The Brewing Storm in Jordan’s Oasis of Calm

It is commonly held that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is an oasis of calm in the Middle East. This characterization stems in part from Jordan’s stable monarchy and strong military and economic cooperation with the United States. Jordan has not experienced a civil war since Black September in the 1970s, nor has it been involved in a major conflict since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Even under acute moments of regional pressure, such as the 2011 Arab Spring, the kingdom experienced relatively manageable protests compared to its neighbors. With so much attention on surrounding conflicts and humanitarian crises, Jordan’s stability is often taken for granted by the United States.

However, Jordan now faces a threefold challenge—Covid-19, rising unemployment, and a deteriorating situation for refugees—that threatens the country’s stability. Even before the pandemic, increased pressure for political reform and rising unemployment rates, particularly for Jordan’s youth, posed a threat to this historic peace. The aftereffects of the Covid-19 pandemic threaten to further destabilize civil society.

Additionally, Jordan hosts about 750,000 refugees from Syria, Palestine, and Iraq, representing the second-largest refugee community in the world per capita. As a result of the Syrian Civil War, many Syrians fled to neighboring Jordan for safety and better economic opportunities. While 90 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan live outside of refugee camps, they face disproportionate food and income insecurities compared to the larger Jordanian population. Many of the refugees in Jordan lack the higher education, skills accreditation, and the necessary work permits for more technical and high-income employment. Over 50 percent of Syrian refugees are women, many of whom work in the informal sector with little job security or face social and economic barriers to employment, making them particularly vulnerable to the dual economic and health shocks of Covid-19.

Predictions of impending crises have failed to materialize in the past, but if economic, political, and forced displacement-related vulnerabilities are not properly addressed, Jordan could face a political, economic, and humanitarian reckoning more severe than anything it has faced in recent history. Covid-19 has worsened an already fragile humanitarian situation in Jordan and could result in increased poverty and food insecurity among vulnerable groups. The international community need only look toward Lebanon for a cautionary tale about what happens when citizen grievances are left unaddressed. To avoid this grim scenario, continued support for Jordanian stability is vital. The foundation of such efforts should be economic assistance and humanitarian relief, prioritizing the needs of host communities with an understanding of the underlying socioeconomic disparities that exist between vulnerable communities and the general population.

A Worsening Economic Crisis

Even before Covid-19, many Jordanians, especially youth, were discouraged with the poor economic situation and left Jordan in search of opportunities elsewhere. The total unemployment rate in 2020 was 14.61 percent; for youth, it was 34.96 percent. With substantially greater economic pressure on youth, the exodus has resulted in a “brain drain” of young talent, which could have serious economic consequences for Jordan’s future. According to a recent study from the University of Jordan, 45 percent of Jordanians think about emigrating outside the country. Among those 18-29 years old, that figure rises to 59 percent. Unless the economy stabilizes and more jobs materialize, youth emigration is unlikely to abate.

Employment opportunities remain even more scarce for Jordan’s refugee population, who lack the means to leave Jordan for better economic opportunities or return safely to their home countries. In 2019, the unemployment rate for male Syrian refugees in Jordan was 31.93 percent and 74.41 percent for women. Despite internationally sponsored employment training programs for Syrian refugees, larger psychosocial, legal, and other structural issues mean even the refugees who do manage to find work end up in part-time, informal, and intermittent employment. For example, job opportunities for refugees are restricted in the private sector. Certain occupations are “closed” and reserved for Jordanian citizens, such as in the information technology, engineering, medicine, government, and accounting sectors. Syrians instead must seek work in preapproved sectors, including manufacturing, construction, and agriculture. Work permits—necessary for refugees and non-Jordanians who live outside refugee camps to formally work—are costly and require extensive paperwork and an annual renewal. This can discourage many Syrian refugees from applying for employment in the formal sector, and instead lead to more informal and deregulated work that can be dangerous and unsustainable.

As global economic growth has stagnated, Covid-19 has accelerated Jordan’s pre-pandemic downward economic spiral. Since the onset of the pandemic, poverty rates have increased by 38 percent among locals and 18 percent among Syrian refugees, many of whom were already poor and struggling to make ends meet before the crisis. Jordanian government assistance to address Covid-19’s economic impact has largely targeted the formal economic sector, including the suspension of clauses of the Labor Law, a reduction in public sector salaries, and prohibition of worker layoff. However, the informal sector—where the majority of refugees work—make up 44 percent of Jordan’s economy. The informal sector offers fewer labor protections compared to the formal sector, and it is where increases in unemployment are first felt. Many of those refugees working in-person informal jobs, including at construction sites, stores, factories, or in agriculture, found themselves almost immediately without employment in the first few months of the pandemic. Subsequent limited access to job-related social security and benefits places informal sector workers, most of whom are women, at increased risk to adverse shocks.

Female Syrian refugees are already underrepresented in the labor market; as of January 2021, only 5 percent of total work permits for Syrian refugees were for women. And the gender divide resulting from Covid-19’s economic impact in Jordan is significant: the pandemic’s effects include increased domestic and unpaid care responsibilities, further limiting women’s economic opportunities. In the female-dominated health and education sectors, the pandemic has created higher health risks and more intensified workloads, and the pandemic has adversely impacted women’s employment in the agriculture, energy, administrative, manufacturing, and retail sectors. Per a 2020 International Labor Organization (ILO) study, duties such as household work and childcare increased for 65 percent (74 percent women and 59 percent men) of the respondents.

Increased Vulnerability for Refugee Population

Jordan has a history of welcoming displaced persons from its neighbors, including Syria, Palestine, and Iraq. Many Jordanians are descendants of Palestinian refugees, and even the more recently arrived Syrians have been able to contribute to Jordan’s economy. However, hosting refugees comes with added complexities, including the need for more resources, job opportunities, and basic services. To address the stresses on local resources and services, Jordan has understandably been a large recipient of foreign assistance. Since 2001, the United States alone has given $1.9 billion in aid to Jordan, primarily targeting governance and civil society; conflict, peace, and security; emergency response; and water and sanitation. Jordan is also one of the most water-poor countries in the world and imports 50 percent of its food products. The World Food Programme characterizes Jordan as a “resource-poor, food-deficit country with limited agricultural land, no oil resources and a scarce water supply,” which makes it dependent on imports and global supply chains to feed its population.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed just how susceptible displaced persons are to economic and healthcare shocks, given their often unreliable sources of income, close living quarters, and greater psychosocial challenges. Refugees are also at greater risk for mental health illnesses, including depression, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Covid-19 has also disrupted global supply chains, increasing food insecurity particularly among vulnerable groups. The pandemic has also caused rates of food insecurity to increase dramatically in refugee households in camps, especially in those that are female headed. In July and August 2020, experts estimated that 21 percent of refugee households outside of camps in Jordan were food insecure, while an additional 67 percent were vulnerable to food insecurity. By comparison, 3 percent of Jordanian households are considered food insecure, and 53 percent are considered vulnerable to food insecurity. With economic recovery likely to be a long and slow process, the kingdom should prioritize food availability and financial accessibility for poor and vulnerable Jordanian households and displaced communities.

Jordan’s Response to Covid-19

Jordan’s response to Covid-19 has been considered one of the strictest to be implemented in the region and around the world. Compared to the United States, where lockdown orders varied by state and were coupled with loosely enforced stay-at-home orders, mask mandates, and curfews, Jordan’s initial lockdown banned citizens from stepping foot outside their homes or driving. The initial nationwide 14-day general curfew aimed to halt all activity within the country; however, this was lifted a few days after its implementation to allow people to obtain food and medicine.

While Jordan’s efforts may have reduced the health impacts of the virus initially, Covid-19 has tested the kingdom’s capacity to provide public health services, especially to its most vulnerable populations. In late 2020, amid a surge in cases, the Jordanian government struggled to provide health resources and services, possibly related to a reduction in government health expenditures over the last decade. Once again, the international community was essential for the response. Recognizing the dire potential of an outbreak among refugees, the United Nations Refugee Agency worked with the Jordanian Ministry of Health and the Syrian Refugees Affairs Directorate to help contain the spread of Covid-19 in refugee camps and monitor cases in urban areas. Consequently, refugee camps have been spared major outbreaks, and the test positivity rate in February 2021 remained less than the national average: 1.9 percent compared to 3.4 percent. Additionally, Jordan began vaccinating refugees in January 2021, signaling the country’s and international community’s commitment to the well-being of the refugee population. Unfortunately, a surge of the UK Covid-19 variant in the past two months has prompted new restrictions and closures, which could worsen the health and economic conditions.

Declining Trust in Political Institutions

Already on shaky ground, Covid-19 has decreased faith in the government’s ability to promote private and public sector job growth while acting as a neutral arbiter of corruption and nepotism. Public opinion surveys from mid-2020 reveal that 66 percent of Jordanians “believe Jordan is headed in the wrong direction.” Over 90 percent state that the Parliament of Jordan has not had any successes in the past year, and 72 percent indicate they will likely not participate in future elections because the feel their votes are insignificant and the government is ineffective. By comparison, a 2017 survey showed lower levels of dissatisfaction; in it 58 percent of respondents believed Jordan was headed in somewhat or mostly the wrong direction.

This lack of public trust in the Jordanian government and institutions could spill over into the streets. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring; similar protests could put pressure on King Abdullah to promulgate new reforms. The 2011 protests, while not on the same scale as those in Egypt or Tunisia, did yield some change, including political reforms, amendments to the constitution and election law, the establishment of a new government, the removal of permit requirements for protesters, and the launch of targeted development projects.

Many Jordanians, however, consider these reforms unfinished and have demanded further electoral reform, including a directly elected parliament as well as stronger anti-corruption efforts. Additional surveys find that 73 percent of Jordanians care about political reform, and when asked about a slate of specific reforms, 67 percent support reducing the size of parliament and the number of ministries. However, the low turnout for the November 2020 parliamentary elections (around 30 percent of eligible voters) illustrates that the socioeconomic impact of Covid-19 and rising public distrust are contributing to a decrease in civic participation. For many, pandemic-related stressors could prompt questions about whether government leaders can be trusted to steward the economy and provide basic services. These simultaneous health, political, and economic crises have the potential to destabilize Jordan and will undoubtedly hurt its ability to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Building Jordan Back Better

Ultimately, Covid-19 could be the crisis that most seriously threatens Jordan’s ability to maintain its calm, as seen by last year’s teacher protests and the recent cabinet reshuffle. But this is not a foregone conclusion. Despite the negative impacts of Covid-19, the post-pandemic period presents an opportunity for the Jordanian government to launch a forward-looking and inclusive economic recovery and growth program that is supportive of vulnerable populations. This will likely require a broad approach that addresses both the fallout of Covid-19 and the economic issues that existed before the pandemic.

In the short term, vulnerable groups in Jordan are experiencing the brunt of the economic downturn from Covid-19 and should be a primary focus of government support efforts. With the backing of the international community (which will be needed), the Jordanian government should continue to expand social assistance via the National Aid Fund to informal sector workers, focusing on increasing their food and economic security. The Takemeely Support Program (Takaful), for example, has successfully provided funds to informal sector workers, but it excludes refugees. Cash assistance programs have proven to be effective in increasing the economic participation of refugees in Jordan and should be expanded. Even marginal increases in financial support to refugees could provide an extra economic cushion and resilience until businesses reopen and against future external shocks while also infusing capital into local markets. Cash assistance may not be a sustainable solution in the long term, and typically barely covers rent and necessities, but it is critical for the many vulnerable people in Jordan and, in turn, critical for the country’s stability. Expanding access to more flexible and accessible work permits through cost reductions and reduced bureaucratic hurdles could also increase incomes and protection for vulnerable groups and bolster economic growth in Jordan in the longer term. For female Syrian refugees, eliminating social barriers and expanding childcare services could increase their labor participation rate and share of work permit issuances. With return to Syria not an option for most, it makes sense from economic and psychosocial perspectives to address the economic limbo in which refugees find themselves.

In the longer term, the government should prioritize efforts to combat the significant brain drain of Jordanian youth to the West, especially to Europe. The kingdom should provide incentives for youth entrepreneurship to create a more favorable business environment, whether through tax credits, small- to medium-sized business loans, or better funding and support for youth entrepreneurship and skill-training programs. To stabilize food security in the longer term, especially for those most vulnerable, the kingdom should strengthen its agricultural sector. It should continue to register farmers with the Ministry of Agriculture and maintain modern and regularly updated databases on current food supplies of key commodities. While larger farmers are often able to be accounted for and registered in the Ministry of Agriculture, this system does not include small farmers. Not registering small farmers creates economic losses, as those who are not formally registered cannot gain access to the domestic markets during Covid-19. The kingdom should also continue to add to its emergency food stockpiles to prepare for future shocks, including natural disasters, which are likely to increase in frequency due to climate change.

Jordan’s Peace and Stability is a U.S. Interest

The United States and Jordan share similar values and interests in the region, Jordan’s peace and stability being one of them. As one of its largest financial supporters, the United States should continue robust humanitarian and development-focused foreign assistance to Jordan in the wake of Covid-19. U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken and Jordanian foreign minister Ayman Safadi reaffirmed the importance of the bilateral relationship on a recent phone call. However, the negative impact of the last four years—particularly over U.S. unilateral action in Israel and Palestine—means that fences may still need to be mended. It behooves the Biden administration to avoid taking the historically strong ties for granted. Assisting Jordan in its time of need could thus have positive repercussions that resonate beyond the vulnerable populations targeted by U.S. foreign assistance. Without it, the many challenges facing Jordan mean that a perfect storm could be brewing over an oasis of calm vital to strategic U.S. interest.

Shannon McKeown is a program coordinator with the Project on Prosperity and Development and Project on U.S. Leadership in Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Erol Yayboke is deputy director and senior fellow with the CSIS Project on Prosperity and Development.

This commentary was produced in partnership with the CSIS Humanitarian Agenda.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Erol Yayboke

Erol Yayboke

Former Director, Project on Fragility and Mobility and Senior Fellow, International Security Program

Shannon McKeown