Society Undermined: A Jordanian District’s Road to Poverty and Unemployment

Illustration by Rawand Issa

Society Undermined: A Jordanian District’s Road to Poverty and Unemployment

April 10, 2019

By Shaker Jarrar & Yazan Melhem

Illustrations by Rawand Issa. Translated by Luca Vettori

اقرأها بالعربية

“You led those people to the well and then you cut the lifeline they were clinging to. You damaged their output and forced another role on them: service. Then you say you have changed your mind, asking people to go and manage on their own, as if it were up to you?!”

This is how So’oud Qubeilat, a writer, political activist, and resident of the Mleih countryside in Thiban district describes the transformations that the district’s economy has undergone over the past five decades and the disorders that affected the lives and realities of the families of this agrarian district.

Thiban district is a model worthy of investigation and study due to the changes it underwent, not only to understand the reality of its residents. It may also elucidate the extent of the influence of the decisions and economic policies that the state imposed on people’s livelihoods and their productive capacities during different periods. Thiban can also serve to show how a number of these policies worked to destroy the productive capacity of some sectors, pushing individuals into marginalization and unemployment. This might also prove useful in attempting to understand similar transformations in other regions of Jordan.  

By way of interviews and some studies, this investigative piece will review the aspects that influenced the agricultural economy and animal husbandry in Thiban district since its transformation into a mixed economy following an increase in the state’s need for personnel at the start of the 1970s — especially the military.

Then, it will shift to review how the viability of agriculture and animal husbandry declined due to the effect of some policies that contributed to agricultural families’ loss of workers, the increase of their expenses, and the decrease of their water share.

This article will shine a light on the stories of numerous farming families, some of whom tried to move between different types of farming or between agriculture and animal husbandry, refusing until the very end to relinquish the sector. Other families, meanwhile, found no other choice but to sell their land in order to educate their children — a safe economic path, they believed, after other possible paths had narrowed.


From the field to the barracks

Until the 1970s, the economy of Thiban district was built primarily on agriculture and pastoralism.

The region’s families depended mostly on animal husbandry and farming grains like wheat and barley. For the duration of decades, these two crops covered the entirety of the agricultural terrain in the district. This was in addition to irrigated crops on the sides of Al-Waala valley, extending to Al-Heidan Valley.

Members of the Humaida tribe form the vast majority of the residents of Thiban district.

The Humaidas have lived in the district since before the founding of the Emirate of Transjordan. That was after they had settled at the end of the 19th century in the current area situated between Zarqa’ Ma’in north of Wadi Mujib, Ibn Hammad Valley to the south, the Dead Sea and Shihan Mountain to the west, Kherbat Um Al-Rasas, and Thamad Valley to the east.

At the start of the 20th century, clans from the  Humaida tribe settled in villages that today belong to Thiban district. The state classified their lands and registered them in the 1940s.

After the Palestinian Nakba, the Al-Aqtash and Al-Jabaliya families migrated from the town of Al-Dawayma within the city of Hebron in the West Bank to live in Mleih, one of Thiban’s villages. Also, a number of Beir Al Sab’ residents spread in many areas of the district at the time.[1]  

Salama Al-Qubeilat (71 years old) and Saleem Al-Qubeilat (68 years old) are brothers from a farming family that transferred between Thiban and Mleih. Their father was a farmer who raised cows and goats. The brothers entered the army in the 1970s.

At the time, a number of Thiban residents began to enter the armed forces after the military’s need for recruitment grew.  

“In the seventies, they would send cars to gather recruits from the schools,” says Salama. After their enrollment in the military, Salama and Saleem continued to help their father in farming the land during their vacations.

During the same decade, specifically in 1976, the government reimposed the compulsory draft, which lasted two years. It had been ratified for the first time in 1966, before being cancelled in 1970.[2]

With the imposition of the compulsory draft and the increase in the state’s need for man power during the 1970s, which experienced dry seasons, the recruitment of Thiban residents to public and military service increased. This indicates that the Hamaida tribe, as well as other Jordanian farmers, were late in joining state institutions — especially the army — when compared to the Bedouins.  

“Before, our lives were all about farming.  There was not one employee. I am nearly seventy years old, and I remember the days when there was only one person in all of the Al-Qubeilat clan who received a salary. He was working as a guard or something during Ottoman times,” says Salama.

Quadragenarian Mohammed Al-Sneid, an agricultural engineer and labor activist, explains how his father moved from farming to working as a day laborer at the Al-Waala agricultural station in the 1980s: “Before the eighties, my father was not an employee. He was a farmer who had cows and sheep, and we had lands on which we farmed wheat and barley,” he says. “The concept of jobs is new to us here in the Thiban region.”

Left to right: Mohammed Al-Sneid, Saleem Al-Qubeilat, and Salama Al-Qubeilat.

In 1980, four years after the compulsory draft, the state granted free seats at universities to the children of officers and workers who had served in the armed forces for more than ten years.[3]

During the 1970s and 1980s, employment primarily, and education to a lesser degree, drew much labor from farming families. At the time, land was their only source of sustenance and means of production.

Accompanying the drain of agricultural labor towards government jobs, numerous other factors eventually led to the decline of wheat farming — in Jordan generally — and other types of field farming, on which Thiban’s economy had depended for many decades.  

The crumbling of land ownership, import policies and the urban sprawl, which the state essentially had not intervened in, placed “before the farmer only these personal choices: to sell his land or build on it or replace it with other crops,” as Dana Gibreel writes.

The generation of Salama and Saleem Al-Qubeilat’s, the first to enroll in the army and in public service jobs in town, remains involved (even if partially) in farming.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Thiban’s economy began to transform from a single-sector economy based entirely on farming and livestock to an economy mixed between farming and employment.

This mixed formation ensured a good income that covered people’s needs, especially with the continued existence of a state-run type of social welfare.  

But in the beginning of the 1990s, the economic viability of farming declined, and its expenses increased after farming families lost the laborers who had emerged from within those families.

Salama compares the times of his father — when the family managed the full task of farming as a unit — to his own time, prior to the damage of that entity and the family’s loss of so many workers:

“My father owned cows and sheep. We used to make hay, and we used to make barley feed without paying a piaster. Today, this doesn’t exist, you have to pay for [feed] and buy breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and other expenses,” says Salama.

With the decline of farming’s financial viability at the time, the 1990s saw distinct transformations in the use of farmland. One was a switch in crops such as wheat and barley to orchards, most of which were olive trees. Another was selling the land itself.

Thus, the dependence of many on an economy split between employment and farming pushed people to turn to farming olive trees, which do not require full-time attention.

According to Nizar Abu Jaber, olive trees were therefore called the “lazy” farmer’s tree, as they bear fruit during a relatively short period of time, farming them is simple, and they do not require a lot of irrigation compared to nuts or vegetables.[4]

In light of this, the Al-Qubeilat family sold their land in Mleih at the end of the 1990s and kept their other lands in Thiban.

Saleem turned to farming olive trees, while Salama kept farming wheat and barley before suspending his work for four years when he traveled to work in the United States as an alternative to selling his land in Thiban. His wife had refused to sell the land in order to educate their four children, who entered university at the start of the 2000s.

While Salem Al-Qubeilat, Salama and Saleem’s father, depended entirely on farming, and his children depended on an economy split between farming and employment, none of his two sons’ sixteen children took to farming as a career. Instead, all of them turned to university education and then to public service.

The two brothers bemoan the rise in farming costs today, from workers to equipment to farming supplies. These expenditures consume a large part of the land’s yields, and threaten the possibility for what remains of this dependency on farming to continue.

“Land laborers are expensive and we don’t personally take part in farming. Our children, my good man, are all educated like you, and they don’t want to [work on the farm] and there are no other people to work,” says Saleem.

Salama explains the worker distribution that his brother needs:

“This man has 20 dunams in which there are 450 olive trees. To dig, he needs people. And to plow, you need the machine [tractor]. In order to irrigate you need someone. In order to lay down compost you need someone. And you need someone for pruning and harvesting, in addition to pressing.”

What applies to Saleem is also applicable to his brother, who farms wheat and barley. This is because a large part of Salama’s land yield goes to special expenses like seeds and plowing, in addition to workers.  

Since the land needs to be plowed twice a year with a different kind of tractor each time, the high cost has forced many farmers to use the cheaper kind of tractor both times. This is in spite of the fact that the cheaper tractor does not work efficiently, and could reduce the land’s productivity.

“You need to plow with a good machine and to take your time doing that instead of using a rented tractor. The state should adopt this process in a viable way. But the country hasn’t, and we don’t have the capacity to,” says Salama.

Mohammed Al-Sneid says that the state used to rent out its tractors to farmers at competitive prices in the past, but it stopped that practice some years ago.

‘Akif Al-Zo’bi, the former Minister of Agriculture, says that the agriculture departments owned very few machines that were insufficient in covering the farmers’ needs. On top of that, the farmer had to wait for many months before his turn arrived. Therefore, the practice of renting out tractors to farmers was stopped.  

In addition to paying workers and equipment costs, Saleem resorted to buying jerrycans of water to irrigate his olive trees in order to compensate for the lack of rainfall. Watering his land, which is a few kilometers from the Al-Waala dam, costs 150 dinars.

Due to the turn to olive farming in the kingdom without state intervention in directing or organizing it in proportion to rainfall averages (which differ from one region to another), water occupied a large share of olive farming expenses in some regions.  

The most appropriate areas for growing olives are rocky mountainous regions that have a rainfall that exceeds 400 millimeters annually.

However, 23% of olives in Jordan are cultivated in areas in which rainfall fluctuates between 300-400 millimeters annually. Among those regions is Thiban district. Its farmers, therefore, require supplementary irrigation due to the soil’s thickness and relatively lower quantity of rain.[5]

Salama believes that the state was very late in building the Al-Waala dam, which was inaugurated in 2002. Additionally, the anticipated benefit of the dam is very little considering its small volume. Its total holding capacity is around 10 million cubic meters (m³). The Ministry of Water and Irrigation is working on expanding its capacity to 26 million m³.

The decline of field crops began in the 1970s and continued thereafter. Department of Statistics numbers show that field crops in Thiban district declined between 1997 and 2017 by 67%, even as rainfed crops declined overall during the same period by 53%.[6]

“Farming in Thiban is not worth it at all unless you work with your hands: you plant by hand, you harvest by hand, you press by hand, you sort by hand, and you store by hand. Otherwise, it’s not worth it at all,” says Salama.


“Next to the well and you die of thirst?!”

On the slopes of the Al-Waala and Al-Heidan valleys, which connect as one, the economy has mainly depended for decades on vegetable and fruit farming. Some residents of Thiban district also depend on it.  

The valley is located north of Thiban by 15 kilometers, and its waters encounter those of Wadi Mujib at the “Al-Malaqi” point before pouring into the Dead Sea.

In the 1970s, Elayyan’s father stopped farming wheat and barley, which he had inherited from his father, and turned to farming vegetables in Al-Waala valley.[7]

Elayyan enlisted in the army at the start of the 1980s, and kept working with his father throughout his enlistment. That was before he left the land in the early 1990s due to the lack of water, and returned again to farming vegetables in 2003, two years after retiring from the army.

For, at the start of the 1990s, the valley was exposed to a drought that profoundly affected many farmers in Al-Waala and Al-Heidan.

All of the valley farmers with whom we met ascribed this drought to the Water Authority’s construction of a group of wells in the valley’s streams, by which water is pumped to Madaba and Amman for drinking water.  

“Water became scarce for us. Al-Waala Valley water stopped [flowing] for 10 years; from 1990 to 2000, we did not see a drop of water. There was no water in it. The springs dried out because they pumped Al-Heidan’s water to Amman,” says Elayyan.

Before he left the valley in the 1990s due to the lack of water, Abu Mohammed had farmed vegetables in Al-Heidan since the 1970s. He then turned to farming in Al-Zara in the Jordan Valley region.

“Once they drew the water from here and the water became very scarce, many people left because the valley is dry,” says Abu Mohammed, who returns repeatedly to Al-Heidan to visit his septuagenarian friend, Abu Ibrahim.

Abu Ibrahim’s four sons chose farming over employment. They had enlisted for short periods in the army before leaving to farm with their father.

“If I go work for a week and come back for two days, how would I be able to run the farm?! During the harvest days, I should be here daily, but the military tells you come, stay with us for a week (…) I can’t leave my dad. He is seventy years old and works on the farm, and taking on a worker costs 500 dinars. My salary is not enough for the worker,” says Ahmad, one of Abu Ibrahim’s sons.

Abu Ibrahim laments the lack of water that he says pushed him to leave his land, where he had farmed olives and vegetables for many years. He returned again five years ago to farm guava, which requires less water compared to vegetables. Yet, he recounts many stories of farmers who lost thousands of dinars due to the need for water.

“When you see a thirsty guy there, give him water, give water to the farmers, this water is from God (…) [The people of] Amman are the people of Jordan, and aren’t farmers part of that people? Don’t they send vegetables to you at Al-Hisbeh [vegetable market]?”

Mamduh, a farmer who departed his land four years ago, does not believe that the lack of rain and climate change are the causes of water scarcity in the valley.  

“I swear to you it has nothing to do with the scarcity of rain. I’m from the area, and I know it has to do with the wells (…) Would someone residing next to the well almost die of thirst?!” says Mamduh, who owns land he inherited from his father. He used to farm it with tomatoes, eggplants and beans. The Water Authority has appropriated a section of his land to build a group of wells.

There are 15 artesian aquifers in Al-Waala and Al-Heidan that nourish Madaba province and some areas of Amman.

Farmers believe that building these wells by the springs has decreased the flow of water in the valley.  

These wells pump between 1,400 and 2,000 m³ of water an hour. The farmers make use of two additional wells. Operators of the “Miahona” company allow the water from these wells to flow towards the valley during the summer, so that farmers can draw it from the valley to their lands.

The farmers complain about the scarcity of this water, and that distant farmers are unable to make use of these two wells.

The National Water Strategy for 2016-2025 attributes the struggles of the water sector and the increasing demand to population growth and the hosting of numerous refugees.[8] In other words, it attributes the sector’s hardship to external reasons, beyond the role of the state and its policies.  

In turn, researcher Abu Jaber holds the state responsible for the expansion of cities, especially Amman. The state, semi-arbitrarily, did not take into account the abundance of water resources required. This led to water gradually being pumped from nearby regions until we arrived at pumping Al-Disi water to Amman across a distance of 320 kilometers, which also causes a waste of energy and a loss of water along the way.[9]  

Thus, water pumping operations currently consume 14% of energy resources in Jordan.[10] In 2014, the percentage of water loss reached 52%, half of which was ascribed to technical reasons like broken networks, breakages, and spills along water mains.[11]  

What increases the expense of transporting water is Amman’s higher elevation from most of the regions from which water is drawn. This consumes more energy and increases the percentage of water loss.  

Beyond the cost, pumping water to Amman deprives “the regions in which these water sources are found, and diminishes the ability to develop those regions,” and increases the focus of development on Amman.[12]

In 1987 and 2007, Amman’s borders were intentionally expanded. In the first expansion, Amman devoured 14 towns and 11 surrounding village councils, including them within the Greater Amman Municipality, which was formed at the time.[13]  

In the first five years of the new millennium, Amman’s territory gradually expanded until it reached 680 km². The area was divided into 20 administrative areas and 167 residential neighborhoods.[14]

During the expansion of 2007, Amman’s territory was extended to 1680 km².[15] At the time, just around two million people resided in Amman. This is despite the fact that Amman is the size of London, whose residents in 2009 numbered more than 7 million. Meanwhile, that same year, three and a half million people resided in Berlin, the territory of which comprised half of that of the city of Amman.[16]

This expansion, which had an economic dimension due to the centralization of Amman, led to an increase in the need for water resources in a manner that exceeded the capacity of nearby resources.

The expansion swallowed up farming lands surrounding the city. This was especially due to “land commodification,” and the land owners’ growing desire for the inclusion of their lands within Amman’s regulatory boundaries so as to be classified as residential or commercial real estate, which  could be sold at higher prices.[17]

Utilizing land and water resources efficiently and distributing them fairly are questions of critical importance in a water-poor country such as Jordan. According to the National Water Strategy, rural residents obtain water once every 12 days, while urban residents of cities like Amman receive water every 7 days.

An individual in Amman is supplied with 120 liters of water a day, while a person in numerous other regions of the kingdom obtains 80 liters a day. However, in remote regions, a person gets 25-50 liters a day.[18]

Moreover, the balance between rainfed agriculture and irrigated crops has been dissipating little by little since the 1970s. This occurred after the state removed its subsidy of grain (a rainfed crop) when it sought to decrease the cost of its bread subsidy by expanding cheap wheat importation at the expense of local produce. This led to many farmers substituting rainfed farming for irrigated farming.  

Irrigated farms today make 90% of total farming products and consume 51% of the total available water in the kingdom.[19]

Department of Statistics numbers show that the land area used for irrigated farming in Thiban district declined by 50% between 1997 and 2017.[20]

Some have spoken out to demand a decrease in the agricultural sector’s share of water for reasons connected to its economic viability and the extent of its contribution to GDP, which is about 3% today.

But at the same time, 15% of the population relies on agriculture as a source of income.[21]  

Therefore, decreasing the water share of the agricultural sector would increase the expenses that pushed Elayyan to leave farming completely nine years ago and to turn towards animal husbandry.  


“Working in livestock became meager”

When he turned to raising livestock in 2011, Elayyan owned and looked after around 150 sheep. However, he did not persist for more than three years, after which he sold his flock “at a loss,” at a time when the price of meat was lower than it was when he bought the flock.  

He attributes this decision to his inability to carry the expenses of “livestock,” especially due to the rise in feed prices and the scarcity of grazing land.

Quadragenarian Mohammed Thanayan, another livestock farmer, is also thinking about leaving his flock due to the rise in its expenses. “There are many people who sold [their livestock]. I swear, if the price improved I’d get rid of my flock. They tire me. But where would I go?!”

Thanayan has been working in animal husbandry since he was a child. After his father enlisted in the army in 1970, he helped his mother with shepherding when she took charge of raising the livestock.

When his father retired from the army after serving for 18 years, the family already owned nearly a hundred sheep.

Thanayan enlisted in the civil defense force in 1994 and continued — during his vacations — to take care of rearing the flock alongside his retired father and his mother. The price of one ton of barley at the time was 60 dinars.  

In 2005, when Thanayan was still serving in the civil defense force, his father decided to sell the flock after he [and his wife] aged and were tired of taking care of it. The price of a ton of barley had reached 90 dinars.  

“I held on to the flock. My brothers wanted to sell it, but no one was there to work with the flock because we are all employees and no one could be there to be responsible for them.”

Thanayan hired a shepherd to take care of the flock and paid his salary. At that time, Thanayan owned around 200 sheep. He then borrowed a sum of money to buy 80 additional sheep.

In the final months of 2007, the Marouf Al-Bakhit administration decided to decrease the subsidy allocated for feed, which led to a rise in the price of a ton of barley from 90 dinars to 256 dinars.  

Subsequent to livestock farmers’ protests, the government partially retreated from that decision and lowered the price of barley to 150 dinars.  

At that time, many livestock farmers decreased their holdings due to the rise in feed prices. This selling off led to an increase in the meat supply, which subsequently lowered meat prices.[22]  

Thanayan was one of those who were forced to sell at a loss after the rise in barley prices, and his debts came due.

“Before the price went down, I had bought sheep with debt for a price of 120 dinars. I sold them when the prices went down and the feed price went up. I sold a ewe like this for 55 (…) I swear they have exhausted me. I have strived to reach this number. I was tired and exhausted. I withheld [money] from my kids in order to buy feed with my salary, and I took the land’s insurance for qirsh. This is aside from the expenses paid to the shepherd,” says Thanayan. At that time, he sold the larger part of his flock, of which only 30 sheep remain.  

“The sheep became fewer (…) every year I would cull some of them in order to be able to feed them. Then I’d get tired and increase the number of sheep and then I’d sell them. It’s like going around in a circle,” says Thanayan.

Left to right: Ahmad, his father Abu Ibrahim, and Mohammed Thanayan.

Thanayan retired from the civil defense force in 2015, and now owns around 100 sheep that he cares for along with his wife.  

Like others, he complains about the rising cost of raising livestock due to feed and medicine, in addition to the scarcity of shepherds. He compares the 1990s, during which farmers’ dependence on feed did not exceed three or four months each year, to today, where he offers feed to the livestock nearly year-round. He either buys feed from the Division of Agriculture or rents land and seeds it with barley for the livestock.

Mahmoud Al-Arwan, Director of the Jordanian Farmers’ Union, indicates that the excessive dependence on dry feed, instead of natural grazing lands, increases the livestock farmer’s expenses and makes livestock vulnerable to diseases.

Jordan imports most of its barley from abroad. The amount imported has increased since the mid-1990s from nearly 470,000 tons to between 800,000 and 850,000 tons today.[23]

At the same time, the state lowered the rate of its barley subsidy little by little, falling during the past six years from 72 million dinars to close to just 5 million.[24]

The cost of one subsidized ton of barley is 175 dinars. The government had temporarily lowered the price to 145 dinars until the end of March in order “to support livestock farmers,” according to the government.

Livestock farmers buy subsidized barley from the Ministry of Agriculture depending on the size of their holding. Each animal gets 15 kilograms a month.  

Sometimes, Thanayan would not have enough money to buy the quantity he is allowed per month. Yet, the Ministry of Agriculture requires that farmers use the dedicated card only once a month, regardless of whether or not they deplete the quantity they are permitted.

Therefore, Thanayan is often forced to buy barley and bran from the black market in the middle or at the end of the month.

At the same time, Thanayan protests that the subsidized amount for one animal, which is half a kilogram a day, is not sufficient, since an animal needs more than one kilogram daily.  

“Ask the farmer, not the engineer. Ask the farmer who is worn out. [One animal] eats a kilogram only if you have grazing lands.”

Thanayan and other livestock farmers complain of the lack of grazing lands and the growth of what are called “conservation areas.” These are state lands on which an owner of an adjacent plot of land is prohibited from grazing his livestock.

Researcher Abu Jaber draws upon a group of studies undertaken in pastoral reserves to indicate that it is possible to take steps towards making use of dry lands by planting specific types of plants and managing rainfall efficiently in order to transform them into grazing lands.

This accords with Al-Arwan’s opinion. He encourages scientific research and producing plants and pasture shrubs that grow with low averages of rainfall in order to increase the surface area of grazing lands and lessen the excessive dependence on feed.[25]  

Thanayan maintains the names of livestock owners and the places in which they frequently graze their livestock. This incessant grazing creates a continued pressure on those areas.  

Abu Jaber reminds us that the disruption of “traditional” lifestyles, which were born in harmony with existing ecosystems, as well as the entrance of another lifestyle that does not abide by the balance between the population’s requirements and the needs of environmental sustainability, increased the growing dependence on feed and the scarcity of grazing lands.  

That is, the transformation from pastoral life, of which movement was the primary characteristic, to a semi-civilized sedentary life does not accord with raising livestock.  

According to Joseph Mas’ad, this transformation was not a natural choice for the Bedouins in that the state pushed them at different points in time towards sedentarism. It used law and expulsion on one hand, and inducting them into state agencies on the other.[26]

Many livestock farmers are trying their best to activate the “fund to support and protect livestock” law, which the National Assembly ratified in 2009.[27]

The law aims to encourage citizens to raise livestock and poultry as well as grow feed and offer it at an acceptable price to livestock farmers.

During his meeting a few months ago with Raja’i Al-Ma’shar and the countryside and desert committee in parliament, Za’l Al-Kawalit, president of the Al-Karak Cooperative Association for the Breeding and Marketing of Livestock, affirmed that the solution to livestock farmers’ problems lies with the activation and financing of the fund before the sector collapses and throws numerous livestock farmers out onto the streets or to dependence on salaries from the Ministry of Social Development.

“Livestock has become meager, and farmers are on the edge of the abyss [of poverty], so the state should heed us. Maybe next year or the one after, we won’t be here,” says Thanayan.


“Each diploma costs a piece of land”

In the first decade of the new millennium, enrollment in university education increased and the role of the state in social welfare declined in a way that did not enable the employees and retirees of the public sector to deal successfully with the remains of the sector’s collapse, as Nahed Hattar says.

Salaries were part of a package of social privileges that gradually dwindled. A study prepared by a number of researchers shows how enrollment in Jordanian universities increased in the 2000s. The percentage of enrolled students reached 30%, the ages of which ranged between 20-24 years old (nearly 217,000), and more than a third of whom enrolled in government universities.

The number of part-time students enrolled in the parallel program,[28] which was launched  in the second half of the 1990s, reached more than 20% of the number of regular students in government universities. From 1993 to 2008, the number of students enrolled  in private universities grew from 7,000 to 57,0000 students.[29]

At the same time, government spending on higher education decreased (despite being already low) as a percentage of total GDP from 1.1% in 2002 to 0.77% in 2007 — a low percentage compared to other Arab countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia.

During the same period, government assistance offered to higher education declined by 11%. This decline was compensated for by family spending on higher education, which rose during that period by 51%, from 197 million dinars to 297 million dinars.[30]

Today, the source of more than 73% of funding for government universities is tuition, while the state contributes less than 10% of funding.[31]

According to Jihad Al-Kawamleh, one of the organizers of the 2011 Thiban Movement, many of Thiban’s youths opted to enroll in universities. This is because higher education became the only secure opportunity after the farming path narrowed. Also, enlisting in the army or security agencies was becoming economically impractical.

Al-Kawamleh studied accounting information systems at Al-Balqa’ Applied University and graduated in 2010. During his studies, he worked in farming in the Wadi Mujib and Al-Waala regions.  

Since his graduation, he has not worked a consistent stable job. He moved between work in education as a substitute teacher in Thiban district and on contracted projects with the Department of Statistics in Amman.  

Al-Kawamleh says that, at the start of the 2000s, university education became a necessary endeavor for most people.

“It is now problematic for someone to refrain from attending university. Before, it was the opposite: it was problematic to not own livestock. He who didn’t farm was a problem,” says Al-Kawamleh.

Many families in Thiban district were forced to sell their land or take out loans in order to educate their children. Ali Al-Khudour’s father sold the larger part of his land to educate his four children in universities. Ali studied political science at Mu’tah University and graduated in 2012. He then worked for a few months as an accountant in a private company in Amman for a salary of 250 dinars. He stopped working there due to the low salary and because the workplace was  too far from his district, which did not offer good transportation. These conditions made work pointless for him.

Subsequently, Ali’s first participation in a protest was during the November Protests (Habbit Tishreen) of 2012.  

“I didn’t join the protests because I was unemployed. No, I joined because the district is enduing a difficult reality. It is harder [here] than any other place,” says Ali. “The situation is bad, and not just for me.”

The Department of Statistics does not provide data on poverty and unemployment at the district level. But Madaba governorate, to which Thiban district belongs, recorded the highest average of unemployment in the kingdom in 2011, at a percentage of 18.5%.[32]

This kept increasing until it reached nearly 25% in 2017, which is also the highest average at the governorate level in the kingdom, after Tafilah governorate.[33]

According to the latest report monitoring the state of poverty in the country, the percentage of poverty in Madaba reached 15% in 2010.[34]

The percentage of poverty and unemployment in Thiban as a district is likely to be higher than the percentage at the governorate level. This is because job opportunities are concentrated in the city of Madaba, the center of the governorate.  

Numerous development programs were organized by associations and official institutions in order to examine the reasons for poverty and unemployment in the governorate. Among these are the development programs of 2013-2016 and 2017-2019, issued by the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation. This is in addition to a study of training and lending requirements conducted by the Treasury of Development and Employment.

The study issued by the Treasury of Development and Employment, which relies on the opinion of “the people of the region,” states that one of the reasons for unemployment in Thiban and Mleih and Banni Humeida mountain is the spread of what is called a “culture of shame” about work in some professions.

Al-Khudur ridicules the “culture of shame” adage. He believes the saying is used to cover for discrimination and the absence of justice. Justice would entail providing jobs with incomes that would cover basic needs for himself and his wife, who is unemployed despite holding a master’s degree in agriculture.

“Can you explain to me what this ‘culture of shame’ actually means? If you educate your son [children] and sell your land, would you be satisfied working as a cleaner?! (…) On the contrary, those of us who own land work it, farm it, and this so-called “culture of shame” does not exist for us. Things just need to be logical,” says Ali.

Nahed Hattar criticized the kind of narrative that connects unemployment with a culture of shame. He considers it to be misleading because it neglects discussing work culture, which can only exist via certain conditions that are absent in governorates in which unemployment is concentrated. The first of these conditions is transportation.  

Additionally, according to Hattar, when we discuss a culture of shame, we only remember “one side of the equation: the poor who reject taking jobs of low social status. By that we are forgetting the other side of the shame equation, which is the monopolizing of the most prestigious positions for the advantage of the family club: parents and sons and daughters and sons in law.”

All the previous slow changes in the economy of Thiban district have led to a rise in the percentage of unemployment and poverty and contributed to a growing feeling of marginalization in the district. This was reflected in popular protests that the district experienced at the start of 2011. These took off on January 7th, 2011, with a march organized by Mohammed Al-Sneid and a group of day laborers, among others. The protests continued on a weekly basis until the November Protests of 2012.

So’oud Qubeilat believes that this type of protest was new to Thiban. Prior to the movement, political activism in the district was partisan. In some areas of the district, this took shape when individuals joined parties such as the Ba’ath and the Communist Party (during the 1970s) and  the Muslim Brotherhood (during the 1980s). They did not resort to this form of popular protest back then.

Thiban has seen a number of movements organized in the name of “the unemployed,” whether during the 2011 movement or by sit-ins and erecting tents to demand job opportunities.  

Al-Kawamleh discusses a group of 15 people who joined the movement in the middle of 2011. Their fundamental and single demand was to obtain work.

“A group of them joined us, and they said ‘we want to be hired.’ They were at the end of their rope and said ‘we need a job,’” says Al-Kawamleh. After a few months, they were all hired, either as drivers, guards, or third-tier government employees.

In the period between 2013 and 2016, three protest tents were erected in Thiban district to demand employment. The latest and most famous sit-in tent was erected in 2016. It was pitched in April and lasted nearly 60 days before being broken up by the gendarmerie by force.  

The tent contained 22 people, of whom six were university graduates. Sabri Al-Masha’leh and Mohammed Al-Hawawsheh were the leaders and organizers of the sit-in tent.

Al-Masha’leh studied counseling and mental health at the University of Jordan and graduated in 2012, whereas Al-Hawawsheh studied law at the Middle East University and graduated in 2013.

Al-Hawawsheh first participated in a protest during the November Protests of 2012. Al-Masha’leh first participated in the movement in rejection of the injustice endured by the people of Thiban when he was a university student.

“At the beginning, I participated in the movement for economic considerations; I was a student, and university was expensive. I was enrolled at the parallel program at the University of Jordan. We have a saying here: each diploma costs a piece of land. [People] were selling their lands to educate the youth,” says Al-Masha’leh.

Sabri Al-Masha’leh (right) and Mohammed Al-Hawawsheh (left).

Two years after his graduation, Al-Masha’leh worked as a cashier in a health clinic in Amman, while Al-Hawawsheh remained unemployed from his graduation up until his participation in the tent sit-in.  

On April 26, 2016, Al-Masha’leh and Al-Hawawsheh and 20 other unemployed protestors erected a tent at Thiban circle to demand employment.  

“It looked like anything other than a tent in its appearance. The second day we brought a traditional marquee, built it, and called it a tent. We then put a slogan on it: ‘Children of corrupt men are consultants… and children of the people are protesting at the circle.’”

Fifty days after the erection of the tent, the unemployed protestors and a group of their supporters decided to demonstrate in Madaba’s Al-Salaam square.

Meanwhile, the gendarmerie tore down the tent and arrested five people. Among them was Mohammed Al-Sneid, a supporter of the unemployed protestors.  

Al-Masha’leh and Al-Hawawsheh rebuilt the tent that same day. Subsequently, dignitaries and a group of mediators for the unemployed protestors were informed that the release of the detainees and the question of employment were tied to the tent’s removal.  

After 24 hours, the protestors agreed and the detainees were released. Al-Masha’leh, Al-Hawawsheh, and two other protestors met with the governor of Madaba in the presence of mediators to discuss employment. They did not arrive at an agreement.  

“He told us: work in the Coca-Cola factory, work in a plastic factory. We refused because the agreement entailed offering jobs to university graduates according to their degrees, and the rest would be third-tier government employees. Someone like Sabri or myself, who studied for five years in university, paying a fortune towards it, and postponed a year for work and study, should now be content with a job that pays 190 dinars a month?” says Al-Hawawsheh.

The unemployed protestors rebuilt the tent anew, and after two days, Al-Masha’leh and two other protestors were summoned to the security center of Thiban. They were then transferred to the municipality of Madaba, and from there to Marka prison, as Al-Masha’leh says.

This was during the month of Ramadan. At the sunset azzan, the gendarmerie assaulted the tent, fired tear gas, and arrested more than twenty people. According to Al-Hawawsheh, three of them were unemployed protestors arrested after clashes with the gendarmerie.

Clashes continued intermittently for two days in Thiban and the surrounding areas, at which point Al-Masha’leh and all the other detainees were released.  

The next day, Al-Hawawsheh and two others were arrested and a group of charges was filed against them: resisting security forces, attempted murder, and defamatory speech.

The two detainees were bailed out after a week, while Al-Hawawsheh was held for 23 days in Marka prison before he was released.  

At the start of 2018, Al-Masha’leh, who was working in a private school in Amman, and Al-Hawawsheh who was still unemployed, participated in the June rallies that took down the Hani Al-Mulki administration.

In October of the same year, Al-Masha’leh was detained for a period of 39 days following his participation in the “national observation board” sit-in at the fourth circle.

Charges of defamatory speech and incitement to destroy the regime were filed against him. The charges were then pardoned during the general amnesty weeks ago.



Thiban presents a model that enables us to examine the changes that the Jordanian economy has undergone and their social repercussions, which have manifested in rejection and clear protest since 2011. At the start of the 1970s, the state invested in human resources, either with the goal of developing public services or to satisfy the demand for military and security staff.

The public sector became the primary workplace for people, and guaranteed a package of welfare services. In addition to people’s salaries and other farming incomes, these services formed a safety net and offered a good standard of living.  

For a long time, that was what granted the political authority a kind of social peace with a people who were restricted politically, but protected economically.  

The withdrawal of human resources from the field in Thiban to employment led, along with other factors, to the decline of farming’s economic revenue. Consequently, the demand for public sector jobs increased to compensate for this decline in farming. Employment offered to many a more consistent and preferable stability than did working the land — as well as a relatively higher social status.  

At the start of the 1990s and the first wave of economic liberalization, the state gradually began to pull out of a set of missions. The first of these was employment.  

At the time, the first generation of retirees from the army and public service jobs in Thiban saved their retirement salaries and their declining farming revenues in order to educate their children, which was seen as a safe alternative to farming. This led to the near complete withdrawal of their children from the agricultural economy in favor of the universities.

As discussed earlier, enrollment in higher education increased swiftly at the start of the 2000s. The people of Thiban and others from the governorates were receiving an education, the basis of which was to prepare students for service in the public sector. This was because a degree could guarantee work and stable government employment. Hence, more than half of university graduates in the first decade of the new millennium were graduates with degrees in humanities and social sciences, which previously would qualify them to obtain a job in the state’s general administration.[35]

Most of these students graduated at a time when the state shrank hiring in the public sector due to austerity policies and structural readjustment.   

Subsequent to its integration within the world economy, the expanding private sector could not provide students with opportunities. This was due to the market’s small size and the student’s lack of specific and nuanced skills, which they could not have obtained from a university education.

One of the results of this was a decrease in the number of people hired in the public sector with salaries that no longer kept up with increasing inflation rates. Another was the shifting of workers to the margins of the market economy, or joining the ranks of the unemployed.  

Today, farming, which had provided sustenance for their grandparents and forebears, takes its last breath. Returning to farming is no longer possible due to land sales and a lack of financial viability. Meanwhile, the state, which ousted farmers from their lands and into public service, has changed its policies and is no longer capable of hiring them. This has contributed to the corrosion of the social contract, implicitly sustained between political authority and groups of people politically restrained and economically unprotected.

“Let them leave their land, leave their farms, sell their sheep and their cows in order to work in the army and government jobs. And then suddenly dump them, and now they have neither land nor farm,” says So’oud Qubeilat.

  • References

    [1] عبدالله العساف، تاريخ مادبا وجوارها، وزارة الثقافة، ص 42-43.

    [2] جوزيف مسعد، «آثار استعمارية: تشكل الهوية الوطنية في الأردن»، ترجمة شكري مجاهد، مدارات للأبحاث والنشر، 2019. ص 379، ص 388، ص 429.

    [3] مسعد، ص 389.

    [4] نزار أبو جابر، الأردن والتحدي البيئي، دار الشروق، عمان، 2011، ص 61.

    [5] نزار أبو جابر، ص 51.

    [6] التعداد الزراعي – دائرة الإحصاءات العامة، أعوام 1997-2007-2017.

    [7] Alias.

    [8] وزارة المياه، الاستراتيجية الوطنية للمياه 2016-2025، ص 13.

    [9] نزار أبو جابر، ص 187.

    [10] الاستراتيجية الوطنية للمياه، ص7.

    [11] الاستراتيجية الوطنية للمياه، ص 19.

    [12] نزار أبو جابر، ص117-118.

    [13] نزار أبو جابر، ص 85.

    [14] Mais Aljafari, EMERGING PUBLIC SPACES IN THE CITY OF AMMAN, JORDAN: An Analysis of Everyday Life Practices, Dortmund University, 2014, p.g 37.

    [15] في 3 أيار 2006 وجه الملك عبدالله رسالة إلى أمين عمان عمر المعاني من أجل «إعداد مشروع تخطيط جاد وشامل لمدينة عمان»  وكانت الرسالة بمثابة الموجه لمشروع المخطط الشمولي Amman Master Plan لمدينة عمان.

    [16] نزار أبو جابر، ص 87.

    [17] Ian James, Amman’s 1987 and 2008 Master Plans, Center for the Study of the Built Environment, 2017.

    [18] الاستراتيجية الوطنية للمياه، ص 14، ص 31.

    [19] الاستراتيجية الوطنية للمياه، ص 39.

    [20] التعداد الزراعي – دائرة الإحصاءات العامة، أعوام 1997-2007-2017.

    [21] Harrigan, Jane. An Economic Analysis of National Food Sovereignty Policies in the Middle East:  Food Security in the Middle East, by Zahra Babar and Suzi Mirgani, Oxford University Press, 2014 p.g 13.

    [22] نزار أبو جابر، ص 9.

    [23] Harrigan, Jane. An Economic Analysis of National Food Sovereignty Policies in the Middle East:  Food Security in the Middle East, by Zahra Babar and Suzi Mirgani, Oxford University Press, 2014 p.g 13.

    [24] Shamsuddin M. Tareq, Hui Jin, Emmanouil Kitsios, and Pokar Khemani, Jordan Public Expenditure Review and Rationalization: Issues and Reform Options, IMF, 2018, p.g 21.

    [25] نزار أبو جابر، ص43.

    [26]  جوزيف مسعد، «آثار استعمارية: تشكل الهوية الوطنية في الأردن»، ترجمة شكري مجاهد، مدارات للأبحاث والنشر، 2019.

    [27] قانون صندوق دعم الثروة الحيوانية وحمايتها، نشر في الجريدة الرسمية بتاريخ 1-3-2009.

    [28] A university admission program which has special requirements and tuition fees that differ from standard admission programs, but offers the same education as the standard program.  Usually, parallel programs are more expensive but have less requirements especially in terms of GPA.

    [29] طاهر كنعان وآخرون، تمويل التعليم العالي في الأردن: تمويل التعليم العالي في البلاد العربية، منتدى البحوث الاقتصادية، المركز العربي للأبحاث ودراسة السياسات، الدوحة، 2012، ص113.

    [30] طاهر كنعان وآخرون، ص 116.

    [31] المجلس الاقتصادي والاجتماعي، الأوضاع المالية للجامعات الحكومية في الأردن، ص54.

    [32] مسح العمالة والبطالة، التقرير السنوي 2011، دائرة الإحصاءات العامة، ص9.

    [33] الأردن بالأرقام 2017، دائرة الإحصاءات العامة، ص11.

    [34] البرنامج التنموي لمحافظة مادبا 2017-2019، وزارة التخطيط والتعاون الدولي، 2017، ص 10.

    [35] طاهر كنعان وآخرون، ص 142-143.


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