Jor­dan strug­gles to re­gain eco­nomic bal­ance af­ter mas­sive in­flux of refugees

Un­em­ploy­ment and in­ac­ces­si­ble hous­ing are ma­jor chal­lenges


Imag­ine for a mo­ment that you are Jor­dan. Life in the Mid­dle East is never easy. The desert is arid. The clans are at each other’s throats. You are a small, vir­tu­ally land­locked coun­try among re­gional be­he­moths.

In 1990, for ex­am­ple, Sad­dam Hus­sein’s Iraq in­vaded Kuwait. Kuwait, stung by the support of then-leader of the Pales­tine Lib­er­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion, Yasser Arafat, for Iraq, ex­pelled about 200,000 Pales­tini­ans, of which about 120,000 nom­i­nally held Jor­da­nian cit­i­zen­ship, and came flood­ing “back” to a coun­try they didn’t know.

The eco­nomic fall­out cost Jor­dan about $1.8 bil­lion, or 32% of its GDP.

Then, in 2003, the Iraq War. One mil­lion Iraqis ar­rived in Jor­dan as refugees from the con­flict, half of which even­tu­ally claimed Jor­da­nian cit­i­zen­ship.

Fi­nally, the Arab Spring, “if you still call it that,” says Jor­da­nian writer and po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Salameh Ne­matt, “even­tu­ally turned into the Syr­ian cri­sis, which has driven more than a mil­lion peo­ple into Jor­dan,” whose pop­u­la­tion is un­der 10 mil­lion peo­ple, roughly like that of Michigan.

Ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions, which has set up refugee camps in north­ern Jor­dan, the king­dom has taken in about 1.2 mil­lion Syr­ian refugees thus far, a bur­den that few other coun­tries would or could un­der­take.

In 2015, the United States pro­vided Jor­dan with about $1 bil­lion in aid di­rected specif­i­cally at help­ing it cover the cost of hous­ing refugees and as an ac­knowl­edg­ment of Jor­dan’s lead­ing role in the US-led com­bat ef­fort against the Is­lamic State.

Jor­dan’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the US-led cam­paign is re­mark­able among Arab states and is a sign of the close al­liance be­tween Jor­dan’s King Ab­dul­lah II and Wash­ing­ton.

Oded Eran, a for­mer am­bas­sador of Is­rael to Jor­dan and a se­nior re­search fel­low at Tel Aviv’s In­sti­tute for Na­tional Se­cu­rity Stud­ies, told The Me­dia Line that Jor­dan’s dif­fi­cul­ties em­anate prin­ci­pally from the loss of non-ear­marked funds that the United Arab Emirates pre­vi­ously pro­vided to sus­tain the sta­bil­ity of Jor­dan.

“Aid from west­ern coun­tries di­rected at spe­cific projects has not di­min­ished,” he said.

“The is­sue is the avail­abil­ity of money the king has tra­di­tion­ally used to calm things down among tribes in the less pros­per­ous part of Jor­dan, in the south, where there has al­ways been eco­nomic hard­ship. Now, with the in­flux of more than a mil­lion Syr­ian refugees who are will­ing to work for half of what any Jor­da­nian earns, and per­form me­nial la­bor Jor­da­ni­ans do not want to do, the un­em­ploy­ment crunch is even worse.”

In ad­di­tion, Jor­dan has faced the strain of Egypt’s cy­cle of rev­o­lu­tions and the grow­ing ten­sions be­tween Iraq and Saudi Ara­bia, two re­gional be­he­moths, and the cri­sis be­tween Turkey and much of the rest of the re­gion.

If Jor­dan were a hu­man be­ing, you’d tell it to take a breath.

“Jor­dan is now in a cri­sis,” Ne­matt sums up.

Ne­matt, who is cur­rently based in Baltimore, MD, and who has been a vo­cal critic of the Jor­da­nian gov­ern­ment, told The Me­dia Line that “the true mir­a­cle is that Jor­dan has sur­vived so far. It is com­mend­able. You have to give them credit that in the midst of the tide of the Arab Spring, amid the 2008 eco­nomic cri­sis that rocked the west­ern world, in spite of it all, Jor­dan has sur­vived.”

Four months be­fore par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, un­em­ploy­ment and eco­nomic strain are widely be­lieved to be the prin­ci­pal chal­lenges faced by the in­com­ing gov­ern­ment.

Ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment sta­tis­tics, Jor­dan’s rate of un­em­ploy­ment reached 14.6 per­cent in the first quar­ter of 2016, an eight-year high. In­for­mally, many economists say real un­em­ploy­ment, in­clud­ing un­der­em­ploy­ment and masked em­ploy­ment – un­pro­duc­tive la­bor – may be as high as 30 per­cent.

Ahli Bank chair­man Omar Raz­zaz, an econ­o­mist who spoke with the Jor­dan Times, said that job­less­ness is the big­gest prob­lem fac­ing the Hashemite King­dom, adding that in his view the only rem­edy will be large investments by Jor­da­nian, Arab and over­seas in­vestors.

Raz­zaz rec­om­mended the in­com­ing gov­ern­ment re­form the bu­reau­cracy, as reg­u­la­tions and laws alone can­not boost in­vestors’ con­fi­dence if Jor­dan’s no­to­ri­ously chal­leng­ing red tape re­mains in place.

“We need to tar­get Chi­nese in­vestors in­ter­ested in the African mar­ket to make Jor­dan their launch pad. There are also Jor­da­nian and Syr­ian in­vestors eyeing the re­con­struc­tion of Syria and Iraq,” he said.

“The prob­lem has got­ten worse and worse since 2011,” Ne­matt says, with un­em­ploy­ment al­ready high be­fore the be­fore the Syr­ian cri­sis.

“The Syr­ian refugees are des­per­ate to get any job and are will­ing to ac­cept pay much be­low the lo­cal stan­dard. This has prin­ci­pally af­fected Jor­da­ni­ans on the eco­nomic mar­gins, but it is im­por­tant. The prob­lem has been even more sig­nif­i­cant for the Egyp­tian for­eign work­ers in Jor­dan, who were al­ready a rec­og­nized class. By law, the Egyp­tians are re­quired to get an an­nual work per­mit that costs some $500. So the Egyp­tians are reg­u­lated, but the Syr­i­ans, over a mil­lion of them, are not. It is just huge.”

For Jor­dan, Ne­matt con­tin­ued, “this is a dou­ble cri­sis. For ex­am­ple, Jor­da­ni­ans are pay­ing three times the rent they were pay­ing in 2010. Again, the Syr­i­ans are des­per­ate to rent what­ever they can and prices have been driven through the roof. Low-in­come Jor­da­ni­ans sim­ply can­not af­ford it; this forced peo­ple to stay with their fam­i­lies and this is cre­at­ing a lot of re­sent­ment.”

The in­fra­struc­ture, say many ob­servers, is at a break­ing point. The in­flux of school-age refugees has been so great that un­qual­i­fied teach­ers have been hired to staunch part of the tide, lead­ing, again, to re­sent­ment and to a neg­a­tive out­come of the gen­eral level of ed­u­ca­tion.

The ear­marked in­come Jor­dan has tra­di­tion­ally re­lied upon from its Gulf al­lies has de­clined as the Emirates have faced grow­ing bud­get deficits from the fall in the price of oil, Eran said.

Jor­dan faced tremen­dous pres­sure from its Amer­i­can ally to ac­cept Syr­ian refugees when the re­volt be­gan, about five years ago, but, ac­cord­ing to Ne­matt, there was also a wave of hu­man­i­tar­ian sol­i­dar­ity “that has com­pletely evap­o­rated now.”

Ini­tially,” he says, Jor­da­ni­ans liv­ing un­der the sta­ble and rel­a­tively be­nign rule of the Jor­da­nian royal house “were very wel­com­ing. They hated [Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar] As­sad so much – a man who kills his own peo­ple. There was huge sym­pa­thy for the Syr­i­ans.”

Now, Jor­dan is sim­ply strug­gling to stay afloat.

Some signs point up­wards. Along­side the ev­i­dent set­backs that have come with the in­flux of refugees, some Syr­i­ans have moved their busi­nesses to Jor­dan and are at­tempt­ing a per­ma­nent re­lo­ca­tion and a new be­gin­ning.

“They hire mostly Syr­i­ans,” Ne­matt re­marked, “but it is an in­di­ca­tion of the pos­si­ble ben­e­fits Jor­dan may even­tu­ally reap from what is right now a fairly crit­i­cal mo­ment.”

(Muham­mad Hamed/Reuters)

SYR­IAN REFUGEES shop in prepa­ra­tion for Ra­madan at the main mar­ket at the Zaatari refugee camp in Mafraq, Jor­dan, near the bor­der with Syria, last week.

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