Jordan and the Wider Arab Dilemma

Jordan reflects the dilemma that many Arab governments and countries have experienced for years—the economy continues to grow at a reasonable pace of around three percent, as do improvements to infrastructure and basic services, but daily economic pressures on citizens also persist, or worsen in some cases, leading to chronic frustrations that take on a political character.

Jordan reflects the dilemma that many Arab governments and countries have experienced for years—the economy continues to grow at a reasonable pace of around three percent, as do improvements to infrastructure and basic services, but daily economic pressures on citizens also persist, or worsen in some cases, leading to chronic frustrations that take on a political character. The combination of economic and political disappointments does not lead to a revolutionary situation and a mass uprising that removes the government, as happened in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries, but instead generates a disenchantment with political life among many citizens, leaving the country much less able than it could be to harness its human talent to meet its challenges.

Survey evidence from both government polls and a new Gallup survey indicates clearly that Jordanians are increasingly pessimistic, and their concerns are largely grounded in economic stresses. Gallup’s latest analysis of its polls indicates that the percentage of Jordanians who rate their lives highly enough to be considered “thriving” fell to an all-time low of 11 percent in December 2012. More now are so negative about their prospects that they are either “struggling” (73 percent) or “suffering” (16 percent).

More recent polls conducted for the government by local pollsters also indicate that in recent months the share of the population that is worried about the direction of the country has surpassed those who are confident of how things are moving in Jordan. These attitudes reflect a troubling convergence among several distinct issues that cause citizens to become very disenchanted with public political life in general. These issues include the rising cost of living (the tax on popular cell phones was doubled this week and other utilities prices will rise soon), the perception that public sector corruption remains rampant, lack of sufficient new job opportunities to meet high demand, and the pressures from the continued inflow of refugees from Syria.

Gallup’s data indicates that Jordanians are now more likely than ever to say there were times in the past 12 months when they did not have enough money to buy food, with 32 percent saying so in December—more than twice as high as it was between 2008 and 2010. The number of Jordanians who struggle to afford shelter has also increased to 26 percent in December, up from 10 percent in late 2011. More than seven in ten adults in Jordan remain dissatisfied with the availability of good job opportunities in their city or local area, Gallup notes.

The influx of over 550,000 Syrian refugees into the country is also negatively impacting economic conditions for many Jordanians, mainly because of the low-cost competition for work by the refugees. In my visits to Jordan this month I heard from friends and colleagues four different stories about Syrian workers who were taking construction, automobile repair, home refurbishment and other work that Jordanians would have done normally.

The competition from Syrians is doubly detrimental in that it takes away work from Jordanians and it lowers income for those Jordanians who do work, because wage and price levels drop in some sectors in the face of Syrian refugees’ willingness to work at less than half the prevailing wage level in the country.

A similar situation also was documented in Lebanon recently, according to the findings of a survey by the Norwegian organization Fafo. This showed growing Lebanese resentment against Syrian refugees who took away work opportunities from Lebanese citizens and also caused wage levels to drop because of their willingness to work for lower wages.

These and other factors in Jordan increase the pressure on many citizens who depend on daily wage labor or who have fixed low-income salaries. Many such Jordanians who feel that their family wellbeing is deteriorating ask the government to bail them out, but the government itself does not have the financial resources to do so. The result is that more and more frustrated citizens take a negative attitude of the government’s performance and political life in general—focusing on perceptions of widespread corruption—which gradually chips away at the kind of citizen engagement in public life that the government has been trying to promote.

The government in turn is trying to investigate and prosecute corruption cases, expecting that citizens will see this as a sign of the state’s seriousness in doing its job. This is likely to have some impact, and may even reduce major corruption incidents. But fighting corruption probably will not have a major impact on redressing the other causes of citizen negativism about their wellbeing, living conditions and the direction the country is moving in.

The turbulent conditions all around Jordan in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and Egypt are such that they dampen enthusiasm among many Jordanians who might otherwise have been attracted to street demonstrations to change the government. This should refocus attention on the challenge that Jordan and all other Arab countries face, which is how to restore a relationship among citizens and state that sees them exerting their energies in the context of the rule of law that defines their common rights, responsibilities and limits.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2013 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global

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