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200th years of Petra, Jordan

Despite some impressive trade relations over the past decade, Jordan remains at odds with economic and political reform. Can the Arab Spring provide the impetus for King Abdullah II to inaugurate real and lasting change? James Essinger reports


Today the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan faces the frustrating dilemma of being blessed with an abundance of economic potential but also incubating extensive unrest and dissatisfaction, especially among of its very large young population.

Out of a population of about 6,100,000, around 70 percent is aged 30 or less, and 50 percent is aged under 18. With these young people being socially aware and internet-savvy, they’re only too aware of problems of unemployment, poverty and some government corruption.

Jordan is classified by the World Bank as a ‘lower middle income country’. The current unemployment figure is hard to ascertain with precision, as the official figure of about 13 percent is a great contrast to unofficial estimates of about 30 percent. What’s certain is that education and literary rates and other indicators of social prosperity are relatively high compared to other nations with similar incomes.

While many of even the most dissatisfied young people would most likely grudgingly concede that they’re better off than those of similar age in nearby Arab states, ideas triggering social unrest travel easily across national borders today and arguably often get magnified during the journey.

Besides, even in Jordan, where about 27 percent of the population earns less than US$500 a month and a further 28 percent earns only between US$500 and US$1,000, there’s no avoiding the fact that much of the social unrest and dissatisfaction is rooted in sheer poverty. There’s also a general feeling that too much power remains vested in the monarchy, and that moves to full democracy in Jordan are taking too long.

Still, there’s no denying that the Jordanian monarchy is attractive. Any economic analysis of Jordan tends to start with the observation that Jordan is a country without any natural resources. While that is true in relation to fossil fuels, the absence of which is one factor why Jordan’s Gross National Income (GNI) of around US$4,700 is low compared to its oil-rich Arab neighbours, one could argue that, in King Abdullah II and his wife Queen Rania, Jordan has two valuable natural resources.

King Abdullah, born in 1962, attended Deerfield Academy, Massachusetts and the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in Britain followed by spending a year at Oxford University on a one-year Special Studies course in Middle Eastern affairs. The epitome of the modern Middle Eastern king, he speaks flawless English without an accent, and while he is capable of firm action when necessary he has a genial and warm-hearted, positive nature. A keen fan of science-fiction, in 1996 while still a prince he even appeared in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

Back on Earth, the king has been credited with playing a vital role in improving the economy since he began his reign in 1999. Specifically, he’s seen even by his distractors as substantially responsible for increasing foreign investment, improving public-private partnerships, providing the foundation for an important free trade zone at Aqaba, Jordan’s only significant sea-port, and for creating other special development zones in the nation. The king also made a commitment in 2007 to the peaceful use of nuclear power in order to reduce Jordan’s otherwise almost complete dependence on imported oil and gas. The first nuclear power plant in Jordan is scheduled to open in 2015.

Today, the annual rate of economic growth in Jordan, six percent annually, is a considerable improvement over the period of relative economic stagnation that prevailed in Jordan during the 1990s.

The king’s wife, Queen Rania, born in Kuwait in 1970, holds an MBA from the American University in Cairo. She has worked for Citibank in a marketing role and also at Apple Inc. in the Jordanian capital, Amman. One of the best-known women in the Islam world, the queen is a widely respected spokesperson for Islamic womanhood. In a recent TV interview in New York she firmly stated that Islam is not a religion that subjugates women but that sometimes people in the Islamic world have found it in their interests to hold women back. In the same interview, the queen observed that it has often been the case that when the going gets tough for an Islamic country, the women of that nation have often wound up getting a bad deal.

Today, Jordan has more free trade agreements (FTAs) than any other Arab country. Jordan currently has FTAs with the United States, Canada, Singapore, Malaysia, the European Union, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Turkey and Syria and is planning several more.

Jordan’s strong leadership from the king and queen is regarded as an important plus point of the country from a political and economic perspective, as is a skilled workforce, while increased foreign investment and a rise in exports are the major factors that fuel economic growth. Yet there is a general feeling in Jordan that strong leadership from the royal family needs to be tempered with a more rapid democratisation.

There are economic downsides too. In particular Jordan suffers from scarce water supplies, in effect complete reliance on imported oil and political instability in some of its regions. The poverty is partly due to only about ten percent of Jordan’s territory being available for arable farming, and even that is dependent on limited water supplies.

Jordan’s economic resource base, and also its main source of hard currency earnings, includes the production of phosphates, potash and their fertiliser derivatives, as well as tourism, overseas remittances and foreign aid. Its industries – also significant earners of hard currency – include the textile, aerospace, defence, ICT, pharmaceutical and cosmetics.

Some regional instability has dogged Jordan ever since its foundation as a nation in 1946. Jordan is arguably simply too recent a creation in political terms for it to enjoy great stability in what is after all a comparatively early stage of its history. All the same, ever since King Abdullah came to power, the nation had enjoyed relative political calmness, or at least it did until February and March 2011, when Jordan suffered riots in several regions. The king has been dealing with the problems by continuing to focus on economic growth, and, many would say, listening harder to calls for shifting more of the royal power into the hands of the Jordanian government and parliament. The king’s response to the riots that happened earlier this year came to a head in October 2011, when he sacked his prime minister and the entire cabinet due to their too-slow implementation of political reform.

Many see this development as indicating the king’s real commitment to change. Certainly, no-one doubts his love of his nation, or his willingness to learn. As he said in public when talking about the nation he rules: “We move forward. Sometimes you get knocked down. You have to dust yourself up and keep trying”.

Yet overall, in Jordan it’s broadly true that it’s not money that’s the root of all evil, but poverty. King Abdullah, for all his charm, intelligence and national pride, is unlikely to find that his economic and political initiatives will affect any lasting reduction in that social unrest and dissatisfaction until greater general prosperity in Jordan make significant poverty a thing of the past.

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