by Arwa Shobaki
After reading Shehab al-Mekahlah’s LobeLog post, “Jordan Attempts to Transform Challenges into Opportunities,” I felt compelled to respond. I am also a Jordanian that cares deeply for the country’s prosperity and stability, but my understanding and knowledge of the nation and its current challenges could not be more different from al-Mekahlah’s. He states that “King Abdullah II is presently building on the national ethos of the Jordanian people to develop their country as a model for others to follow in terms of pluralism, cohesion, modernity, and moderation.” Sadly, that’s simply not the Jordan that I see.
Although Jordan remains an important ally of Western and regional powers, and has managed to maintain stability in a volatile neighborhood, this stability has been and will continue to be challenged. Jordan is not immune from public discontent, nor is it safe from terror attacks. The 2011 regional uprisings did provide Jordanians with a rare public platform to express long-suppressed social and political frustration linked to a struggling economy, allegations of widespread corruption, a weak and bloated public sector, and limited freedoms of expression and association.
Continuing to gloss over a not-so-shiny record of human rights and reform with slick diplomacy neither quells dissent nor addresses the demands of a bulging youth population with limited future hope and vision. Censoring expression, curbing association, and denying due process do not foster the pluralism or modernity that al-Mekahlah describes, nor does it build trust between Jordan’s citizens and its rulers. And this is especially true when one-third of the population lives below the poverty line.
Jordan’s king and government remain a darling of the U.S. government, to the tune of $1.6 billion in economic and security assistance for FY16. But Western affection and resources have not changed the kingdom’s repressive tendencies or diminishing public trust. The U.S. Department of State’s recently published Human Rights Report on Jordan notes
the most significant human rights problems were citizens’ inability [to] choose their ultimate governing authority; restrictions on the freedom of expression, including detention of journalists, which limited the ability of citizens and media to criticize government policies and officials; and mistreatment and allegations of torture by security and government officials… Other human rights problems included restrictions on freedom of association and assembly, poor prison conditions, arbitrary arrest and denial of due process through administrative detention, prolonged detention, and allegations of nepotism and the influence of special interests on the judiciary.
Citizens want stability and they want security, but they also need to feel valued and see a viable future for themselves and generations to come, at home, in Jordan. High levels of unemployment and a growing divide between the few haves and the many have-nots, do not strengthen a nation. After a few years of slight improvements in public perceptions of corruption, Jordan has now regressed back to being ranked 57th on Transparency International’s global Corruption Perceptions Index, a position it also held in 2013, when political analysts wondered whether out-of-control corruption could even bring down the Jordanian monarchy.
In order to advance as a nation, citizens and governments alike must be honest about their own strengths and weaknesses and be willing to address them. Jordan’s king could engage the country’s citizens, respect their rights, and empower them to help address the country’s challenges, rather than expanding his own unchecked powers and pursuing superficial “reform” measures designed instead to buy time by postponing discontent.
With honesty and action, the king could lead Jordan through its current challenges and help turn Jordan into an actual “model for others to follow in terms of pluralism, cohesion, modernity, and moderation.” But that would require leadership that he has not shown up until now. Instead, for the time being, Jordan remains yet another struggling authoritarian state replete with broken promises and full of generations of unattainable dreams.
Arwa Shobaki is deputy director for Strategic Development at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). Photo: Jordanians protest in front of police in 2012 (courtesy of Elizabeth Arrott via Wikimedia Commons)