Jordan’s monarchy weathered the Arab Spring. Yet all is not well in the Hashemite Kingdom. The monarchy’s decades-long high wire act might be set for a fall.
The tour guide outside Amman’s Roman amphitheatre looks like a man with time to spare, and it is just as quiet at some of the city’s other famous sights. Jordan’s tourist industry, which took a billion dollar dip due to the Arab Spring, is in the doldrums.
Hashim’s, a famous Turkish restaurant in the city’s downtown once buzzed with tourists. Now it’s mostly locals, and last October it was a post-demonstration crowd that came to revive themselves with falafel and hummus after showing their distaste for King Abdullah II and his government.
Around 10,000 people joined the anti-government protest, a sharp upswing on the 150 or so hardliners at past events. Around 2,000 people turned out to back the government. Both sides ignored a ban on demonstrations and for the first time balaclava-clad special forces turned out to circle the downtown protest site in black pick-ups with mounted machine guns.
State media tagged the protest as the high point for the Muslim Brotherhood’s local affiliate, the Islamic Action Front, playing on the party’s internal divisions, but instead, the protest marked a definite upswing in anti-government political activity.
It’s not just the IAF either; the trade unions, communists and liberals are on the streets too. In November, further protests across the country turned violent. Security forces killed two protestors, a police station was attacked and demonstrators attempted to enter the Prime Minister’s residence.
Tourism, which accounts for 12% of the country’s GDP, continued to dip this year. Major national tourist projects, such as the National Museum, remain mired in bureaucracy. The museum, scheduled to open in 2007, remains closed. Fortunately, its large courtyard is a good place to start protests.
Cheap energy now
Behind the current problems lies an energy crisis. Fuel prices have rocketed in recent years, a major source of discontent among poorer Jordanians. The government has rolled back subsidies, and the poorest sections in society have been hit hardest.
Energy security has long been tricky for Jordan, which depends on Iraq for her oil supplies, while cheap gas used to come from Egypt. Instability in Iraq led the government to explore nuclear power in the mid-2000s, and efforts have been stepped up in the last few years, despite objections from Washington.
Yet nuclear power stations are long-term projects, as is the proposed Iraq-Jordan oil pipeline, which would run down to Aqaba, Jordan’s southern port. Jordan needs cheap energy now, and the money is not there to pay for it.
The problem is the same across the region, from Egypt and Yemen to Syria and Jordan. Populations have grown, along with food and energy prices.
One option for Jordan would be Israel’s new gas fields, but the political cost is too high. The last thing the beleaguered king wants is closer association with Israel. So, as with Egypt, Jordan has been forced to take an IMF loan to meet immediate energy needs.
Meanwhile, the World Bank continues to urge reforms, which means more subsidy reductions and more hardship for the population. The economic situation is not hopeless, the Jordanians can still rely on the phosphate industry, a mainstay, Jordan is the among the world’s top phosphate exporters, some high tech and insurance businesses and there are remittances from abroad, although the world economic situation has hit these too. These sectors do not hit unemployment though, the official rate has hovered around 10-12% for years, but many place it as high as 25%.
The refugee influx
A further problem for King Abdullah II is the Syrian refugees that continue to flood into the north. The government has tried to keep the refugees pinned in camps, perhaps to limit their ability to compete with the Jordanian labour force.
Conditions in the refugee camps are described as harsh, and last year riots broke out. The authorities have been loath to allow outsiders into the camps, although this has changed a little in the last few months, and access had always been available at the right price. The general impression is that the government wants the problem to disappear. The camps are not working though.
The rooftops of Jordan’s capital, Amman, host many Syrians who slipped through the system, and the cafes throng with secular Egyptians sheltering from erstwhile President Morsi. This adds to the government’s woes. Not only must the Jordanians provide for the extra mouths, the country’s delicate population balance has shifted once again.
The country’s major division lies between the East Bankers, who tend to dominate the elite, and the refugee Palestinians with the two sides almost at an even balance. Now, a new group has been thrown into the mix.
Back in the ‘70s, the Palestinian influx brought about a civil war in the country that saw the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) booted over to Lebanon. The concern since then has always been whether the war would restart, and the latest question is which side the new arrivals would take.
The war across the border has caused additional problems for the economy, Syria no longer imports Jordanian agricultural products with almost half of Jordanians employed in the agricultural sector this is a serious set back. The war has also upset Jordan’s position as an import hub, and entailed a serious military presence on the border to prevent the Syrian war from entering Jordanian territory.
East and West
Jordan has been seen as a soft government, at least compared with Saudi Arabia or Syria, but economic liberalism belies the Hashemite’s strong rule. This image, of a ‘decent’ state amongst harsh rulers, probably stems from the monarchy’s close relationship with the West.
King Hussein, the country’s founder, was educated at Harrow while Abdullah went to an American private school. Arms deal with the West, and a willingness to accommodate Israel cemented the image. It also brought generous aid packages from governments keen to reward an a state that once stood almost alone in the Arab world for many years in being prepared to deal with Israel. Jordan was reasonable.
Still, a monarchy is a monarchy. Here parliament advises and tries to check the King where it can. There is little doubt in which direction power flows. The personality cult around the Abdullah extends to tedious levels. Businesses in downtown Amman receive hassle from internal security officers for displaying pictures of the monarch only in main offices and not on stairwells as well.
This pettiness might be bearable, if the economy hadn’t tanked. The General Intelligence Directorate (GID), responsible for internal security, seems well organised; it busted an al-Qaeda inspired plot to hit targets in Amman last year. No Jordanians were involved, so claimed state media. But according to state media no Jordanians ever are. It is all outside agitators, apparently.
The GID’s success relies on certain distasteful methods though, so much so the United Kingdom courts refuse to extradite Abu Qatada, a troublesome cleric and Jordanian citizen back to Amman. The concern is the treatment he would receive at the GID’s hands, and as unrest grows it seems likely more Jordanians will find out more than they would ever want about the methods that so alarm British judges.
Abdullah remains optimistic; across the country, he can be seen on billboards with his teenage son, Crown Prince Hussein, who is being eased into the public consciousness as the successor to his father.
The faces on the billboards may seem confident, but Abdullah is nervous when it comes to politicians. Cabinets have come and gone in rapid succession over the last six months, as if the right frontmen will make the country’s problems dissolve. Elections to parliament were bought forward, and then boycotted by the IAF.
Rather than concentrate on the country’s urgent problems the parliament has indulged in ham-fisted measures to block Internet pornography, perhaps as a crude sop to conservative opinion. Worse was a proposal to force website operators and bloggers to register with the government, at considerable cost, and take responsibility for all comments posted on their websites.
These proposals, both expensive and possibly unworkable, raised the ire of the nascent IT industry, which Abdullah had done much to encourage in recent years. The King’s men in parliament have achieved little, other than to alienate the professional middle class and try to snuff a rare economic success story.
Prince Hussein studies at Georgetown University; this is his first year, an average American degree course lasts four years. If Jordan’s course continues, he might be well advised to start applying for internships now, as heir apparent to an abolished throne is a rather limited skillset in today’s economy.