Despite Big Problems, Jordan Is the Quiet Man of the Middle East – But for How Much Longer?

Suha Ma’ayeh

AFP Photo: Khalil Mazraawi

Between Iraq and Lebanon, both currently riven with turmoil, lies another country with similar socio-economic problems. Yet Jordan has so far managed to avoid mass protests against grievances that are every bit as legitimate as those of its neighbors. But that restraint may soon reach breaking point, for Jordanians have much to be angry about.

Unemployment is at a record high of 19 percent. Youth unemployment is at a staggering 37 percent, according to the International Labor Organization. The government’s efforts to stimulate the economy and create job opportunities over the years have failed. Services are inadequate, the people grow poorer and the perception of widespread corruption persists.

The people’s trust in their leaders has been eroded. All they see is the economy sinking, a consequence of policies that have largely depended on increasing taxes, which stifled the economy, weakened purchasing power and shrank the middle class.

The government’s response to any mutterings of public discontent has been to reshuffle itself – it has done this four times since Omar Razzaz became prime minister in June last year. Or it announces yet another economic reform plan or initiative that seems doomed to fail from the start; they usually involve spending money the country doesn’t have, thus leading the government to borrow even more.

A recent nationwide strike by teachers lasted four weeks and halted school for more than 1.5 million students. Fearing the strike would spread to other sectors, the government caved in and agreed to an immediate 35 percent pay rise for teachers and a raise for civil servants next year. In September, the cabinet also approved increased pensions for retired members of the military. Jordan’s public debt currently stands at $42 billion, equivalent to 96 percent of the country’s GDP. When austerity measures were imposed – at the behest of the IMF – public debt actually increased.

Compared to the rest of the region, Jordan remains relatively calm. The turnout at protest marches invariably is low and in no way reflects the level of dissatisfaction and frustration with the country’s inequalities and the lack of social justice, freedom of speech and of the press.

The government at least can be grateful for the fact that the protest movement, such as it is, has no clear leadership or direction and is divided within itself. The security services have also been highly active in harassing and arresting activists, according to Human Rights Watch. Seven activists have been detained since September, mostly on charges related to social media posts that show them participating in protests or criticizing the country’s leadership. Some activists have also been warned by Jordanian intelligence against taking part in demonstrations.

Proposals for a new income tax law last year triggered mass protests and brought about the fall of the government led by Prime Minister Hani Mulki. Replacing prime ministers is not an uncommon response to rising popular discontent in Jordan, but the growing economic malaise and the ineffectiveness of political reforms could lead to the sort of instability that demands more than mere window-dressing.

If Amman wants to avoid the sort of mass unrest percolating elsewhere, it must address the root causes of the grievances and not merely plaster over the cracks.

Firstly, political reforms must include changing the law governing elections to ensure that parliament is both strong and fully representative, rather than merely acting as a rubber-stamping forum. Although the civil liberties watchdog, Freedom House, rates Jordan as partly free, restrictions on free speech must be eased further.

Secondly, economic reforms must involve the private sector to create jobs and drive growth to increase prosperity all round. The government must also honor its promise to crack down on tax evasion and reduce sales tax to spur growth.

Most importantly, there must be a real will to enact genuine reforms rather than merely spouting platitudes and making pledges that no one has any intention of delivering.

Jordan has also other concerns. US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, his so-called “deal of the century” to end the decades of conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, is a real threat to Jordan’s stability, inducing profound fears in Jordanians that their country will become an alternative homeland for Palestinians. Jordan already is host to the largest population of refugees in the Palestinian diaspora, with 2.2 million registered as refugees with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. More than 50 percent of Jordan’s 10 million population is of Palestinian origin.

With the reverse of four decades of US foreign policy, the Palestinians see all their hopes of a real homeland turning to dust. If more Palestinians were to settle in Jordan, it would tilt the demographic balance even further, leading to tensions and increasing Jordanian frustrations all the more.

For now, the people’s anger is reined in. But at a time when so much of the Middle East is in turmoil, this is not good enough.

Suha Maayeh is a journalist based in Amman, Jordan. Her work has been published in Foreign Policy and CTC Sentinel. She also reports for The Wall Street Journal and other publications on Jordan and southern Syria.