European Council on Foreign Relations

What lies behind the protests in Jordan?

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Protests across Jordan in response to yesterday’s lifting of fuel subsidies are raising new fears about the country’s stability. Having weathered two years of regional unrest and a low-level protest movement of its own, there are genuine concerns that the Kingdom’s troubling economic plight could now push it over the edge. The price increases – as much as 50% for cooking gas and 30% for heating and transport fuel – strike at the heart of deepening domestic malaise, and unless the King responds decisively in a bid to secure national consensus Jordan may find itself engulfed in widening turmoil.

While current protests were sparked by an increase in fuel prices, the country’s problems lie far deeper. For two years now the Kingdom has witnessed weekly nationwide demonstrations. On one side the political opposition, particularly a Muslim Brotherhood invigorated by changing regional winds, has demanded structural changes to end their political marginalisation. Meanwhile, the King’s East Bank tribal base has witnessed unprecedented youth revolt in response to rampant state corruption and the state’s dwindling ability to deliver economic patronage. All the while, state coffers have steadily been drawn down and the country now faces a budget deficit estimated at 12%.

Pointedly, however, despite the fact that these challenges have been on the horizon for some time, the King has failed to secure a more inclusive system capable of navigating the country through choppy waters. While the King was quick to proclaim a reforming agenda in 2011, publicly committing himself to a renewed political system, the country has only witnessed cosmetic tinkering and there has been no fundamental restructuring of power. Authority continues to sit firmly with the monarch and the non-transparent security services, alienating both the Brotherhood and the East Bank youth movement who want a greater say in governance. Yesterday’s price increases may have been an economic necessity but the King’s failure to open up the political system to secure wider legitimacy for necessary structural reform has been a critical mistake. Current demonstrations are as much political as they are economic.

Meanwhile, the King also appears to have been abandoned by those expected to keep the country afloat, namely the Gulf States. While Saudi Arabia provided direct aid of $1.4 billion last year and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) promised $5 billion over five years, Amman is reported to have only received $250 million this year, leaving it unable to sustain government spending. The King has been forced to turn cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), securing a $2.05 billion loan in July. Yesterday’s price increases were likely provoked by IMF conditionality that the government cut spending and raise commodity prices.

Europe, which has long provided King Abdullah with open-ended support, faces an acute dilemma. While the Kingdom’s moderate political tone, its strategic alliance with western states and Israel, and its willingness to join the fight against Bashar al-Assad in Syria, make it an invaluable ally, a failure to adapt to the changing circumstances will only increase the prospect of instability and radicalisation. Given the critical importance of maintaining calm in Jordan – an altogether realistic aim given the moderate tone of the opposition and the deep legitimacy of the Hashemite system - Europe would be well-minded to change its tone to one of more critical engagement.

The country now faces a critical few months. The opposition looks set to boycott January’s parliamentary elections and further economic cuts may be needed. Without a shift in royal tone, these developments could well bring widening polarisation.

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