Jordan Attempts to Transform Challenges into Opportunities

by Shehab al-Makahleh

Jordan’s King Abdullah II ascended to the throne after King Hussein’s passing in February 1999. Ever since, he has ruled over a relatively stable country despite challenges and hardships ranging from terrorism and extremism to economic problems. Benefitting from its strategic location in the Middle East, Jordan is a model of tranquility and security as King Abdullah II usually says. The Hashemite Kingdom is gearing towards becoming an effective regional player, and the Arab country has worked hard to turn challenges into opportunities.

For the past 18 years, King Abdullah II has managed to fend off foreign threats and secure key alliances to protect the kingdom’s political and economic interests. Given Jordan’s location in the middle of a turbulent region and as a resource-poor country, the Hashemite Kingdom has long relied on foreign assistance, especially from Western and Arab Gulf states. The late King Hussein established very well-trained security and military forces that helped keep Jordan resilient despite hardships and pressures. The king’s meeting with US President Donald Trump in early February underscored Washington’s view of Jordan as a pivotal player in the Middle East and the US dependence on Amman for solutions to pending regional issues.

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. To be sure, Jordanians of all backgrounds have built the Hashemite Kingdom, and this fabric enhances the unity of the people and their respect for fellow citizens regardless of religion or roots.

Since inheriting the throne in 1999, King Abdullah II has taken an oath to develop the Hashemite Kingdom and make it prosperous through balanced economic plans and socio-economic initiatives, launching private and public partnerships to help boost the country’s growth. The financial crisis of 2008/2009 hit Jordan hard and forced some of these ambitious plans to go on the backburner. In 2011, the Arab Spring uprisings which erupted across the Middle East were a wake-up call for all Arab leaders to implement political reforms and empower their citizens. The king established the foundation for reform that Jordanians sought with constitutional changes to enhance civil rights, separation of powers, and new parameters for the monarch’s responsibilities. The fruits of the political reform after 2011 were the formation of a constitutional court and an independent election committee, where the king plays the role of guarantor of the political reform.

Jordan’s young generation has high expectations, seeking economic and political reforms that can create jobs for recent university graduates. Although the country has been spared the chaotic unrest of some of its neighbors in recent years, the pressures of catering to the demands of a population that have endured the effects of belt-tightening economic reforms are real and continue to pose challenges for the government in Amman. Last month, protests took place across several Jordanian cities/towns (Karak, Tafliah, Salt, and Madaba) as a response to recently enacted austerity measures, including hiked taxes on food items and certain services. Many expressed anger at the “government of taxes” while calling for Prime Minister Hani Mulki’s resignation. Like other Middle Eastern countries, Jordan has a particularly high youth unemployment rate, which is approximately 29 percent, according to World Bank estimates. Last summer clashes broke out between protestors and police in Dhiban district, one of Jordan’s poorest areas. The protestors were demanding improved economic conditions and employment.

Within this context, officials in Amman are focused on addressing the Jordanian people’s concerns which include not only unemployment, but also water, electricity and living conditions. The King through his plans and policies is giving due support to civil society to become increasingly involved in Jordan’s development, helping the monarch save his country the calamities and scourges of the Arab Spring’s destabilizing fallout.

The Hashemite Kingdom receives ample support from many countries outside the Middle East, including the US, European Union, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan. This international support has been crucial as Jordan grapples with the challenges stemming from economic hardships exacerbated by the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the carnage in Syria. Indeed, the crisis in Syria has placed Jordan under heavy pressure, challenging Amman to protect the kingdom from future destabilizing spillover effects. Of course, the ongoing conflict in Israel/Palestine and Iraq’s tumultuous and violent state of affairs continue to threaten Jordan’s interests in terms of promoting a two-state solution in line with the Arab Peace Initiative, aborting terrorism, and countering extremism.

Without peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis, which is unfortunately difficult to imagine, the Hashemite Kingdom will continue to face daunting challenges. In addition to the influx of refugees, the country’s economy is under heavy pressure from the threat of Salafist-jihadist terrorists from Islamic State and other extremist factions in the Levant seeking new targets in the Middle East as the Islamic State loses its grip on Raqqa and Mosul. In the face of such economic and security threats, Jordan continues to want to present itself as an example of a thriving Arab state that embraces pluralism, pragmatism, tolerance, and moderation in a region beset by extremism and tumult.

With King Abdullah II hosting the Arab League summit in Jordan this month—the first in Amman since 2001—the Hashemite Kingdom will attempt to promote Arab consensus and unity on a host of issues. As proxy wars and inter-Arab rivalries have polarized the Middle East, such divisions have prevented the Arab League from finding viable solutions to grave regional crises. Although the positive effects of Arab League summits are usually minimal and expectations for this month’s meeting in Amman are justifiably low, the challenge of promoting realistic ideas for solving the problems facing millions of Arabs is one that Jordan’s ruler has fully accepted.

Shehab al-Makahleh (Sam Mak) is a senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics with experience as a political advisor in the United Arab Emirates. Photo: King Abdullah II

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