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By Dr Michael Barak
The severe economic crisis in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is now the top subject in its public discourse, generally and on social networking sites (SNS). The Kingdom of Jordan places blame for the crisis, which threatens its stability and social fabric, on the flow of Syrian refugees into its territory. In an interview with the BBC on 2 February, King Abdullah II warned that Jordan is close to breaking point as a result of the refugee problem and, sooner or later, “the dam will be breached,” meaning that social services, infrastructure and economy will collapse completely. However, the claim that the crisis is an inevitable product of the regime’s conduct, including its allegedly rampant corruption at the top, is widely held among the Jordanian public.
According to United Nations records, Jordan currently hosts about 635,000 refugees, but Jordanian authorities estimate that the number is closer to one million. King Abdullah II has said that one-quarter of the kingdom’s budget is allocated to addressing the problem of refugees, although 86% of them still live below the poverty line. Many Jordanian politicians have warned about the severity of the economic crisis caused by a wave of Syrian refugees migrating to the kingdom, and offered different solutions for dealing with the crisis. Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour beseeched Western countries to grant his country generous financial aid. Former Prime Minister Ali Abu al-Ghareb focused on solutions at the national level, and proposed that the regime encourage investment by granting Jordanian citizenship to investors who are not citizens, set aside land near Amman, fight bureaucracy and corruption, offer incentives to encourage the industrial sector and open casinos in Aqaba, the Dead Sea area and Petra.
Efforts to increase global awareness of the issue of Syrian refugees in Jordan and its economic implications have won public support in the kingdom. For example, one user wrote that the King’s remarks are “incomparable words of gold. The cards must be on the table so that the world will understand how large a sacrifice we, his people, are facing. How important it is to give them ever more knowledge…”[Another user noted that the economic crisis in Jordan is currently very deep and severe. It is good that the issue is high on the public agenda, so the world will help Jordan.
This support has not diminished criticism in the public discourse, and contempt for the conduct of the Jordanian regime, which many consider to be the main culprit in the economic crisis. This debate also reflects long-standing antagonisms between different classes in Jordanian society, due to economic and social disparities, which will remain regardless of the situation. Some writers explicitly mentioned rampant corruption in high places. One user noted that the Jordanian regime boasts that its new ministers received their higher education at leading international universities, including Harvard and the Sorbonne, but that education has proven worthless because they are unable to handle the economic crisis, and ignore the problems of the ordinary citizens. Another noted that all these economic experts do not understand anything about improving the situation, but only increasing the tax burden.
Still another contended that Jordan focuses only on national security, to the exclusion of economic security and employment, abandoning the poor of the country, deserting the elderly, and making no effort to build new housing. Some said despairingly, “everything becomes more expensive; land, apartments, cars… A salary is insufficient for those who wish to buy a car…” and “the escalating cost of financing a marriage is an obstacle to establishing a family.”One user declared, “this situation was caused by the irresponsible policies of Jordanian politicians.” Another commented that the refugee crisis has managed to arouse politicians from their apathy because “[they’re] afraid that the presence of Syrian refugees in Jordan will hurt [them] in [their] pocket.” Still another wrote accusingly that politicians “live at our expense.” Criticism of the regime also included outrage at the proposal to open casinos as a solution to the crisis. One told the proposal’s initiator Ali Abu al-Ghareb, “Stay home, leave Jordan alone, don’t destroy it… You are the main cause behind the destruction of the Jordanian economy.” A user from Irbid said that opening casinos would only provide a new opportunity for al-Ghareb and his friends to steal public funds.
From the public discourse on Jordanian SNS, we can learn about the great frustration Jordanian citizens feel in the face of the severe economic crisis that has befallen the kingdom, and that threatens their livelihoods. While the Jordanian government places blame for the crisis on the growing stream of Syrian refugees entering Jordan, there are many citizens who think that the economic crisis is a result of poor government behavior. Some point to rampant corruption at the highest levels of government, where officials, they claim, are concerned only with maintaining their own interests, without any real intention to help the weaker strata of the population. It seems that the current economic crisis is intensifying old frustrations, and the disgust many Jordanian citizens have for the regime’s behavior. Whether or not the main reason for the economic crisis in Jordan is the wave of Syrian refugees, popular unrest is already developing in Jordan among the lower classes. Not for nothing, King Abdullah II warned that Jordan is facing a real catastrophe.
*Dr. Michael Barak is a researcher at the Dayan Center at Tel Aviv university.