The Levant

Jordan's fragile stability

Jordan is considered an anchor of stability in a region shaken by crises. Yet one year on from the protests of May 2018, the country continues to face massive economic and political challenges. With youth unemployment on the rise – feeding massive social frustration – criticism of poor governance in the kingdom is growing. By Claudia Mende

It is a day like any other in Amman, the capital of Jordan: the afternoon congestion, which brings traffic to a complete standstill, is fraying nerves. "We don't even have public transport in Amman," complains Mohammed, who spends a lot of time behind the wheel for his job. "The air quality is just appalling and we waste hours every day in traffic jams." He explains how hard it is to feed a family in the current climate. "We pay for our children's education, but they can't get jobs at the end of it ... but we can at least be grateful for King Abdullah," he concludes bitterly.

One year on from the protests of May 2018, frustration in the kingdom is more than palpable. The West considers Jordan to be an anchor of stability in a region rocked by upheaval. Between Syria's seemingly endless conflict, Iraq descending into chaos and an increasingly authoritarian regime in Egypt, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan seems to be an oasis of calm in the eye of a storm.

Reliable ally during the refugee crisis

What's more, Jordan has taken in about 700,000 Syrian refugees – something that goes down well in the West. This is why international donors are doing all they can to support the country, in the hope that it will remain stable. Germany is also sending a lot of money to Jordan. Its Federal Ministry for Economic Co-operation and Development alone funded projects to the tune of €300 million in 2018and the same sum has been earmarked for this year. The USA and the Gulf States are also pumping billions into the country.

But despite all this, the economic situation has deteriorated further and the anger about social injustice is growing. The cost of food, rent and transport has exploded in recent years. Amman is now the most expensive capital in the region with a cost of living to match Europe. According to the World Bank, unemployment officially stands at 18 percent. In reality, it is closer to 30 percent and as high as 40 percent for the under 25s. While one third of the population ekes out a living below the poverty line, the trendy cafes in Amman's in-district, Jebel Weibdeh, are full to bursting.

Jordanian families invest heavily in the education of their sons and daughters. Although the number of university graduates continues to rise, education is no longer the ticket to a better life: young people simply can't find jobs once they have completed their training.

Jordanʹs former prime minister Hani Mulki (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Forced to resign: in May and June 2018, thousands of Jordanians protested nationwide against the government's austerity measures and demanded Hani Mulki's resignation. They underlined their demands for his resignation with slogans like: "The Jordanian people will not capitulate " or "Down with the government"

Youth unemployment is social dynamite

"Despite the fact that I studied abroad and did lots of work placements and projects after my degree, I just can't find a job," says a young woman in her early thirties, "and that is so frustrating."

According to Asma Rashahneh (50), local councillor in the city of Madaba, about 50 km south of the capital, Jordan's main problems are the lack of jobs and the consequences for society. "Some university graduates search for ten years before finding work."

She goes on to say that getting a foot in the door is particularly difficult because companies want applicants with experience – something that young people just do not have. Because there are hardly any parks or sporting facilities and far too few leisure activities on offer for young people, they just hang around for years on end. "Young people don't know what to do and that is very dangerous," says Rashahneh. Drugs, alcohol and extremism are omnipresent temptations, something that has been playing into the hands of a Salafist scene that is active all around the country.

That is social dynamite. It is not just the lack of jobs; people see that jobs are being filled not on the basis of candidates' qualifications, but on the basis of whom they know. They see that some of the money coming from international donors is seeping away into mysterious channels and that clientelism is rife, spreading throughout the country like an infectious disease.

No prospect of change

In May 2018, the frustration spilled over after Prime Minister Hani Mulki announced a rise in income tax, as well as increasing the price of electricity and fuel. What followed were the biggest protests seen in Jordan since 2011. Demonstrators gathered in – what were by Jordanian standards – relatively large numbers in the 4th Circle in Amman, close to the seat of the prime minister, and in other parts of the country.

Mulki had to go. In June 2018, King Abdullah appointed the World Bank expert Omar Razzaz prime minister. Although in general, the demonstrations petered out after Razzaz's appointment, there were some more isolated protests, such as the March of the Unemployed from Aqaba to Amman.

Replacing the government is a tried and tested remedy for the royal family when faced with pressure from the streets. Although Razzaz promised a "new social contract" for all Jordanians, not much has happened. The new tax laws were watered down before being passed in late 2018.

Arab Spring in Jordan: protests in the capital Amman on 21 January 2011 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Seething social tensions: according to official figures, the unemployment rate in Jordan is 18.5 percent and one fifth of the population lives on the poverty line. Jordan was barely affected by the "Arab Spring" of 2011, which saw revolts in several countries in the region. However, there had also been protests that year in Jordan when the government cut petrol subsidies

According to journalist Rana Sabbagh, the demonstrations were a watershed moment in what is otherwise a rather unpolitical country. "People wanted to know what they are getting for their taxes," she says. "The education and health systems are very poor; roads and infrastructure catastrophic. Why should we pay taxes if we don't get anything for it?"

The Jordanian middle class took to the streets in protest. The Muslim Brotherhood were not able to make capital out of the demonstrations. One activist who was involved in the protests says: "I remember with fondness the festival atmosphere at the demonstrations and the feeling of solidarity among demonstrators. But we didn't achieve anything. Our frustration has not gone away."

He recounts how Jordanians were constantly being told that they should be happy they don't live in Syria or Egypt. "Of course we don't want a situation like the ones in those countries," he says. "But we do need to see that things here are changing, and that's just not the case at the moment."

Journalist Rana Sabbagh, former editor-in-chief of the newspaper Jordan Times, is also fed up of the comparisons with Syria and Egypt. "Jordanians find this comparison – which, incidentally, is also popular in the West – inappropriate," she says. "By all means, compare Jordan with Tunisia or even Lebanon, when talking about a liberal media landscape. But don't compare us to those countries whose rulers completely disregard human rights and behave like the worst autocrats."

A devastating report on governance

The government and the royal family are using the crises in the region and the huge numbers of refugees in the country as an excuse for the dreadful situation. While the collapse of the markets in Syria and Iraq really have hit the country hard and overall conditions are tough (Jordan has no resources worth mentioning and very little land that is suitable for agriculture), Jordan's problems are also homemade.

In late 2018, Mustafa Hamarneh, head of the Economic and Social Council (ESC), published a 1,500-page report entitled State of the Country. Over 700 Jordanian academics contributed to the report. Hamarneh is considered one of the country's leadership elite: he regularly meets the king, and the ESC is supposed to advise the government. Nevertheless, the report on governance in Jordan over the past 18 years is unprecedented, painting a brutally honest picture of incompetence, nepotism and corruption in the kingdom.

Die jordanischJordanian journalist Rana Sabbagh (source: Twitter@Rana_Sabbagh)e Journalistin Rana Sabbagh; Quelle: Twitter@Rana_Sabbagh
Rana SabbagRana Sabbagh: "People wanted to know what they are getting for their taxes," she says. "The education and health systems are very poor; roads and infrastructure catastrophic. Why should we pay taxes if we don't get anything for it?"h: "Die Menschen wollten wissen, was sie für ihre Steuern bekommen", sagt sie. "Bildungs- und Gesundheitswesen sind sehr schlecht, Straßen und Infrastruktur miserabel. Warum sollen wir Steuern zahlen, wenn wir nichts bekommen?"

State of the Country details how no less than nine government strategies for economic growth and job creation announced since 2002 got bogged down in a jungle of bureaucracy, a lack of interest and incompetence. According to the report, unemployment and national debt continue to rise, and the state is not in a position to provide its citizens with an acceptable level of public services.

Growing lack of faith in politics

The report criticised that while the country has a lot of institutions that sound democratic, these are just a facade to make the West believe that efforts are being made at reform. Since the year 2000, there have been 11 governments and 370 ministers, 257 of whom had no political experience before taking office. All of these politicians sought primarily to get "a piece of the cake on the basis of a very narrow interpretation of clan membership," says State of the Country.

"Public offices have become an opportunity to make as much money as possible and to acquire some prestige, while qualifications, accountability and control mechanisms are lacking." The report makes it clear that this kind of politics only benefits a small number of Jordanians, while the state and most Jordanians go empty-handed. Hamarneh sums it up by saying that political failure means that people have less and less faith in politics.

Rana Sabbagh also sees a rapid loss of faith in the country's institutions. But she goes on to say that "unlike other rulers in other countries in the region, the king has no problems of legitimacy."

There is a broad consensus in the country that the monarchy as an institution is indispensable for a fragile state made up of people from the East Bank, Palestinians, refugees and migrants. "But people are not happy with the way the country is governed," and they are giving vent to this dissatisfaction with increasing regularity – even if this dissatisfaction is directed against the policies of the king.

Claudia Mende

© 2019

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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