Economic slump, unemployment fuel instability in Jordan
Dhiban, Jordan - Sabri Mashaaleh said he feels misled and angry. The 29-year-old studied counselling expecting to find a civil service job, in line with what used to be a typical career path for college-educated Jordanians.
Four years later, he is still unemployed.
His last hopes were crushed this summer when troops tore down the tent in his small, remote home town of Dhiban where he and other jobless young men staged daily sit-ins for two months, demanding jobs.
With protests silenced, Mashaaleh predicted a dark future for Dhiban.
“Dhiban has become a fertile environment for radical thoughts and it’s a fertile environment for drug problems and a fertile environment for criminals,” said Mashaaleh, speaking at the roundabout where the tent once stood.
The Dhiban unrest highlights what the Jordanian government says is its biggest challenge — rising unemployment, particularly among the young, fuelled by an economic slump and spillover from conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
Youth unemployment is endemic in the Middle East, where a demographic “youth bulge” has increased the number of jobseekers, including college graduates, while economies have stalled amid spreading violence.
Even though Jordan’s unemployment problem is not unique, some say the pro-Western monarchy warrants special attention because of its strategic importance. The country is part of the US-led military coalition against Islamic State (ISIS) extremists who control parts of Syria and Iraq and have attracted thousands of followers in Jordan.
Any destabilisation of Jordan, possibly triggered by economic problems, would alarm the kingdom’s allies.
The government needs to take urgent action, said economist Omar Razzaz, who leads a national team of experts trying to devise a new employment strategy. “We cannot afford to have the unemployment problem turn into a radicalisation problem,” he said. “That’s the time bomb we are facing.”
Economic growth in Jordan dropped from 3.1% in 2014 to 2.4% last year and 2.3% in the first quarter of 2016, according to the World Bank. Continued fighting in Syria and Iraq forced the closure of Jordan’s main overland trade routes in 2015 and harmed tourism and construction.
Unemployment rose from 13% last year to 14.7% in 2016. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, 35% have no jobs, said Lea Hakim, the World Bank’s country economist for Jordan. “The economy has not been generating enough jobs, not quantity and not quality jobs, for its population,” she said.
The influx of Syrian refugees since 2011 has further expanded the labour force. Jordan hosts 660,000 registered refugees — though a recent census counted twice as many Syrians in Jordan — out of a total population of 9.5 million.
In the first years of the Syria crisis, Jordan barred refugees from working legally to protect its labour force. Instead, tens of thousands of Syrians worked informally in construction, farming and retail — sectors until then dominated by migrant workers from Africa and Asia because the jobs paid too little to attract Jordanians.
Earlier this year, Jordan changed course.
It struck a deal with donors to turn the refugee crisis into a development opportunity and to deter Syrians from migrating to Europe by improving their lives in the region.
The kingdom agreed to issue work permits to tens of thousands of Syrians. In exchange, Europe eased trade restrictions to encourage investment in Jordan, while donors, including the World Bank, promised concessional financing and grants for development and labour-intensive projects in the country.
Ferid Belhaj, the World Bank’s regional director, said he expects this trade-off to generate growth and jobs in three or four years. “The crisis is a huge challenge but it can turn into an opportunity,” he said.
Razzaz said the government should launch an ambitious public works programme, including employing large numbers of Jordanians to care for children and the elderly.
“We should… start this programme before we see protests,” said Razzaz, who also heads the Jordan Strategy Forum think-tank. The government and donor countries have funded pilot programmes that fall short of needs, he said.
Jordanian Planning Minister Imad Fakhoury described lowering unemployment as the government’s top priority. This includes a $35 million fund to encourage young Jordanians to set up small businesses.
Jordanians need to understand that the public sector can no longer be the main employer, Fakhoury said. Opportunities are available outside the civil service “but it requires also a change of mindset”, he said.
In Dhiban, a town of 25,000 about 70km from Amman, many feel marginalised.
Two dozen protesters, including Mashaaleh, were detained when troops backed by armoured vehicles dismantled the protest tent in June but all have been released. Mashaaleh said the protests were peaceful, though the Interior Ministry said three officers were wounded when shots were fired at them during a clash in Dhiban.
Dhiban Mayor Fhaid al-Rawahneh said: “We don’t want to fight with the security.”
He said the government must do more to bring factories to the region. An attempt to attract a pre-fab home construction company to Dhiban with the promise of free land became entangled in red tape, he said.
Young people in Dhiban have few options. Those who can mostly sign up for police or military work in Amman, and the high transportation costs take a big cut from their meagre wages.
Rawahneh said only one of his four college-educated children has a job.
“There is unemployment in every family,” he said. “Our only demand is to find jobs.”