Three shifts in the sand

Intriguing turns in shaping Jordan’s path

(File photo: Ameer Khalifeh/Jordan News)

Jordan doesn’t often make international headlines (the recent Royal Wedding was a lovely exception and a beautiful moment to share with the world.) Surrounded by neighbors in crisis there is always a new scandal in Lebanon, a political shake-up in Iraq, a tragedy in Palestine, and a crisis in Syria making headlines, instead of talk about Jordan. Tremendous changes are happening, but these are gradual long-term trends. In fact, these are three major shifts that are changing our nation and society.


1)Current Developmental Challenges: Jordan suffers from a number of negative challenges and those indicators are worsening. Youth unemployment. Water scarcity (second most water scarce state in the world; annual renewable water resources less than 100 m3 per person, significantly below the 500 m3 per person which defines severe water scarcity). Massive debt (113.7% of GDP).90% of its energy is importedDeclining trust in the judiciary. A booming population (more than doubled from 5 to 11 million over the past 20 years). High poverty rate (24%) Poor voter turnout (29.9% in the last parliamentary election). One of the lowest female labor force participation rates in the world(14%!)


2)Changing Political Culture: Jordan has embarked on a political change which does not get communicated much, but in a generation could change the entire political identity of our people. Either the experiment fails, or in a decade a significant segment of Jordanian voters will have a political identity when they go into the voting booth.


3)Shifting Regional Dynamics: This is not just about the US and China, but the rising independence of Saudi Arabia and the overall forward momentum of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.


4 things you should know:

1- The Dire Straits of Jordan's Economy: While many countries are grappling with the economic repercussions of COVID-19 and trying to navigate their national economies amidst the war in Ukraine and its economic fallout, Jordan is no exception. However, a closer look at the Jordanian economy and the shocks it has experienced reveals that not only is Jordan struggling with the current market challenges, but its economy has also never fully recovered from the financial crash of 2008. Prior to the crash, Jordan's GDP had fallen below its usual 8% and has failed to regain that level since then. Most recently, the World Bank projected Jordan's GDP growth at 4.3%. In addition to slow GDP growth, Jordan's population is one of the youngest in the world, with seniors comprising just a little over 4%of the total population. Youth unemployment has risen from slightly above 37% in 2019 to nearly46.1% in 2023. Regarding the labor force, although female university enrollment surpasses that of their male counterparts, female labor participation rate stands at14%(inAfghanistanit stands at 16% dropping from 22% in 2019 right before the Taliban took over - let that sink in!)اضافة اعلان


2- Climate Change, Water, and Bad Neighbors: Climate change is a threat the globe is facing. One of its most pressing outcomes is water, or lack of. In addition to being one of the driest regions in the world Jordan has also been cursed with bad neighbors. While we like to blame industry or corporation or individual acts for climate change, politics has a lot to do with it. For Jordan there are two - Israel and Syria. In the case of Israel it is transboundary water appropriation in contradiction to their agreement. In this case of Syria, it is a bad agreement, four pages with no clear definitions or consequences. As a result Syria has increased dam construction on the Yarmouk with impunity.


3- Political Modernization: I have already written a lot on political modernizations. I wont write more here, but the most interesting aspect will be how society changes in the next two decades through the introductions of political identities.


4- Regional Shifts: It's popular in analysis and media to say that the Trump administration blew up regional dynamics in the Middle East. While Trump did not have the reputation of being helpful, the real change maker shifting things in our region is Riyadh and not Washington DC. While Trump’s Middle East plan made some large shifts, such as moving the US embassy, and normalizing relations between Israel and several Arab countries, the overall vision failed. On its own Saudi Arabia has outpaced many of its neighbors in terms of reform, women's empowermentattracting and diversifying investmenttourism and most interestingly diplomatic alliances. Saudi Arabia has been adamant in maintaining independence, working with China in rebuilding relations with Iran, inviting Zelensky to the Arab summit while also receiving a call from president Putin while the US secretary of state is visiting. Alongside Jordan, Saudi has been a leader in bringing back Assad into the Arab fold. In addition, Jordans next door neighbor is facing tremendous internal pressures, through widespread protests against judicial changes and push back against far right government officials like Bin Gvir - Which has even resulted in condemnation from Washington. Internal changes in Israel and far reaching reforms in Saudi Arabia have adjusted Jordan's traditional diplomatic position.


My take:

These shifts are all interconnected, Jordan’s problems bump and crash into each other like shooting marbles. For example, the female labor participation rate is not cultural or conservatism - again, look at Afghanistan as an example. But there are serious barriers to fixing this, such as lack of public transportation, harassment of women in public spaces and workplace discrimination (an example of this would be not hiring younger married women because they may use maternity leave). Here is a link in Arabic to some shocking practices.


A second example is water scarcity which exacerbates Jordan’s economic problems, adds tension to regional relations (i.e. Syria, Israel) as well as further fuels citizen grievances. These citizen grievances result in low political participation and low turnout, inflammatory online rhetoric, and social division. All of these lead to a sense of isolation and marginalization. As citizen resentment increases, youth look to the government for solutions, not the market, for example with employment or water access. When the government does not deliver a quick fix, youth grow angrier.


All of these challenges are caused by both internal and external factors which history has woven together like a large tapestry, making it impossible to just pull out one thread and address just one problem.


However , if we don’t look at all of these as myriad individual issues but see these collectively as three shifts we recognize that Jordan is a country that is moving. It is slow and gradual and long-term but it's definitely moving, - more like a car that is towing an old trailer that the owner can’t get rid of.  


Our neighbors are changing the way they behave, our political culture is changing, and our fellow citizens are resolutely facing numerous hardships. These shifts change how we Jordanians relate to our government, how we will relate to each other, and how the Kingdom behaves abroad. Heady stuff.


Regionally, as Jordans neighbors change their behavior, Jordan's traditional diplomatic role also changes. Following the Wadi Araba agreement, and before other Arab states had direct relations with Israel,Jordan was often the regional envoy to deal with Israeli affairs. Likewise with Iraq, Jordan spoke out against the first US Iraq war, facing a backlash from the White House, only to have the only economic exemptions to US sanctions against Iraq - ultimately acting as an envoy to Iraq for the outside world. Finally Jordan has always been farsighted on the trajectory of Assad’s Syria. For decades, Jordan was not only the Israel-whisperer, but the Saddam- whisperer, and a seer on Syria. As other Arab states have built their own relations with Israel, a post-Saddam Iraq builds its reputation on the world’s stage, and Saudi Arabia becomes an innovative hub for investment, tourism and regional leadership, Jordan’s previous roles diminished. Now, how Jordan has reinvented its place and role regionally and globally deserves its own paper. But that's for another time.


I have written a lot on the political changes, and like many of you, am waiting to see how the next months proceed with parties making refreshed forays into public communication.


Why is it important to note these three shifts in Jordan? Because while Jordan is revered for its stability and tolerance it can be under-reported, underestimated and under appreciated. Jordan’s present is stuck in a number of development challenges. Its future is both within its own political transformation, and also in the wake of its southern Gulf neighbors’ innovations. Jordan is not haunted by ghosts of the past - instead it lives with the past everyday. Jordan lives with the aftermath of the 1967 war, with the refugee population from the first US war on Iraq, as well as from its second war on Iraq, the flow of refugees from the Syrian conflict, the Arab Spring, the returned foreign fighters starting with Afghanistan in the 1980’s, and many others. In Jordan the past is wrapped and embraced and blended into everyday life. Understanding these three shifts - development challenges, shifting political culture, and changing regional roles - sheds light on how the past informs present-day Jordan and why these shifts are so significant. The role of the citizen, the role of the state, and the role of Jordan in MENA affairs are all changing.


The interplay of various shifts in Jordan, such as barriers to female labor participation, water scarcity, citizen grievances, and changing regional roles, demands careful analysis. Overcoming structural obstacles to women's employment and addressing water scarcity are crucial for fostering gender equality and economic stability. Furthermore, citizen grievances fueled by issues like water scarcity lead to low political participation and social divisions. Understanding these challenges, along with Jordan's evolving regional position, provides valuable insights into the country's trajectory. By recognizing the complexity of these three shifts, Jordan can navigate its path towards inclusivity, citizen participation, and regional relevance.


If you've followed Jordanian twitter for a while you'd come to learn that you need three factors to create a viral perfect storm: 1). Dima Tahboub 2). LGBTQI+ “agenda” and 3) Western foreign funding


And last week Hala Ahed, a renowned lawyer and activist, checked all three of them and the madness on twitter and other social media outlets ensued. This is how a simple talk on feminism fueled responses from accusations of distorting Islamic teachings to allegedly sparking a social ‘hijab-ectomy’ and conspiracy theories on exporting modern gender theory.



Katrina Sammour was first published on Full Spectrum Jordan, a weekly newsletter on SubStack. 

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