Jordan protesters: ‘Gulf money won’t help’

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Eyad Bani-Melham views $2.5bn as small change.

“Jordan’s budget deficit is huge,” says Bani-Melham, a lawyer in Jordan’s capital, Amman. “This new money is not going to make a difference.”

For Bani-Melhem, a pledge by Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to provide Jordan with $2.5bn in aid is not going to solve the kingdom’s unemployment problem, nor will it achieve social justice.

“When we took to the streets, we demanded social change and called for a system overhaul – we were not asking our country to plead for financial support,” he said.

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The 29-year-old is not alone. Thousands of other Jordanians also protested against price hikes and an income tax reform bill last week. They say the incoming aid will not “save” the country from its structural economic problems and crippling public debt, currently close to $40bn.

The protesters called for a long-term fiscal plan, more transparency, an end to corruption and, crucially, a complete overhaul of the government’s approach to economic and social policies.

While the latest promise by the Gulf states may decrease some of the economic pressure facing Jordan’s new government, it will likely not convince the masses that real change is imminent.

“In the past, Jordan received a similar aid package from the Gulf, but it didn’t have a positive or lasting effect,” Odai Nofal, who hails from the province of Zarqa, says.

“As citizens, we didn’t see a change in the government’s methodology that catered to the public’s needs,” the 28-year-old adds. “All we saw was a bunch of austerity measures and so we’re rightfully concerned about seeing this pattern continue.”

‘National programme’

Like Bani-Melham, Nofal was among the first to participate in the recent nationwide protests – the biggest in years.

The demonstrations led to a cabinet reshuffle and a pledge by the country’s new Prime Minister, Omar al-Razzaz, to repeal an income tax bill that had been part of a series of reforms backed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

For a country that has long suffered from economic problems, and has historically been heavily reliant on foreign aid, Jordan’s economic reform measures stem from a $723m three-year credit line that it secured from the IMF in 2016.

With its high public debt on the rise, citizens such as 49-year-old Aroub Soubh say that changes at the local and national level shoulf be prioritised at the current stage.

“We must first sort out our internal affairs before seeking international support,” the activist and journalist says.

The protesters also call for the reintroduction of subsidies on bread and oil prices that were revoked earlier this year.

In 2018 alone, the cost of fuel has increased five times and electricity bills have shot up by 55 percent.

“People need to regain confidence in the government, especially when it comes to decision about economic policies that are due to be made soon,” Soubh says, adding that the next few months will allow people to observe how the government plans to remedy its controversial austerity measures.

Laila Kloub agrees.

“The new government needs to depend on a national programme,” the 25-year-old writer says, adding that such a move will help the public know who needs to be held accountable.

“It’s important for us citizens to feel like we have contributed in solving the crisis.”

‘Strings attached’

Despite its “minimal” effect, Jordanian citizens say the five-year aid package does not come without “strings attached”. 

Following the 2011 Arab uprisings, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) made a strategic decision to help the Jordanian and Moroccan monarchies with a five-year agreement worth over $5bn each. But this aid flow ceased with the end of the Arab Spring and shifting alliances in the region.

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The new aid package has led locals to believe their country, which is hosting more than 650,000 Syrian refugees, may be inclined to side with Saudi Arabia in regional conflicts.

“Nothing comes for free,” Soubh, the journalist, says.

According to her, many who welcomed the latest aid pledge did so with “caution”.

“At least, for the first time, Jordanians feel they’ve established an open line of communication with Razzaz.”

Razzaz, who previously served as the outgoing government’s education minister, also pledged to engage in dialogue to reach consensus on a new tax law and economic reform.

Locals who took to the streets are hopeful that under his leadership, Razzaz would “finally” take serious steps to hold corrupt officials to account – a key demand for protesters.

‘Positive signs’

With a diminishing middle class, people such as Nofal and Bani-Malham expect to see protests recommence in the next few months if the government’s approach remains unchanged.

The protests in Amman were organised and led by an independent group referred to as Hirak Shababi, or youth movement, as well as by various unions representing tens of thousands of employees across the country.

For now, “there are a few positive sings”, Bani-Melham says, referencing Razzaz’s pledge to repeal the income tax law.

“But we also need to see ministers and parliamentarians be paid more reasonable salaries … salaries that do not affect public money,” he says. “We need to collectively agree on what the best progressive tax rate should be.”

Whether these changes take place will depend on the new cabinet and parliament’s approval.

Though many Jordanians feel optimistic that Razzaz’s incoming government will answer to their demands, they also feel empowered by their ability to demonstrate and bring about change once again, if necessary.

“If our demands aren’t met, we will always have the fourth circle to return to,” said Nofal, referring to the scene of the latest protests.

“But we hope this government meets, and exceeds our expectations.”

How can Jordan solve its economic crisis? | Counting the Cost

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