Rentier system and security policyJordan’s profound economic crisis
Protests recently broke out again in southern Jordan – one of the most deprived areas of the country – as a result of an ongoing economic crisis and price increases in fuel and foodstuffs.
This time it was easy for the government to shift the blame onto the Russia-Ukraine war, just as it has previously blamed everything under the sun for Jordan’s poor economic performance, everything that is, except poor governance.
The fact of the matter, however, and this is no secret, is that the acute global geopolitical situation is not responsible for the country’s current problems. The Russia-Ukraine war may have deepened the crisis, but it did not create it.
Unhealthy reliance on rentier economics
Firstly, Jordan’s current economic state is the inevitable and accumulated result of an economic and political approach that has largely depended on rentier economics and foreign aid to manage the country. The government has made no attempt to build an economic system based on meritocracy, productivity, and its own resources.
Time and again, officials have claimed that the timing was not right for anything else – that Jordan’s lack of natural resources made reliance on external resources necessary until the right opportunity appeared.
#Jordan : Dozens of people arrested over protests against rising fuel prices in recent days - a colonel in police force was killed on Thursday - the unrest erupted in south of country in Maan province #معان #الأردن pic.twitter.com/cVeTtXlmdE
— sebastian usher (@sebusher) December 17, 2022
Although a number of national initiatives have been put forward, with realistic plans for implementing a transition from the current system to something more productive and reliant on internal resources, they have all fallen on deaf ears.
After all, such a transition would cause the rentier system to forfeit its most important modus operandi, which is the creation of bases in Jordanian society that rely on branches of state government for jobs and privileges, according to an entrenched system of nepotism and favouritism.
Had there been the will to pursue a new productivity-led approach, we naturally could have avoided the burgeoning crises or, at least, mitigated their effects. What is needed are systems that deal with the problem of unemployment wholesale, address people’s basic needs, make government administration more flexible, and raise the level of productivity and thus growth rates for everyone.
Unfortunately, successive Jordanian governments have not proved up to the task. Instead, they have made every excuse in the hope of persuading people that Jordan can’t get by on its own. This is simply an attempt to maintain the political and economic privileges of a small minority. Even the disguised tax on fuel has not been convincingly calculated or transparently explained to the public. It is time we admitted that successive governments are responsible, to a large extent, for the drastic situation Jordan finds itself in today.
Heavy-handed domestic security policy
Another policy favoured by the Jordanian state that is also no longer up to the job of maintaining civil harmony is its heavy-handed approach to domestic security. Keeping a tight rein on dissent has enabled the government to gloss over its economic and political failures.
Safety and security are undeniably vital elements for stability and prosperity, but they alone are not enough; we require economic policies that secure people's basic needs in a sustained manner. Smearing all opponents with the brush of heresy or sabotage will not solve the problem, either.
Undoubtedly, there are some jihadists among the protesters in the present crisis, and it was they who assassinated Colonel Abd al-Razzaq al-Dalabeh and his brave colleagues at the General Intelligence Directorate (GID) who died in the line of duty. Our respects are due to every officer that makes the ultimate sacrifice to protect our homeland from evil, especially during the current unrest.
This need not have been in vain. At the same time, we need to be very careful not to give the impression that anyone who raises his voice in protest against the current situation is a jihadist. Not only is it not true, but such a security-driven mentality will distract us from the heart of the crisis. It will not solve the problem and will likely lead to more tension and anger in the streets.
My conclusion today is not new, but bears repeating: the approaches employed over the years by the Jordanian state, namely tight security control and rentier economics dependent on foreign aid and nepotism, are no longer enough to maintain civil harmony.
Similarly, the transition to an economic system built upon political institutions that uphold the rule of law – to the exception of everything else – is not a luxury, but imperative for keeping the peace. The ongoing crisis we are currently experiencing is clear indication that we cannot obstinately continue pushing problems ahead of us into the future. We need new approaches: the old ones no longer work.
The politics of forming committees, formulating plans and then shelving them must be consigned to the past. What we need is what the late King Hussein referred to as a ‘white revolution’, encompassing all areas of society and accompanied by genuine political will. New economic and educational systems need to be established that encourage innovation, creativity, and real – rather than imaginary – productivity. Such systems should be established under the umbrella of political reforms that guarantee transparency, freedom of expression, pluralism and the rule of law. And they need to help overcome Jordan's engrained obstacles to progress. It is time to realise that the security mentality that dominates the governmental decision-making process will not, on its own, achieve the stability and prosperity we crave.
Fail to engage and economic and political crises will continue to emerge, while we stick to our excuses and look to short-term measures. In the long run, however, this will get us nowhere. Don’t be surprised by future crises and don’t blame them on foreign actors, because it will all be our doing. The solution is in our hands. If we leave things as they are, God forbid, a dark future awaits.
© Carnegie Endowment for International Peace/Qantara.de 2023
Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton
Marwan Muasher is vice president for studies at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he oversees research in Washington and Beirut on the Middle East. Muasher served as foreign minister (2002–2004) and deputy prime minister (2004–2005) of Jordan, and his career has spanned the areas of diplomacy, development, civil society, and communications.
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