Jordan’s Protests: Economic or Political?

Jordan’s Protests: Economic or Political?

Thursday, 7 June, 2018 - 11:15
Abdulrahman Al-Rashed
Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is the former general manager of Al-Arabiya television. He is also the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, and the leading Arabic weekly magazine Al-Majalla. He is also a senior columnist in the daily newspapers Al-Madina and Al-Bilad.
“The Arab Spring returns to the Arab streets” and “What’s happening in Jordan refutes the narrative that royal regimes are spared from street revolutions.” These are some of the quick reactions to the participation of thousands of Jordanians in protests.

However, the Fourth Circle in Amman is not Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Jordan’s protests are not a political spring, even though Muslim Brotherhood groups among others, and Qatari television stations picture the demonstrations against taxes and prices as anti-regime movements. 

I met with some of those concerned with the local situation during my two-day visit to Amman Tuesday. Jordan’s problems are economic - prices, jobs and taxes- and not political.

There is a pragmatic political leadership in Jordan that’s close to the people and ready to ditch the government when it fails in its relationship with the masses. This is what happened to the government of Hani Al-Mulki, who paid the price for refusing to scrap the new tax bill, and was replaced by Omar al-Razzaz. 

There are different opinions. Someone told me that Razzaz and Mulki are both originally Syrians from Hama. Another told me that Mulki brought Razzaz and a third said the reason for the tension lies within the government itself. However, the problem is clear. The majority is against the taxes and the unemployment rate that has reached more than 18 percent, and has expressed anger at the decline of foreign support.

Managing crises in Jordan is based on the “street’s pulse,” i.e. via dealing with the protests before their start and if they already begun, dealing with them before they escalate. Eliminating the prime minister is the Jordanian way of dealing with crises when they worsen.

The other options available to the Jordanian leadership are limited, especially that it has no control over the factors that sparked the people’s anger. The World Bank, for instance, refuses to give Jordan loans without lifting subsidies and decreasing government spending. Aid has also declined due to a drop in the revenues of oil-rich states. The economy is the engine that fuels a political crisis.

Let’s not forget that Jordan has been the refuge of people for half a century. There are the Syrian refugees who were preceded by the Iraqis who were preceded by the Palestinians. The Jordanians themselves are less than half of the population.

And although the majority took to the street to protest living conditions, the tax hike and lack of jobs, only a handful of protesters had a political agenda.

Based on the pragmatic approach that’s common in Jordan, conciliatory solutions have been proposed to limit tensions. However, solutions to calm demonstrators will not resolve the chronic problem. Jordan’s resources are scarce compared to its neighbors, Iraq, the Gulf and even the Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel.

The infrastructure, such as the airport, ports, hospitals, water and highways, is relatively good in Jordan. The country’s living conditions are better than others; for example Amman is cheaper than Beirut and according to the quality of life index, rent in Jordan is cheaper.

Amman has 24-hour electricity while Beirut suffers several-hour power outages. The quality of infrastructure, however, does not put food on the table. It does not increase jobs or improve a family’s limited income. The government is incapable of creating additional resources, and is failing in limiting bureaucracy, a main complaint of many investors facing long procedures.

The Jordanians are the greatest wealth of Jordan, which beyond phosphates has limited natural resources. Compared with other countries in the region, education is known to be the best. It’s what enabled many Jordanians to get jobs in the Gulf, Europe and the US as engineers, technicians, lawyers and accountants. This helped them support their families back in Jordan. 

King Abdullah II personally handles the task of marketing Jordan and getting support from governments abroad and international organizations. The government, however, is an expenditure center as the different levies they collect are not enough to spend on municipal, healthcare and other necessary services.

It has invested in tourism and made it the pillar of its economy, but it quickly collapsed because of terrorism and regional wars. It tried building a chain of industries but it was faced with the restraints of the region’s countries and the competition of cheaper states in Asia.

Even exporting skillful workers, which Jordan is distinguished for, can become the victim of politics as Qatar blackmails Jordan with the 45,000 Jordanians who work there in case there is rapprochement with Saudi Arabia or if it (Jordan) obstructs its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood there.

Countries that suffer from the Dutch Disease, lack of resources, are in more need of an efficient administrative system and more specialized programs. They need a serious fight against corruption and also high transparency. All states and institutions need to improve their performances but Jordan, Tunisia and similar countries require more action.

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