By Allison Fedirka
For years, Jordan has been a fairly stable country in an unstable region. But this weekend in Jordan was uncharacteristically tense, as thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest government austerity measures. Within days of the outbreak of the protests, Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki resigned and King Abdullah II ordered Education Minister Omar al-Razzaz to form a new government. How much does it really matter that a small country like Jordan is experiencing the sort of social unrest that is normal in its chaotic region? Potentially quite a bit.
Jordan has seen far worse macroeconomic conditions before, but the latest protests stem from economic problems that reach far deeper, to the lives and livelihoods of average Jordanians. Jordan is a small country with limited natural resources. It can do little to control the price of imported goods and depends heavily on external financing for economic development and stability. As it has done in the past, the Jordanian government turned to the International Monetary Fund in 2016 for credit to deal with a growing budget deficit and debt. As part of the IMF’s restructuring plan, the government implemented austerity measures that included cutting subsidies on over 150 goods and commodities. Particularly harmful was the removal of subsidies on staple food items and the introduction of a 10 percent tax on agricultural goods that were previously exempt from taxes. Public protests against rising bread prices started six months ago with a handful of unemployed people in isolated locations and evolved into organized demonstrations involving multiple groups and thousands of protesters. The government has tried to alleviate some of the pain related to rising prices with direct cash transfers to low-income individuals, but the issues were structural – and those types of issues don’t go away overnight.
Jordan occupies a strategic location in the Middle East, wedged between Israel and Saudi Arabia, two of the region’s leading powers. To its north and northeast lie Syria and Iraq – the region’s main hot spots that have drawn in regional and global powers like Iran, Turkey, Russia and the United States. Jordan initially was concerned about the crises in Syria and Iraq because of the fear that the Islamic State would spread into Jordan or that the waves of refugees fleeing these countries might reach its borders. Indeed, Jordan is now home to 660,000 Syrian refugees, nearly 7 percent of its total population. But the threat of IS expansion in the Middle East has largely subsided, with the group now relegated to sleeper cells and isolated pockets of territory. Nevertheless, Syria and Iraq still present a host of challenges for countries in the region, and if those countries took a turn for the worse, Jordan would likely be among the first to suffer. For this reason, Jordan’s relative stability matters greatly in the Middle East and beyond.
Israel, for example, will undoubtedly keep a close eye on developments in Jordan. It shares its longest border with Jordan, and a majority of Jordanians are of Palestinian origin. Jordan relies heavily on Israel for its national security, and Jordan helps Israel contain potential threats. But Israel is vulnerable at the moment – Israel Defense Forces are on alert due to escalating instability in the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights, Sinai Peninsula and Lebanon. Israel becomes increasingly exposed as stability in the region deteriorates and Iranian proxy groups become more active. Israel doesn’t need another conflict erupting along its borders. It will do what it can to keep Jordan stable and prevent a power vacuum from developing there.
The United States also has a strong interest in Jordan, which has long been a reliable military partner for Washington. In the fight against IS, the country served as a critical logistics hub. Its Muwaffaq Salti air base, located near the Syrian and Iraqi borders, was essential in fighter-bomber missions targeting IS territory. The U.S. has about 2,800 troops in Jordan to help train local forces and reportedly has Patriot missiles stationed there as well. It has also invested billions of dollars to secure this relationship, including $3.75 billion in loan guarantees since 2013. In terms of defense, the U.S. co-developed the Jordanian military’s five-year procurement plan, and U.S. law allows for expedited review and an increased value threshold for arms sales to Jordan. In February, the two countries signed their third memorandum of understanding, a deal that will provide Jordan more than $1.27 billion in foreign assistance per year over five years, a 27 percent increase from the previous agreement. Though the pace of operations against the Islamic State has slowed and the U.S. is trying to reduce its military presence in the Middle East, Jordan remains a valuable partner for the U.S., and anything that might compromise this relationship is a threat to U.S. interests. The protests do not rise to this level right now, but Washington will remain vigilant nonetheless.
Then there’s Iran, which has a vested interest in weakening Israel. Tehran has forces in both Syria and Iraq and is trying to expand its influence in the region, particularly through proxy groups. According to Al-Jazeera, this weekend’s protests in Jordan were led in part by a youth movement called Hirak Shababi, which Israeli intelligence accused in 2016 of being directed and funded by Hezbollah, Iran’s longtime proxy in Lebanon. The Israeli Defense Ministry promptly outlawed the group, which it considered a Palestinian umbrella organization. Though Iran has not been directly linked to the group’s operations in Jordan, the possibility must be raised given how it would help further Iranian interests in the region.
The Jordanian monarchy has thus far managed to keep the social unrest in check. It has found ways to make modest changes to the government to show that it is responding to the public backlash. (From May 2016 to March 2018, the Cabinet was reshuffled six times.) Attempts to prepare the public for the subsidy cuts through media campaigns appear to have failed. For now, the social unrest in Jordan has not threatened its core security relationships, but there is no guarantee that this will remain the case. The country still needs a way to address its underlying economic problems in the long term, and Iran’s potential role in fueling the unrest complicates the situation even further. But one thing is certain: Major instability in Jordan would have consequences for the entire Middle East.