King’s Gambit

The economic turmoil caused by Jordan’s “strategic refocus”

Jordan’s refugee camps accommodate nearly seven hundred thousand registered Syrians and over two million Palestinian refugees. MOHAMMAD HANNON / AP
01 August, 2019

On 20 March, a Bangladeshi migrant working at a small eatery in the coastal Jordanian city of Aqaba complained to me about how little the jobs there paid, leaving “hardly anything to send home,” even as he conceded that “at home, I might not even get a job.” It was a sentiment echoed by not only the majority of migrant workers I spoke to—mostly Palestinians, Syrians, South Asians, Filipinos and Egyptians—but by the Jordanians themselves. There was palpable disappointment in the air because of the lack of jobs and meagre salaries. The government holds an ongoing refugee crisis partially responsible for the domestic situation, but the residents of Jordan no longer buy this explanation.

During an interview at the World Economic Forum, on 24 January, the prime minister, Omar Razzaz, admitted that Jordan was suffering from “neighbourhood effects”—a reference to the Syrian crisis, which has reshaped the demographics of the country, where one in three people is now a refugee. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey together host over three quarters of the 5.6 million registered Syrian refugees, who have fled their country following the crisis that has unfolded since 2011.

Although Turkey has taken in most of the Syrian refugees, Jordan and Lebanon—despite their relatively smaller size—host over a thousand Syrian refugees per 100,000 habitants. While Jordan’s government and the UNHCR have tried to ensure that the majority of the nearly seven hundred thousand registered Syrians in the country are housed outside of the country’s refugee camps, recent reports indicate that 80 percent of those outside the camps live below the poverty line, and more than half are unemployed.

Jordan has for long been a hospitable country, accepting refugees from many war-torn countries. The kingdom accommodated over 1.5 million Palestinian refugees following the Arab–Israeli wars of 1948–49 and 1967. After it withdrew its claim to the West Bank, in 1988, the Jordanian government provided these refugees with passports for travel purposes, but did not grant them citizenship or permanent residency.

During the Gulf War in the early 1990s, a comparatively smaller exodus of Palestinians came from Kuwait, in addition to a million Iraqi refugees. According to the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, of the five million registered Palestinian refugees, over two million live in Jordan—a country with a population of around ten million. When added to Jordanian citizens of Palestinian descent, they amount to over half the country’s population, according to unofficial estimates.

In 2016, the World Bank estimated that the cost of hosting Syrian refugees in the kingdom was $2.5 billion per year, suggesting that the government spent almost four thousand dollars per refugee per year. According to the government, over a quarter of the country’s budget was directed towards meeting the costs of the refugees.

In order to meet the government’s growing demands for aid, an agreement called the Jordan Compact was signed, in 2016, by representatives from the United Kingdom, Germany, Kuwait, Norway and the United Nations. Touted as a multilateral partnership with a “renewed focus” on Jordan’s economic transformation, the agreement resulted in an annual grant of over seven hundred million dollars for the next three years. This was in addition to concessional loans of $1.9 billion, as well as the relaxation of the European Union’s trade regulations for Jordanian products. This financial aid was aimed at targets such as providing work permits for Syrian refugees, and ensuring all Syrian children were enrolled in schools. Nevertheless, the Jordanian government faces considerable challenges. In February 2018, its hand forced by the worsening economic environment in the kingdom, it stopped subsidising the medical treatment of Syrians, leading to a fivefold increase in their medical expenses.

To make things worse, in August 2018, the United States government announced that it would stop all funding toward the UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees. It also passed the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act of 2018, which allows recipients of US aid to be sued in US courts. When the law came into force in February 2019, the Palestinian Authority wrote to the US State Department that it would stop accepting aid, out of fear of being implicated in counterterrorism lawsuits in the United States.

Earlier, in December 2017, the Donald Trump administration also recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The move was deemed unacceptable by both Palestinians and Jordanians, since it would entail giving up their stake in eastern Jerusalem, which was annexed from Jordan by Israel in 1967. The Jordanian government considers East Jerusalem integral to the two-state solution, as the capital for a future Palestinian state.

Meanwhile, Jordan’s economy has been wilting under increasing debt, due to its large public sector, generous subsidies and the drying up of foreign capital and aid. In 2016, the kingdom accepted a structural-reform package from the International Monetary Fund. However, the IMF mandated tax hikes and the removal of government subsidies in 2018, resulting in massive protests across the country, eventually leading to the resignation of the prime minister, Hani al-Mulki.

The domestic situation is further exacerbated by the lack of opportunities. While the average growth rate during the first decade of the century was 6.5 percent, it dropped to 2.5 percent during the 2010s. This slowdown is primarily attributed to the effects of the global financial crisis in 2008–09, as well as the regional turbulence that accompanied the Arab Spring two years later. The unemployment rate remains at an alarming 18.7 percent, while youth unemployment has soared to a record high of 40 percent. The kingdom has also witnessed a reduction in its exports as a consequence of the unstable geopolitics in its neighbourhood.

In February this year, the government finally responded to this domestic turmoil with what King Abdullah II called, at an investment summit in London, a “strategic refocus on our competitive advantages.” According to the king, this would mean devising an economic strategy that “prioritises certain sectors that benefit directly from Jordan’s high-value human capital,” as well as “foster a healthy business climate” in the country. The government plans to make private players and public–private partnerships central to spurring economic activity, and has also positioned the capital, Amman, as a gateway to business in West Asia. However, the decrease in public expenditure following the IMF restructuring has had the unintended consequence of stalling private-sector growth, stifling investment in an atmosphere of austerity.

In a country where one in three people is reported to be employed by the state, the government’s effort to direct people towards private-sector employment has also faced opposition. In February, around a hundred and fifty job seekers from Aqaba marched on foot for over three hundred kilometres to Amman, and staged a protest demanding jobs in state-run enterprises. Similar marches towards Amman were reported from the cities of Irbid, Karak and Madaba. The protesters rejected the government’s offer to find them jobs in the private sector.

During the 2011 Arab Spring, protests erupted in Jordan as well, demanding better governance. However, Abdullah prevented the protests from spiralling out of control by dismissing the government and significantly reforming the constitution. Part of the reforms included the establishment of an independent election commission. As a result, the royal family has an image of being reform-oriented, of espousing liberal values in a region historically perceived to be authoritarian and rent seeking.

However, economic deprivation is turning public sentiment against the monarchy. It is evident that the king’s plans are not working, and that the proposed “strategic refocus,” or the IMF’s structural readjustment, will not solve Jordan’s problems.