Often described as being perpetually “on the brink,” in “the crossfire,” or “caught between Iraq and a hard place,” Jordan is a cautionary case study on how inclusive socioeconomic development cannot be achieved without meaningful political reform whereby citizens have a say in policymaking.
At a time when political reform is once again on the agenda of the highest echelons of power, this analysis will critically reflect on the democratization and political reform process in Jordan since it was formally ushered in 1989, while examining how the structure of the country’s political economy hampered meaningful political changes.
1989: The origins of the perpetual political reform process
Jordan has long been ruled by a monarchical authoritarian regime, whereby a modicum of often-curtailed civil liberties is tolerated. King Hussein’s 46-year reign is synonymous with the emergence and solidification of the Jordanian state. Despite countless predictions of his supposed imminent downfall, and beliefs that the “artificial” kingdom would be subsumed by its more powerful neighbors, King Hussein persisted and the country made significant socioeconomic strides under his long reign.
But a series of dramatic geopolitical events—most notably the catastrophic Six Day War of June 1967 and the events of Black September in 1970—brought about a heavily repressive political atmosphere, with martial law being the norm and political parties banned.
By the 1980s, shrewd high-ranking politicians started amassing personal fortunes through kickbacks and commissions, and the kingdom found itself in dire financial straits, particularly following the oil price crash of 1986 and its repercussions on the Jordanian economy. Public finances and the ever-increasing public debt were placed behind a thick wall of secrecy, while a third of the central bank’s gold reserves were clandestinely sold in the fall of 1988 in a futile attempt to stave off the upcoming crisis.
In early 1989, with “deep-rooted macroeconomic and related structural problems” and a “severe balance of payments crisis,” Jordan was “on the verge of defaulting on its external debt payment obligations.” The kingdom began a decades-long dependency relationship with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), with the latter imposing heavy austerity measures to reduce the government’s budget deficit, particularly lifting food subsidies. But with martial law in place and political parties banned, few formal avenues to voice discontent existed.
Starting off in Ma’an, one of the poorer provincial cities in the south long regarded as an “important base of support for the royal family,” the April 1989 riots spread to other towns and cities for a week, particularly Al-Karak, Tafilah, and As-Salt, protesting against the government, its austerity measures, and its perceived corruption and impunity. Protestors also implicitly targeted King Hussein, seeing him as having become out of touch with his people.
The government resigned, and the king appointed a transitional government to pave the way for a seemingly new, more open, and plural political order in Jordan. The kingdom’s political liberalization had begun.
A much-vaunted political liberalization…
For the first time since the Israeli takeover of the West Bank in 1967, countrywide parliamentary elections took place in November 1989, reportedly met with enthusiasm, and widely regarded as free and fair. Independent candidates—Islamists, leftists, and nationalists, with rhetoric anchored in anti-corruption and social justice—made significant inroads. A new government was appointed, and repressive measures in place for decades were loosened, such as the government’s control over the Jordanian press and travel restrictions placed on opposition activists.
In tandem, King Hussein established a commission composed of politicians and public figures from different political leanings and orientations, charged with preparing a framework to regulate Jordan’s transition to a more liberal political system. In December 1990, its deliberations were finalized and the resultant National Charter, a social contract acknowledging the legitimacy and compatibility of Hashemite rule and parliamentary democracy, was adopted. Martial law was lifted, political parties were legalized, and a new Press and Publications Law was passed, regarded “as the most liberal that Jordan has known.”
… or a façade democracy?
From the get-go, King Hussein never intended to usher in a genuine process of political liberalization whereby a democratically-elected parliament would appoint a cabinet that can exert domestic and foreign policies.
In the early 1990s, the Jordanian economy was in tatters. The Jordanian dinar had significantly devalued, living standards had plummeted and unemployment reached alarmingly high levels—32 percent by October 1991. Structural adjustment policies imposed by the IMF—cutting public expenditures, reducing the budget deficit and increasing domestic governmental income—continued unabated. Meanwhile, no prosecution for the grand corruption cases of the 1980s took place.
Hopes for prospective peace between Arab countries and Israel were high around that time. King Hussein, who long had covert meetings with Israeli officials, saw an opportunity to reestablish close ties with the United States, severed since the Gulf War. Yet, apart from narrow segments of the business community excited about potential profitable ventures with Israel, very few in Jordan, particularly opposition parliamentarians elected in 1989, were in favor of a peace treaty. A new electoral system was introduced for the November 1993 elections, with gerrymandered electoral districts and a “one-person, one-vote” system that overrepresented rural areas at the expense of urban areas, and privileged candidates from tribal backgrounds perceived as loyal to the regime. Opposition parties were heavily undermined, and the new parliament ratified the Wadi Araba Treaty between Jordan and Israel with a comfortable majority.
In 1997, a new Press and Publications Law was introduced and gave the government sweeping powers to censor the press and punish journalists and editors who crossed red lines with hefty fines, while significantly increasing the capital requirements to establish weekly newspapers. These weeklies had taken the lead in criticizing corruption, human rights abuses, and the Wadi Araba Treaty. Several opposition parties, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, decided to boycott the parliamentary elections scheduled that year.
By the time King Hussein passed away in February 1999, the political liberalization process had been heavily undermined and it increasingly appeared to have been nothing but a fig leaf designed as “a temporary tactic by the king to reduce opposition to unpopular economic policies.”
King Abdullah II’s early years: Economic before political reform
King Hussein’s eldest son Abdullah ascended to the throne and proclaimed before parliament in November 1999 that Jordan’s “democratic course has been and will remain our unwavering national cause.” However, political reform and democratization were swiftly put on the back burner, while economic reform took center stage. The king adopted neoliberal policies early on, with the belief that such policies would be remedies to the kingdom’s chronic problems of high unemployment and poverty rates.
In April 2000, Jordan joined the World Trade Organization, and in June of that year, the government was tasked with speeding up Jordan’s economic integration into the increasingly globalized world in the hopes of attracting foreign investments. The next year, a free trade agreement was signed with the United States, and Qualified Industrial Zones where manufacturing firms can export products with preferential tariff rates—already in existence since 1997—got a boost. Several state assets were partially privatized to reduce the government’s deficit and garner additional state revenues.
However, most of this cabinet’s tenure coincided with an inactive parliament and curtailed civil liberties. From June 2001 until June 2003, parliament was prorogued, under the guise of national security—the outbreak of the Second Intifada in Palestine, the 9/11 attacks, and the US-led invasion of Iraq had put tremendous security and economic pressures on Jordan which the kingdom could ill-afford. The parliament’s dissolution may have also been motivated by the fact that parliamentarians were unwilling to sign off on budget cuts demanded by Jordan’s donors, as they feared such cuts would undermine their patronage abilities.
In early 2002, riots broke out in Ma’an, followed by armed clashes between the state’s security apparatus and armed militants in November. Although confined to one area, these events were seen as a manifestation of the Jordanian public’s growing frustration over the government’s deeply unpopular neoliberal socioeconomic policies.
The absence of parliament paved the way for over 200 provisional laws to be passed by the government, including laws which further strained civil liberties such as protesting in public or freedom of the press. The privatization process which took place during that time was subjected to vehement criticism, particularly as many of the investors who purchased governmental shares had close ties to ruling elites, but the political opposition could do little to counter such policies.
The 2003 elections brought forth a new parliament with an overrepresentation of rural areas, dominated by pro-government figures. Opposition parties barely made any gains.
Missed opportunities for genuine political reform
By the mid-2000s, discontent and frustrations had grown significantly due to the impacts economic reforms had on the wider population. Chronically high levels of unemployment and perceived corruption persisted, coupled with the state’s prioritizing security concerns over political reforms. The king’s reputation seemed to be on the downturn.
To address this budding legitimacy crisis, the “Jordan First” public relations campaign was launched by the Royal Court in October 2002. A royally-appointed committee, composed mainly of governmental figures, presented a set of recommendations for political reform. But apart from a parliamentary quota for women, none of the recommendations were adopted. The campaign died down quickly, but political reform—or the illusion of reform—became a convenient tool to address discontent.
By 2005, King Abdullah’s rhetoric about political reforms had become vacuous, while civil liberties continued to be curtailed. In February, King Abdullah appointed the National Agenda Committee, tasked with developing a transformative 10-year reform agenda targeting all facets of the Jordanian economy and state—from education, taxation, welfare, and judicial reforms, to the electoral law and lessening restrictions and governmental intervention in the press, political parties, and civil society. Such an ambitious plan proved to be very controversial and threatening to the kingdom’s entrenched economic and political elites. Conservative forces within the political class, with tacit support from the security apparatus, fiercely attacked the plan and its advocates in the local press, portraying it as “premature and dangerous.”
However, on November 9, 2005, a series of terrorist suicide bombings in Amman were perpetrated by al-Qaeda in Iraq, which led to the resignation of the reform-leaning prime minister. He was replaced by a retired army general who had vocally opposed the National Agenda.
The king launched the “We Are All Jordan”’ initiative in 2006 which sought to “[open] the door for citizens to participate” in formulating, implementing, and following-up on policymaking. But the initiative received little attention from the public. The 2007 parliamentary elections were widely believed to be rigged, and the following cabinet further damaged any prospects for political liberalization by introducing a law that gave the government disproportionate control over NGOs’ work and ability to obtain foreign funding.
The political reform process languished, living standards stagnated, while “rumors of corruption abounded, particularly concerning reported deals involving the sale of state-owned lands.” The appointment in December 2009 of Samir Al Rifai as prime minister—the son of the unpopular former prime minister ousted in 1989—only further fueled disillusionment, while the November 2010 parliamentary elections were boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups.
It wasn’t until the Arab uprisings of 2011 that momentum for reform re-emerged.
The Arab uprisings… A chance “to move the political process forward”?
In May 2012, in an interview with Curtis Ryan, a prominent scholar on Jordan, King Abdullah II stated that, after a decade in power, he “got frustrated of fighting against the system” and that the “Arab Spring […] was an opportunity to move the political process forward.”
Despite countless calls for ushering in meaningful political reforms, King Abdullah had little to show for since ascending to the throne. Prior to the Arab uprisings, numerous sectors of the economy saw active labor organizing. In 2009 alone, large strikes by workers in the Jordanian Phosphate Company and in the Aqaba port took place; the next year, 140 labor protests in both the public and the private sectors were recorded, spanning several sectors of the economy—transportation, industry, agriculture, education, construction, and garments, to name a few. Yet, it took a region-wide wave of protests to serve as a shock to Jordan’s political elites rather than workers’ discontent at home.
In early 2011, encouraged by widespread protests taking place across Arab countries, Jordanians throughout the kingdom took part in demonstrations, first in rural towns and cities such as Dhiban, Tafilah, Ma’an, and Al-Karak, before moving to Amman. By-and-large, they avoided anti-regime rhetoric, deliberately abstaining from crossing the red line of directly criticizing the monarchy, and instead demanded meaningful political and economic changes. The protests were very diverse in composition—from Islamists and traditional leftist opposition groups, to retired servicemen in the armed forces and disillusioned youth activists who came to be referred to as the hirak.
The government was sacked, and a new one was tasked with ushering in “practical, swift and tangible steps to launch genuine political reform.” The king formed a royal committee to amend the constitution, which presented a blueprint for reforms—namely establishing a Constitutional Court and an Independent Election Commission. Then, between 2012 and 2017, King Abdullah wrote a series of discussion papers to outline his vision for “comprehensive reform and the future of democracy in Jordan.”
Yet, whatever political reforms were enacted since 2011 remained largely cosmetic and did not lead to any substantial political changes. Different prime ministers and cabinets came and went, each with grand strategies and action plans—the launch of the 10-year Jordan Vision 2025 being one prominent example—but failing to usher in any major changes to the political and economic status quo. Parliament continues to be dominated by pro-regime figures and wealthy businessmen, while voter apathy has increased. Political parties remain weak and subjected to direct and indirect pressures from the regime, while the king continues to hold far-reaching executive powers in what has been called a “façade democracy.”
Since 1999, Jordan continued more forcefully on its neoliberal path, while the overarching contours of the political system remained largely intact albeit with some minor changes throughout. As with many other countries that embarked on such a pathway, socioeconomic inequalities have only deepened since then.
Neoliberalism failed to solve the structural hindrances in the Jordanian economy. The unemployment rate remains chronically high—reaching 23.3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2021, as per official figures—while living standards have stagnated and regressed. The Jordanian state remains perennially reliant on foreign aid and debt. The public’s trust in state institutions is at an all-time low. According to the Arab Barometer, in 2018, 89 percent of Jordanians believed corruption existed to a large or medium extent in state institutions, while 38 percent had some or great trust in the government. Only 14 percent had some or great trust in parliament. In 2021, Jordan was classified as “not free” by Freedom House, reflecting the increasing authoritarian turn the country has been on over the past few years—the clampdown on the teacher’s syndicate since 2020 being one prominent example of the shrinking space for civil liberties. Protests have continued to break out sporadically, with one prime minister even being compelled to resign in 2018 after days of widespread protests following the announcement of IMF-related austerity measures.
While the monarchy has, since late-2021, ushered in a new process of political reform, it remains unclear whether this will fundamentally shake the political and economic status quo, and whether a largely apathetic public will have any hopes in it. After being subjected, for over two decades, to a discourse laden with lofty phrases of reforms and democratization with little to show for other than widening inequalities and stagnating living standards, who can blame Jordanians if they react to the whole process with cynicism?
Karim Merhej is a former Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on corruption, socioeconomic inequality, and governance in Lebanon and Jordan.