Analysis

Jordan's Stability at Stake as Fury Over Economic Hardship Rages

Tax woes and a system overloaded by refugees is creating a dangerously explosive stockpile that could erupt

Protesters are seen in front of parliament in Amman, Jordan February 1, 2018. The sign reads 'Go away government and deputies.'
\ MUHAMMAD HAMED/ REUTERS

“I love you, oh Mulki, with the sweat of my brow I bought a tank of gas and I don’t have a penny left. Please Mulki, raise my taxes!” Thus sang the Jordanian satirical group Tashweesh Wadeh (“Clear Confusion”) about Jordanian Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki during its weekly program on the Roya network. It’s a hugely popular program that thousands of eager Jordanians eagerly await every Monday and another 1.2 million watch on YouTube.

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“There’s no work and there’s no oil, we are eating spoiled chicken and using stolen electricity,” sings the group of 18 young men from the city of Irbid. Unlike Egyptian satirists who are afraid to appear on television or even on social networks, Jordan still allows such performances on the assumption that it’s better for protests to remain on the internet then get taken to the streets.

But the royal court still endures demonstrations and critical articles. During the past two months, ever since the kingdom’s gloomy 2018 budget was approved, there are regular – albeit not large – protests in many Jordanian cities, from Amman and Irbid to Karak and Salt. Their peak came this week, when dozens of farmers brought cows and chickens to a demonstration in front of the Parliament building after nine days of protesting the government’s decision to raise taxes on produce. According to the organizers, some 40 percent of the country’s citizens make a living from agriculture and imposing taxes of up to 10 percent on their products will destroy their livelihoods.

Jordan is considered a stable county; King Abdullah is popular but there is sharp criticism of his “associates,” the elites that include ministers, advisers, family members and wealthy people that the public perceives not just as a swamp of corruption but a group that is disconnected from the people and have become a burden on the king, as expressed this week by leading columnist Taher Adwan.

Syrian refugees line up to register at an employment office at the Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan, February 18, 2018.
Raad Adayleh/AP

The wave of taxes decided upon by the prime minister, with the king’s blessing, has been described in the country as a “tsunami.” In January the government drastically raised taxes on 164 items, including staples. The prices of bread went up dozens of percent when the government canceled the subsidy on it, transportation went up 9 percent, and cigarettes and tobacco jumped more than 20 percent – but salaries remained the same. Political stability is not necessarily calm and the public outrage over the cost of living and difficulties in earning a livelihood is a dynamic force that has threatened several regimes in the Middle East. There is no guarantee that there won’t be an eruption in Jordan as well.

The government’s public debt, $40 billion, is now 95 percent of the GDP, compared to 71 percent in 2011. This year’s budget deficit is expected to top a billion dollars (some say it could be as high as $1.7 billion) and the official unemployment rate is almost 18 percent. Jordan is suffering from a financial crisis and a deep recession after a few years of good growth that left the impression that the kingdom had successfully emerged from the upheaval in the region.

But only 80 trucks a day go from Jordan to the Iraqi border, compared to 600 before the Islamic State seized control of parts of Iraq. After Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates didn’t renew their five-year $3.6 billion aid plan, which ended in 2017, the horizon looks bleak and Abdullah, who has been on the throne for 19 years, is trying to solicit donations from other places. U.S. President Donald Trump promised to give Jordan $1.25 billion a year for five years, but despite the importance of this assistance, a third is earmarked for military needs while the other two-thirds will apparently go toward paying salaries and not to the development the kingdom sorely needs.

“We are concerned about the moment that the public will not suffice with quiet demonstrations or satirical videos,” said a senior lecturer at an Amman university who completed his master’s degree in Israel. “Jordan knows how to cope with political demonstrations like the ones that broke out after President Trump’s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem. We also got through the demonstrations during the second intifada with almost no harm done, when the king was at the beginning of his reign. But now we’re talking about different, more dangerous circumstances.”

The senior lecturer explained that the demographic makeup of the kingdom is different than it was six years ago. “Jordan is hosting around a million and a half Syrian refuges and if you add to them the Iraqi and Palestinian refugees, almost half of the population is poor refugees with a weak connection to the country. You could expect citizens to be forgiving of economic reforms, but refugees don’t have that patience.”

Most of the Syrian refugees live in the big cities, with only 20 percent living in the large Zaatari refugee camp in the northern part of the country. According to UN estimates, some 85 percent of the children of these refugees live below the poverty line. This is a dangerously explosive stockpile that could erupt, and it wouldn’t just be refugees against the government but citizens against refugees, who are being accused of taking the Jordanians’ jobs. The distress has yielded a new phenomenon: bank, gas station and home robberies of a previously unknown scope.

The remedy being suggested by the king is, as usual, a changing of the guard in the government. Four ministers were fired and replaced by others at the end of February. But the demonstrators are demanding the dismissal of the entire government, the dissolution of parliament and new elections, a demand that will most likely not get a response. It could be that the king will respond to the farmers’ demands in an effort to calm “the street.”

But these are minor steps that aren’t enough for the Jordanian economy and can’t meet the need for significant development that would provide thousands of high-quality jobs to those university graduates who are sometimes forced to wait years before they find a position worthy of their skills.

“The prime minister is asking us to judge him at the end of the year and only then to decide whether his decisions were good or failures,” wrote Adwan. “But who will establish the success or failure other than the anger of the Jordanian public in its demonstrations?”