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The instability in the Arab World

The Domino Effect: why Jordan is different

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The instability caused by the struggle for political liberalization and economic reforms in the Arab World has caused some political regimes to collapse; other Arab countries will follow the trend but only a few “clever” ones will survive the so claimed domino effect. Arab countries cannot be put all into the same basket: Jordan is one of those countries that in comparison to those that are currently facing uprisings will survive.

What are the differences that will allow the Kingdom to survive the domino effect? The answer can be identified by analyzing the combination of three main factors: the institutional framework, the economic layout and the political/social composition and background of the Country.

Institutionally and constitutionally speaking, Jordan is a Monarchy in the middle of “supposed democratic” parliamentary “hereditary Republics” and is probably the only monarchy truly entitled to reign, considering that the Hashemite are direct descendants of the Prophet Mohammad and that King Abdullah II is his 43rd descendant by father (unlike the Moroccan King, who is descendent of the Rusul by mother); furthermore, historically the Monarchy has been very moderate and responsive to the needs of the society; both these elements give the Kingdom a “de jure” advantage that secures King Abdullah’s legitimacy, religiously and politically. 

The direct result of this legitimacy lies in the fact that the Jordanian upheavals so far do not call for a change in regime or the fall of the ruling family, which constitutes another difference with the other Arab “dominoes”. Although complete loyalty to the King could be questionable, given the high percentage of Palestinians in Jordan, “State transformation” has not been claimed; as a matter of fact there is a general consensus among Jordanians that the opposition is not against the monarchy but against the government. It is also important to note that the protests have been peaceful ones, unlike in many other countries (for instance, on the first days of protest, the King even disposed for the police to distribute water and fruit juice to the people in the streets, in order to contain demonstrations).

The needs of the Jordanians are pretty clear. Jordan lacks natural resources (oil) and geostrategic assets (water) and it is undeniable that the country is suffering from high deficit of its Balance of Payments (5.8 billion JOD), high unemployment rate (13.4%) and an obvious dependence on foreign assistance. But if we compare the microeconomic indexes of the Kingdom with the ones of the other Arab countries that collapsed following the last month’s events, we easily notice that the Jordanian institutions are stronger and more prepared to face changes.

The overall condition of Jordan is not as bad as Egypt or Libya (14.2 % of Jordanians live below poverty line, compared to the 20 % in Egypt and 33% in Libya) despite a lower income pro capitae, and Jordanians are much more educated, which is an important factor in this scenario. Moreover, the tribal constitution of the society runs in line with Jordan’s moderate outlook policy, domestic and foreign; we could therefore dare to say that tribal leaders by definition are moderate. This attitude has definitely contributed to the attraction of foreign direct investment into the country. The fact that the country relies on external aid, mostly arriving from the West, exposes it to Western influence, which consequently allows the Jordanian society to be one of the most “open” and westernized in the region.

Clearly Jordanians are better off than Egyptians, Tunisians and Libyans, but the economic crisis has had its effects in the Kingdom as well; the rise in the prices of bread and oil, for instance, was the reason that led the protestors into calling for the resignation of the Prime Minister Rifai. It only took King Abdullah II a few days to dismiss him and nominate Marouf Bakhit (who is seen as a moderate and positively also by the Islamists) Prime Minister and immediately appease upheavals. King Abdullah, in response to the complaints, also announced a rise in the salary of civil servants and public servants and more than 100 million dollars in subsidization for primary goods; the promptness in the King’s actions has certainly helped calm the waters.

The priority for the country, however, is political; like most Arab countries Jordan lacks a political class. Until now the Parliament has been run by the Tribal leaders and the only organized political party in the country, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), has always been excluded from the decision making process and the political life of the Kingdom. But again the pragmatism of this leader is unique in its genre. King Abdullah II has wisely invited the Islamic brotherhood in the political dynamics of the country, henceforth immediately responding to the needs of a social movement that could have instead stimulated more protests.

The country feels today the need of a political reform, and the Tribes leaders are aware of this (it is important to note that the protests were run by leading members of the IAF just as much as by exponents of the tribal leaders).

The King has understood that it is important, in order for the regime to survive, to open the doors to the opposition and to the IAF (which currently constitutes the only opposition) and to also reform the electoral system. Besides, it is also being already discussed how to change the way of electing the Prime Minister (via Parliament or via people), as suggested by the IAF, and reform the distribution of seats in Parliament (according to population concentration instead of territorial distribution).

Despite the weaknesses, the Kingdom has shown liability towards change and as we know, the winner is not necessarily the strongest actor, but the one who is most capable of responding promptly and effectively to challenges; no one can know now if King Abdullah will keep his promises and no one can predict how the institutions will adapt to the needs of the people in the near future, but the pre-emptive action of the regime has avoided (at least for now) the “unavoidable”. Demonstrations will probably continue considering the time needed by the adjustment process. But is Jordan the brick that will put an end to the domino effect in the region.

The writer works in the Middle East Faculty of the NATO Defense College in Rome and holds an MA in International Relations from LUISS University in Rome. The views expressed in this article are her own.

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