Jordan’s Protests Are a Ritual, Not a Revolution

By trading geopolitical importance for aid and showing restraint when unrest erupts, the kingdom has managed to remain stable for decades.

By Sean Yom, an associate professor of political science at Temple University and the author of From Resilience to Revolution: How Foreign Interventions Destabilize the Middle East.
Demonstrators protest near the prime minister's office in Amman, Jordan, on June 6. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)
Demonstrators protest near the prime minister's office in Amman, Jordan, on June 6. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

Mass protests rocked Jordan as citizens raged against International Monetary Fund-induced financial austerity. Rising living costs drove tens of thousands to the streets, compelling the king to sack the technocratic government. The new Cabinet promised to delay any more economic cutbacks. Declaring its sympathy with a public burdened with unemployment and poverty, the ruling monarchy scrambled to raise foreign aid in order to stave off further turmoil.

It was April 1989.

Not much has changed today, as Jordan has just churned through its latest round of unrest. The protests began on May 30, when 33 unions and professional associations called a strike against proposed taxes. The demonstrations grew when youth activists joined them to rally against the removal of fuel and electricity subsidies, and crested with mass public marches against corruption and economic belt-tightening.

Revolutionary alarmism filled the air as international media declared the late coming of the Arab Spring and Jordanians heralded the triumph of popular mobilization, especially after King Abdullah appointed a new government and suspended some austerity measures, including controversial new tax proposals. Such troubles elicited Western worries for a strategic ally that has a peace treaty with Israel and hosted much of the anti-Islamic State military coalition. However, this cycle — financial emergency, popular anger, political shakeup — has occurred before, and not just in 1989. There were major economic protests in 1996 and 2012 as well.

That Jordan’s monarchy remains in power and the country is still largely the same not only augurs well for the return of normalcy, but also reveals a peculiar fact. This kingdom is built not to thrive but merely to survive, and periodic protests due to financial falloffs are inevitable given its economic and political structure. This is not revolution, but repetition. Three realities account for such stable instability and underscore Jordan’s uniqueness in the Middle East: ingrained insolvency, the monarchy’s restraint, and self-limiting popular mobilization. Jordanians may be struggling economically, but that doesn’t mean the monarchy is about to collapse.

First, Jordan is broke, but it is always broke thanks to a longstanding dependency on aid that has wedded its economy to overspending. A desert hinterland with indefensible borders, the kingdom remains one of the world’s most resource-poor states. As the local joke goes, Jordan has less water than oil — and it has no oil. Jordan’s budget and security needs relied upon British goodwill until the United States arrived on the scene in the 1950s, eying the kingdom as an ideal ally given its strategic location. Washington provided cash and arms to help the fledgling monarchy, installed by the British three decades earlier, to retain power, which in turn advanced Western interests such as monitoring pro-Soviet regimes such as neighboring Iraq. That patronage deepened after end of the Cold War, when the 1994 peace accord with Israel and Jordanian support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq underscored the kingdom’s central role on regional issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and fighting al Qaeda.

By trading geopolitical importance for aid, the Jordanian government never learned to spend within its means. Foreign aid underwrote a social contract that swapped political order for economic generosity, an arrangement that endured Palestinian refugee influxes after the Arab-Israeli wars that eventually made approximately two-thirds of Jordan’s population Palestinian or of Palestinian descent. Over time, this meant a bloated public sector, little taxation, and generous subsidies for food, fuel, and other goods. The military also consumed enormous resources, as its payroll absorbed many of the loyal tribal communities that comprised the remainder of society. Today, Jordan’s economic fundamentals have barely changed from a half-century ago. A third of the labor force still works for the government, fewer than 5 percent of citizens — Palestinians or tribal Jordanians — pay any income tax, public salaries and pensions gobble almost half the national budget, and the military monopolizes another fifth of all spending. Even in the Middle East, such figures are rarely found outside the oil-rich states.

In this environment, popular protests tend to erupt cyclically whenever economic demands outstrip the treasury’s means during aid droughts caused by external shocks, such as the 1980s oil crisis, which greatly reduced Gulf funding, thereby forcing cutbacks that begin with removing subsidies.

Yet hard times have always been followed by renewed foreign support due to Jordan’s geopolitical importance. For instance, since the 1994 Israeli peace treaty, the United States has provided more than $19 billion in economic and military support, and in many years, those funds exceeded all of Jordan’s income and corporate tax revenues. International lenders have also helped. In the 1990s, the IMF and World Bank reduced their economic reform demands so that under their structural adjustment stewardship, which was supposed to shrink public spending, Jordan managed to get away with the opposite and expand its public sector and military. More recently, since the Arab Spring, Gulf monarchies have chipped in another $3.6 billion in cash to ensure that a fellow Sunni Arab kingdom stays afloat, no small sum given that the kingdom’s current IMF loan — the underlying impetus for the latest austerity measures and public unrest — is just $723 million.

The current troubles began in 2016, when Gulf aid ended amid plummeting oil prices, the Syrian refugee crisis peaked, and the national debt approached the size of the GDP. The public seethed at rising electricity and fuel prices, but it was the proposed new tax law that triggered the latest strife. Generous exemptions would still allow most Jordanians to avoid paying income taxes, and the law itself would not kick in until 2019, but that’s beside the point: Whenever the government symbolically betrays its end of the social bargain, protests coalesce with clocklike regularity. Yet, as always, help is on the way.

In February, the United States signed a new five-year pledge for a record $6.375 billion in economic and military grants. Even as Jordanian-Saudi relations remain tense given disagreement over the Jerusalem issue and Syria, the Saudi government still called an emergency meeting with Jordan, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates to discuss renewed financial support. History is also repeating itself with the IMF, which quickly agreed to relax its austerity demands and disburse more funds. As always, outside donors will not let the kingdom self-destruct.

In addition, the Jordanian monarchy oversees not just foreign policy but also the domestic situation, which means the palace has sufficient means to defuse internal unrest. One method is the tried-and-true strategy of sacking governments, which are appointed by the king rather than the elected but toothless Parliament. The resignation of any country’s premier is newsworthy, but in Jordan it happens frequently, because the true role of prime ministers is to implement policies while serving as shock absorbers for popular anger. That the new prime minister, Omar Razzaz, is well liked given his anti-corruption stance and educational reforms is no coincidence: This simply means he has more reputational capital to burn with the public while pushing through more unpopular policies. One Jordanian cartoonist illustrated this circularity by portraying the government as a light fixture and premiers as lightbulbs, with royal hands simply replacing one bulb with another when convenient.

Another mechanism is exploiting the palace’s position of standing above the political fray and appealing directly to the masses. Since the protests began, King Abdullah has circulated among the public, promising to review all austerity measures and evincing not alarm but pride in the protests. The irony of such sympathy is striking, as Jordan’s perennial insolvency owes much to the royal family’s refusal to downsize the public sector and military spending. Such a decision would truly upend the social contract and be so politically costly that the monarchy would have to offer something else, such as democratic reforms and devolution of its power, to stay afloat. At the same time, the palace has also learned a crucial lesson from the Arab Spring. It has ordered security forces to refrain from repressive measures for fear of triggering backlash. Thus, protest scenes in Amman featured not just citizens marching for economic justice, but also activists giving food to wary police officers as both sides play out the ritual of resistance.

This leads to the third factor keeping Jordan stable: the self-limiting nature of popular mobilization. Modern protests in Jordan tend to behave like firecrackers, exploding quickly but soon fizzling out. Historically, the only near-revolutions were the coup attempt of 1957 and civil conflict in 1970, both of which were easily quashed. Since then, protesters have been loath to march against the Hashemite palace, instead targeting political surrogates like prime ministers and parliaments. Such tameness today is all the more curious because, by most measures, Jordanians are struggling far more than were Tunisians or Egyptians before the Arab Spring. The country has an 18.5 percent unemployment rate, resulting from private-sector and trade disruptions, while one-third of the population lives in poverty.

Protests of all types have become such an integral part of Jordan’s political life precisely because implicit but ironclad rules govern public behavior. Amid rallies for Palestine, Islamist campaigns, and youth activism during the Arab Spring, peaceful protests have resulted in just one death over the past decade. The tacit understanding is that so long as citizens do not attack police or impugn the monarchy’s legitimacy, everyone will remain safe. There is also a neighborhood effect. The horrors of the Syrian civil war have loomed large since 2011, not least because of Islamic State-inspired terrorist attacks, such as the December 2016 shooting spree that left 14 victims dead, and the presence of nearly a million Syrian refugees just a decade after another refugee crisis flooded Jordan with Iraqis. Fears of similar violence flaring up in Jordan exert a natural chilling effect against any mobilization that threatens to radicalize public discourse and sow chaos.

None of this suggests that Jordan is prospering. It is not. Yet as the past week of demonstrations showed, perennial financial shortages, royal maneuvering, and protest spectacles mean that what passes as an emergency in other countries is part of the normal rhythm of crisis, resistance, and equilibrium in Jordan. Unless something drastic and improbable happens, such as security forces suddenly shooting protesters or aid donors turning off the taps, this cycle will continue until the next economic crunch. In the end, as it always does, Jordan will survive — it just won’t thrive.

Sean Yom is an associate professor of political science at Temple University and the author of From Resilience to Revolution: How Foreign Interventions Destabilize the Middle East. Twitter: @YomSean