Jordan needs to implement reforms urgently—not just plan them

That Jordan teeters on the edge of crisis is a cliché decades old. Yet the combination of political and economic problems the country faces today is without precedent, and the worn tools used to overcome these problems in the past are now inadequate. That matters for the world given that the country is a haven for refugees in a volatile neighbourhood. Jordan needs political dedication to face its challenges and innovative means to overcome them. New plans for political, economic and administrative reform emerged last year, under directives from King Abdullah II, but the question is whether they have any hope of succeeding.

In the past decade Jordan has wrestled with political instability, witnessing countrywide demonstrations in 2011-12 (part of the Arab uprisings sweeping the region at the time) and on several occasions since. The country, home to some 10m people, was hit by the decline in oil prices that began in 2014, and the ensuing loss of Gulf aid. (Jordan is not an oil-producing country, but has historically benefited from grants from Gulf countries’ oil revenues.) It has also suffered because of covid-19 and the Russia-Ukraine war, which have significantly raised food prices, unemployment and debt. The result has been a record general unemployment rate of nearly 25%, a staggering youth unemployment rate of 50%, record public (and publicly guaranteed) gross debt of $50bn, or about 114% of gdp, and an overall decline in remittances. Foreign direct investment has dropped by almost 70% in the past five years.

Traditionally Jordan’s stability has relied on two things: its security services and foreign aid (of which it receives about $4bn a year). The latter has sustained an inefficient system of economic patronage that promised Jordanians jobs—around 40% of workers are employed in the public sector—subsidies, an adequate level of education and decent health-care services. In return citizens accepted a minor role in political decision-making. In Jordan the legislature and judiciary exercise far less authority than the executive branch, and political parties are still extremely weak. But economic and social challenges now mean it is breaking down.

Adding to these troubles, the country contains about 1.4m Syrian refugees and faces security problems on its border with Syria. There is also an Israeli government in power which many Jordanians feel might attempt to solve the Palestinian issue at Jordan’s expense. Some believe Israel may push more Palestinians into Jordan. But Jordan has neither the money nor the water supplies necessary to support them.

The country has faced similar, if lesser, challenges in recent decades. The government’s response before was largely to attempt ad hoc political reform. But it did not alter the basic power structure of the state, and lasted only as long as the pressures existed. Once they abated, the system went back to business as usual. Jordan’s tepid attempts at reform have invariably fizzled out.

A major reason for this is because the ruling elite in the country, including the security services, believe that the status quo, as challenging as it is, is still better than embarking on reforms that might yield unmanageable results. Reformers argue that the status quo is unsustainable, but they have not managed to create a mass movement in support of serious, long-term reform. They want to open up the country’s decision-making, and develop a system of checks and balances that would strengthen the judicial and legislative branches of government relative to the executive.

Jordan’s challenges are too many and too acute to ignore. The king knows that at some point he needs to hand the country to his son in far better shape. A real system of checks and balances is needed, as are electoral laws that will give Jordan a parliamentary system based on political parties and that will fortify the courts against interference. We must move away from a system based on oil and patronage to a productive meritocracy.

To these ends, the king has launched a plan for political reform that promises a party-based political system within ten years, as well as an economic programme that would transform the Jordanian economy. We must diversify into sectors such as tourism and technology. In addition, an administrative reform plan that would restructure and improve Jordan’s decaying public sector has just been announced.

Similar efforts have been made in the past, but have failed during implementation. So Jordanians are sceptical. Change needs to occur throughout society. Take the educational system. It needs to shift its focus from rote-learning to critical thinking and the acceptance of different points of views. Only then will Jordan produce generations employable in the private sector and abroad. Serious institutional support also needs to be given to initiatives for gender equity, such as amending the constitution to explicitly forbid any discrimination based on gender, and removing all discriminatory clauses against women in Jordanian laws. Jordan has a dismal record when it comes to women’s participation in the labour force: just 14% are in paid work. Economic growth will falter if half of the population is being ignored.

For reform to succeed, opposition from old elites must be thwarted. The dearth of trust between the people and the state is huge, and needs to be bridged through a serious, if gradual, shift to open political decision-making in the country. The elites must be convinced that change is not designed to take place at their expense, but for the benefit of all Jordanians. An inclusive national dialogue, under the direction of the king, is needed to arrive at a new social contract among all components of Jordanian society.

The list of needed changes is long. They will not be achieved overnight, and will require sustained political support and proper implementation. For decades, the country has wasted valuable time dithering over reform. If the task today is more difficult because of the late start, it is nevertheless essential for its survival.

Marwan Muasher served as Jordan’s deputy prime minister during 2004 and 2005 and as its foreign minister from 2002 to 2004. He is a vice-president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an American research institute.

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