Home / Articles / Jordan: Another Peak in a Multi-Year Crisis
Jordan recently saw violent protests over high fuel prices stemming from IMF-mandated austerity measures. These highlighted domestic malaise, driven by economic crisis, repressive government measures in recent years, and widespread despair of the possibility of near-time improvement of the economic and political situation.
While the regime has presented a long-range plan for political reform leading to parliamentary government in a decade, this has met with apathy and lack of belief.
This domestic crisis dovetails with a low intensity “hot war” on the northern border against the smuggling of Captagon (Fenethylline, a synthetic amphetamine widely used in the region) with Syrian official connivance; and a new Israeli government seemingly intent on pursuing policies in Jerusalem and the West Bank which threaten Jordan’s interests.
This is not the first time, and will not be the last time, that Jordan faces domestic pressures and external challenges. However, the conflation of various challenges and crises, makes the current moment one of elevated, though not acute, concern.
Over the past few months, Jordan has undergone another peak in a multi-year crisis. It made headlines last April—the official centennial of the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan—with an unprecedented intra-family crisis ending with indefinite confinement to quarters of King Abdullah II’s brother (and former Crown Prince) Prince Hamza. Two of the Prince’s cohorts, one of whom was a former chief of the royal court and finance minister, were sentenced to life imprisonment, and official circles spoke darkly of conspiracies involving Saudi Arabia, Israel, and even the Trump administration. (The family saga continued over the past year. In April 2022, Hamza announced that he was relinquishing his title. The King in May issued a royal order to restrict his brother’s contacts and movements, “after exhausting attempts to deal with him” since the “sedition” case.) In the past two months, attention has again swung to Jordan. This has been due to severe domestic disturbances in December, and to challenges posed by the new right-wing Israeli government and tensions its ascension brought in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Less obvious are severe economic and social pressures, widespread popular disillusionment, and a vicious low-intensity border war in the north. These challenges may impact Jordan’s longstanding position as a key player (including by virtue of its pivotal geographical position) and American partner in the Arab world.
Inflation and Political Repression Fuel Domestic Unrest
In early December, professional drivers demonstrated against significant fuel price rises. The government had long been required by the IMF to remove fuel subsidies, which cost some $700 million a year. These steps were suspended during the pandemic, and re-started in 2022. Fuel prices nearly doubled in Jordan, especially for diesel used by trucks and buses, and kerosene for home heating. The drivers’ protests were joined by other elements, including shop-owners and youths in the southern cities. Public property was vandalized, and main thoroughfares blocked by demonstrators and burning tires. The police were deployed and made dozens of arrests.
The unrest was concentrated in the cities of central and southern Jordan, with their epicenter in the historically restive city of Maan; it also reached Amman, especially areas where southerners live. There has been much unhappiness among East Bankers, who are over-represented in the south, with neoliberal government policies leading to privatization, loss of government jobs, and economic dislocation, as well as with perceived corruption. These have led to criticism of regime policy and a breakdown of the perceived “social compact” between them and the regime.
The demonstrations ended after two weeks, losing altitude after four security personnel were killed in clashes with what the government characterized as “takfiris” on December 15 and 19. This led, as often in the past, to the definition of the situation as a security and counterterrorism challenge, and an escalation of regime response to it. The demonstrators did not wish to be delegitimized and tarred with the Islamic militant brush. In addition, officials had signaled that fuel prices would be reduced, and minimum transport fees would be raised. And in fact, in late December, the government announced reductions in the costs of various motor fuels and of kerosene, as well as other price controls. The steps were justified by the decline in world oil prices, but are an example of a time-honored Jordanian tradition of dealing with popular disaffection with unpopular economic steps by kicking the can down the road. The protests pointed up the fact that traditional power structures (i.e., tribal leaders), rather than parliament, political parties, or civil society, were key to the public debate and resolution of the immediate crisis. Roughly 60 percent of the respondents in one poll indicated that their tribes best represent their interests, as opposed to 6 percent for the government, and 1–2 percent for parliament.
Crisis Patterns Continue
The latest disturbances are part of a recurring pattern: IMF-driven structural adjustment and austerity measures are implemented amid the country’s chronic economic and fiscal crises, followed by grassroots anger over the perception that “poorer working people who seem to be the ones required to do all the adjusting.” Hikes in fuel and food costs, due to the withdrawal of subsidies, triggered massive protests in 1989, 1996, 2011, and 2018. But the latest unrest also reflects deep concerns over governance, rising restrictions on the press and media, high levels of unemployment, and the staggering costs of food, housing, and fuel.
The worldwide economic crisis due to the Ukraine war led to inflation in Jordan, which has worsened already existing problems. The country had suffered severe economic hardship during COVID, and was far from thriving economically even before that. It suffers from over 22 percent official unemployment (including an estimated 50 percent youth unemployment); the real rate, including refugees and the large informal sector, is higher. GDP, exports, income from tourism, and remittances from Jordanians abroad are recovering only slowly after drastic decline in 2020–2021.
The economic crisis has been coupled with a political and social one. The COVID crisis led to a state of emergency that still hasn’t been lifted, and gave the prime minister sweeping powers to curtail civil and political rights. Under cover of addressing the pandemic, the government deepened suppression of civil society and free expression, with harsh new restrictions on freedom of assembly, and a crackdown on the teachers’ union following a series of strikes and protests. There are reports of a large number of extrajudicial arrests and detentions without charge and of more general suppression of civil society (often under cover of COVID or anti-terrorism legislation). Anti-cybercrime laws led to a chilling of previously lively web-based news sites and to widespread self-censorship in social media.
GivingHope Over the Horizon: Political Reforms Bruited
In the face of public anger, the King has tried, as he and his father have done in the past, to give hope for a more representative political structure in the future. In June 2021, he announced the formation of a ninety-two-member Royal Committee to Modernize the Political System, to examine the constitution and election and party laws and amend them to bring the Kingdom into “a new and critical phase.” The committee’s recommendations were released in January 2022, and a series of constitutional amendments were tabled, opening space for active political parties and promoting inter alia greater participation of women and youth in political life.
Currently, less than 10 percent of the seats in Jordan’s parliament are occupied by party representatives; the majority of parliamentarians are elected based on tribal or local affiliation. The suggested new election law proposes a mixed electoral system. It would allow national party-list voting for 30 percent of the members of the lower house of parliament (the upper house is appointed, not elected), with the proportion increasing in each of the next several election cycles. Parties will be required to register members in at least six governorates to promote national rather than local-based parties. This will lead eventually, after four parliamentary election cycles, to a parliament composed solely of political party representatives. At that point, governments will be formed by the parliamentary majority, rather than be appointed by the king, as is the case today. These amendments were ratified by both houses of parliament.
If fully implemented, the proposed reform measures might conceivably lead to a constitutional monarchy with parliamentary government (which the King has said in the past that he wants). Still, critics remain skeptical regarding the motivations and purpose of the latest reform proposals. On the part of the public, they were met by apathy and a lack of confidence. They are viewed as an attempt to deflect attention from stasis in the present by promising the chimera of change in the far future; young people, especially, do not seem interested in gradual changes which could potentially bring political reform more than a decade hence. The government system is widely perceived as corrupt, opaque, nepotistic, and rife with favoritism. In addition, the public understands that parliament—while vocal and often theatrical—has little structured power or influence either in major issues of national policy or in the day-to-day life of citizens: turnout for the most recent elections, in November 2020, was 27 percent. The underwhelming record of past reform initiatives, which were rolled back or superseded by new initiatives and election laws, also feeds a lack of belief in bona fide intentions to change the system.
The changes are also less than persuasive because they are accompanied by a set of government-sponsored amendments aimed at strengthening the King and concentrating royal powers. These amendments include the creation of a national security council to be convened exclusively by the King and consisting of the prime minister, foreign minister, and interior minister, along with the heads of the military, General Intelligence Department, and Public Security Department. The government-sponsored amendments also include expansion of Article 40, under which the King has exclusive powers to appoint and dismiss the chief justice, head of the Sharia Judicial Council, Grand Mufti, Chief of the Royal Court, Minister of the Court, and the king’s advisors, without consulting the government. This is added to his existing ability to appoint the prime minister as well as heads of the lower house, upper house, and constitutional court. In 2016, the King was given the right to appoint the heads of the army, judiciary, intelligence service, and gendarmerie without the need for the recommendation of his ministers, including the prime minister.
The gap between this talk of political reform and evolution, and what is perceived as the crackdown in the past three years on political dissent and on free assembly and expression, is notable. In any case, there has been little obvious progress in the year since the amendments were proposed. The next elections are currently planned for 2024, which means that full transformation to a party-based parliament will be only after three additional election cycles: well into the 2030s.
All this had led to a public atmosphere of disillusionment and even despair. Polling data from several different reputable sources (taking into account the difficulty of polling in a non-democratic state) shows a significant level of dissatisfaction among Jordanians: 62 percent believed the country is headed “mostly” (40percent) or “somewhat” (22 percent) in the wrong direction. 69 percent believed in November 2021 that their country is “governed in the interest of a few.” (They may not be wrong: an OXFAM report stated that the richest 1 percent of Jordanians in 2020–2021 made six times more wealth than the bottom 50 percent combined. At the same time, the richest 55 Jordanians (those worth $50 million and above) have accumulated 4.5 times more wealth than half of the population combined—$14 billion compared to $3.1 billion.) 88 percent said that corruption is prevalent to a large or medium extent in the national government, and 67 percent opined that almost all or most regional-level officials are corrupt. 62 percent believed “someone like them” could have no impact on government decision-making: This feeling probably has strong effects on the finding that only 17 percent of Jordanians say they are interested or very interested in politics, while 60–62 percent say they are very uninterested in politics. 48 percentsaid they had considered emigration, overwhelmingly for economic reasons: 63 percent of Jordanians between the ages of 18 and 29 had considered emigrating.
Drug Smuggling Crisis at the Border
The internal crisis in Jordan dovetails with external challenges, perhaps not so great as those during the “hot phase” a decade ago of the Syrian civil war and the campaign against the Islamic State, but still challenging.
Since 2019, Jordan was leading inter-Arab reconciliation with Syria. This seems to have been halted in the past year due to developments along the border between the two countries. Jordan is facing what it defines as a “drug war” on its northern border: almost every week, there are huge seizures of narcotic Captagon capsules on or near the border. Jordan is the major transit country for Captagon from Syria to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. The drug interdictions have been accompanied by frequent armed clashes on the land borders between Jordanian border guards and Syrian, Lebanese, and Iraqi smugglers, with casualties on both sides. The Jordanian army in late 2021 issued a shoot-to-kill order to stem the rising tide of infiltrations, and utilizes a system of over 800 cameras and other electronic means and sensors, developed with U.S. assistance to counter ISIS, as well as drones and missiles. Dozens of smugglers have been killed and millions of tablets seized.
The Jordanian government has decried the lack of effective cooperation from its Syrian counterparts, and has accused “undisciplined forces from the Syrian regime’s army … organized and supported by them and their security services, in addition to Hezbollah and Iran’s militias deployed in southern Syria,” of cooperating with the smuggling gangs. Government sources claim that the Syrian Fourth Division under Maher Assad, brother of Bashar, is central in this drug trade. This division is reported to have de facto control of all transport routes linking Lebanon and Jordan to Syria, and all main roadways in western and southern Syria. Jordanian decision-making circles believe that Syria began encouraging the trade as a form of political warfare, for two goals: to “flood” and disrupt the societies in countries that contributed to the siege of the Syrian regime after 2011, and to finance armed groups in southern Syria. The Captagon trade is now a main source of income for the Syrian state and for many elements in the regime’s familial, political, security, and economic elite. (For broader context, see this report by Caroline Rose and Alexander Söderhol.) Jordan has asked Russia to assist in confronting the challenges of drug trafficking and instability from Southern Syria.
The recent earthquake in Syria has led to greater engagement between the two states. Jordan provided significant amounts of humanitarian aid, and the Jordan foreign minister visited Damascus—for the first time in a decade—and met with Assad on February 28.
Jordan also strives to pursue a significant role in regional politics, both in pursuit of interests, and as part of the King’s inclination and his strategy to pursue a prominent international position, thus buttressing domestic and regional legitimacy. The King continues to carry out close consultation and cooperation with Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. This is especially notable regarding Iraq, where the three countries have pursued intensive and detailed trilateral political, economic, and infrastructure cooperation (dubbed “the New Levant”) since 2019. Jordan hosted the second Baghdad Conference, for international and regional support for Iraq, in December 2022. The Baghdad Conference in Jordan also served as a platform for mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia: A meeting of the foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia was held on its margins (Jordan’s ally Iraq has been instrumental in promoting contacts between the two in the past two years). This may tie in with earlierreports that intelligence personnel from Iran and Saudi Arabia met discreetly in December 2021 in Amman, under the auspices of the Arab Institute for Security Studies in Amman, which is under royal patronage. This was in the context of a two-and-a-half-day unofficial “strategic dialogue” which discussed confidence-building measures between the two sides, as well as missile threats and nuclear fuel supplies.
Renewed Tensions with Israel
The return of Benjamin Netanyahu to power in Jerusalem, this time at the head of a cohesive right-nationalist coalition, has rekindled tension in relations with Israel, which had been ameliorated during the eighteen months of the so-called “Change Coalition” under Naftali Bennet and then Yair Lapid. Under that government, relations, at a nadir since 2017, improved, including royal willingness to meet openly with senior Israeli officials (and even fly the Israeli flag at meetings with the King). The new government, in its composition and declared directions of policy, poses challenges to the status quo regarding the Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif, and promises stronger security measures and increased settlement activity in the West Bank, and even returned to discussions of annexation in the West Bank.
The King has been carrying out intensive diplomacy since the new Israeli government assumed office. He met in Cairo with Egyptian President Abd-el-Fattah al-Sisi and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The next day, he participated in a summit in Abu Dhabi alongside the leaders of United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, and Egypt. He also traveled to Doha on January 25 to meet with Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (Qatar is an increasingly important economic partner). He then visited the United States, where he met with congressional leaders and President Joe Biden. Jordan has refrained from joining regional processes and fora associated with the Abraham Accords, which it sees as threatening to marginalize the Palestinian issue even further.
Relations with Israel have never been popular with the Jordanian public, and the King has always strived to give them a low profile. This has become more difficult in the past six years as bilateral tensions increased, but also as Jordan became linked to Israel in a more strategic, long-term way via a growing energy relationship. The two countries signed a fifteen-year deal for the supply of Israeli gas signed in 2016; the gas began to flow in January 2020, and Israel is now the most important source of energy for Jordan. Israeli gas is much cheaper today for Jordan than imported liquefied natural gas, and shortages and high prices for fuel in the winter have been a cause for domestic turbulence in the past.
Jordan, the second most water-poor country in the world, is also heavily dependent on Israel for water: the previous Israeli government agreed to double the supply of water provided to Jordan each year. But the future may hold even more Israeli water for Jordan. In November 2021 a letter of intent for a three-way deal was signed between Israel, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates; the three sides a year later signed a memorandum of understanding on the project, called the “Green and Blue Prosperity Agreement.” The project is to include Jordan’s building 600 megawatts of solar power capacity in remote desert areas, which would be exported to Israel. In return, Israel would provide Jordan with 200 million cubic meters of desalinated water, which would double the amount it receives today. The Emirati Masdar sovereign wealth fund will provide financing. This deal, like the gas deal, has stirred widespread popular and parliamentary opposition in Jordan.
On January 24, Netanyahu made a surprise visit to Jordan. It was his first trip to the country in at least four years. There was criticism in Jordan of the King’s meeting with Netanyahu at this juncture, without clear achievements. However, according to the Israeli newspaper Globes, during Netanyahu’s visit, he promised that there would be no change in Israeli policy regarding the Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif, and that the status quo would be strictly maintained. He stressed that he was responsible for this file, and not any of his coalition partners. As reported, the Netanyahu visit included discussions of economic issues (which were not mentioned in the official statements in its wake). Jordan reportedly showed willingness not to condition progress on economic and political issues with Israel on the Palestinian issue, similar to the approach of the Abraham Accord countries and Egypt. The two leaders also agreed on speeding up the implementation of the electricity-water agreement. Netanyahu reportedly pledged to remove bureaucratic obstacles, despite criticism of the agreement with Jordan from his right-wing coalition partners. There has been Emirati and Jordanian criticism of Israeli foot-dragging on this project and other collaborative projects.
Jordan has tried in recent weeks to take the lead in international and regional efforts for de-escalation of the situation in the West Bank, concerned, like other actors, over the possibility of further violence, especially in Jerusalem, during the concurrence of the month of Ramadan (March 22–April 20) and the Passover holiday (April 5–12). King Abdullah hosted in Aqaba on February 26 a meeting, unprecedented in recent years, of senior security officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Egypt, and the United States. At the meeting’s conclusion, Israel and the Palestinian Authority “confirmed their joint readiness and commitment to immediately work to end unilateral measures for a period of 3–6 months,” including “an Israeli commitment to stop discussion of any new settlement units for four months and to stop authorization of any outposts for six months.” Soon afterward, Netanyahu denied that his negotiators had agreed to a settlement freeze, and right-wing ministers condemned the negotiations (which they claimed were held without informing the cabinet) and said “what happened in Jordan (if it happened), stays in Jordan.”
Jordan Remains Resilient, For Now
This is not the first time, and will not be the last time, that Jordan faces domestic pressures and external challenges. The regime has shown remarkable resilience over the past century in general, and the decade since the Arab uprisings and the civil war in Syria in particular. This is largely because of Western, especially American, support due to its strategic location, and its willingness and capacity to be a force and a platform for stabilizing and moderation in the region. But its aid-based economy has led to chronic and unaddressed structural problems, especially in the health and education sectors (where spending has declined in recent years), and a cycle of debt, where new loans are taken to help pay off old. In addition, from a perspective of twenty years backward, there is evidence of erosion in the social compact between the regime and parts of the population, and a crisis of trust and credibility between them. This, joined with the current economic crisis—fed by COVID and by the post-Ukraine inflation, and the pressure of large numbers of Syrian refugees (assessed at near one million)—makes the current moment one of elevated, though not acute, concern.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.