Bumpy path for Jordan in turbulent Mideast

Sunday 17/04/2016
Officers of Jordanian public security department standing guard in city of Irbid

Despite a bloody clash between Jordanian security forces and Islamic State (ISIS) militants in north­ern Jordan in early March, the country may prove to be a quiet niche in an unstable region.
Jordan’s crisis management has been able to deal with most domestic implications of extremism but what about short-term prospects for the economy amid a volatile regional situation?
Jordanian economic headaches include the interrelated problems of an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees, whose housing is costing Amman hundreds of millions of dollars; a budget deficit of $3 billion; and a record foreign debt of $32 billion, a flashing red light of 83.6% of gross domestic product in 2015 that is projected to ease only slightly by the end of 2016.
This is exacerbated by fears that international donors may not honour commitments for grants to help Amman cope with the refugee crisis.
A recent census revealed Jordan’s population swelled 87% over the past decade, with the number of residents in Amman more than doubling. This is mainly due to the post-2011 Syrian influx but to that should be added many Iraqis who entered Jordan after the June 2014 Islamic State (ISIS) surge, as well as more than 30,000 people seeking refuge from war in Yemen.
Despite the early March incident in Irbid, the kingdom has retained its calm. One sign of political tranquillity is the lapse of news into the ludicrous. That came on Valentine’s Day when the Lower House of Parliament debated (and rejected) a somewhat panicky government’s draft law seeking to regulate weather forecasting, penalising public meteorological warnings by unlicenced parties, as occurred when a polar front in late January was accompanied by contradictory forecasts that caused confusion.
The much milder-than-forecast storm fizzled out but all this led me to muse on how Jordan is trying to predict and cope with the highly unpredictable.
That is what is known to some as a “Black Swan”, the theory developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a Western scholar of Lebanese origin. to explain the disproportionate role of high-profile, hard-to-predict and rare events that are beyond normal expectations; the non-computability of the consequential events’ probability; and the biases that blind people to such uncertainty.
Taleb defines a Black Swan event as an outlier — beyond the realm of regular expectations — because what is remembered from the past cannot convincingly point to the possibility — like maybe, in Jordan’s case, newly arriving Yemeni refugees.
In coping with Black Swan events, a main idea is not to attempt to predict them but to build robustness against the negative aspects of ones that occur. In this respect, free media are a defence against Black Swans.
Something much worse than a blizzard could be in store for Jordan in the coming year due to conflict in the region exacerbating economic and demographic stress at home. If so, government attempts at stifling freedom of expression trying to gag meteorologists) are a bad idea.
Jordan’s next national emergency may not be merely meteorological, like the recent example of Irbid showed. Yet, the danger, as always in an un-free system like Jordan’s, is for lurid rumour to overtake sober reporting.