Jordan's endless road to reform

How stable is Jordan? That is the question addressed in a new report from the Brookings Doha Centre. In common with many of its regional neighbours, Jordan has witnessed street protests since the Arab Spring began, but nothing on a dramatic scale, and King Abdullah has been trying to fend off serious trouble with the usual promises of gradual reform.

Last month, the king replaced his prime minister – for the ninth time during his 12-year reign – once again building up hopes of change. But in an article for The Atlantic, Shadi Hamid (co-author of the Brookings report) points out that the prime minister, whatever his abilities, "can't be Jordan's solution because the prime minister isn't really the problem". 

He continues:

"The prime minister is appointed by the king – usually with minimal consultation – and serves at his pleasure. He has limited powers and operates within a claustrophobic political structure in which the monarchy, the royal court (with a staff of more than a thousand), and the intelligence services dominate."

But the revolving door to the prime minister's office also serves a deeper purpose:

"The Jordanian monarchy appears to use its government to provide a buffer between the king and the public. The government provides useful scapegoats when things go awry. 

"In a way, this benefits both the rulers and ruled alike. The public can let out steam and call for the downfall of the government (hukuma) rather than the regime (nizam). The regime listens and replaces the government. The regime stays intact, offering the illusion of change with little of the substance."

The Brookings report itself looks in more detail at the king's "half-hearted" attempts at reform as well as examining Jordan's political dynamics. 

There does seem to be a substantial body of opinion, especially among senior officials in Jordan, that if turmoil is to be avoided change must be gradual. At the same time, though, the report detects growing signs of impatience from the public, "particularly as economic conditions continue deteriorating for the Jordanian underclass". 

Despite the demographic and economic challenges, plus Islamist agitation and the effects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on its doorstep, Jordan has so far confounded fears that it could explode at any moment. But that is no guarantee for the future: this time last year the regimes of Tunisia and Libya were regarded as much more secure – and now both of them are gone.

As a "friendly" and "moderate" Arab state, Jordan often gets a better press in the west than it deserves, and the report ends by suggesting the US should stop promoting it as a "model" for economic and political reform:

"This may have been acceptable before the Arab Spring, but it no longer is. Jordan’s stability is no longer guaranteed, particularly as economic conditions worsen. After the events in Tunisia and Egypt, Jordanians are looking for actions, not just words – having heard the words too many times before. 

"While they have not yet reached a critical mass, opposition forces, including Islamists, leftists, and youth movements, have slowly grown more emboldened. For the first time in decades, they are challenging the monarchy’s grip on power. Their deference toward the king persists, but it will not last for ever."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 November 2011.