Analysis |

Jordan's King Abdullah Has Bigger Concerns Than a Family Feud, and Israel Should Worry, Too

With the kingdom suffering a 24 percent unemployment rate, 1.3 million Syrian refugees and a water shortage that could start a war one day, Israel should think about boosting cooperation with its neighbor

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Demonstrators protesting price increases, Amman, Jordan.
Demonstrators protesting price increases, Amman, Jordan, Feb. 2020.Credit: Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

After two days, what looked like a hurricane that threatened the royal court dissipated into a stiff wind that doesn’t seem to have caused significant damage. After King Abdullah’s half-brother, Prince Hamzah, was suspected of planning a coup, the king got his uncle, Prince Hassan, to act as a mediator. Hamzah signed an oath of allegiance.

Meanwhile, the Saudi foreign minister rushed to Amman to express his country’s unreserved support for Jordan. The United States also showed its support, and life has returned to normal.

But it’s actually the normal that threatens the Hashemite Kingdom. Two weeks ago there were demonstrations in Amman and other cities following the deaths of at least six people at a government hospital. They died because oxygen supplies were low.

That week, 6,000 more people were infected with the coronavirus. The vaccination drive is proceeding sluggishly and only a few tens of thousands of people have received the first dose. The annual budget deficit, set at $2.89 billion, is already expected to come in higher.

“Unemployment is this country’s greatest problem,” Jordanian Finance Minister Mohamad Al-Ississ reportedly told his American counterpart. The official figures put unemployment at 24 percent, 5 percentage points over last year. Among people with higher education, the figure is 28 percent. More than half the unemployed have high school or vocational school diplomas. Among younger people, joblessness tops 50 percent.

Jordan’s engineers’ association reported in February that 35,000 of the country’s 174,000 registered engineers were unemployed. “Without investments in projects, and because of the coronavirus, the numbers could climb higher,” warns Tariq Almomani, head of training and recruitment at the engineers’ association.

Amman after the start of a nationwide coronavirus curfew in March 2020.Credit: Raad Adayleh / AP

Debtors' prison

In late March, Prime Minister Bisher Al-Khasawneh unveiled a plan for assisting people battered by the pandemic and putting Jordan’s economy back on track. The $630 million program is expected to preserve 100,000 existing jobs and create 14,000 new ones, including the temporary employment of 2,500 male and female nurses for six months.

Under the plan, businesses’ and individuals’ debts will be restructured, fines can be paid by the end of the year, and there will be special assistance for the tourism, agriculture and health industries. But more than one-third of this special budget will go toward repaying the government’s debts to hospitals and drugmakers, funds that should have been in the regular budget.

The criteria for receiving aid and loans at convenient terms haven’t been spelled out yet, with thousands of people expected to stand trial for defaulting on payments to banks and government financial institutions. According to Jordanian law, a creditor can demand the imprisonment of a debtor, and the courts have already sent hundreds of people to prison for one to three months.

The imprisonment of debtors is a hot issue in Jordan, with rights groups demanding that the send-to-prison law be repealed, or at least a distinction be made between those who can’t pay and those who don’t want to. The rights groups note that some people have been in jail but still have large debts; many people try to flee the country so as not to do more time.

Unemployment also stung the country two years ago, leading to the dismissal of a prime minister and the forming of a new government (which in turn was replaced). And now there could be another eruption of fury on the streets if urgent economic solutions aren’t found soon, a tall order.

Of the $11 billion budget, 65 percent goes to salaries and pensions, including for retired military people. The government intends to borrow $6 billion from banks, which will increase its annual interest outlays to more than $2 billion. The unexpected coronavirus expenses will devour the rest.

Any investment in development that could create new jobs and buoy exports is out of the question. Jordan benefits from $800 million in foreign aid a year and special assistance for handling the 1.3 million refugees currently living in the country, but this aid can’t revive tourism, lay the foundations for new and lucrative projects or solve the country’s basic economic problems.

Better times: Jordan's King Abdullah and his half-brother Hamzah at the airport in 2001.Credit: Yousef Allan / AP

Water woes

And there are other existential threats not easily managed by financial markets or political and accounting maneuvers. The chronic water shortage looms over the regime. Israel is familiar with this only because of the recent clash between the prime minister and Jordan in which Benjamin Netanyahu delayed approval for providing Jordan with 8 million cubic meters of water. This comes on top of the 50 million it provides annually, based on the 1994 peace treaty.

For Jordanians, especially in the north, water is a daily problem. According to Jordan’s Water and Irrigation Ministry, water consumption rose 40 percent following the arrival of 1.3 million Syrian refugees. Many villages and towns, mainly in the Jordan Valley, have no running water and must rely on tankers. In some districts, water is distributed only once a month, instead of once a week as it was last year.

People are at the mercy of what they call a water mafia that controls tankers, supply times, well digging and prices. International organizations estimate that around 70 percent of the water is simply stolen from the state through illegal excavations, conducted with no planning or protection of the water source. Water also disappears due to damaged pipes. The Water Ministry says the state loses $365 million a year because of “lost water.”

In the next few decades, Jordan is thus expected to face a serious water shortage that could trigger a political crisis or wars. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences predicts that by the end of this century, groundwater in Jordan will diminish by 60 percent, with surface water dropping by one-quarter. This is an alarming forecast requiring action now.

The usual solution is desalination plants. Jordan has pinned its hopes on the building of a canal linking the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, along which desalination plants would go up. But the project stalled after Israel withdrew. Amid the tension between the two countries, it’s doubtful whether the plan will move beyond the paper stage.

In view of the water shortage and financial crisis, the scheming at the royal court seems like an episode in a TV series. More importantly, Israel and Jordan should cooperate in matters of water and economic development unless Israel wishes to see a failing state next door.

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