Analysis

Jordan Claims It's Business as Usual, but Growing Threats May Undermine Kingdom

Worrisome economic data, a million Syrian refugees and ISIS on their doorstep could prove to be too much for the Hashemites.

Protesters hold up photos of Jordan's King Abdullah during a rally to support security services in Amman, December 23, 2016.
MUHAMMAD HAMED/REUTERS

It’s hard to know what in the survey of Israeli Ambassador to Jordan Einat Schlein gave Chief of General Staff Gadi Eisenkot the impression that the kingdom’s situation is weakening. “Weakening” is a term generally connected to the stability of the royal court in Jordan, a lack of control or an economic crisis.

Jordanian sources told Haaretz Wednesday that they were surprised, “and that’s an understatement,” by the report on the content of the briefing given to Eisenkot.

“The stability of the regime is not a focus of concern in Jordan right now, nor was it during the period being discussed [October 2016],” a Jordanian source said. “It’s true that there are serious economic problems, and there were also demonstrations against the price hikes, and it’s also true that the problem of the Syrian refugees is shaking up Jordanian society, but this is an almost permanent situation in Jordan, certainly since it opened it gates to a million Syrian refugees.”

The economic data are indeed worrisome. Unemployment is close to 16 percent, and among the young, the educated and residents of outlying areas it’s much higher. Jordan’s deficit is around $1.2 billion, and the aid package of $5 billion over five years provided by the Gulf states ended last year, with no signs of it being renewed. Its ties to Saudi Arabia have chilled because Jordan refused to allow Arab coalition forces organized by Riyadh last year to operate in its territory. Also, like Turkey and Egypt, Jordan has changed its mind and is prepared to support Syrian President Bashar Assad leading a transition government that is established as part of a diplomatic agreement, if one is ever reached.

Jordan has gotten enhanced American funding to deal with the refugees, but official data show it has only gotten around 6 percent of the help it needs to deal with the enormous attendant expenses. This includes allocating classrooms for children, operating and maintaining refugee camps, providing health services, and maintaining law and order in the camps.

But only half of the Syrian refugees live in the refugee camps. The rest have found living quarters in large cities like Amman, Irbid, and Mafraq. They are causing economic problems for Jordanian citizens as they take more and more jobs, particularly simple jobs, that veteran residents used to fill. This has become a sensitive issue, as Jordanian citizens are wondering why their taxes should be used to help absorb refugees who are stealing their livelihoods.

While there hasn’t been any violence between citizens and the refugees, there is great anger at the government for being unable to balance the needs of both populations, creating a fertile ground for protests. To try to calm things, the Jordanian media, which is mostly government controlled, keeps reporting on new factories set up by Syrian refugees in Irbid, on the movement of enterprises from Syria to Jordan and the employment of Jordanians in these enterprises. These jobs, however, are a drop in the bucket compared to those that were lost.

Price hikes for fuel and the cutting of subsidies for staple items have brought people into the streets of Karak, Tafilah, Salt and Madaba. Although these were protests of hundreds, not thousands, these are the glowing coals that could become a blaze if King Abdullah doesn’t find ways to finance quiet. Meanwhile, a considerable amount of the revenue from the price hikes is going to benefit the refugees.

 In the security realm Jordan faces the danger of the Islamic State penetrating the kingdom, and it is investing considerable effort in trying to block the advance of the group’s fighters in southern Syria. Last month, for the first time in a long time, Jordan deployed drones to attack Islamic State bases in Daraa, in southern Syria, as well as concentrations of the A-Sham front, affiliated with Al-Qaida. This aggression came in parallel with tightening coordination with Russia to prevent ISIS operatives from entering Jordan.

But Jordanian intelligence fears the emergence of ISIS cells within the kingdom, and of the influence the group could have on the refugees. Jordan is getting intelligence from neighboring countries and has also been conducting reconnaissance flights along its northern border and even in Syrian territory. It has good intelligence on subversive groups and radical Islamic organizations that operate legally in Jordan, but this doesn’t guarantee a hermetic seal against terror activity.

“We live in a fragile reality in which an attack can happen any minute, in which demonstrations against the government, that is, against the king, can break out without warning, and in which opposition groups will find any excuse to criticize government policy,” a senior Jordanian journalist told Haaretz.

“The most recent example is the parliamentary debate on the gas agreement with Israel. Remember that in Egypt, opposition to the gas deal with Israel was a central slogan in the revolutionary demonstrations that brought down Mubarak,” he said, referring to the former Egyptian president.

Can all this undermine the kingdom? Some components of the threat have existed for years in Jordan, which successfully survived the Arab Spring. The question is whether there is now a critical accumulation of revolutionary elements that can challenge the king’s governance. There is no answer to that question.

At the end of the month Jordan is hosting the Arab League summit, and on its sidelines several aid agreements are expected to be signed, primarily with the Gulf states. If these expectations are realized, and if the U.S. administration and the European Union also give, the kingdom should be able to counter some important risk factors and strengthen the legitimacy of the Hashemite regime.