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Jordan's monarchy in perpetual crisis Open in fullscreen

Yousef Khalil

Jordan's monarchy in perpetual crisis

Jordan's King Abdullah II attends the State opening of Parliament on 7 November, 2016 [Getty]

Date of publication: 1 March, 2017

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Comment: Though the Jordanian regime survived the mass protests of 2011, the fundamental economic problems it faces have not been resolved at all, writes Yousef Khalil.

The Hashemite Monarchy is a regime that has been mired in a protracted crisis since it was established as the Emirate of Transjordan in the inter-war period. 

Having recently turned to the International Monetary Fund to fill in its ever-increasing budgetary gaps, the monarchy  is stepping up the pace of its decades-old neoliberal economic restructuring programme.

This has meant fresh tax increases and cuts to subsidies that middle class and poor families rely on for various consumer goods and staples, prompting calls for nationwide anti-government protests. It seems that Jordan is heading towards a serious political crisis.

But this is not a new phenomenon. The latest austerity budget is just the most recent flare-up of the country's structural economic problems, which leave it highly vulnerable to regional instability, oil prices, and reliant on aid from the West and the Gulf.

Though exacerbated by low oil prices and the Syrian refugee crisis, Jordan's economic and political woes are inherent; it is very much a state built in service to a regime, rather than a regime built in service to its people. 

The origins of the Jordanian state

The Jordanian state was established, essentially, to repay the Sharif Hussein, the Emir of Mecca whose family was ousted during the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1925, for helping the British fight the Ottomans during World War I.

Amman, the small, dusty, trading stop that would later become Jordan's capital, would have hardly been Hussein's first choice to set up shop for his new dynasty. He was promised a pan-Arab Kingdom in exchange for his services after all, and even had aspirations to revive the caliphate.

Instead, one year after Hussein's death in 1924, his kingdom in the Arabian Peninsula was taken over by the Saudis. His sons, who were installed as puppet monarchs throughout the British-controlled Arab East, fared no better.

It is very much a state built in service to a regime, rather than a regime built in service to its people

Faisal was booted from Syria by the French in 1920. His brother, Abdullah, attempted to bring an army up to Damascus to assist, but the British put an end to that effort in order to avoid conflict further between their vassals and the French.

As a result, the British, almost comically, told Abdullah to stop where he was and rule the sparsely populated, mostly desert area to the East of the Jordan River; Transjordan. Faisal was made king of Iraq, where nobody had really even heard of him, until he was deposed in 1958.

The newly established Emirate of Transjordan thus, suffered not only from serious problems of political legitimacy related to its ruler's close connection to the British, but also had very little economic and social basis upon which to build a viable state.

The war of 1948 gave the Hashemites a new lease of life, as Jordan took control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, greatly expanding its population and economy. But Jordan's position as a front line state in the battle against Israel was a double edged sword, adding to the political precarity of a regime seen as very friendly with the British and Israelis.

In 1956, as anti-imperialist sentiment in the Arab world was reaching a crescendo, the monarchy was nearly toppled following backlash over its decision to join the US-allied Baghdad Pact. In 1971, it was again nearly toppled by Palestinian fedayeen. 

Jordan's peace agreement with the Israelis in 1994 was rewarded by the West with substantial debt relief

Jordan occupied a peculiar place in the geopolitical milieu of the Arab world during the last half of the 20th century.

Without the West Bank - which Jordan controlled from 1948 to 1967 - there was very little social or economic basis upon which to pursue the sweeping industrialisation programmes that transformed Egypt, Syria, and Algeria in the 1950s, and 60s.

Jordan also lacked the natural resources that fuelled the growth of the Gulf monarchies in the 1970s. It was a front line state in the battle against Israel, but also very close to the British, Americans and Israelis. 

Jordanians protest against price rises on basic goods due to new sales
tax and austerity in Amman, Jordan on February 24, 2017 [Andalou]

Jordan's number one form of income essentially became a geopolitical rent, from western states and, from the 1970s onward, the Gulf monarchies. The kingdom has long been a lynchpin in the strategy of US hegemony in the region, acting as a buffer between Israel and the Arab states; King Hussein enjoyed very close relationships with US presidents, and intelligence officials.

Jordan's peace agreement with the Israelis in 1994 was rewarded by the West with substantial debt relief and a key diplomatic role as a mediator between the Arab states and Israel.

Hussein used this aid to create a public sector and welfare system with which to buy the political loyalty of its subjects.

In lieu of the traditional development strategies, which were unviable given Jordan's constraints, the monarchy developed a huge public sector to generate employment and bolster political support. Like many of its GCC allies, the regime offers access to subsidies and public employment in exchange for political acquiescence of its subjects, an "authoritarian bargain" in the place of the classic pillars of government legitimacy.  

However, this model of development leaves Jordan especially sensitive to global economic problems, and deeply interconnected with the Gulf.

Boom to bust

The 1970s and early 1980s were boom years, as many Jordanians migrated to the newly enriched Gulf to find work, sending much needed cash back home in the form of remittances. But disengagement from the West Bank in 1988, as well as a sustained drop in oil prices led to a reduction in both remittances and Arab investment, conspiring to create the first of a series of massive economic crises in the Kingdom.

The monarchy was forced to pursue a crash austerity programme, repealing the subsidies which had kept prices down on everything from cigarettes to fuel, sparking protests.

The monarchy was forced to pursue a crash austerity programme, repealing the subsidies which had kept prices down on everything from cigarettes to fuel

In an attempt to make the bitter-pill of austerity easier to swallow, the regime held elections in 1989, in which the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood performed well, despite attempts by the palace to undermine the performance of any opposition politicians.

In 1993, off the back of criticizing the regime's austerity and perceived neutrality in the Gulf War, the Brotherhood won 17 of the 20 seats allocated to parties, prompting the palace to gerrymander the districts to over-represent the rural areas which are the bedrock of regime support, effectively gutting the formal political process.

On a macro-scale, the regime, like most others in the region, has been restructuring the economy along neoliberal lines since the mid-1980s; steadily reducing subsidies, public spending on social programmes and state employment.

After "nearly eliminating poverty" through the expansion of the state in the 1970s and early 80s, neoliberal restructuring meant "the arrival of poverty for almost-one third of the population" by the year 2000, the year Jordan joined the World Trade Organization.

Austerity protests

The pattern of crisis-austerity protests was repeated in 1996 and again in 2011, as the decades long-project of neoliberal economic restructuring in the Arab world finally began unraveling. In response, King Abdullah attempted to stave off huge protests against ever-deteriorating economic conditions, by temporarily raising subsidies, which are coming back down now.

Though the regime survived the mass protests of 2011, the fundamental economic problems it faces have not been resolved at all, as evidenced by the recent turn to the IMF.

Financially insolvent, economically unviable, and politically precarious, each day of region-wide crisis the monarchy survives must be a delightful surprise to western security and intelligence officials.

In 2017 however, the regime's patrons in the GCC countries are reeling from a sustained drop in oil prices and the Trump administration has questioned the merits of the traditional alliance between the US and the Gulf states.

Once again, Jordanians are responding to austerity measures with calls for nationwide protests. Whether or not they materialise to the same degree of 2011-2012 in the next few weeks, it is clear that Jordan's current political and economic trajectory is unsustainable.

Yousef Khalil is a New York-based writer and recent graduate of The New School's Graduate Program in International Affairs interested in the Arab Spring and Palestine.

Follow him on Twitter: @YousefTAK

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab


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