The country is stable, but it will not be easy to keep it that way
Feb 6th 2016 Economist
It is sometimes dubbed “the Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom”. That may not be very flattering. But while Jordan will never be an economic or political powerhouse, you can do a lot worse than be boring in the Middle East these days.
Jordan, after all, shares frontiers with both Syria and Iraq. From its foothold there, Islamic State (IS) has ambitions to expand the borders of its “caliphate”. Jordan itself has bred many a jihadist. Some have climbed to the top ranks of al-Qaeda or inspired it; 2,000 or so have joined IS; others are biding their time at home. Jordan is already home to roughly 1.3m Syrian refugees, not to mention hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and long-term Palestinian residents, many of whom are keen to head to Europe.
Moreover, the Hashemite Kingdom is no stranger to the problems that sparked turmoil in other Arab states. People took to the streets in 2011 demanding that the royal court relinquish some of its powers, calling for corruption to be stamped out and protesting about the dire state of the economy. Little has improved since then. But Jordan’s King Abdullah has so far managed to ward off disaster through a combination of skill and good fortune.
Abroad, he has managed to keep friends in a divided region. He has resisted pressure from Saudi Arabia, his bulky neighbour and regular grant-giver, which wanted Jordan to let weapons flow across its border to Syria. Instead, he is trying to create a sort of buffer zone to stop the refugee flow from southern Syria by quietly arming some of the rebels there, but not forcefully enough to incur Bashar al-Assad’s wrath. He manages to have relations with Iran, Saudi’s nemesis, too.
At home, Jordan has gained from a fear that set in across the region as countries fell apart. The criticisms remain, but “now people just want a safe haven in Amman, a weekend retreat at the Dead Sea and tourists to come to Petra,” says a foreign resident. To be fair, Jordan is doing more than most countries to meet some of its citizens’ demands. For one, its security forces do not shoot at protesters. There is more lip service than real reform, but a new election law has made some people keener on polls, which must take place by the end of next January, says Jumana Ghneimat, the editor of Al Ghad, a local paper.
This uneasy peace will not be easy to keep. The king is warning that his country is at “boiling point”. Jordan is refusing to take any more refugees unless foreign donors, gathering in London on February 4th, give more. Angst towards (and despair among) refugees is growing. Jordanians, like the Lebanese and Turkish, have become more and more annoyed at the presence of so many Syrians. They are blamed for a host of ills, from a rising rate of child marriage (for which there is some evidence) to increased crime rates (for which there is none) and unemployment.
Though Jordan’s Azraq camp is only a third full, some 20,000 Syrians are stranded at the north-eastern border of the country near Iraq, waiting to cross. Jordan is letting in only a few dozen every day. The government is in a bind, but could help itself. Until very recently it had not allowed any Syrian refugees to work for fear they would stay for good. Rather than see them as a burden, Jordan could look at how they could contribute to economic growth, says Andrew Harper, who heads the UN’s refugee agency in Amman, Jordan’s capital.
Improving the economy would ease Jordanians’ gripes. The regional crises have, unsurprisingly, deterred tourists and investors. Only half the number of people visit Petra today as in 2010. The economy depends on charity from the Gulf rather than what it produces itself: unemployment is around 30%. The debt-to-GDP ratio reached 91% last year from 67% in 2010. As prices go up, people are feeling the pinch.
Youngsters, who are a majority of the country’s people, are almost absent from politics. The prime minister, Abdullah Ensour, is 77. “The politicians come from a museum,” says Amer Sabailah, a local analyst. “Jordan has taken for granted the people’s fear of the regional situation to keep business as usual.”
Muslim Brotherhood types are sidelined too, despite making up the bulk of the opposition. “Elections are a decoration,” says Nimr al-Assaf, a Brother, who says the king has met party members only once since taking power in 1999. The parliament is still fairly toothless.
Jordan’s biggest worry is an attack by IS or its sympathisers. But Ms Ghneimat thinks the focus on security alone is misguided. She regularly runs articles criticising the state’s inattention to ideology and radicalisation. The government has only recently started to overhaul religiously intolerant schoolbooks; too many preachers in mosques whip up hatred. Even though 2% of Jordan’s 6.5m people are Christian, around Christmas many imams declared the festival haram (forbidden). “The problem is IS has offered a vision to our young, disenfranchised people,” says Ms Ghneimat. “Jordan will not survive unless our leaders offer the same.”