A particular theme dominates contemporary heritage projects in the neoliberal context of Jordan: sustainable development based on participatory approaches. Although these approaches are celebrated in academic and governmental circles, the history and the power dynamics within which they operate remain underexplored. We aim to establish a theoretical framework that examines why and how local communities in the Arab region shifted from the peripheral to the centre, and from background to foreground, of the field of archaeology and heritage. We situate archaeology and heritage within two seemingly different contexts, colonialism and neoliberalism, that have governed the relationship between the West and the Arab region. As we contrast colonialist exclusionary policies with the inclusivity promoted by neoliberal policies in archaeological and heritage projects in Jordan, we argue that despite the obvious differences between the two, they both managed to make substantial shifts in the perception of and attitudes toward archaeology and heritage. In spite of participatory paradigms, the shifts seem to have always come ‘from the outside’, operating on sites and peoples alike.