Khaled Jaber, a poor-paid public school teacher, needed a side hustle. He used his car as a taxi and worked as a tutor. He has borrowed money from his relatives to cover unexpected expenses such as medical bills.
The 44-year old muddled through his life, supported by his passion for teaching Arabic high school and the respect he earned in his community.
His fragile equilibrium was shattered by the harsh treatment that the government has given to tens of thousand of teachers over the last two years. The union, which had a successful one-month strike and mass protests, was able to secure a 35% increase in their salaries, but the government then dissolved it. Treyteen union leaders were brought to court, and each face a one year sentence pending appeal.
The increase in authoritarianism, which was noted in the downgrade Jordan’s status from “partly-free” to “not-free” this year by U.S. advocacy group Freedom House, is in stark contrast to the monarchy’s image as having embraced liberal Western principles and being a reliable ally during turbulent times.
Jaber feels disrespected by the heavy-handed suppression of protests. The salary increase, however, has not made any difference due to exploding costs.
He said that even the right to complain was gone.
He said, in his tiny apartment near Amman, “Allow me to speak, go out on the street and scream as long as it is peaceful,” as if appealing for help from the authorities. Allow me to vent my sorrow.
A growing malaise has been caused by the crackdown on expression.
The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated an economic downturn that has lasted years. More than half of Jordanians are now unemployed, and the country is getting deeper into debt.
Public trust has been further undermined by recent revelations that King Abdullah II secretly acquired luxury properties in foreign countries worth more than $106million. The news of the offshore purchases came months after Prince Hamzah, the half-brother to the King, was accused of corruption at the top. This scandal engulfed the normally discreet royal family in an unprecedented scandal.
Many activists claimed anger at the trio of increased repression and worsening economic conditions is bubbling under the surface. They said that the only thing keeping mass protests under control is fear of being arrested or inadvertently creating self-destructive chaos. This is similar to what happened in Syria.
Maisara Malas (59), a union activist and engineer, stated that there is no doubt this creates pressure. She spoke about the growing gap between the wealthy, detached elite and the majority of Jordanians. “The people are becoming poorer and the ruling regime getting wealthier.”
Any sign of instability should alarm Jordan’s Western allies. The United States is the most important, as they value Jordan for its support in fighting Islamic extremism, its security ties to Israel, and willingness to accept refugees.
However, the Biden administration’s focus has shifted to Indo-Pacific. Middle East policy is in maintenance mode, and approach to Jordan seems to be on autopilot. This was according to Seth Binder, of Project on Middle East Democracy (a Washington-based advocacy organization).
He said that Jordan is not a troubled country like Yemen or Syria. Instead, the U.S. applies to Jordan “this tired trope about an Arab regime which is a moderate one.” “That overlooks the real situation and raises serious concerns.”
After Israel, Jordan is the second largest recipient of bilateral U.S. assistance in the region. The U.S. promised Jordan in a 2018 memorandum that it would receive at most $1.3 billion per year for five consecutive years. The Congress, which has bipartisan support for Jordan, has gone further than that. It appropriated $1.7billion in 2021, which included $845 million of direct budget support. The Biden administration proposes spending $1.3 billion for the next fiscal year. This includes $490 million in budget assistance, money that is not allocated to specific programs, and $1.3 billion in general support.
Binder’s group demanded that direct cash transfers be subject to more stringent conditions, which were circulated to Washington decision-makers in September. They also called for their eventual elimination. It stated that aid should be used to push for political and economic reforms.
The report stated that a cash transfer to the government should only be granted to U.S. partners who are committed to democracy, human rights, and not guilty of rampant corruption.
In a response, the State Department stated that U.S. aid to Jordan was in its direct national security interests. It also described the kingdom as an “invaluable allie” and said that the U.S. regularly engages the Jordanian government in discussions on a variety of issues, including human right violations.
Officials from Jordan reacted strongly to corruption claims. According to Ayman Safadi, Foreign Minister of Jordan, “Every dollar (aid) provided is accounted.” He told The Associated Press last Wednesday. Direct cash transfers are “accounted” in the budget that the government executes and is subject to audit.
Safadi also supported the purchase of luxury homes by the king, which was revealed in a massive leaked document known as the Pandora Papers. Safadi claimed that the monarch used private money and cited security concerns and privacy as reasons for keeping the transactions secret.
Mohammed Momani, former Information Minister, said that he regrets Jordan’s “not free” downgrading but maintained that the kingdom did better than many other countries in the region.
He said that Jordan is not Sweden but that he also knew that we were among the best countries in the Middle East when it comes freedom of expression. “So, the situation isn’t as dire as we expected it to be, but it’s not as bad as some would think.”
Jordan’s king holds all power. He appoints, and then dismisses, the governments. Because of the single-vote electoral system, Parliament is compliant and discourages the formation strong political parties. Abdullah repeatedly stated that he would open the political system but backed down after concerns about losing control to an Islamist surge.
The Prince Hamzah scandal of spring led to the appointment of a committee consisting of experts. They now propose that one-third of the seats in 2024’s parliament election be reserved for political parties. Momani, who is a member, stated that the quota would increase to two-thirds within a decade, and eventually reach 100%.
Momani stated that this was the most significant reform effort in 30 years, but the new ideas did not generate much excitement in Jordan where many people view the promise of change with skeptical eyes.
Jaber, an Arabic teacher, is one of those who have a grim outlook. Jaber said that he expected his four children to be poorer than he is due to high unemployment and rising costs.
“When a student attends university, he or his family will owe thousands of dinars. What is the time he needs to find a job? When can he get married? He asked when he would build a home. “I don’t believe there is a bright future or anything like that, as some officials claim. For me, and others, things are getting worse and more dire.”