The Collapse of Jordan’s Social Safety Net

“People are hesitant to go out now,” the director of a Jordanian community center in Karak said. Karak castle was the site of an attack by gunmen in late 2016 that left 19 people dead. But the fear she described was not that of being caught up with violent extremists. Instead, she was referring to a fear of bumping into friends or relatives. “If you bump into someone you know, you’d feel obliged to invite them for a coffee or a meal,” she joked. “We can no longer afford such luxuries.”

Her dark humor mirrored a common theme that emerged from interviews with 40 Jordanians conducted for a recent CSIS report, Ties that Bind. Jordan’s deteriorating economic situation is straining traditional support networks and reshaping Jordanians’ ties with their relatives, friends, and local communities in the process. And these shifts are beginning to take on a political dimension, provoking broader questions about the foundations of the Jordanian state’s demands of loyalty from its citizens. Although Jordan has avoided the kind of protests that toppled leaders in Iraq and Lebanon this fall, the kindling exists, and all it may take is a spark.

Jordanians’ economic woes are altering their understanding of what they can expect from others and the obligations they feel to them. Interviewees reported that because traditional social support networks in Jordan now have fewer resources, they are less able to provide for their members. Jordanians described financial troubles as the primary cause of strained family relationships, weakened community ties, and a stifled social life. Increasing mobility, technology, and the changing role of women as economic actors are also compounding these trends.

A farmer in northern Jordan described feeling forced to sell his land to be able to send his daughter to university in Amman. “She refused to return to the village to visit us,” he sighed. “She said it was too expensive, the road was dangerous, and she didn’t have time because of work.” After she graduated, she struggled to find a job, and he had no way to keep supporting her. That woman’s difficulties are no outlier: Jordan’s youth unemployment rate reached 39 percent in the fall of 2019.

Several interlocutors noted that women are increasingly expected to contribute financially to their families as a result of the economic situation. “Men want working brides now,” one woman said. However, women argued that it is especially hard for them to find work because employers fear they will go on maternity leave. Although they are expected to become breadwinners for their families, women’s obligations at home remain largely unchanged. By and large, women continue to be held responsible for maintaining social networks despite having less time and fewer resources to do so.

Other traditional social support nets are also crumbling. Older Jordanians spoke nostalgically of the strong local communities of their youths and argued that rapid urbanization, the worsening economic situation, and the influx of refugees have undermined those relationships. “Now, I only realize a neighbor is getting married when I hear the honks of the marriage procession,” one Jordanian man remarked. Others admitted that they don’t even know the names of neighbors in their apartment buildings, and so they feel unable to turn to them for even basic requests. “There are no neighbors now,” one Jordanian woman stated plainly.

Tribes traditionally acted as a more formal source of social support when their members faced financial troubles. But tribes play a less pronounced role in daily life, even in southern Jordan, where tribal identities remain more salient. Interviewees linked a decrease of revenues from Gulf Arab states to a decline in tribes’ influence. They said most tribes will only help their members in extreme cases of legal or physical insecurity. A frustrated young man in northern Jordanian described tribes as “fake” because they continue to expect a lot from their members but provide “nothing in return.” A tribesman from Ma`an recalled that, even as his tribe’s youngest member, he had been expected to contribute over $400 when his “cousin” was involved in a murder. Several interviewees agreed that tribes’ only real benefit is the protection they provide.

The relationship between tribes and the state is currently in flux. After its creation, the Jordanian state sought to maintain the tribal order as a means of exerting its control over the country. The recruitment of tribesmen to the public sector, and particularly to the army, was a key pillar of that relationship. But as the economic situation has worsened, the government has been forced to cut public spending and adopt austerity measures in order to access a $723 million bailout from the International Monetary Fund. It cannot bolster tribal networks today as it has before.

As tribes’ ability to help their members has declined, some Jordanians began to expect more from the government, and they reassessed their relationship with the state. Jordanians described having an increasingly transactional relationship with the state as its historical method of obtaining their loyalty has been undermined. “The shift to privatization means the government can’t buy loyalties by distributing jobs anymore,” a young leftist activist argued. As well as failing to provide jobs, Jordanians reported a decline in the quality of services the state provides. General awareness of corruption has also “skyrocketed,” which has fueled discontent. Jordanians said that expressing frustration with the state has become a topic of more open discussion in recent years, although criticism of the king remains taboo.

Older interviewees cited their fears for the young generation and hinted that the disintegration of social structures could drive instability in Jordan. A local NGO director warned that as young people feel their support networks of family, friends, tribe, or state are failing them, they become increasingly vulnerable to exploitation. Although few interviewees expressed concerns about radicalization as a result of the collapse of social safety nets, their fear about the consequences of the building economic crisis was palpable.

This commentary is based on research conducted for the report, Ties that Bind: Family, Tribe, Nation, and the Rise of Arab Individualism.

Will Todman is an associate fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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).

© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Will Todman
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Middle East Program