New Generation, Great Expectations

السبت 09 نيسان 2011
Written by Tariq Al-Amad
Picture: 7iber

A group of youth recently took to the street demanding change and better life conditions. But is this youth anger towards the government misdirected? Or are these demonstrations a healthy and natural response to government policies adopted in the last few years? What are the dangers lurking in the near future for Jordanians? And how should the government respond? These are questions I hope I will be able to partially answer through this article.

On the 24th of March, unfortunate events occurred in Amman. Around 1500 Jordanian protestors gathered at Interior Circle in Amman demanding a reform process. The protestors were mainly young Jordanians trying to voice their demands. Eventually, unfortunate clashes occurred between government supporters, protestors and the police.

To establish whether protesters misplaced their anger or not, a simple comparison between rioting populations in the Middle East (Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen) would reveal that Jordan has the smallest GDP figure. The country lacks the most basic of resources such as water. In fact, Jordan is the fourth poorest country in the world in water resources. The Jordanian government has for decades carried the burden of supporting water prices.

What makes things more difficult is that Jordan’s access to the sea is limited to a shoreline of 16.8miles. While other rioting countries enjoy hundreds of miles of shoreline and strategically significant trade connections all over the world. In other words, these countries’ economies can be described as more durable and can sustain heavy losses. As soon as the chaos stops, business goes back to usual. In Jordan, this is not the case; Jordanians have had to artificially, and successfully create a hub for trade and commerce.

With Iraq, Syria and Israel/Palestine lying on Jordanian borders, Jordan also tops the list of countries bordering troubled regions. This has created tremendous difficulties for Jordan as investor confidence and tourism decrease significantly whenever conflict occurs. Which is more often than not.

As a baseline, Jordan’s location, population demographics and resources are considered to be of the most difficult among Middle Eastern countries. But, how did these difficulties translate on the population? These can be measured using figures such as unemployment, literacy rates, corruption indices and quality of life.

Given these difficult circumstances, one would expect that Jordan would not even survive. Against all odds, Jordan was not only able to survive, but also managed a literacy rate of 89.9% in 2003. This rate is higher than neighboring countries.

When it comes to corruption Jordan is ranked the (50th) most transparent country in 2010 by Transparency International. That ranking puts Jordan with Bahrain (48th), and way ahead of all the other rioting countries. The ranking shows that corruption in Jordan is even less than some of the most advanced countries such as Italy (67th) and Croatia (62nd).

As for quality of life, Jordan is ranked at (66th), which is better than rioting countries. The index comprises many rankings including health, where Jordan is ranked 48th worldwide. In most domains Jordan was able to do relatively well, even in comparison to richer countries in the region.

Jordan emerged as a stabilizing force in the Middle East. Jordanians throughout the years have managed to keep themselves out of trouble, by carefully creating alliances and taking neutral positions in many cases. In the last decade, under the leadership of King Abdullah, Jordan was able to attract significant amounts of investments, capitalizing on the Kingdom’s supply of educated talent. This indicates the trust that multinationals have in Jordan’s legal system to fairly protect their investments.

Nevertheless, given all these achievements, the government could have taken better routes. Jordanians want more progress, especially in eradicating corruption and moving towards a more democratic state. The government should have foresight and wisdom to preemptively deal with anger that is going to arise this summer.

To answer whether the anger at government has been misdirected, I believe Jordanians did not over react and have done well to express themselves. But, the question remains, will Jordanians be able to maintain such focus in the near future? Or will they misdirect their anger during the difficult challenges that the country will face?

The Summer Heat

Evidence of difficulties this summer is reported by Arabian Business on February 11th 2011, “Jordan’s tourism industry has taken a $70 million hit as a direct result of the ongoing civil unrest in Egypt”. The $70 million figure does not account for tips tourists give or even restaurant bills they would have paid. A recent study estimated the opportunity cost of conflict on tourism in Jordan between 1991 and 2010 to be $84 billion. The tourism industry is one that supports thousands of Jordanians. The growth of this industry is essential for the stability of the country. Put simply, the adverse effects of having instability in Jordan can be catastrophic.

On December 1st 2010, the Jordan Meteorological Department reported that 2010 has been the driest year for Jordan since 18 years. The government, with its humble resources, continues to subsidize the price of water in an attempt to level the playing field for Jordanian farmers and manufacturers, hence, increasing their ability to compete with foreign goods. With such protectionism measures in place, it is natural that the government accumulated record debt during 2010 (this doesn’t suggest that government corruption/policies are not involved in this debt crisis).

On February 11th, The Economist published its commodity-price index, highlighting an abnormal rise in last month’s food prices by 2.7% and a yearly rise of 30%. Jordan is starting to feel the painful effects of a yearlong increase in commodity prices. This, combined with a water shortage problem, and instability, are reasons enough for people to voice concern.

Jordan faces a huge concern of unemployment among its recent university graduates. Around 54.2% of Jordanians are under 25, and creating new job opportunities for recent graduates has become a major issue. But thanks to FDI and tourism, the country managed to employ some of them. However, with all these dangerous issues lurking in the background will this youth turn to anger? Or take constructive steps towards finding a real solution?

Currently, the ripple effect of these difficult issues, mentioned above, did not take its toll. But when summer starts, many hotel rooms will be unusually empty, many crops will be dry because of the water shortage, and mega projects will halt (if not already) because of instability in the region. That is when the real pressure is on, that is when many Jordanians will lose their jobs, and that is when everyone will start asking real questions. The King should act quickly and swiftly, at this critical time, to improve issues that can be improved without incurring huge costs.

Many voices of concern rise about the newly appointed prime minister, who many Jordanians feel will not deliver results due to his background as a military man. On the other hand, others support him because of his loyalty and integrity.

Watchful eyes of local and international media are eagerly anticipating some kind of change, which should be enough motivation to start the process. Jordanians should be patient and try to voice their concern peacefully, as one thing is for sure — the government is now, more than ever, willing to listen to new ideas to move the country forward. A word of caution though, Jordanians should not mistake the government’s willingness to listen with weakness.

Government Actions

The government should understand that its actions in the next few months would determine Jordan’s future. The government realizes that these are extremely difficult times and hence they should allow Jordanian youth some breathing room to express their frustration.

In the short term, the government will not be able to solve these problems by summer, as they are out of its control. But, government should take preemptive steps immediately to show Jordanians that real change is happening.

In the past, the government resorted to protectionism measures, such as subsidizing bread, to keep the population satisfied. This time, government simply can’t battle world prices with a sinking deficit. Therefore, the best response lies in prudent and swift action to improve areas that can be improved.

First and foremost, the Kingdom should seek new procedures to strictly enforce the law. This will ensure equality of Jordanians in the eyes of the law regardless of their origin. Enforcing the law is a short-term measure. The long-term measures include re-examining parliamentary election laws.

Economically, government should increase efficiency by enforcing its agencies to work promptly. Executing the detailed “National Agenda” – an effort led by Mr. Marwan Muasher, based on the King’s directions – should take care of that problem. Also economically, the focus on development of poorer areas should take precedence over mega infrastructure projects in the capital.

Politically, government should re-open that long-abandoned corruption file, primarily investigating shady deals that took place recently. The call for investigating corruption is merely the first step in a long reform process. The government should be able to calm people down as more corruption investigations are transmitted to judiciary bodies. Recently, government responded by investigating some shady dealings.

Other immediate political reforms include reviving dormant political parties. These parties popularity and demands should set the stage for re-examining Parliamentary election laws, and re-enacting outdated government election laws.

Socially, the fact that 54.2% of Jordanians are less than 25 years old should motivate Jordan to cater to youth’s future needs. It is about time that the higher education system of Jordan is changed to meet the expectations of a sophisticated and technologically savvy generation. This includes encouraging Jordanian youth to voice their concern by forming mini-coalitions, leading to a democratic governance system in universities.

Although these demands might seem broad, they specifically aim at pre-emptively protecting the country from turmoil this summer; when ripple effects of global inflation and turbulence hit our economy and in turn our people. Many other suggestions should be put forward.

Not long ago, these demands by Jordanians were mere whispers in the shadows; just crumb trails leading to a far-fetched dream. Today, these whispers evolved to become loud and clear demands. While government should listen to the warning signs and change its direction before reaching the dead end, some patience, understanding, and cooperation (through constructive criticism and being actively involved) are required from Jordanians. After all, if everyone does their part, a bright future with new opportunities lies ahead.

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