Jordan Can’t Keep Up Its Double Game

By urging self-reliance at home while demanding aid from abroad, Amman has painted itself into a corner.

Hundreds of Jordanians gather to protest against a income tax bill in Amman, Jordan on June 6, 2018.  (Shadi Nsoor/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Hundreds of Jordanians gather to protest against a income tax bill in Amman, Jordan on June 6, 2018. (Shadi Nsoor/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Jordan’s heir apparent, Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah, took to the stage last month to deliver a somewhat surprising economic message. Speaking to students just slightly younger than himself, the 24-year-old graduate of Georgetown University hammered home the need for independence. In an era of innovation and dynamic global change, Hussein declared, Jordanians can no longer depend on outsiders to provide for their livelihoods: “We live,” he said, “in an era of self-reliance.”

His words echoed those of the country’s former prime minister Hani al-Mulki, who gave the following warning last October as the country headed toward a financial crisis: “We have to rely on ourselves,” he explained, “as donor countries have made it clear that they cannot help us if we do not take measures to help ourselves.” Mulki’s solution included a new tax law, endorsed by the Jordanian Cabinet on May 21 and sent on to the Parliament for approval, that would have lowered the level of earnings at which income tax kicks in from $34,000 to $22,500 a family. At that rate, 90 percent of Jordanians would still have been exempt from paying. Regardless, Jordanians were outraged. Soon, protests erupted against the unpopular law, ending with the prime minister’s resignation.

Hussein’s remarks, then, might have seemed a bit touchy. In fact, he’s playing a double game that has become quite familiar among the country’s officials. Sticking to the grand rhetoric of self-sufficiency when addressing fellow Jordanians, top officials try to play the victim for international audiences. Even as Hashemite leaders preach about economic independence at home, Amman has accelerated its reliance on external aid, turning to Riyadh and Washington during moments of crisis. In turn, activists are able to exploit the apparent hypocrisy to deepen public mistrust of the government and whip up a frenzy about alleged foreign influence over government policies. And that makes it all the harder for the government to enact the real reforms that could make Jordan self-reliant. This model is not sustainable and could spell trouble for an important U.S. ally in the region.

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In a CNN interview on June 4, Ayman al-Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister, was clear in his message that Jordan was not to blame for its problems. He shifted responsibility for the kingdom’s still-raging financial crisis onto the conflicts in Iraq and Palestine, and the flows of Syrian refugees into Amman. “Jordan has been going through very, very difficult economic situation,” he said. “And that is not due to failure within the country.” Even as protesters on the streets of Amman assailed government corruption and mismanagement, Safadi contended that Jordan’s economy had stalled because of “the situation in the region.” Talk of self-reliance was nonexistent. In fact, the appearance was more a plea for help. In the interview, he demanded a dramatic increase in foreign assistance. “Why are we not seeing the amount of aid that is necessary to enable us?” Safadi implored.

The minister, who has lately been Jordan’s main representative in the Western media thanks to the resignation of the prime minister and some of his staff earlier this summer, had a similar message for the BBC the same day. “The international community needs to step up to the plate,” he told the BBC World Service. Safadi further lamented “donor fatigue” when addressing the protesters’ economic grievances.

Days after Safadi’s CNN and BBC interviews, Jordan appealed for and received a pledge for $2.5 billion in aid from the Persian Gulf states. Meanwhile, with debt reaching 95 percent of the country’s annual GDP, Amman was forced in the same month to accept a credit line from the International Monetary Fund to prevent the economy from further collapse and to ensure that outside investors could trust Jordan’s fiscal stability. Those windfalls came on the heels of Washington’s decision in March to boost aid to Amman to its highest-ever level. No wonder, then, that even in April, before the Gulf aid package and the IMF loan, the Economist was able to report that Jordan received over twice as much in development aid per person as Afghanistan and Haiti.

The problem, however, is that the Jordanian government has done such a good job preaching independence at home that accepting foreign aid and loans has started to come with a domestic political price. In June, demonstrators assailed the soon-to-be-ousted Mulki for accepting IMF assistance. And Jordanians have gotten comfortable criticizing even the king for perceived foreign control over the country’s economy, which they believe was behind the government’s recent removal of subsidies on bread and increase in taxes. “Listen O resident of Dabouq [King Abdullah II],” protesters chanted on June 6, “down with the fund’s [IMF] rule.”

Jordanians are not wrong that foreign aid has come with foreign pressure. The $2.5 billion Gulf aid package came with some implicit demands, for example, Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA analyst, noted. Days after the deal was signed, Jordan announced on June 15 that it wouldn’t name a new ambassador to Iran, a longtime rival of Saudi Arabia. Later the same day, Mohammed Shamma, a Jordanian activist, bemoaned that “Jordanian foreign policy [is] like an open market! Just give us money to give you loyalty.”

Soon after that, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman came looking for regional backing during his country’s spat with Canada over Riyadh’s jailing of local activists. Despite Amman having no connection to the conflict, the Jordanian government intervened and took Riyadh’s side in an Aug. 7 statement. Many in the capital were disturbed by the Jordanian government’s hard-line stance, also pointing to an Aug. 8 editorial slamming Canada by the Jordan Times, which is closely aligned with the country’s monarchy. “Sad that Jordan had to sell its soul and oppose one of its strongest and most supportive allies [Canada],” tweeted Daoud Kuttab, the director of the Amman-based Balad radio.

Jordan’s relationship with the United States, the largest aid provider, is even more complicated. Although Abdullah, like other Arab leaders, opposed U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, he has taken a relatively mild public stance about the White House’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan and called on others to “give the Americans the benefit of the doubt.” For his part, Safadi has also declined to offer any criticism of the proposed “ultimate deal,” in contrast to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s firm rejection of Trump’s initiative.

Yet approximately 60 percent of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian descent, and the Jordanian public overall is very critical of Israel. After Trump announced the embassy move, thousands of Jordanians took to the street, with demonstrators burning pictures of the president and chanting, “Death to Israel.” Yet Amman’s unwillingness to oppose Washington is not surprising. “There are $1.6 billion reasons to be friends with the U.S.,” a senior Jordanian official explained in a private conversation. The government has failed to follow its own counsel of self-reliance by securing more foreign aid. And then Jordanians are even more uncomfortable when that cash, inevitably, has strings attached.

The Jordanian government has thus painted itself into a corner: Not only has it opened itself to charges of hypocrisy, but it has also made it more difficult to get its citizens to do the work that would be required for self-reliance. As of today, only about 4 percent of Jordanians pay income tax. Mulki’s tax bill was critical for raising additional government revenue, reducing Amman’s aid addiction, and curbing debt, which now stands at nearly $40 billion. Nonetheless, after protesters raged against the legislation (and called for more generous subsidies), incoming Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz withdrew the bill, maintaining the toxic status quo.

In a few years, Jordanians may even look back on the present shoddy state of things with nostalgia. Much of the recent uptick in aid to Jordan was to support its efforts to absorb around 1.5 million refugees from Syria during that country’s civil war. With the bloodshed coming to an end, it’s no guarantee that high levels of external aid will continue indefinitely. If they don’t, Jordan’s spiraling debt crisis would only get worse. Even if most of the refugees returned to their homes, Jordan’s high spending on its public sector and defense would still outstrip its resources. To replace the foreign aid in its annual budget, Amman would likely be forced to raise taxes significantly, prompting a more severe backlash from its citizens.

And a weakened Jordan would be bad news for the region. The government has been a strong partner to the United States in combating the Islamic State, has generously accepted waves of Iraqi and Syrian refugees, and has pursued a religious tolerance policy, even allowing a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party to serve in Parliament.

For now, Jordan continues to muddle along. After the United States transferred its embassy to Jerusalem, Trump threatened to cut aid to countries that voted against Washington at the United Nations, including, presumably, Jordan. So far, his rhetoric has proven to be bluster. But if it isn’t, Jordan is in trouble. Senior Jordanian government officials have repeatedly championed the cause of self-reliance, while doing almost nothing to get the country to rely on itself. Given Trump’s unpredictable nature, Jordan may be wise to consider changing its ways now, before it is too late.

Aaron Magid is an Iraq analyst at Tesla Government. A former Amman, Jordan-based journalist, his articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and Al-Monitor.  Twitter: @AaronMagid

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