Why Jordan’s young and jobless men are marching on the kingdom’s capital

Marches have exposed an outdated approach to inequality and job creation that is leaving many left behind

Jordanian protesters march during a demonstration against the government's decision to raise taxes in the capital Amman, on December 13, 2018.  The tax law passed in November, as part of a series of austerity measures to reduce the public debt in exchange for a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has led to a wave of protest in June that pushed the then Prime Minister to resign and the authorities to withdraw the initial bill. / AFP / Khalil MAZRAAWI
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Hundreds of young men marching towards Jordan’s capital to demand jobs have not just epitomised public frustration about the economy, but also exposed an outdated government approach to inequality and job creation which is leaving thousands behind, analysts say.

Dozens from far-flung governorates have been descending on Amman since February 14, when a group of frustrated, jobless young men marched from Aqaba, 330 kilometres to the south.

Although the Aqaba protesters returned after assurances from the Royal Court, a new wave of marchers began walking from the marginalised southern city of Maan – 220km from Amman – as well as men from Theiban, Karak and elsewhere.

Last week, dozens of protesters camped out across from the Royal Court, where for the past 19 days they slept and braved near-freezing temperatures, heavy rains and floods.

They twice rejected meetings with the government, as well as approaches from tribal leaders.

“We are asking for a long-term source of income to live on, not a promise or a one-time payment,” says Mohammed Al Maani, a protester who did not want to give his full name. “We are not going to leave until we have assurances that we will return home to a job.”

Analysts say the Jordanian government’s latest crisis is one born of poor management and planning rather than limited resources.

Jordan received hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and planned mega-projects over the past decade, but few of these schemes intended for the provinces have come to pass.

While Jordan recorded a record-high 18.7 per cent unemployment rate last year, in Maan unemployment has hovered at about 21 per cent for much of the past decade.

Unofficial estimates place unemployment in the southern provinces at 30 per cent and more than 40 per cent among Jordanians between the ages of 15 and 30.

Since the 1980s, when groups of citizens have protested, or political tensions emerged, the government offered jobs behind desks at state institutions or absorbed them into the military.

epa07213195 Jordanians shout slogans as they demand the government for reforms in various fields during a protest under a heavy rain, in Amman, Jordan, 06 December 2018. A few hundred protesters gathered in the area leading to the Prime Minister office in central Amman, to demand political and economic reforms. The last time such protests took place, earlier in the summer, they had led to a change of government.  EPA/ANDRE PAIN
Jordanians shout slogans as they demand the government for reforms in various fields during a protest under a heavy rain, in Amman, Jordan, on December 6, 2018. EPA

“Jobs were seen as a tool, and hiring was at times a form of nepotism. The only time citizens objected, it was not based on the principle – it was based on the fact that they themselves were not hired,” says Jawad Anani, a former Royal Court chief who was minister of state for economic affairs last year.

This approach was vital during the Arab uprisings, when, activists and analysts say, the government offered jobs and perks to leaders of pro-reform protests in Jordan from 2012 to 2014 to thwart the demonstrations.

Now, with Jordan battling a $40 billion (Dh147bn) debt crisis, Amman is focused instead on slashing as much expenditure and payroll as it can.

It needs to meet International Monetary Fund requirements to bring its debt-to-GDP level from 95 per cent down to 77 per cent by 2021 as part of the conditions of a $723 million IMF credit line.

With 70 per cent of the population under the age of 30, there are simply not enough jobs to go around.

Meanwhile, resentment is brewing in southern Jordan where people see the government raising taxes and reducing hiring at a time when the state continues to benefit from the region’s mineral and tourism assets.

“The south is host to much of Jordan’s resources – phosphates, silicon, tourism, solar power – but residents haven’t seen any tangible benefits,” says Amer Al Sabaileh, a Jordanian geopolitical analyst.

Many Jordanian government officials in the 2000s and early 2010s would dismiss the feasibility of private sector investments in the provinces, saying “Jordanians only want government jobs”, or blaming a “culture of shame” preventing Jordanians from taking posts some considered beneath them.

But something has shifted in Jordan in the past few years as prices increased, the population grew as the result of a refugee influx and the waiting list for government jobs stretched to 15 years in some cases.

Now, Jordanians are to be found pumping petrol at filling stations, working in cafes, plastering, driving tipper lorries and even working as rubbish collectors.

The vast majority of jobs remain in Amman, which is too far for a daily commute for many and the cost of rent and food there make it nearly impossible for young men to move to the capital.

Labour Minister Samir Murad said this week that the government aimed to create 30,000 jobs in the services, tourism, construction and agricultural sectors by 2020, and had already created 3,500 jobs in the past two months.

But official numbers put the total number of unemployed citizens in Jordan between 330,000 and 350,000 people.

The London Initiative, the result of last month’s major investment conference held in the UK, aims to create jobs over a five-year period with a series of reforms to increase growth and reduce business costs and barriers. But many Jordanians see these commitments as merely “promises on paper”.

Former officials and analysts say Jordan’s government must put forward its own ideas while waiting for investments to materialise.

“Jordan has to break the cycle with something bold and confident – and it has to come from the government,” says Mr Anani, the former economy minister.

Politicians and professional associations have urged the government to secure arrangements with Gulf countries to employ Jordanian college graduates in the education and medical sectors.

But many observers rule this project out as being unrealistic.

Analysts say that Jordan’s government must take concrete action soon to head off a political crisis.

“In citizens’ minds, bad economic policies mean bad management, bad management means bad governments, which means the state of Jordan’s whole political system is wrong,” Mr Sabaileh says.

“We need some serious solutions in a very fast way or this will spread.”