Shore-up Jordan before it’s too late…
Ambassador Oded Eran (Senior Research Fellow, INSS, former Israeli ambassador to Jordan, the EU and NATO, and former head of the Israeli negotiating team with the Palestinians) and Eddie Grove (Research Assistant Intern, MEI and former Research Assistant Intern, INSS) co-authored an article entitled Threats to Stability in Jordan in the July 2015 issue of INSS Strategic Assessment. The article describes the challenges that Jordan must overcome in both the short-term and the long-term to remain stable.
Despite persistent predictions of the imminent demise of the Hashemite regime, Jordan has remained stable, buoyed by international aid from the US and the GCC. Jordan faces a growing jihadi threat, fueled largely by a poor economy and high youth unemployment. In the short-term, Jordan’s stability will be aided by low oil prices and a temporary rise in patriotism after pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh’s murder by ISIS. In the long-term, Jordan needs to address water and energy scarcity issues to remain stable and serve the needs of a growing population, including its many refugees.
Jordan has high unemployment, including a youth unemployment rate of ~30%. A few key reasons for this include:
- Jordan’s education system doesn’t provide students with necessary skills for the workforce.
- Jordanian students often choose fields of study that aren’t in high demand in the workforce.
- Syrian refugees compete for informal sector jobs.
Youth unemployment, often long in duration, leads to frustration. This frustration is compounded by a lack of avenues for political expression among Jordanian youth. Little real reform occurred during Jordan’s relatively small-scale Arab Spring protests.
Some discontented youth see jihadism as attractive. Experts estimate that there are 5,000-10,000 jihadis in Jordan, and that this number may have doubled since the Arab Spring. Jordan’s jihadis were traditionally mainly Palestinian, but growing numbers of ethnic Jordanians (East Bankers) have been joining the movement. East Bankers have traditionally been regime loyalists and comprise the majority of the military and security services. Cracks in their loyalty pose a serious threat to the regime.
The government closely watches jihadis; it arrests those who post jihadi content online and preachers who deliver extremist sermons. According to one expert, the vast majority of Jordan’s jihadis now sympathize with ISIS. ISIS has grassroots support, if not an organized presence. YouTube videos have shown pro-ISIS rallies in Ma’an and Zarqa and there is also evidence of ISIS sympathizers in Irbid. As of fall 2014, there were 1000-1500 Jordanian fighters in Syria, and 8% of Jordan’s population sympathized with ISIS. Ten percent didn’t consider ISIS a terrorist organization, and opposition to Jordan’s participation in coalition airstrikes was widespread: #ThisIsNotOurWar was a trending Twitter hashtag.
When Muath Al-Kasasbeh was murdered, it prompted an anti-ISIS backlash and a surge in patriotism. A February 2015 poll showed overwhelming support for Jordan’s participation in coalition airstrikes, and that 95% of the population now considered ISIS a terrorist organization. Confidence in PM Ensour’s government also increased. King Abdullah urged Jordanians to “hold their heads high.” This became a trending hashtag on Twitter. The surge in patriotism was not universal, however, as a Jordanian MP and a high-ranking Jordanian diplomat publicly derided this new slogan. In addition, an ISIS cell was arrested in Mafraq in March 2015, a poor city with many Syrian refugees.
The wave of patriotism will fade and energy costs will increase, so Jordan needs to address its water
and energy scarcity issues. Water scarcity may have been a contributory cause of Syria’s civil war, and Jordan is one of the world’s most water-scarce countries. Additionally, ~40% of the inputs into Jordan’s water networks become Non-revenue Water (NRW). NRW is essentially water that is not accounted for when customers are billed, due to leakage, illegal use, faulty meters, incompetent meter-readers, and poor accounting. Israel provides Jordan with water from Lake Kinneret, and this quantity may increase in the future. Jordan also plans to desalinate water at Aqaba. However, solving Jordan’s water crisis requires progress on multiple fronts, including NRW reduction (with the help of the international community). Climate change could worsen Jordan’s water woes, and comparisons between Jordan and Syria are ominous. Water scarcity drove internal migration in Syria, which combined with other factors like corruption, unemployment and inequality to ignite the crisis. Jordan displays similar risk factors.
Jordan must also address its energy scarcity issues. Jordan used to import natural gas from Egypt, but repeated terror attacks on the pipeline through the Sinai halted the imports and damaged Jordan economically, forcing it to import costlier petroleum products. Low oil prices provide a temporary respite. Fortunately, Jordan has plans to diversify its energy sources by 2020, with the following breakdown:
- 10% from wind and solar.
- 14% oil shale.
- 6% nuclear.
- 29% natural gas.
- 1% imported electricity.
- 40% petroleum products.
Unfortunately, this won’t happen, at least not by 2020. Israel may import gas from Israel, but this is politically challenging and Israel’s gas companies are embroiled in an anti-trust dispute with the Israeli government. Gas from Gaza is more politically palatable for Jordan, but is unlikely to come online soon for political reasons. Jordan imports LNG from Qatar, but this is costlier than gas via pipeline. Little progress has been made on the wind and solar projects, and Jordan’s nuclear ambitions may never come to fruition because of high costs and international opposition. Oil shale (not to be confused with shale oil) has never before been extracted on a commercial scale and may not be viable at oil prices below $75/barrel.
Costly energy imports damage Jordan’s economy (and therefore its stability) as follows:
- High energy prices increase the cost of living for struggling Jordanians.
- Jordan’s remaining energy subsidies are a burden on the government’s budget and divert funds from key areas.
- Energy subsidies crowd-out private sector investment.
Energy diversification (with the help of the international community) would alleviate these issues, and help counteract the poor economic conditions that contribute to the rise in jihadism.
Israel has a strong interest in preserving Jordan’s stability, as Jordan is a buffer state. Jordan used to
export goods through Syria, but Israel has allowed Jordan to use Haifa’s port for exports, and is improving the facilities there. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is always a complicating factor in Israeli-Jordanian relations; the majority of Jordan’s population is Palestinian, causing a political climate in which Jordan requires at least a semblance of progress in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to ensure quiet domestically. Jordan’s 2014-2015 UN Security Council membership further complicates this balancing act.
To shore-up Jordan’s stability, Israel can:
- Increase bilateral cooperation (this has likely already happened).
- Expedite water and gas transfers.
- Allow for greater access of Jordanian products to Israel, but more importantly, the Palestinian market.
- Increase its use of Jordan’s port of Aqaba, which could produce mutual benefits.
In addition, the US and GCC must keep up financial assistance to Jordan, but ensure that this assistance addresses long-term issues. The immediate risk posed by ISIS is likely not a frontal attack. ISIS rather seeks to exploit pockets of poverty and unemployment within Jordan, including among East Bankers. Financial resources are needed to prevent this.