Trends of 2016: Despite a neighborhood on fire, Jordan remains stable

Trends of 2016: Despite a neighborhood on fire, Jordan remains stable
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As the media focuses on the many crises in the Middle East, Jordan’s capacity to endure the instability next door is noteworthy. Yet the Hashemite Kingdom faces tough challenges at home and abroad that make its future precarious.

Despite regional turmoil testing Jordan’s borders and population, the Hashemite Kingdom has remained remarkably stable. The resource-deprived country has largely weathered Iraq and Syria’s instability to the north, Israel and Palestine’s tensions to the west, and Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula to the south. Under the leadership of King Abdullah al-Thani, Jordan has also endured the domestic dangers of a swelling refugee population as well as growing political and economic volatility.

Security reigns supreme

Central to Jordan’s stability is its exceptionally sophisticated national security enterprise. With a $1.5 billion military budget underwritten by Western aid, the Kingdom boasts some of the most elite special forces and counterterrorism units in the region. All this is bolstered by the Kingdom’s extensive mukhabarat, which identifies foreign and domestic threats by carefully monitoring the country’s regional situation while penetrating the deepest levels of Jordanian society.

Jordan’s security establishment has effectively deterred most of the region’s unrest from spilling over into its borders. The Kingdom plays a pivotal role in preventing foreign jihadists from entering or exiting the Syrian conflict through Jordanian territory, and leverages its military might as part of the U.S-led coalition against ISIS and its affiliates in Iraq and Syria.

As instability has increased in the Middle East in recent years, U.S military and police assistance to Jordan has grown accordingly, peaking at $662 million in 2016. The growing threat of ISIS and its affiliates also prompted a Pentagon-funded, $100 million program between Jordan and the U.S defense contractor Raytheon to improve security along the Kingdom’s northern border.

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King Abdullah of Jordan shakes hands with former U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen

Although these measures have strengthened Jordan, they also have coincided with an intensifying threat environment. In June 2016, two terrorist attacks linked to ISIS were carried out near Syrian refugee camps in Baqa’a and al-Rukban, killing five Jordanian intelligence personnel and six Jordanian military members respectively. In December, gunmen presumably affiliated with al-Qaeda or ISIS also killed seven Jordanian policemen and two civilians in the southern city of Karak. The success of these attacks despite Jordan’s comparative advantages suggests that the Kingdom will face an increasingly fragile security situation in the short to medium term. This is more likely as ISIS and its affiliates’ priorities shift from holding territory to performing more traditional terrorist operations.

Containing the refugee crisis

Jordan has shouldered a swelling refugee population. The country plays host to 1.27 million Syrian refugees, which compose nearly 13 percent of Jordan’s population. Lack of resources and available opportunities in refugee camps have disadvantaged many Syrians, forcing them to find employment in criminal networks, militias fighting in Syria, or terrorist groups. This creates high rates of violence and sexual abuse in refugee camps, and further threatens Jordan’s security from within.

The refugee population also burdens the Kingdom’s already struggling economy. Jordan’s debt-to-GDP ratio is over 90 percent, and unemployment is around 16 percent with youth unemployment nearly double that. The refugee influx has further increased youth unemployment by 30 percent and has grown demand for basic commodities by 40 percent. The security risks linked to disenfranchised refugees have also shrunk Jordan’s vital revenue streams like tourism and external remittances.

The Kingdom has consequently depended on humanitarian aid from the United States, Gulf countries, and international agencies: the United States alone provided nearly $800 million for refugee assistance in 2015. While the combined aid flows have enabled Jordan to meet existing refugee-related costs to date, it will be increasingly difficult to meet the needs of  the country’s growing refugee numbers.

King Abdullah has continually stressed that job creation and foreign investment in Jordan can benefit the economy and the refugee situation more than direct aid. One promising initiative along these lines is a recent trade arrangement that incentivizes foreign companies to invest in Jordan and export products to Europe tariff-free if those companies derive at least 15 percent of their labor from Syrian refugees.

Another risk posed by the refugee crisis is that it has facilitated Jordan’s continuing reliance on short-term surges in foreign aid and investment, preventing the Kingdom from engaging in long-term, structural economic reform. As the country edges towards insolvency, Jordan must trim deficit-enabling redundancies in government, gradually wane unsustainable commodity subsidies, and improve ease-of-business measures for small-to-medium sized Jordanian enterprises – which make up 95 percent of Jordan’s private sector but are typically ignored by the government’s focus on initiatives for large and multinational enterprises.

Preserving power

Although Jordanian’s anxieties about their safety and finances are intensifying, the political system is fairly stable. The royal family is well-regarded, and the monarchy’s position is bolstered by the knowledge that the United States, Britain, and others need Jordan more than ever in a region wracked by various crises. King Abdullah has also maintained a firm grip on power since the 2011 Arab uprisings. Part of this is due to the monarchy’s clientelism; the King has recruited Bedouin leaders into military leadership and offered them monopolies on parts of the tourism trade. This has helped solidify tribal loyalty and maintain security in rural areas outside Amman.

Another source of the monarchy’s stability is the parliament. Most government power resides with the King, yet many Jordanians fault their elected officials for their economic gripes instead. In one recent survey, 87 percent of polled Jordanians were unable to name single positive achievement of the last parliament. The monarchy can accordingly deflect blame from itself, and even dissolve the parliament and call for elections to satisfy calls for political change—as it did in May 2016.

Yet politics is breeding unpredictability. Young Jordanians’ lack of economic opportunities and dissatisfaction with government has been repeatedly linked to support for Islamism in addition to Salafi-jihadism. Over a thousand Jordanians are estimated to be fighting for ISIS or al-Qaeda’s affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in Syria. Law enforcement’s strict crackdown on those who simply praise ISIS on social media further breeds an antagonistic relationship with government among Jordan’s disenfranchised youth.

King Abdullah seemed to consider this in the September 2016 parliamentary elections. These elections returned to bloc voting (last used in 1989), where voters could select lists of candidates prepared by political parties instead of having one vote per one candidate. The hope was that empowering political parties will make Jordan’s parliament more technocratic and less of a hostage to patronage and tribal ties.

The September elections also allowed Islamists to run, particularly from the political arm of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood – the Islamist Action Front. Unlike past Brotherhood messaging, the Islamist Action Front pushed a reformist brand instead of the standard, ‘Islam is the solution’ line. It also fielded contenders alongside women, Christian and minority candidates. This perhaps hints at coinciding goals for Jordan’s monarchy and Islamists. For Islamists, liberalizing their message could appeal broadly to a restive population and gain acceptance from Jordan’s leadership. For the monarchy, allowing Islamists in politics could generate legitimacy from disenfranchised refugees and the millions of devout Palestinians living in financial strain, all while tempering the more extreme Islamist ideologies among them.

Jordan will stay stable in 2017, but greater risks are present

Yet the election’s actual results were largely uneventful. Voter turnout was 37 percent compared to over 50 percent in 2013. Islamist candidates gained 15 percent of parliament’s lower house seats, but the legislature is still dominated by individuals with tribal affiliations or loyal to the monarchy.

While the monarchy could view the election results as a sign of stability, high voter apathy may also indicate widespread anti-establishment sentiment and signal greater political risk. Many young Jordanians – which make up 70 percent of the population – have been mobilizing and openly challenging the Kingdom’s political system. Deployed by a restive youth, these ideas – alongside emergent Islamism – could generate political volatility in the short to medium term.

While Jordan’s outlook remains optimistic, its situation looks increasingly risky for the coming year. As ISIS and its affiliates disperse through the region, the Kingdom’s deteriorating economic climate and testy political environment will produce an atmosphere that breeds insecurity from within the country’s borders. Containing these risks while addressing their causes will continue to be paramount.

About Author

Azhar Unwala

Azhar Unwala is an analyst for government and corporate clients in the Washington, D.C. area. He was formerly a researcher at a Department of Defense-sponsored think tank and the Editor-in-Chief of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs' International Engagement on Cyber series. In addition to studying and extensively traveling in the Middle East, he holds a B.S. in International Politics and Arab Studies from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.