In Jordan’s Case, Rent Collection May No Longer Work
Imad K. Harb
Once again, socioeconomic conditions are at the center of Jordan’s political instability. Thousands of Jordanians over the last few days have participated in popular demonstrations to protest proposed legislation by the government to levy new income taxes. Like other developing countries in similar situations, Jordan must impose austerity measures mandated by the International Monetary Fund, as stipulated by a $723 million loan approved in 2016. In view of the protests that erupted during Jordan’s version of the 2011 Arab Spring, these demonstrations may portend serious troubles for the country’s monarchy and government.
While the protests have been largely peaceful, 60 protesters have been arrested while over 40 security personnel have been injured, according to the police chief, Major General Fadel al-Hamoud. Negotiations between the government and labor unions have broken down and the latter have called for a general strike. Concerned about the potential consequences of a prolonged protest, King Abdullah II replaced Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki––whose popularity took a nosedive since the government announced its intention to impose austerity measures––with Omar al-Razzaz, the education minister. Razzaz will obviously face serious hurdles, considering the poor health of the Jordanian economy and the repercussions it has on social and political stability in the country.
Reports indicate that prices of food, fuel, and electricity have seen steep increases over the last few months. Official statistics put the unemployment rate at 18.5 percent while 20 percent of the population is on the brink of poverty. The new measures would make things worse as taxes on individual earners will rise by about 5 percent and those on companies by 20 to 40 percent. Coupled with the onerous effects of the presence of over one million Iraqi and Syrian refugees in the country, and the absence of steady sources of income for the government, the increased financial burden on the general populace appears to be an ever-present challenge for everyone.
Beset by domestic problems, Jordan’s new government will also have to deal with numerous challenging impacts from its regional environment. First, despite a general cooling down of the Syrian civil war, a major battle appears to be in the offing in Syria’s south close to the border with Jordan. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not likely to rest until he retakes control of Daraa Province, home to thousands of opposition fighters. Although Jordan has already closed the gate for new Syrian entrants, it would be hard to ignore the ensuing humanitarian crisis—at the same time as Jordanians are demonstrating for better economic conditions.
Second, just as important and vexing are Jordan’s position on Israel’s policies and potential developments in its relations with Israel, and by extension, the United States. President Donald Trump’s decision last December to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital put King Abdullah in a very difficult situation. The monarch condemned the decision, declaring at the conference of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Turkey on December 13 that Jerusalem is in the hearts of all Muslims and Christians. Yet, his pivotal position regarding Israel’s security and role in US strategic thinking protected him. Indeed, in February 2018, the United States and Jordan signed a Memorandum of Understanding stipulating that the latter will receive “no less than $1.275 billion per year in U.S. bilateral foreign assistance” from 2018 to 2022.
Still, King Abdullah should not rest on his laurels with respect to his relationship with President Trump, who has no qualms about retaliating once defied, strategic repercussions be damned. To be sure, Jerusalem can be considered a make-or-break issue for the monarchy’s legitimacy, making the king’s tightrope-walking, and his government’s maneuvering, more dangerous than meets the eye. What makes this even more complicated and problematic is that the king may not be able to count on Saudi help with Trump because Saudi Arabia reportedly pressured him to accept Trump’s decision on Jerusalem.
Third, Jordan still must deal with the backlash of its confused position on the ongoing one-year crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council. Immediately after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposed a blockade on it, Amman downgraded its relations with Doha and closed the Al Jazeera offices. This decision clearly showed the precarious nature of Jordan’s position on the crisis. On the one hand, Qatar had not done anything to harm Jordan––indeed, it has $2 billion worth of investments there––and bilateral relations had generally been good. On the other hand, Jordan became wedded to an indefensible cause, especially after it was obvious that the blockading countries concocted the crisis and rejected all efforts at mediation. Today, the Jordanian king might be in a quandary as to how to decouple his country from a crisis whose developments are driven by the quixotic Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his Emirati cohort Mohammed bin Zayed.
With demonstrations continuing unabated despite the appointment of a new prime minister, Amman may be at an inflection point. While geography and the dearth of natural endowments cannot be changed, the country obviously needs astute decision-making and out-of-the-box thinking. Jordan would do well to remind all its neighbors of its pivotal position and role, real and potential, regarding the security of Israel, resolving the war in Syria, and helping to protect all the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Simultaneously, it should also emphasize to the Trump Administration that whimsical maneuvers, such as cutting off aid if Jordan does not get on board with an unfair deal for the Palestinians, will only lead to irreparably harming stability in the entire region.