The Myth of Jordan’s Imminent Collapse Hides a Grim Reality

Published October 3rd, 2019 - 11:02 GMT
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Jordanian security forces stand near the office of the prime minister (AFP/Khalil MAZRAAWI)

 

Jordan appears to be standing on the precipice of disaster, again.

Thousands of teachers have been striking for over a month, demanding better pay from a government that has been implementing strict austerity measures recommended by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Only a small fraction of Jordan’s 4,000 public schools are open, but most students are staying home.

The strike is the latest symptom that the government appears unable to negotiate the balance between its mounting debt problem and ensuring its people have livable wages. Even if the teachers' union and the government can come to a compromise, it will not upend the broader governmental effort to decrease public spending in the face of a stalling economy.

A similar type of standoff is inevitable. For years, Jordan’s debt has ballooned while its unemployment has risen, creating an untenable situation many fear will lead to political disorder and even a collapse. 

Thousands of teachers have been striking for over a month, demanding better pay from a government that has been implementing strict austerity measures recommended by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Only a small fraction of Jordan’s 4,000 public schools are open, but most students are staying home.

Earlier in 2018, thousands of protesters crowded areas near the Prime Minister’s office to demand an end to those same austerity measures. Before that in 2017, thousands more took to the streets against similar IMF-backed price hikes. At that time in Sudan, similar policies were being met with riots that foreshadowed the regime’s ultimate collapse earlier in 2019.

Implicit in the thinking that Jordan will soon erupt in political revolt is a threshold analysts and experts keep in their heads; a level of deprivation people can tolerate. If an economy spirals out of control, the threshold is passed and people take to the streets until their demands are met. If one accurately calculates that threshold, she can predict when a country experiences a revolution.

It’s an algorithm for revolt.

But despite the best efforts of international observers, diplomats and experts across decades, Jordan’s much-discussed threshold has never been crossed and the country remains relatively stable.
 

The international community provides a cacophony of aid to the country to keep it afloat, even as Jordan's own economy remains inhospitable to its people.

The most obvious reason is that the international community is dead set on Jordan avoiding the threshold by providing just enough support and aid to keep the country treading water. Below that on the domestic level, a tight security apparatus has effectively narrowed the avenues towards which outrage can be expressed. 

Perhaps Jordan has already crossed its threshold, but rather than engaging in a dramatic spectacle of revolution, its people are quietly resigning themselves to their situation. 


An Aid-Dependent Country

USAID supplies arrives (U.S. Navy)

Jordan is a small country with a little over 10 million people and a GDP of a little over $40 billion.

But because a huge portion of its population are Palestinian refugees, much of their educational and service-needs are allocated to UNRWA, a UN agency specifically dedicated to helping millions of indefinitely displaced Palestinians.

UNRWA functions as a kind of quasi-state within a state, operating under a separate budget and set of norms than Jordan’s own public sector. As a result, Jordan’s public sector has less of a burden to directly handle many of its Palestinian communities. 

More broadly, because of its strategic position and willingness to host over a million Syrian refugees, Gulf and Western states consider Jordan’s continued stability paramount to their own security. To guarantee the kingdom’s security, the international community provides a cacophony of aid to the country to keep it afloat, even as Jordan's own economy remains inhospitable to its people.

To guarantee the kingdom’s security, the international community provides a cacophony of aid to the country to keep it afloat, even as Jordan's own economy remains inhospitable to its people.

By far, the largest contributor is the U.S. By 2017, the U.S. State and Military aid to Jordan totaled $20.4 billion since the mid 20th century, while the U.S. has dramatically increased the amount of aid per year since 2003. USAID also gives Jordan nearly a billion in annual grants and cash transfers to make sure the kingdom can pay back foreign debts, hold elections and service the country’s strained infrastructure.

On June 11, 2019,  Kuwait, the U.A.E., and Saudi Arabia pledged $2.5 billion in aid to Jordan, including a $1 billion deposit in Jordan’s bank. Though these pledges often come with political strings attached and are strategically withheld pending cooperation from Jordan’s monarchy, they nonetheless present the country with a vital lifeline.

Keenly aware of the millions of refugees Jordan opts to host, European and other states give their fair share of aid. Most recently, the U.K. created the London Initiative to fundraise for Jordan and held an event in June to champion the effort. There, the U.K., France, Japan and the European Investment Bank (EIB) pledged an additional $2.6 billion to Jordan. This is on top of over $100 million that the EU gives annual to Jordan to bolster its security and development initiatives.

The World Bank estimated that in 2017, Jordan received over $2.9 billion in official development aid. 

Moreover, NGOs like the Red Cross, Red Crescent, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Save the Children and others consider Jordan one of their global hubs, maintaining local and regional offices in Amman. Tangibly, this means millions more in cash assistance, local initiatives and hospitals.

Collectively, these efforts may save Jordanians from the worst effects of a stagnant economy, but they aren’t the only thing preventing an upheaval.


A Well-Oiled Security Apparatus

Jordanian security forces (AFP/FILE)

Jordan’s secret police (mukhabarat) and its public security directorate (PSD) forces are effective at picking out dissidents, demonstrating to the people its omnipresence and pacifying a diverse population. Because they are so entrenched, they have both direct and indirect ways of ensuring order.

In a direct way, Jordan’s security forces have a special working relationship to the U.S.’ own Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and are well-trained to handle a variety of security situations from terror plots to protests. Journalists and activists alike self-censor to guarantee themselves a measure of safety from prosecution or targeting.

But it is in their indirect and intangible influence that Jordan’s security forces demonstrate their power.

Many Jordanians are or were employed by the army or the police as two of the only career avenues available to them. Because of this, most Jordanian families have professional and personal ties to the kingdom’s security apparatus.
 

“In Jordan we were working too many hours with low salaries."

This security apparatus narrows the range of options residents have to express their political outrage and generate solidarity with one another. The biggest organizing vehicle so far has been the country’s labor unions, which can effectively demonstrate against the economic austerity measures imposed upon them.

In towns where Jordan’s security forces have a looser grip like Ma’an, demonstrations regularly escalate as burning tires block off roads. Residents of major cities like Amman and Irbid meanwhile quietly note how Syria’s security forces handled mass demonstrations in 2011 and moderate themselves accordingly.

Even though the situation in Jordan may be dire than ever, there may be less obvious indicators of instability than the spectacle of a violent riot or a mass demonstration.
 

While youth unemployment is slowly rising and currently stands at about 40.6 percent, drug use is also climbing, as are drug-related arrests.

While youth unemployment is slowly rising and currently stands at about 40.6 percent, drug use is also climbing, as are drug-related arrests. More youths are willing to become drug mules to gain a livable wage, even if it means risking his life to do so. Jordanians largely feel there is no future in their own country, and 45 percent of them scheme of ways to escape by landing a visa in an EU country or the US according to a 2019 survey conducted by Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies (CSS). Most of the survey’s participants point to the economy as their reason to leave.

Mohammad Amira, a  31-year old doctor from Jordan explained, “Not only me, also my friends wanted to emigrate, because of the bad working environment and to develop our skills.”

 “In Jordan we were working too many hours with low salaries,” he continued.

Rather than hitting a dramatic, spectacle-riddled point of no-return, Jordan may instead by silently declining into a crevice from which no amount of foreign aid or security operations can dig it out.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.
 


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