Under the watchful eye of King Abdullah II, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan emerged from the 2011 Arab Spring with its regime intact. However, that is not to say it has escaped the last eight years unscathed. The devolution of Jordan’s northern neighbor, Syria, catalyzed a massive influx of refugees in a remarkably short amount of time. The subsequent refugee crisis has and continues to strain Jordan’s already struggling economy, despite promises of $371.8 million in aid from the United Nations. During the summer of 2018, protesters took to the streets to demand economic reform. Since then, protests have continued almost on a weekly basis in the country’s capital, Amman. In addition to the stress of the refugee crisis, in the last eight years, the Hashemite Kingdom has experienced longer droughts, high-intensity rainfall, and water scarcity issues.
As desert makes up 75% of the country, Jordan is naturally predisposed to resource insecurity. The changing climate further threatens what few resources are available to Jordan; this issue is compounded with the theft and misuse of available water resources. Jordan’s predisposition to water scarcity issues in conjunction with its growing refugee population make it especially vulnerable to the effects of a changing climate: more people need more food that has to be produced with less water. The status quo is unsustainable, and King Abdullah is running out of time to decisively change Jordan’s trajectory.
Between the refugee crisis and the changing climate, Jordan has arrived at a crossroads that will likely impact its security and prosperity. Immediate action to address the pressing fallout from the region’s conflicts and environmental degradation is needed to ensure the Kingdom’s stability.
To explore Jordan’s projection at this juncture, this paper will discuss four possible scenarios for the future of the Hashemite Kingdom using the refugee crisis and climate change as critical variables. The Golden Kingdom scenario considers a future in which Jordan is able to effectively combat climate change and successfully mitigate the effects of the refugee crisis. The Overcrowded and Underfunded future discusses a world in which Jordan is able to mitigate the effects of a changing climate, but fails to address the stressors associated with high numbers of refugees. Death of an Oasis speaks to a future in which the Hashemite Kingdom faces significant threats from climate change, but a low impact from the refugee crisis. Finally, Things Fall Apart describes a worst-case scenario, in which the Kingdom is neither able to cope with the effects of a changing climate, nor the stresses of refugee influx.
Figure 1 displays the critical variables and the four basic scenarios being explored.
Scenario 1: Golden Kingdom
The Golden Kingdom future is characterized by low stressors from climate change and low impact from the refugee crisis. For this scenario to be realized, two criteria need to be met. First, to address climate change, there needs to be a concerted, global effort to lower carbon emissions, embrace renewable energy, and reduce pollution. The United Nations’ climate chief warned the international community that it has 12 years to combat the changing climate before the effects reach a point of no return. To directly confront climate change, international cooperation is non-negotiable. Second, a higher-than-predicted percentage of refugees would need return to their home countries, thereby lowering the overall economic stress on the Jordanian government and people. The United Nations (UN) and National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) estimate that between 24-50% of Syrian refugees have no intention of leaving Jordan. The return of refugee populations is largely dependent on the improvement of conditions in their home countries. Unfortunately, these improvements do not have a timeline, and until refugees know they can move themselves and their families to a safe environment, they will stay in Jordan.
The first step towards the Golden Kingdom future would be a comprehensive effort on the part of the Jordanian government to revitalize its economy, decreasing its dependence on international aid, removing its rentier state status. Much in the way that Gulf States depend on “rent” from oil and natural gas to support their economies, a significant portion of Jordan’s gross domestic product (GDP) is made up of international aid “rent” from organizations like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, or the United Nations because of the Kingdom’s ability to house refugees. Jordan is facing a “Catch 22” scenario. If refugees return to their home countries, then international aid would vanish. However, if the refugees stay indefinitely, then international organizations would eventually have to cut off funding to support other emerging crises. Either way, once the rent is gone, Jordan’s economy faces potential collapse. The Golden Kingdom scenario represents an ideal situation; however, in practice, it is the most difficult of the four scenarios to achieve, as it demands the most upfront action both from the Jordanian government and the international community.
In this scenario, the Hashemite Kingdom would be able to maintain its status as a stable regional power and a key regional ally for Western powers including the United States. To work towards this outcome, Jordan should consider revising its refugee policies and investing in sustainable solar energy that exploits its geographic position with exportable resources. However, Jordan is home to more than just Syrian refugees. According to the European Commission, Jordan is also home to refugees from Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Palestine, and Sudan. The majority of the current refugee programs are specifically designated as exclusively Syrian refugee programs, disenfranchising other vulnerable populations. Simply allowing Somali and Sundanese refugees to apply for work permits would allow them to provide for themselves and alleviate their reliance on monthly cash payments from the Jordanian government. It would also take African refugees out of dangerous, often exploitative, and illegal labor conditions. A higher employment rate would boost the economy, which benefits refugees and Jordanians alike. Reforming refugee policy would be a huge step toward the Golden Kingdom future.
In 2015, Jordan began investing in wind power in an effort to move 20% of the country’s energy needs to renewables by 2020. However, as the world pivots towards green energy, Middle Eastern countries have an opportunity to capitalize on solar power. Jordan can lead that movement. The Hashemite Kingdom averages 300 sunny days every year, putting it well within the range to be a top exporter of solar energy. Rather than losing money importing 90% of the country’s energy, Jordan could make a profit off of solar energy exports. In the Dead-Red agreement between the Hashemite Kingdom and Israel, Jordan will trade solar energy for Israeli desalinated water. The purpose of the agreement is to share the water resources as both countries face threats of water shortages due to climate change. While both countries receive material goods, the notion of regional cooperation to overcome rising challenges is the most critical part of the agreement. Cooperation in the face of climate change increases state interdependency, and thereby works to stabilize the region. Realizing or working toward the Golden Kingdom scenario would improve the futures of refugees, reduce strain on the Jordanian economy, help the world move toward the United Nation’s goal of a global shift towards renewable energy by 2030, and give the Jordanian government the ability to focus on present and emerging security threats, like unstable neighbors or the return of foreign fighters from war-torn states.
This scenario is the most favorable to the Kingdom’s security and prosperity, but unfortunately the least likely to occur. Jordan has no control over the duration of neighboring conflicts, nor the capability to singlehandedly halt the effects of climate change.
Scenario 2: Overcrowded and Underfunded
The second scenario, Overcrowded and Underfunded, is characterized by low environmental stressors, but high impact from the refugee crisis on the Jordanian government. This future would result from an increase in international cooperation to combat the changing climate and increase in violence or instability in neighboring countries. Although the Hashemite Kingdom has had—at various times—a tense relationship with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), King Hussein’s use of pan-Arab rhetoric in regard to the Palestine crisis made Jordan a welcoming home to regional refugees. The country’s sense of identity is heterogeneous. Ongoing regional instability increased migration to Jordan. Now, Palestinians make up over half of Jordan’s population, and the Iraqi refugees make up 5%. At the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Jordan was quick to accept refugees from its northern neighbor. In 2019, the Syrian population in Jordan surged passed 671,000, a number that continues to grow as Syria’s future remains uncertain. In addition to Syrians, a number of Somali, Yemeni, and Sundanese refugees have recently migrated to the Kingdom.
Overcrowded and Underfunded is a future in which refugee populations become a permanent fixture in Jordan. The country would need to invest heavily in infrastructure. Already, there are not enough schools, hospitals, and affordable housing. The question of funding presents an obstacle. Jordan is a rentier state that earns a significant portion of its GDP from foreign aid for refugee assistance. In 2019, Jordan was set to receive $371.8 million in aid to settle refugees from the United Nations; however, thus far, the country only received 20% of that amount. If refugees remain in Jordan over the long term and a crisis breaks out elsewhere, there is a serious concern that the UN could lose interest and withdraw its funding. In this case, it is unlikely that the UN will support Syrian refugees in Jordan indefinitely, considering as many as 50% of Syrian refugees are predicted to stay in Jordan permanently.
The sheer influx of people puts significant strain on the Jordanian economy, infrastructure, and education and health care systems. Social dynamics have not gone unscathed either. Syrians face increasingly unwelcome sentiment from Jordanians. The UN and Jordanian government do not provide the same opportunities to non-Syrian refugees. Black refugees are the victims of racism and exploitive labor. And a segment of Jordanian society blames refugees for the country’s bad economic fortunes. Scenario 2 becomes increasingly likely as these social tensions fester.
To meet this scenario head on, the Hashemite Kingdom needs to prepare its economic system to cope with decreased international aid. The government will need to adjust its attitude towards dissent and criticism. Increased social and economic stress will drive internal dissatisfaction amongst Jordanians. Simply arresting activists, as the Kingdom has done lately, will only add fuel to the fire in the face of frustrated citizens. Overcrowded and Underfunded will exacerbate existing social and economic problems in the Hashemite Kingdom. The government needs to be adaptive and flexible to overcome these challenges.
This scenario has a high probability of occurring over time thanks to the stressors beyond the Jordanian government’s control. It will stress Jordan’s political and economic stability, but the Overcrowded and Underfunded scenario is not the most likely or the worst-case scenario.
Scenario 3: Death of an Oasis
The former oasis-city of Al-Azraq, located in Jordan’s Eastern desert, is one of the first Jordanian regions to suffer from the effects of climate change and environmental degradation, but it will not be the last. The Death of an Oasis scenario considers a future in which stress from the refugee crisis decreases, while climate change threatens the Hashemite Kingdom. Jordan is predisposed to water scarcity: the Red Sea coastline is short, the country lacks sophisticated desalination technology, there is limited ground water, and the river water supply is dependent on Syrian rainfall. If climate change continues as projected, Jordan’s disadvantages will intensify. Jordan is already experiencing the effects of a changing environment. The 2018–2019 winter was uncharacteristically long and cold. And the Dead Sea has shrunk by a third in the last two decades.
Scientists project that as the global temperature rises 4.5°C, by 2100, Jordan will experience a 30% decrease in annual rainfall; however, the intensity of the rainfall will increase creating more flash floods. Jordan’s infrastructure is incapable of handling the resulting flashfloods. In the fall of 2018, flashfloods killed 33 people within the span of three weeks. The road system fails to withstand the force of torrential downpours. There is no drainage system or run off points for rain water, even in Amman. To better prepare for the effects of climate change, it is critical that the Hashemite Kingdom invest in better infrastructure; otherwise, more lives will be lost.
While the intensity of rain will increase, quantity will fall. Current estimates suggest that Jordan experiences about eight droughts every 30 years. In the next 80 years, if no changes are made to current emissions outputs, the cumulative number of droughts over the same time period will increase to 25. Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Chemistry forecasts that extreme temperatures of over 46°C will be 500% more likely than they are now, increasing the yearly total extreme heat days to over 16. In comparison to the Gulf, Jordan has milder summers and will remain habitable through climate change; however, that temperature increase will decrease annual food production, resulting in higher food prices and increased public dissatisfaction with the government.
Jordan has the opportunity to meet the Death of an Oasis scenario with innovation. Investments in green technology, a transition to heat compatible crops, and prioritization of STEM career fields could invigorate the economy and restore public confidence in the Jordanian government. However, that situation seems unlikely as national movements to protect the environment have not been effective. Cities and deserts are polluted with litter and burning piles of trash. Beginning a national call to protect the environment could be the beginnings of a government initiative to inspire creative solutions to combat climate change. Although without an international consensus on reducing environmental degradation, and collectively mitigating its worst impacts, the Death of an Oasis future is a likely scenario.
Scenario 4: Things Fall Apart
The Things Fall Apart future finds Jordan confronted with increased stress from the refugee crisis in addition to high impact from climate change and environmental degradation. This scenario represents a worst-case outcome for the Hashemite Kingdom. Things Fall Apart is likely to occur if regional conflicts stagnate and no effective international effort is made to combat climate change. The refugee crisis will exacerbate the negative effects of climate change for the Jordanian government, while climate change is set to cause large-scale refugee migration into Jordan.
While international attention focuses on Syrian refugees, refugees from Somalia, Yemen, and Sudan have fled to Jordan to escape impossible living conditions and civil conflicts. As crises stagnate and refugee numbers to Jordan increase, strain is put on the social service systems and the economy. Conflict refugees are already at record levels. However, if the Things Fall Apart situation is realized, then conflict-driven migration will not be the only cause of refugee movement. As climate change’s effects are felt across the globe, the World Bank predicts that, by 2050, there will be over 140 million climate refugees worldwide. As the number of extreme temperature days in the Gulf increases and it becomes increasingly uninhabitable, Jordan’s reputation for accepting refugees is likely to make it a popular landing-ground for Gulf climate refugees.
Climate and conflict refugees alike will put additional stress on Jordan’s already limited natural resources. Water security is a huge concern. While Jordan and Israel plan to exchange solar power and desalinated water as part of the Dead-Red agreement, to mitigate long-term challenges in an unstable region, Jordan should consider developing its own large-scale desalination system. In early 2017, the first desalination plant opened in Aqaba, Jordan’s Red Sea port city. Aqaba’s water needs are expected to be met through 2035; however, the majority of Jordanian cities will not benefit from the plant.
With climate change estimated to decrease rainfall by 30%, average number of droughts increasing threefold, and lack of large scale desalination capabilities, Jordan will not have enough water to support its population. Jordan’s water management system is poorly run. The World Bank describes the region as, “the global hotspot of unsustainable water usage.” Without additional refugee stress, Jordan already extracts 160% more water from underground reservoirs than nature can naturally replenish. Depending on the region of the country, the current refugee population has already increased overall water consumption in the Hashemite Kingdom by 21-40%. Jordan has little water it can afford to spare. Already, over 50% of the water supply is diverted to agriculture, and half of the remaining supply is lost due to misuse, pollution, or theft. Even Jordan’s primary freshwater source, the Yarmouk-Jordan River, depends on Syrian rainfall. That river’s flow is forecasted to decrease in the coming years, and as the Syrian conflict drags on and the river bank keeps changing hands, it has become an unreliable water source.
If the Jordanian government cannot provide citizens and refugees with water, it should expect widespread protest and dissent with the potential to further devolve. Climate change and its consequences, as depicted in the Things Fall Apart future, have political implications, but also survival ones, arguably more dangerous. Survival situations make people irrational actors, making it more difficult for the government to predict regime-threatening political undercurrents within its borders.
An Uncertain Future
Based on international inaction to actively address the changing climate and the continued refugee crisis, the Things Fall Apart scenario is the most likely of the four Jordan futures scenarios. It is also the worst-case scenario. Things Fall Apart maintains the current persistently degrading state of affairs in Jordan. It should be noted that both climate change and external regime stability are issues out of the Jordanian government’s control; however, based on the current trajectory of internal and external forces, it does not appear that either issue will be resolved in the near future. Although it is a limited window, the Hashemite Kingdom does have time to invest in infrastructure and scientific innovation to mitigate the dangers in the scenario. The Jordanian government is entering a potentially tumultuous time, but with an awareness of potential threats, smart investments, and creating a clear direction forward, there is hope for the Kingdom.
To support regional stability and mitigate external pressures incited by refugees and malign actors, the international community should continue to provide assistance to the Kingdom. The U.S. administration may want to rebalance its assistance portfolio to Jordan to prioritize development over military hardware to maximize Amman’s long-term prospects. Investment in the research and development of green technologies, specifically solar power, could mitigate economic hardship as the country moves towards a more sustainable future. Jordan’s declining economic situation compounded with increasing domestic dissatisfaction with the King and wider regional instability could pose a significant challenge to U.S. government investment in Jordan.