Jordan: an old friend of the Netherlands

For Ambassador Harry Verweij, after postings in Bangladesh and Burundi, Jordan was a relatively unfamiliar place.  The country soon stole his heart, however. The primary aim of the Netherlands and the Dutch embassy in Amman is to foster opportunities for the people of Jordan, including the 750,000 Syrian refugees living there.

Ambassador Harry Verweij (on the left).

What’s the first thing that struck you about Jordan?

‘I arrived in the summer of 2021. My first impressions were linked with the fact that Jordan didn’t have a lot of restrictions in place at that time. The coronavirus pandemic had faded into the background somewhat at that point. I could move around freely and meet people. In Bangladesh, where I’d just come from, there were more restrictions. Although we had a great time in Dhaka, being in Jordan felt like a new world had opened up for us.

‘Amman is in a beautiful location, nestled amid the hills. It gets a lot of sunshine; there are plenty of open spaces. That was also very different in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, which is always bustling with people. It’s a city in a low-lying area with 20 million inhabitants. I think this is why my first impressions of Jordan felt quite uplifting. It’s a safe country that felt freer.’

How do you like living in Jordan?

‘I like it very much. The people there are extremely friendly; they’re curious about other people’s families (but in a nice way); they love to socialise and eat good food. Before you do business with someone, you first have to become their friend – that’s how things work here. You go out to eat together or have a cup of tea or cardamom coffee. People are proud of their traditions and their history. Jordan as a country with a lot of different layers to it, which I’m looking forward to exploring. Tourism is starting to pick up again since last year. Jordan has a lot of to offer tourists: it’s full of amazing historical sites that showcase its rich history.’

Previously, you were the ambassador to Bangladesh and Burundi. You’ve also lived in New York and Paramaribo. And before becoming an ambassador, you were an embassy inspector for the Inspection, Risk Analysis and Advisory Unit (ISB). What were the main factors that took you down these different career paths?

‘My wife and I wanted to stay in the Netherlands for about eight years, so our children could finish high school. We felt it was important to give them a solid Dutch “foundation”. During that time I deliberately opted for jobs in The Hague, though as an inspector I was on the road a lot. When our youngest went off to university, my wife and I left the country again. I love being able to live and work in such different countries, all over the world, and to get to see the impact of my work first-hand.’

Image: ©Ministry of Foreign Affairs
The Wadi Rum desert in Jordan.

What kinds of issues do the Netherlands and Jordan work on together?

‘Water and agriculture are the biggest ones. Water scarcity is a huge problem in Jordan: boosting food production here is all about getting “more crop per drop”. We also have a number of education-related projects for young people. Education here isn’t focused enough on real-world demand. It’s not well-aligned to the country’s needs. Every family wants their children to become doctors and engineers, but the country is desperate for skilled tradespeople. Vocational training is still in its infancy here.

‘The refugee situation is the most important issue for the Netherlands by far. There are 750,000 refugees from Syria and tens of thousands from Iraq living in Jordan. Bangladesh is also somewhere where large numbers refugees are living, but in many ways it’s incomparable to the situation in Jordan.’

Can you say a bit more about that?

‘There are over a million refugees living in Bangladesh. They are Rohingya; Muslims from neighbouring Myanmar. They live under extremely harsh conditions in camps, with few opportunities. That was also my image of refugees when I came to Jordan. But here, fewer than 20% of refugees live in camps. The majority have homes in cities and villages, and some of them even have jobs. We’re trying to help them further, through education.

‘I’ve learned that being a refugee is always a terrible thing. You lose everything. You have to leave behind your family, your life and your routine and build something new in unpredictable circumstances. Here in Jordan, working with refugees sometimes seems more hopeful, because they can actually build a life for themselves here, though their ultimate goal is still to return to their home country.’

What are you proud of as an ambassador?

‘I’m proud of the work we do at BZ. Wherever in the world I happened to be stationed, my colleagues have always been enthusiastic people who take a lot of pride in their work. In my opinion, something the Netherlands excels at is making connections in the countries where we’re active. Projects come and go, but the connections and contacts you make are of lasting value for the bond between countries.

‘Here in Jordan they see the Netherlands as an economic powerhouse, with people who are always looking to find creative solutions to problems. And you shouldn’t underestimate what the friendship between our two royal houses means for relations between our two countries. The Netherlands has a solid and enduring friendship with Jordan.’

What do you hope to achieve in Jordan as ambassador over the next few years?

‘I want to do my part to promote the reception of refugees in the region. The Netherlands wants to ensure that refugees can live their lives with dignity, that they can actually have lives that are about more than just being refugees. This is why we form partnerships with friendly countries like Germany, France and the Scandinavian countries. And obviously, in my case, with Jordan. The Netherlands understands the power that a smaller country can have: we forge strong partnerships with like-minded countries in order to pursue our own typically Dutch priorities.’