Demonstrations in Jordan: For bread or political change?
As thousands of people in Jordan take part in mass protests, some are saying: “Here is the Arab Spring storming back onto Arab streets.” Others say the demonstrations prove that even royal regimes are not safe from revolution. But the demonstrations in Amman’s Fourth Circle are not the same as the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that brought down the government of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
The unrest in Jordan has nothing to do with the Arab Spring, even if the “Brotherhood” and Qatari television stations try to portray it as such. While it is true that a minority were politically motivated, most of those who took to the streets were angered by the kingdom’s economic decline. People in Jordan say the issues at hand are economic, not political — the protests are against taxes, price hikes and rising unemployment rates, not against the political regime.
Besides, Jordan’s pragmatic political leadership is so close to the people that it is prepared to dismiss the government when it fails in its street-level relations. That is what happened to the regime of Prime Minister Hani Al-Mulki, who was asked to resign in a bid to quell the unrest, paving the way for King Abdullah to appoint Omar Al-Razzaz as his replacement.
There are different points of view on the street. One of the people I met there told me that the families of both Al-Mulki and Al-Razzaz originally hail from the Syrian city of Hama, and that the two men came from Aleppo. A second person told me that Al-Mulki put Al-Razzaz’s name forward to succeed him, and a third suggested the whole controversy was the result of inter-cabinet conflicts.
Still, the problem is clear. Most of the protesters are motivated by opposition to tax increases and unemployment that has risen above 18 percent, and are venting their anger about the decline in purchasing power and external support.
As for the political leadership, its style of “crisis management” is based on being sensitive to feelings on the street and taking pre-emptive action before the situation deteriorates too much. If it does, however, it is willing to take extreme measures, even to the extent of dismissing the prime minister.
Jordan’s options are limited, however. Most of the issues fueling the public anger are beyond its control. The World Bank has refused to grant loans unless subsidies are abolished and government expenditure reduced, while aid has decreased due to lower oil revenues.
Adding to all this is the refugee crisis that has become a burden on the country’s economy. Jordan has been a refuge and haven for half a century — most recently for Syrian refugees, and for Iraqis and Palestinians before them. Indeed, Jordanians now make up no more than half the population of the country.
Doha is threatening to send back 45,000 Jordanians working in Qatar in the event of any rapprochement with Saudi Arabia.
But if the majority of the protesters have been protesting against difficult living conditions and high unemployment, there have been some political motives behind the loud voices of a small minority.
Conciliatory solutions have been suggested that are expected to relieve the tension, at least temporarily, but the remedies aimed at calming the people will not solve the chronic problem.
The kingdom’s natural resources — mainly phosphate and potash — are scarce compared with those in neighboring Iraq and the Gulf nations. However, the infrastructure is relatively good in Jordan, including the airport, Al-Aqaba port, the hospitals and highways. Quality-of-living markers in Jordan are better than those of neighboring Lebanon — it is cheaper to live in Amman than in Beirut; Jordan ranks higher than Lebanon in the quality of life index; rent is cheaper; and Amman enjoys electricity throughout the day, compared with Beirut’s regular power cuts.
Despite all that, quality of the infrastructure does not put food on the table, nor does it increase employment opportunities or raise family incomes. The government has failed to create jobs and is failing to reduce bureaucracy, as many investors still complain about lengthy routine procedures that have to be navigated, and slow progress.
The Jordanian people are the kingdom’s greatest asset. Compared with other countries in the region, its education system is one of the best, enabling many of its citizens to get jobs in the Gulf, Europe and the US as engineers, technicians, lawyers and accountants, to support their families at home.
King Abdullah is personally responsible for the marketing plan of Jordan and obtaining support from international governments and organizations, while the government is a “center of exchange and spending,” although all the money it collects is not enough to cover municipal, health and other necessary services. It invested in tourism and made it an economic pillar, but terrorism and regional wars have led to its collapse. It has tried to build a series of industries but has faced the constraints of regional countries and has failed to compete with the cheapest countries in Asia.
Even the export of skilled labor, which Jordan is known for, risks becoming a victim of politics. Doha is threatening to send back 45,000 Jordanians working in Qatar in the event of any rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, or the hindering of its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Countries such as Jordan, which lack resources, need a more effective management system, more focused and specialized programs, higher transparency and a serious anti-corruption strategy.
Correction of the performance of governments and their institutions is much needed in several countries, but must urgently be carried out in countries such as Tunisia and Jordan.
Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya news channel, and former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat.