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May 24, 2012 Edition 18

Jordan: the link between political and economic reform
Hassan A. Barari

The main driver of the "Arab spring" is not just the people's desire for freedom. There are also significant economic and socio-political factors that have reinforced the more overt political demands. Due to a lack of democracy and popular participation in decision-making processes in most Arab countries, even marked macroeconomic success in some countries has not translated into improved living standards.

Articles in this edition
Syria's growing economic challenge - Jihad Yazigi
Jordan: the link between political and economic reform - Hassan A. Barari
Europe needs a new relationship with the Arab world - Mariano Aguirre
What one fears is political money - an interview with Samir Aita
Nowhere is this phenomenon clearer than in Jordan. Although Jordan's economy has achieved annual growth, serious problems remain at the micro-level. The gap between the haves and the have-nots has grown over recent years. Successive governments have failed to address the two most burning issues: poverty and unemployment.

Added to this has been a lack of transparency, cronyism, and pervasive corruption. When the state failed to convince the people that it has the genuine will to make a difference in the lives of people, protest movements mushroomed. Reform has been on the back burner despite King Abdullah II's stated commitment to the contrary. In other words, the state has paid lip service to the issue of urgent reform.

The winds of change in this part of the world have ushered in discussion of important structural factors such as accountability, solid governance, social and economic equality, lack of political and economic freedom, and weak job creation. These factors are the ones that each country should pay heed to.

In Jordan, polls clearly show that people's priorities are socio-economic. The lack of economic opportunities cannot be ignored. A great number of Jordanian university graduates cannot find jobs. Some of the graduates are unemployable because they lack basic skills. Even those who are employable have a hard time finding jobs.

The problem of unemployment and poverty has struck the south of Jordan more than elsewhere. In Tafileh, the most impoverished district in Jordan, people complain of the lack of economic and social justice.

Although these problems are of an economic nature, a growing number of people reason that political reform is the solution to the socio-economic problem. The running argument in Jordan is that people fall into poverty because of successive failed policies of government. In almost all demonstrations that have taken place over the last year and a half, protesters chanted slogans against the government's economic policies.

Traditionally, the state has played a rentier role that benefits many in the kingdom's "East Banker" population. With the retreat of the state from economic activities and the ensuing policy of privatization, a growing number of East Bankers have found themselves unemployed.

The dependent status of East Bankers, who have traditionally formed the foundation of support for the regime, has narrowed not only the leadership's room for maneuverability but, more importantly, the state's ability to maintain its traditional relations with society as well. If anything, the state-society relationship has entered a new era that demands genuine reforms.

Unfortunately, as was the case in some other Arab countries that have been hit by the tsunami of the Arab spring, the ruling elites in Jordan are in self-denial. Instead of expediting the process of reform, the state has adopted a strategy of wait-and-see. Since the protest movements never posed a serious threat to the status quo, consecutive governments have been too slow--to the extent that the king himself has criticized them for not implementing his reformist vision with suitable speed.

In a country like Jordan, the impact of economic change could not be more striking. In a changing world, the capacity of the state is no longer sufficient to supply people with their basic needs. People are taxed heavily. Nor has the government adequately addressed the social dislocation that resulted from the process of privatization. The socio-economic program that was adopted by the government and implemented by the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation has failed to make a difference in people's lives.

Against this backdrop, many Jordanians have taken to the streets hoping to accelerate a process of reform that could lead to full empowerment. Granted, a majority of Jordan's economic problems have to do with conditions beyond the control of the state. But to avert aggravating the situation, the ruling elites must acknowledge that mismanagement of the economy and lack of reform go hand in hand. For stability to prevail in a very volatile regional environment, the king should step up the process of reform and not rely on dysfunctional institutions and corrupt decision-makers who
fear the Arab spring and the consequences of reform.-Published 24/5/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Hassan A. Barari is professor of Middle Eastern politics at the University of Jordan and the author of "Israelism: Arab Scholarship on Israel, a Critical Assessment" (London: Ithaca, 2009).

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