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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Why I’m thinking of joining the Labour Party

There’s a lot to admire in the direction Jeremy Corbyn is taking the party – perhaps it’s time to get involved.

Why I'm leaving Labour”, as Owen Hatherley remarked a few days ago, appears to be the new “why I’m leaving London”. However, aside from a few high(ish) profile departures, the bigger story is the net increase in membership of 90,000 that Labour has enjoyed since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. Indeed, the last few weeks have got me seriously considering whether I should add to these impressive numbers and join the party myself.

For me, one of the most cheering pieces of news since Corbyn’s victory was the convening of an advisory committee to shadow chancellor John McDonnell, including policy and academic heavyweights such as Mariana Mazzucato, Ann Pettifor, Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty. It was a clear indication that some fresh and serious thought was going to be put into the creation of a plan for remaking and rejuvenating the British economy. The early signs are that Labour will be offering a dynamic, high-tech economy of the future, with good pay and job security at its heart, which will stand in sharp contrast to the miserable Randian dystopia George Osborne has been pushing the country into during his time at the Treasury.

Also refreshing has been Corbyn’s use of Prime Minister’s Questions to give a voice to those affected by austerity. Given that our media and political class is disproportionately populated by people from privileged backgrounds, it’s really important that an extra effort is made to ensure that we hear first-hand from those bearing the brunt of these policies. It’s right in principle, and it turns out to be good politics as well. Because apparently many Conservative MPs are too stupid to realise that responding to the concerns of working class people with loud, derisive braying merely provides the public with a neat and powerful illustration of whose side each party is on.

Corbyn has taken a lot of flak in the media, and from MPs on the Labour right, for his response to the Paris attacks. But as someone who researches, teaches and writes on British foreign policy, Middle East politics and security issues, my admiration for the Labour leader has only grown in recent days.  

In the atmosphere immediately after a terrorist atrocity, a discourse emerges where caring about the victims and being serious about dealing with the threat are taken to be synonymous with advocating military responses and clampdowns on civil liberties, irrespective of the fact that fourteen years of pursuing this approach under the “war on terror” has only served to make the problem far worse. At times like these it takes a great deal of courage to articulate a careful, cautious approach emphasising non-military forms of action that address root causes and whose effects may be less dramatic and immediate. Many people were simply not in the mood to hear this sort of thing from Corbyn, but his policies are objectively more likely to make us safer, and I admire him for not being intimidated into silence despite the gallons of vitriol that have been poured on him.

In general, on national security, there is something heavily gendered about the narrative that casts the alpha male Cameron keeping Britain safe versus the dithering milquetoast Corbyn who doesn't understand the harsh realities. We reached the nadir of this stone age machismo during the last election campaign when Very Serious Jeremy Paxman put it to Ed Miliband that he couldn’t have Vladimir Putin in a fight.  After the disasters of the last decade and a half, the time is right to articulate a more intelligent, sophisticated alternative to the expensive, counterproductive militarism of the Conservative Party and the Labour right wing.

The question of whether Corbyn can win an election is certainly one that preoccupies me. He will struggle to attract voters to his right just as Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall would have struggled to win back votes Labour lost to the SNP and the Greens. Enthusing and rallying the perhaps 30 per cent of the electorate who are broadly on the left is one thing, but adding the other 6-7 per cent that you need to win an election is another challenge altogether. Corbyn and his team have been on a steep learning curve since their shock victory in September, and they urgently need to clarify their message and improve their media strategy. Almost all the corporate press are bound to remain hostile, but there are ways to provide them with as little ammunition as possible.

More importantly, Corbyn’s team need to find ways of connecting directly with the public and bring them actively into what he's trying to do. In the current anti-politics mood, an opposition party based on a genuine, engaged mass movement could be a formidable force. Initiatives like “Momentum” will need to make quick and substantial progress.

Fundamentally, Corbyn’s Labour has to do what everyone concerned with genuine social progress has had to do throughout history: articulate points of view that go against prevailing orthodoxy, and do so in as persuasive a way as possible. By definition, these are battles against the odds. But you can't win them if you don't fight them. And for me, and I think most people on Corbyn's part of the left, five years of austerity have taken us beyond the point where we can accept the least worst version of the status quo. That prospect has simply become too painful for too many people.

So will I join? I’m still unsure. Without doubt there will be times when the leadership needs constructive, even robust criticism, and as a writer and researcher I may feel more free to articulate that outside of the Labour tribe. But whatever choice I make, the point for me is that this isn’t really about Jeremy Corbyn so much as the wider movement he represents, demanding a real change of course on politics, economics and foreign policy. That collective effort is something I will certainly continue to play an active part in.

David Wearing researches UK-Saudi-Gulf relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he teaches courses on Middle East politics and international political economy. He sits on the steering committee of Campaign Against Arms Trade.