our people," Salfa, headmistress of the Maan Girls' School, said. "As Bedou, we have been harmed. He who wants to take his camels and goats to the border can no longer do so because of these political differences."
"This is undemocratic," she insisted, "and not the kind of democracy we have been used to or we are being told existed."
Overwhelming support for Iraq's policies, especially from Jordan's Palestinians, who make up an estimated 50 percent of the country, has shaped the government's stand on the issue of an embargo against Iraq. The leadership is straining to apply U.N. economic sanctions against Iraq to avoid international scorn while at the same time not provoking pro-Iraqis in the country.
The Bedouins have long moved freely within the region, relying on agreements among Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia allowing them to travel with the change of the seasons.
They feel torn between their opposition to the presence of foreign troops in Saudi Arabia and their personal interests there, Salfa explained.
Saudi anger over Jordan's tilt toward Iraq has virtually shut the border between the two countries -- in largely desert areas where the Bedouin tribes have always roamed at will, with the constant need for grazing grounds keeping them on the move.
Maan, a sprawling town that has been built amid patches of languid palms, was cherished for having a "ribbon of a stream" -- a water source in the middle of the parched desert. It was a resting place for camel caravans carrying pilgrims to Arabia's holy places before the Hejaz railway was built between Damascus, Syria, and Medina, Saudi Arabia, early in this century. It is 130 miles south of Amman and 70 miles north of the Saudi border.
Today, modern transportation in the form of vans, cars and huge trucks have taken over from the railway, and the road through Maan has become a major trading route for export traffic coming from Turkey, Syria and Jordan's Red Sea port of Aqaba, to Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
During the Iran-Iraq war, Maan's role as a station along the vital route flourished. Drivers who had "Of course we sympathize with Iraq, but King Hussein will always have the first and last word."
-- Former trucker Soheil Oujan
owned one truck bought three or four, and their monthly income swelled to 2,000 dinars -- about $1,300 -- according to Hussein Kreishan, an engineer. New stone houses shaded with jasmine and bougainvillea bushes attest to the boom.
But Maan's 1,500 truckers became the spark for riots in 1989 when they took to the streets to protest an increase in gasoline prices that did not provide for an increase in their tariffs.
During the uprising, some of the southern tribes called for the secession of southern Jordan to Saudi Arabia, sociologist Seri Nasser said. The violence, in which four protesters were killed by riot police, was the starting point of Jordan's movement toward democracy and the beginning of a devolution of the king's power. In bending to the will of the people, Hussein, who sees himself as a constitutional monarch, has perhaps become "more of a figurehead," Nasser said.
Although the Hashemite regime's support in the past has always derived its strength from the Bedouins, whether those in the army or the local chieftains, the boundaries are less clear-cut now, with intermarriage and the emergence of a more uniform Jordanian identity as more tribes become urbanized and politicized.
The trucking industry is hurt now in Maan, as a result of the blockade of Baghdad and Saudi Arabia's barring of Jordanian trucks at its border. Shaher Shaaban, who was making 600 dinars a month, said he makes only about 150 now.
Soheil Oujan, who had operated his container trucks through Maan on the route to Jiddah and Medina for 15 years, is now out of the business and trying to run a repair shop. He is enraged at Saudi border authorities, who he said not only turned his drivers back but gouged his freezers and dismantled the wheels of his vehicles in a stringent inspection looking for terrorists and suicide bombers coming via Jordan.
The Saudis "have always discriminated against us, treating us as foreigners," Oujan complained.
"Our hearts are with Iraq, but naturally we would have preferred for the invasion of Kuwait never to have happened. We were in heaven on earth before," Oujan added.
Diplomats here wonder about reaction on the street and among Jordan's rank and file, should Hussein decide to end his support of Iraq. But a half-dozen truck drivers here said they would follow their ruler. "Of course, we sympathize with Iraq, but King Hussein will always have the first and last word. If he changes, we all go with him," Shaaban said. Odeh and Oujan agreed.
One of the largest of Jordan's nine main tribes, the Huweitat, has settlers on both sides of the Saudi-Jordanian border, and its migrant communities of old have now developed roots, allegiances and citizenship in both countries, especially in Tabuk. To travel to Tabuk, Jordanians do not need visas, just permission from the local authorities, residents here said.
Accustomed to the cross-border ties of the past, seven tribal sheiks from villages near Maan were among those who tried to send telegrams of support to Fahd. The messages were stopped by the Jordanian post office and the sheiks were briefly detained by security forces for questioning, Salfa said.
Another group of sheiks -- tribal elders who are usually selected by consensus in their clan and confirmed by royal decree -- published advertisements in local newspapers three weeks ago restating allegiance to Hussein but also expressing support for Fahd.
In at least two cases such ads have been contradicted in print by relatives from the same clan, usually younger brothers who identify more strongly with Iraq and feel shamed by their elders' digression from the popular trend. The second wave of ads generally expressed renewed support for Hussein and Iraq and opposition to the American buildup. Some appealed Saudi Arabia to "come back to its senses."
The one common theme in all such newspaper ads was the expression of continued devotion to King Hussein, and the campaign eventually turned to publication of pictures of the king and crown prince and then died out.