This is a summary of an event with Dr Tariq Tell, Political Economist at the Centre for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies, American University in Beirut, on 23 January 2013; it reflects the views expressed by the speaker and not those of the Henry Jackson Society or its staff.
To view the full transcript of the event, click here
The wave of uprisings that spread across the Middle East over two years ago have seen the fall of a number of despotic governments across the region. As expected, the rate of success has not been equal across the board, and even judging what constitutes as ‘success’ is, naturally, subject to dispute. Despite these changes, some countries, including Jordan, have managed to steer relatively clear of unrest – for now.
A country on the brink
Jordan has very high levels of internet penetration and many of the social movements and networks that generated revolution in Tunisia and Egypt are working to full capacity in producing a new political discourse. This has broken barriers which previously limited the levels of criticism which could be made of the regime and, in particular, of the royal family. High youth unemployment, a slowing economy, and a huge disparity in wealth, coupled with a great deal of economic frustration, make up a very combustible political and economic mix.
This inequality is highly visible and becoming greater by the year. It has resulted in a polarised society with a small number of immensely wealthy individuals at the top, a rapidly disappearing middle class, and a large amount of people who are struggling to get by.
In the last few months, particularly in November when there was a spontaneous and violent surge of protests against rising fuel prices, people have taken to the streets. The violence was quite extreme, and in some places Jordanian security forces were actually driven out of towns. However, this unrest died down very quickly.
In addition to this economic unrest, a recent article written by the New York Times Middle East Editor claimed that most of the people who took to the streets in what came to be known as the ‘November uprising’ actually preferred Hamzah, the eldest son of Queen Noor, King Hussein’s fourth wife, to the current incumbent to the throne Abdullah II.
A new heir?
As a result of this threat to his position, King Abdullah has pursued a policy of dividing Trans-Jordanian groups to prevent them emerging as a single unified force. Although there are acolytes of Queen Noor who would like to see her son take to the throne, Hamzah has not yet shown his hand, and there is no real mechanism for bringing him to power.
The problem remains that most of the real holders of power are in the hands of Hamzah’s brother, and he would need a real crisis which put the regime in danger, as well as a great deal of external support in order to counter this power.
Whilst Hamzah is better at conveying messages to the general population than his brother, and has a huge advantage over Abdullah in being perceived to have clean hands, whether he will manage to gain power will depend on the amount of support he receives from outside of the country, It will also depend on whether or not he can produce a much more radical and reformist economic policy.
Jordan’s economic obstacles
The basic problem facing the Jordanian regime is an economic one, but it is an economic one that has a political origin.
- Jordan has not had proper accountability since 1967 and so the public finances have gone awry, whilst cronyism around the palace has been burdening the country with greater costs. This is very problematic in a country where the public sector is the main employer, and where if you push the country into a financial crisis you also run the risk of currency devaluation and public sector revolts.
- The new liberal policies that have been pursued since Abdullah came to power have actually not addressed this problem because amongst them is a reduction in taxes on banks, major communication companies and insurance companies. These lower rates of taxation have fed into the public sector deficit, as well as into the financial deficit.
- Abdullah has been prepared to risk an outburst, like the November uprising, rather than raise taxes, and the reason is almost certainly because the business sector in Jordan has been trans-nationalised. A great deal of investment from the Gulf means that it is not just a matter of dealing with local bankers or companies, but that there is added pressure from these investors, which reduces Abdullah’s room to manoeuvre.
- The subsidy programme in Jordan is very costly because there are a high number of non-Jordanians in Jordan.
- There is a very large and very wealthy Iraqi community of 200,000 people, who, despite their wealth, benefit from the same subsidies as everybody else.
- There are also about 600,000 to 700,000 guest workers who also benefit from the same subsidies.
There needs to be a way of delivering support to poor people whilst reducing the budgetary pressure.
Advice for the West
For the last 10 years Abdullah has toyed with reform, but not changed the electoral system. He needs to work on creating a broader political field where a larger number of political parties can find their place and emerge as possible counter-weights to the Islamist parties.
The key is to allow a certain number of seats to be settled by proportional representation.
- Currently only 27 out of 140 seats in Parliament are allocated in this way, the rest are all voted for in small, gerrymandered, and unrepresentative tribal electorate districts.
- The change should be to create a large national district with 60 to 70 MPs to give people the incentive to form parties and to create a more vibrant civil society.
How the Americans can bring this about is an open question, because Abdullah is actually quite adept at playing the political game in Washington. It is therefore a difficult policy dilemma, but the contours and outlines are pretty clear; push Abdullah towards a much more open monarchy. It may not be a completely constitutional monarchy, but it should be one with more party political representation than there is at this current time.