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Off the people, buy the people

Jordan’s populace still struggling

by Riad Al-Khouri

The past year appears to have been a good one for Jordan; was the same true regarding the well-being of average Jordanians? On the positive side, the country continues opening up to the rest of the region and the world economy. This can be felt in the boardrooms of Amman — though to a lesser extent on the street — and was confirmed by Jordan ranking a phenomenal ninth globally (and first among Arab states) in the Globalization Index for 2007, released last month. Developed by Foreign Policy magazine (published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) in collaboration with consultants A.T. Kearney, the index measured economic, personal, technological, and political integration in 72 countries accounting for 97% of world gross domestic product and 88% of the earth‘s population. The index looks at 12 variables in four baskets: economic integration, personal contact, technological connectivity, and political engagement. Jordan led all of the index’s Arab countries, among which Morocco was 40th worldwide, Tunisia 46th, Saudi Arabia 52nd, Egypt 55th, and Algeria 70th.

In the political dimension, Jordan topped the countries covered by the index, and did well in the personal sphere and in economic integration. A look at Jordan’s foreign partnership agreements confirms the latter element. It is the only Arab country that simultaneously has free trade with the United States, a partnership accord with the European Union, a Qualifying Industrial Zone arrangement with Israel and the US, and membership of the Agadir agreement to facilitate trade among Arab states and the EU. These arrangements put Jordan firmly inside the Western economic and political sphere, but the kingdom also boasts a widening range of links with other countries, as well as membership in international bodies such as the World Trade Organization.

However, in the index’s technological dimension, the country ranked 50th, in stark contrast to other indicators. This combination of high marks in some areas and a dismal showing in another typifies the contradictions in Jordanian life today, which became even more apparent in 2007. For all its development, Jordan still has a way to go in assuring sustainable development, cutting unemployment, and reducing poverty. Given the continuing Jordanian real estate boom, the influx of Gulf and foreign capital into the country, and the presence in the kingdom of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who are mainly not poor, Jordan may this year have evolved more than at any other time in the past half-century. Yet underneath, the country’s traditional core remains.

Among many other spheres, this traditionalism reflects in the country’s parliament as seen once again this year when Jordanians elected a new Chamber of Deputies, comprised of 110 members from 45 electoral districts. Although political parties and movements participated, they won few seats due to the country’s tribal fabric, and Jordan’s electoral law, which adopts the uninominal principle — voting for a single candidate only, rather than for a list, even when the electoral district (as most do) has more than one seat. Vote buying is also important and helps plutocrats win elections. (The government does not deny the existence of such a phenomenon, only saying that the media has exaggerated it.) As a result, the outcome of the November 2007 elections was similar to those of others since 1993, with tribal and traditional figures continuing to dominate, even as globalization sweeps through the country with greater force than ever.

Examples of this contradiction are apparent in Amman: In the midst of dramatic construction activity and demographic growth, the Jordanian capital is acquiring a modern veneer that hides its traditional fabric. Among many other features of globalization, branding is a feature of daily life in Amman, with massive advertising spending on new or existing brands. However, many of these products are imported, a phenomenon which, coupled with weak exports, exacerbates the country‘s chronic trade gap. In that respect, the latest figures available for the kingdom’s foreign trade are not encouraging. Although the value of exports increased by over 11% during the first nine months of the year compared to the same period in 2006, the much larger figure for imports rose close to 12%, resulting in an increase in the already yawning trade deficit by more than 12%.

In sum, given this volatile mixture of rapid but sometimes superficial development coupled with entrenched traditionalism and a shaky economic base, I predict that in 2008 many Jordanians will continue to feel left behind in the country’s surge toward globalization. The new government formed after the elections must keep the social lid on, especially with fuel price hikes coming from the elimination of subsidies. That will be tough going, but with the US and Israel underwriting the country’s stability, Jordan next year will probably stay the course. Anyway, watch this space.


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Riad Al-Khouri

Riad Al-Khouri is Middle East director of GeoEconomica GmbH

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