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17 March 2011

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

By Liam McLaughlin

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.

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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.