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Jordan: Another Economic Hiccup, Another Political Challenge!
Minus the sophistries deployed by some thinkers or pundits, there is only one simple and blunt way for me to describe the latest protests in Jordan! A noticeable number of Jordanian citizens suffered enough from the increasingly unbearable cost-of-living and went out into the streets to express their mounting frustrations.

10 June   |   2018   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Indeed, Jordan is today one of the most expensive countries in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. And so when the outgoing government introduced another round of hikes on some taxes whilst also concurrently diminishing subsidies on certain items of staple foods such as bread, the pressure simply became too onerous.

Thousands of Jordanians went out into the streets across the kingdom to say that “Enough is enough”. For a moment, those interested in the politics of the region froze with fearful anticipation, as this uprising could have become more threatening if not handled correctly. Faced with this challenge from the streets, King Abdullah II changed prime ministers and also withdrew the key tax bill that had fomented the latest demonstrations.

But Jordan is caught between a rock and a hard place in that it needs to keep its population on side with its palliative economic measures whilst at the same time ensuring that the international financial institutions such as the IMF and the WB do not balk at assisting Jordan. Whether one looks at one part of this equation or at the other, it seems that the meeting ground between them is somewhat inexistent.

In the past, changing a government or prime minister would have calmed the streets, but no public official today can create matter from non-matter. Put otherwise, nobody can any longer create the funds necessary to ease the national debt that is well above 90% of Jordan’s GDP or else simply ensure sine die that the institutions of the country somehow manage to survive and function too. No wonder that the change of political faces and the introduction of Omar Al-Razzaz - a solid choice of a man who understands the international financial institutions too - did not quell the protests in the Fourth Circle in Amman that hosts the seat of government. What calmed the situation is when the PM-designate withdrew the tax bill for further study and consultations.

And this tense standoff in Amman that mobilised those families with lower or middle incomes highlighted at least four unavoidable facts that apply not only to this kingdom but extend well across the region too.

  • The commentators or politicians who thought that the Arab uprisings (dubbed hastily the Arab Spring) that started in 2010 were only a flash in the pan and that the countermeasures (led by the counter-revolutionary efforts of certain Arab leaders who pumped millions of dollars into their efforts) had been successful were wrong. If nothing else, the past 8 years have taught the Arab men and women that their voices are audible and that their protests can defy those measures that make the rich richer and the powerful more powerful. The consciousness of the Arab World - not least with the younger and more educated generations - is sharp and Arab leaders from the Mashreq to the Maghreb can less easily dismiss those efforts with a flounce and then move on with their disempowering diktats.
  • Coming back to the more specific case of Jordan, it is also a reality that this kingdom finds itself in a hugely difficult bind. Jordan is cash-strapped because it has no resources that would generate enough money to run the country in a way that caters for the institutions serving Jordanian citizens. Add to this the fact that Jordan - despite its limited size or resources - has been a welcoming host for Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian refugees at different times over the past many decades (1967. 1973, 2003, 2011 for instance) and their needs have been an additional burden on the Jordanian coffers let alone employment numbers. Sadly, the international agencies (such as UNRWA or UNHCR) are themselves suffering from cash-flow problems due to donor fatigue as much as nationalist shenanigans and so cannot meet the needs of Jordan. Nor do governments (Arab or otherwise) who readily participate in summits, make pledges and then forget about them when another emergency crops up in another part of the world or because their domestic priorities overtake their aid parameters.
  • This paucity of aid, however, becomes even more serious when some countries apply the policy of “my way or the highway”! President Donald Trump is a good example of this attitude that is self-centred and forgets the broader implications of the globalised (inter-connected) nature of our world in the 21st century. He is in good company with an increasing number of countries (including in our own EU) who believe they can live behind walls and pretend that what impacts others does not impact them.
  • But this same approach also applies to Arab realities and impacts Jordan directly. Why? Because the Jordanian monarch has staunchly opposed the transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and has been opposed to any US-tailored unilateral “deal of the century” (also referred to in Arabic as the slap of the century) that deprives Palestinians of the meagre 22% of their historical lands, their sovereign statehood side-by-side with Israel and their capital in East Jerusalem - and not in a suburb like Abu Dis or even in an extended Gaza. But some countries, who in the past have kept Jordan’s economy afloat, are unhappy with Jordan’s stances. For them, the big challenge is no longer Israel. It is Iran. And this means cosying up to the United States, cooperating covertly with Israel, and attempting to checkmate Iran. All this results in their political alienation from the Palestinian conflict. As such, the Jordanian position that focuses on International law and legitimacy is inimical with some of their interests. So I hope that the forthcoming mini-summit of Jordan with some GCC countries does not reflect a “punishment” of Jordan by those countries. Withholding aid and ramping up the pressure upon Jordan if it does not toe the line is counterproductive.

I am awfully fond of Jordan: I hail from Jordan and my first few years were spent there before I continued my formative studies in France and later elsewhere. I have also worked closely with Jordanians when I was running the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee (via the Middle East Council of Churches) as well as undertaking second-track negotiations on Jerusalem during the - now maligned and practically defunct - Oslo chapter.

But my support for Jordan is beyond a sheer fondness for the Kingdom. It is a realisation that this country is a pivot for stability in a frightfully polarised and dangerous region. If Jordan goes into meltdown, the region will not be any healthier. Holding Jordan hostage to political whims, and blackmailing it by withholding funds if it does not subscribe to certain political positions, is wrong and - to put it bluntly - asinine.

In this sense, Jordan reminds me in some sense of Qatar: both are facing a choice today. They agree to bow down to superior dictates and thereby live peacefully, or else they maintain their own political will and they get punished for it. This could be the fashionable realpolitik of our days, but it didn’t work when Sheikh Saad Hariri was pressured by Riyadh, or when Doha was given an ultimatum of 13 conditions and later 6 principles. Nor, I would argue, should it be the case with Jordan. Forget arrogance, forget obsequiousness, and just remember that the long-term strategic and geopolitical interests of a failed Jordan would impact many other countries. Scary as it might sound at times, what goes round comes round.

For now, Jordan seems to have managed to overcome this latest challenge. The protests have died down for the moment. And there are attempts afoot to help inject cash into the Jordanian anaemic system. But the new government itself should try to implement some reforms that apply to all citizens but do not target or impact only those of lower and middle incomes. Jordan has to rise above patronage and corruption, or else the anger that those Jordanian protests unleashed both against the seats of government and the deputies in parliament might gradually pick up fresh momentum again and turn against the king. If this were to happen, where economic hiccups morph into political challenges, the outcome would alas be far worse!

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2018   |   10 June


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