Loyalty and poverty: Jordan’s uprising stagnates

Despite nearly two months of protests, King Abdullah’s regime is clinging to the promise, but not ye

Overlooking Amman's concrete skyline is the Citadel, where lie the silent remains of Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad structures. The murmur of Jordan's ancient and chequered history resonates round these crumbling edifices, reminding the country that even the greatest powers can topple into the sun-baked dust.

Jordan is not at breaking point yet, but of all the protests sweeping across the Middle East, those in Jordan have been going on for the longest. Indeed, marches through Amman's windy streets began on 14 January and show no sign of ceasing even now, in mid-March, due to the slow adoption of reforms.

Jordan's is an interesting case, because it is one of just two monarchies in the region which has experienced sustained protests (the other country being Bahrain). Conversely, it is also one of the highest-scoring Arab nations on the Economist Intelligence Unit's 2010 Democracy Index, with a rating of 3.74 – more than the seemingly stable regimes of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Unsurprisingly, then, the roots of the Jordanian protests are to be found more in relation to economic justice than the problems of authoritarian rule. That is not to say there is not a problem with authoritarian rule in Jordan; it is more that the way the monarchy is viewed tends to ignore its role in relation to national troubles.

Poverty, unemployment and food prices are all high in Jordan, and despite its Social Productivity Programme, which has apparently reduced the poverty level from 30 to 14 per cent of the population over the past decade, the people remain unsatisfied.

Open arms to the free market

Since Jordan gained independence in 1946, the economy has rarely enjoyed sustained periods of stability, continuously fluctuating between growth and stagnation, largely as a result of the direct and indirect effects of regional conflicts such as the Six Day War and the Gulf war.

As a result, in 1999, when King Abdullah II took the throne after the death of his father, King Hussein I, he began a policy of free-market economic reforms designed to change Jordan's fortunes.

These had a degree of success, resulting in Jordan becoming the fourth most economically free nation in the Arab world, with a score of 68.9 on the 2011 Index of Economic Freedom, and increased growth, due largely to privatisation of industry and foreign investment. Indeed, between 2006 and 2009, Jordan had sustained economic growth of an impressive 6 per cent, roughly, each year. Nonetheless, it also has a massive debt to deal with, whose outlook was recently downgraded by Moody's to "negative".

Though Jordan boasts some successes on paper, it also suffers from widespread poverty, unemployment and a lack of adequate purchasing power. Many officials believe that the respectable growth rate in 2010 of 3.4 per cent (the lower figure was a result of the global financial crisis) indicates sound economic policies, but as we have learned in the UK, growth doesn't necessarily create fair distributions of wealth.

That levels of inequality in Jordan, according to the UN Gini Index, were at a modest 0.38 in 2009, says more about how poverty is equally distributed across the country than anything else. It is no surprise then, that though Jordan has strong growth and burgeoning free-market activity, its gross national income per capita is only $3,740, and even lower when measured using the Atlas method, at $1,525.17.

The cause of and potential solution to this economic injustice lies ultimately with King Abdullah, who has executive authority over most parliamentary decisions.

However, instead of calling for his resignation, most protesters (though some called for constitutional reform to cede the king's powers to parliament) demanded that the government be removed, attributing the economic problems to the cabinet rather than the king. This is certainly due in part to the taboo in Jordan of criticising the monarchy, and the heavy penalties incurred for doing so.

Children of the Prophet

Still, there are remarkably many billboards featuring Abdullah, and posters of him plastered on windows and walls across the country, making it reasonably clear that loyalty to and trust in the monarchy springs also from deep historical attachments.

For example, the royal family's important role in winning independence from the Ottoman empire via Sharif Hussein Bin Ali – Abdullah's great-great-grandfather – is an important factor in maintaining loyalty to the regime. Furthermore, that the al-Hashimis are supposedly descendants of the Prophet Muhammad is another critical reason for glorification of the monarchy. The Hashemite royalty therefore have legitimacy on both an Arab nationalist and an Islamic level.

On 1 February, in an attempt to placate the crowds, Abdullah sacked the government, including the prime minister, Samir al-Rifa'i. He then personally chose the new prime minister, Marouf Bakhit, a former army general who had held the position before, and set him the task of forming a new cabinet. Suffice to say, this move was undemocratic and purely procedural.

More constructively, the king also cut fuel taxes, implemented basic food subsidies and increased the monthly salary of public-sector employees by 20 Jordanian dinars (roughly $30). These reforms have been accepted by the people, but clearly the endemic poverty in Jordan is the result of more deep-set structural factors in its neoliberal economic policy, entrenched by the elite loyal to the king and, indeed, by the king himself.

The new government narrowly survived a vote of no confidence in the lower house on 3 March, and a majority of members signed a memorandum demanding that the executive present a substantive programme of reforms for the end of the month. If it does not deliver, the government could be dissolved again.

It is doubtful, though, that we will see any significant regime change in Jordan - nationalist and religious ties are too strong. Indeed, despite continued protests, mostly spurred on by the Islamist opposition, it is likely the king will continue using his revered position to maintain the status quo.

Liam McLaughlin is a freelance journalist who has also written for Prospect and the Huffington Post. He tweets irregularly @LiamMc108.

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Industrial Strategy: Ensuring digital skills are included

The opportunities for efficiency, adaptability and growth offered by digital skills have never been so important to British businesses. The New Statesman asked a panel of experts, including Digital Minister Matt Hancock, Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner, Tech City CEO Gerard Grech and Google Policy Manager Katie O’Donovan, to pinpoint the weak spots and the opportunities for a smarter digital skills strategy.

British people spend more per capita online than any other country in the developed world. With 82 per cent of adults using the internet on a daily basis and more than 20 per cent of retail sales taking place online, it would appear that most British businesses are digitally capable. A closer look, however, reveals a significant digital skills gap between larger companies and the small businesses that make up 60 per cent of the private sector – comprising a workforce of over 15 million people, with a turnover in excess of £1.6trillion. Of these small enterprises, a third don’t have a website and more than half are unable to sell goods online. So, are digital skills taking priority in the government’s industrial strategy?

Matt Hancock, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, said digital education from an early age will be a cross-party objective for years to come: “We’re making some progress on this, and one of the most exciting things we did in the last parliament was to put coding into the curriculum from age eight. We’ve recognised that there are down-the-track requirements for digital skills, as much as with English and Maths, and we’ve got a huge array of initiatives to corral the enthusiasm for digital and make sure that it is best used.”

Hancock added that participation in the digital economy is important at every level of business and society: “I can group the facts and figures; 23 per cent of people currently lack basic digital skills, and about 90 per cent of new jobs now need some form of them. I think that what we’ve learnt following the Brexit vote is that the need to engage everybody is more demonstrable than ever before. This is a very important part of the Prime Minister’s agenda, and wider digital engagement is a key part of the broader issue to make an economy that works for everyone.” 

It is this wider opportunity to access and education that forms the bedrock of a new partnership between Google and the Tinder Foundation, aiming to deliver digital skills training to those in society who are most in need. Cue the Digital Garage. The project sees community organisations across the country provide skills support to small businesses, sole traders and indviduals, helping them to make the most of their resources.

Katie O’Donovan, Policy Manager at Google, explained: “Google has a longstanding commitment to train 250,000 people across the UK in digital skills. Since launching the Digital Garage in 2015 we’ve provided mentoring and digital skills training in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow.  But as the UK faces a new chapter we want to ensure, whether you’re a student looking for your first job, a small business looking to attract new customers or a musician looking to promote your music, the right digital skills are freely available in your local community.

Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner recognised that a wider proliferation of digital skills would release a surprising amount of value into the economy. “Some of our research showed that every £1 invested in growing people’s basic digital skills put £10 back into the economy. But it’s not enough to save money - you’ve got to show how you can make money out of it as well.”    

The Labour MP for Aberavon, Stephen Kinnock, has seen at first hand the benefits of support for digital skills, and welcomes opportunities for partnership in his constituency. The shift from manufacturing, he accepts, needs direction and following the depletion of his local steel works he views digitisation as “the only way forward.” Kinnock added that exciting projects such as the Swansea bay region or ‘internet coast’ becoming a testbed for 5G could serve to re-energise communities which are in many ways in a state of decline. Kinnock said: “I’m absolutely delighted that we’re going to have pop-up versions of the Digital Garage in Port Talbot.”

CEO for TeenTech Maggie Philbin, meanwhile, stressed that digital education at school level must be taught through the lens of practical application. She warned: “Many young people aren’t greeted by any coherent messaging in school, so they don’t see why they’d need digital skills in the workplace. We’ve got to start getting a better message across and improve the opportunities for actual work experience that harnesses these skills.”

Karen Price, CEO at The Tech Partnership shares this view. For Price, adapting apprenticeships to incorporate digital skills will help to inspire a culture of innovation. She suggested that “if that's part of an apprenticeship that could be polished to use in a business environment, you'd have a digitally capable young person who could probably move that business on in a different way.”

Nick Williams, Consumer Digital Director for Lloyds Banking Group, views improving people’s digital skills as a matter of urgency and brought up research conducted by the company’s new Business Digital Index for 2016 which found that 38 per cent of small businesses and 49 per cent of charities are currently lacking digital maturity. “It’s no longer a matter of choice,” Williams said, “for organisations to survive, we must focus on a digital message.  Technology’s moved on and people just haven’t kept up. We have to show how these new skills can translate to greater productivity. Ability and access are the two variables to address. We are on the brink of going down the route of a digital divide – those who are capable and those who aren’t – and we’ve got to stop that.”

Rachel Neaman, Director of Skills and Partnerships at Doteveryone, was quick to pick up on this point. She warned that any digital training must not simply be for future generations’ benefit, but also be afforded to those already in work. “What are we doing for the people who currently lack these skills? How do we stop people from being left behind?” Neaman called for an “equal emphasis” on updating and upgrading the existing workforce. Julian David, the CEO at Tech UK, was also keen to highlight that digitisation is “an ongoing process” and therefore “retraining” at regular intervals is needed to cope with a continually evolving demand.

While Hancock spoke of a “unit-based standard learning system”, similar to that used in American schools, to help apply digital skills training where it is most appropriate, IPPR North researcher Jack Hunter said there were real opportunities to be grasped in the coming devolution agenda: “The new mayors that are coming in next year to drive the agenda and economic growth are going to be getting a lot more funding around a variety of different skills streams that feed directly into the digital programme.”

The panel agreed that the digital divide will only grow wider if action is not taken. Director of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA Anthony Painter said that society is being split into two camps: “the confident and creative, and those who feel held back.” Painter recommended that the latter group are given a fresh chance at being empowered digitally. He said: “They don’t tend to use the internet for professional development, whereas the others do. We’ve been having a look at this locally by creating a ‘City of Learning’ which combines a digital platform built around open badges which have micro-accreditations for learning; things that if you get someone’s passionate interest and then start feeding into more formal learning opportunities then you wrap around that a sort of city-led campaign which lets them identify with a common cause – we’re a learning city.”

Tech City UK CEO Gerard Grech concurred and went to explore the link between a strong web presence and business expansion or improvement. The problem identified is that many businesses may not realise the extent of their digital capabilities and thus run the risk of missing out. Grech said: “If you ask a window cleaner if they are a digital business, they might say no, but if you ask how they might go about quoting someone, they could find the address on Google Maps or get the Street View. That’s the idea, to show how digital can be used for them.”

Ultimately, the panel concluded, that the enthusiasm to add a digital depth to Britain’s talent pool was validated by its potential advantages. “A lot of the major challenges facing the economy,” Painter summed up, “are actually rooted in skills. Whether it’s the challenges of Brexit or the challenges of broadband, I think if you fix the skills, everything else falls into place.” The panel agreed that any government has a responsibility to champion digital strategy throughout society, regardless of location or economic standing, and equip businesses with the digital skills required to perform at their best.  

The round-table discussion was chaired by Kirsty Styles.

For more information, visit: https://digitalgarage.withgoogle.com