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No Base, No Problem? How Jordan's Monarchy Survives Amidst Upheaval and Failure

Hashemite endurance ultimately stems from the regime's successes in hollowing out, co-opting, and socially disembedding the country’s labor movement and political parties.

Colin Powers
Colin Powers

The structure of the Jordanian economy left it particularly vulnerable to the shocks brought on by COVID-19 earlier this year. External imbalances, decades in the making, exposed the country’s capital account to severe strains once conditions of uncertainty paralyzed credit markets. Broader developmental biases—towards household consumption on the demand side and non-tradables (low-end services and real estate speculation) on the supply side—meanwhile, meant the growth and employment effects of travel lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, and a risk-adverse investment climate were to be acutely pronounced. As inflows of tourists, remittances, and petrodollars slowed; hospitality and retail sectors ceased operating; and the public health response imperiled the implicit subsidies (namely, cheap Egyptian and Syrian laborers) lubricating the construction boom, the frail pillars upon which Jordan’s post-modern economy had been built crumbled onto themselves.

Hamstrung by a reliance on creditors and a deficit in political imagination, the regime’s response to the recession that thereby commenced has been compromised from the jump. On the monetary front, the rescue effort saw the Central Bank of Jordan cut policy rates and reserve requirement on time deposits while nominally easing financing terms for small and medium-sized enterprises, all in the naive hope that a jot of liquidity might stave off a collapse in investment and lending. In terms of fiscal intervention, new discretionary expenditures were largely foregone with the exception of a one-time transfer of 140 Jordanian Dinar (roughly $200) to 250,000 of the country's informally employed daily wage workers, leaving a temporary abatement on tax obligations1 and the honoring of pre-funded social protection2 and social insurance3 entitlements to do all the real countercyclical work. That Q2 and Q3 of 2020 witnessed large portions of Jordan’s business community permanently wiped out—and levels of precarity hitherto unseen engulf all those outside the top 10% of earners—followed tragically though inevitably from these emergency policies. At the time of writing, the International Monetary Fund is projecting the country's real GDP growth to be -5% for 2020.

If one had hoped crisis might lead to the restoration of a pastoral state in Jordan, the existing evidence suggests much to the contrary. Conspicuous in its absence, the regime’s inability to care for its citizenry outside occasional makrumat and a half-hearted attempt at reinstating mandatory military service has forced the majority to lean on personal networks, kin, or charity in navigating the dangers of our current moment.

Crisis Atop of Crisis

The social context into which 2020 arrived in Jordan was one already pervaded by anomie, disaffection, and deprivation—the fruits of the country's thirty year transition.

Economically, this transition has been aimed at broadening the jurisdiction of the market, and, coextensively, at expanding the reach and influence of private capital in social life. The market’s forward momentum was first set in motion with the privatization initiatives of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Subsequently, it was sustained, accelerated, and legally consolidated through Jordan’s accession to the WTO and its signing of free-trade agreements with the United States and European Union. Most recently, it has been renewed through the spread of financialization and the creeping commoditization of social goods such as education, health, and housing.

Though heralded for establishing the preconditions for prosperity, in actuality, each step in capital’s conquests wound up worsening the quality of life experienced by a vast majority of Jordanians. The domestic and foreign investors the state catered policy to almost universally opted to seek easy profits in the built environment, financial mediation, and the manufacture of cheap garments. All the while, pretenses of competition not withstanding, sector after sector remained compromised by monopoly, rent seeking, stagnation, and corrosive forms of corporate welfarism. Developmentally, this yielded declining total factor productivity, backsliding economic complexity, and negative growth in terms of real GDP per capita, outcomes betraying the regime’s promise of a Silicon Wadi out beyond the horizon as but castles in the sky. Socially, it fomented a crisis of joblessness—as the growth areas absorbing what private investment is available tend to seek cost advantages through exploiting precarious migrant labor—, a two-sided squeeze on middle income families, and the pauperization of those at the bottom end of the workforce.

Source: Jordanian Department of Statistics
Data Sources: ILO; Jordanian Department of Statistics
Data Sources: Jordanian Department of Statistics; Economic Research Forum, Jordanian Labor Market Survey 2016

Politically, Jordan’s transition has been oriented by Lampedusa’s famous counterrevolutionary axiom: “for things to remain the same, everything must change.” In the Hashemite’s case, the changes in question tend toward partial liberalizations of the public sphere. Defensive and tactical in nature as the Royal’s flirtations with democracy proper always have been, they necessarily give way once reform approaches the Monarch’s standing as a supreme sovereign. Lagging but a few months behind each step forward, then, are the reimposition of restrictions on freedoms of expression, media, and association and the inception of campaigns aimed at preventing alternative sites of institutional power from taking hold. As a result, in 2020 as in 1989, it is the King who retains control the judiciary and the purse, who asserts discretionary authorities over legislation, and who commands a Praetorian guard within the security forces.

And yet, though continuities certainly abound amidst Jordan’s eternal transition, they ought not obscure the transformations wrought by the country's neoliberal turn. Amongst many other things, these transformations have reformulated the nature of the relationship between regime and society while also affecting the way power is distributed within the state itself. The ultimate shakeout has been rather paradoxical. On the one hand, the policy and politics embraced by Jordan’s now graying King Abdullah II have chipped away at the traditional social foundations of Hashemite rule. On the other, they have failed to cultivate a new mass constituency vested, materially and ideologically, in the political economy of change.

Breaking with the Old: Gutting the Social Foundations of Hashemite Rule

For those once elevated and privileged due to their position within the post-1971 coalition of King Hussein, the transition stewarded by his son (Abdullah II) over the past two decades has proven deeply alienating. Most notable amongst the aggrieved are the bureaucracy; the conservative, Islamist-leaning middle class; tribal groupings of Transjordanian ethnicity; and the national security apparatus.

Bureaucrats in the Neoliberal Era

Under Abdullah II, the bureaucracy’s standing has been degraded through ideological attack, relegation in the policymaking process, and a resource squeeze.

On the ideological front, the siege imposed upon the country's bureaucrats (and public sector more generally) has been unrelenting if unexceptional. Keeping with the neoliberal times, Jordan’s Royal Court, like leadership cadres throughout the global south, has consistently sought to delegitimize the state itself by presenting government (and those who have traditionally done its work) as antiquated, corrupt, and inefficient. Evincing this tact, on the occasion of one of his earliest speeches as King, Abdullah II accused the civil service of exhibiting “negative qualities such as apathy, slackness, and cliquism”, using their “official status for personal gain and, at times, the exploitation of public funds” and embodying “hateful and negative qualities.” After laying down this marker, the same sentiments would then be evoked in official discourse time and time again in the years that followed, not withstanding slight shifts in rhetorical strategy.4 Regardless of changes in style and form, the effect of these attacks were the same, and resulted in a loss of status and social esteem for those once celebrated as heroes of the nation’s development.

Bad as the psychic wounds inflicted may have been, these messaging efforts were not ends onto themselves. Rather, as intimated, they were part of a wider initiative aimed at redistributing power within the state: by casting the bureaucracy as a bastion of incompetence, inefficiency, and self-dealing, the King could position himself and a new class of pedigreed, businessmen-technocrats as the modern protagonists Jordan needed to overcome the challenges of the 21stcentury.

The political fallout of the King’s gambit proved significant for the bureaucracy as a whole, and for senior officials in particular. By the early 2000s, both the ministries and those historically entrusted with leading them would often find themselves displaced within planning and administrative processes by a novel constellation of royally appointed, functionally autonomous semi-state entities.5 Staffed almost exclusively by representatives of the private sector and often partnered with a coterie of private management consultants, the rise and subsequent spread of these hubs—the Economic Consultative Council, the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority, the Economic Policy Council, The Jordan Investment Board, and the Amman Institute, amongst others—and the vanguardist generation of leaders that they hosted institutionalized a genuine changing of the guard at the upper echelons of the state. Adding insult to injury for the bureaucrats thereby left on the outside looking in, where once deputized to run their own parochial patronage systems by the Crown, it was at this time that those old stewards lost control over discretionary spending at the ministerial level as well. Excluded from the rooms that matter under technocratic authoritarianism and deprived of the capital and sway needed to retain a constituency of their own, at the time of writing, the state apparatchiks of years past have fallen on tough times indeed.

Nor has the new century been propitious for the rank and file of the public sector, where median wages now leave an individual and their dependents closer to the poverty line than to the picket fence.6 While those classified as “government workers” have fared slightly better than the average public sector worker, even their compensation is low enough to make the earner exempt from current income tax obligations.7 Seniority and years of service does bring some relief, though in an economic context defined by retreating subsidies, expanding taxes on consumption, and rising prices for housing, health, and education, it is a reprieve growing more fleeting with each passing year.8 By dint of reforms introduced to the pension system in year 2010 and 2014, finally, the benefits schemes that had once afforded families a great deal of security are slowly being rolled back as well, to the detriment of younger cohorts in particular. With austerity budgets on the post-COVID 19 horizon, moreover, the material conditions of public employees are likely track even further downward in the short-term future.

The Conservative Center

The Islamist middle class has needed to deal with ideological, socioeconomic, and political affronts as well. Ideologically, the King and his allies have spuriously charged their one-time allies with everything from supporting jihadism to harboring a secret anti-democratic agenda. To the extent that these same parties had once been entrusted with the socialization of Jordan’s children under King Hussein, the jarring and disorienting impact of the Royal Court’s libelous messaging cannot be overstated.

Socioeconomically, meanwhile, the Islamist-leaning fraction of the business classes have broadly been excluded from the fruits of privatization and the enduring corporate welfarism on offer within Jordan’s development zones and special economic zones. Lacking connections to western and Gulf-based capital, these actors have also gained little from recent booms in finance and real estate—and partaken far less frequently in the tax evasion and avoidance schemes through which Abdullah’s elites protect their incomes from the state. Politically, finally, many of the institutions through which the Islamist trend once maintained a robust presence in the lifeworld of both the poor and the conservative ranks of the bourgeoisie—the Islamic Center Charity Society, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Businessmen’s Prosperity Association, and the Islamic Action Front—have seen their operations disrupted by cynical legal challenges of different kinds. Taken in the aggregate, the moderate Islamist’s place in Abdullah’s Jordan has grown increasingly tenuous.

The Disowned Sons of the State

The 21st century has been equally unsettling for many middle and working class East Bank Jordanians, tribal populations in particular. After being absorbed into the public sector en masse from the 1970s onward—both as a result of Hussein’s dePalestinianization of the state and as a result of the oil-rent financed hiring sprees that state-owned enterprises undertook during the same period9—these communities saw their fortunes swiftly reversed once the era of neoliberal reform commenced in proper. Henceforth, their traditional paths to employment and social reproduction were paved over through privatization, the declining labor intensity of mining operations in the central and southern regions of Jordan, and a relative decline in government employment opportunities. At the same time, new careers meant to be opened through preferential admissions to Jordanian universities failed to lead anywhere good as a result of higher education’s poor economic returns.

Net job creation in the public sector writ large has ranged between 11,000 and 26,000 per annum for the last decade

Lacking a foothold within an underperforming private sector and disowned by their former patrons in the Royal Court, those once perceived as abna al-dawleh (sons of the state) are today pauperized and adrift in increasing number, languishing along the neglected periphery of the country or within the urban expanse of Amman.10 If their history of service to the Crown and the depravity of their condition may, on occasion, allow the entrepreneurial tribesman to shame the King into taking remedial action, most are forced to seek redress and sustenance through lobbying the Ministry of Social Development for cash transfers and other forms of social protection.11

National Security

Abdullah’s stewardship of the Jordanian transition has even inspired frustration and malaise within the defense and security sectors. The primary drivers behind these developments are detailed by Tariq Tell here, and summarized in the document below. Stretching from disagreements over the ideological direction pursued by the current King to anger over corruption to resentments derived from the regime’s attempts at downsizing and restructuring the military, the grievances of the uniformed are many and deeply felt. While typically kept to a simmer, this discontentment is significant enough that it occasionally boils over into overt expressions of resistance and challenge.

No New Friends

As mentioned, at the same time as Abdullah II’s uneven reformism produced disaffection amongst the regime’s traditional allies, it also failed in conjuring new pro-regime constituencies—and in inspiring popular buy-in for the neoliberal project more generally. The coalition mates that may have been expected to rally behind and/or popularize Abdullah's initiatives—the professional middle classes (especially their educated younger cohorts) and the business community—have done no such thing. To the contrary, the professional middle class (PMC) even led one of the major instances of resistance to the King’s agenda: 2018’s anti-income tax protest movement. The weltanschauung of the demos at large, meanwhile, is decidedly dubious on both free markets and the hollow version of liberal democracy being promoted by the Hashemites (and the international community).

Such unexpected results follow directly from the character and consequence of Jordan’s experience with actually existing liberalization, an experience highly disparate from those of countries in the global north. In the north, polarization within the labor share of income (manifest in wage declines for low and medium-skill workers and wage growth for high-skill workers), the lowering of taxes, and a lagged decline in the quality of public services often combined to improve standards of life for broad swaths of the PMC, at least during the initial stages of liberalization.13 By dint of Jordan’s late development and its economy’s enduring peripherality vis-a-vis global process of capital accumulation, however, liberalization actually introduced a number of corrosive welfare effects for these class fractions.

The PMC under Abdullah II

On the income side, PMC earnings stagnated. Between 2010 and 2016, in fact, median wages in those economic activities dominated by this social segment—financial and insurance services; professional, scientific, and technical services; and administrative and support services—actually declined by a non-insignificant amount.14 Simultaneously, many white collar workers also lost access to the social insurance system during the era of liberalization, while many others were forced to deal with the precarity of fixed-term and part-time work.15 Due to the swiftness of the decline in the quality of Jordanian public services over the past twenty years, finally, PMC households have also needed to devote growing shares of their (shrinking) disposable incomes toward expenditures on education (private school tuitions and/or tutoring), healthcare, and foodstuffs. Combined, the effect of this two-sided squeeze pushed large portions of the employed PMC into credit-dependence—and the socio-psychological struggles that come with it.

For the members of the PMC that have hoped to break into the labor market or find work after a layoff, meanwhile, the scarcity of available opportunities has made modern times even more trying. As the tables below evince, the flows of Jordanian job creation are highly concentrated in the low-skilled service sector (hospital and retail trades), the construction sector, and in the garment factory-dominated manufacturing sector that operates out of the country’s export processing zones. The insufficiency of demand for high-skilled and/or educated labor is, by extension, severe.

Data provided by Jordanian Department of Statistics

While the plight of educated job seekers was ensured from the jump due to the composition of labor market demand, annual injections of tens of thousands of diploma-bearing, first-time labor market entrants only intensified it further. Shifting the demographic character of the workforce in little more than a decade, the primary effect of these injections was to produce a structural misalignment between the demand and supply sides of the domestic labor market, as is discussed here by Nader Mrryan. Given the endemic limits of the local private sector, a misalignment such as this one can only be reconciled through Jordan exporting large portions of the educated workforce abroad; in the absence of such a pressure release, it requires either a qualitative expansion to the ranks of the unemployed and underemployed, a secular decline in labor force participation, or some mix of the two. By dint of the Gulf having reached a saturation point vis-a-vis its capacity to absorb Jordan’s labor exports, the pressure releases that once saw the country through troubled times have recently lost much of their efficacy.

Data provided by the International Labour Organization

Younger cohorts within the country’s aspirational middle class have suffered the most acutely as a result, especially first generation attendees of college from less moneyed backgrounds. Importantly, one should note that their suffering does not stem from their material circumstance alone. After being weened on myths of meritocracy, the prosperity gospel of higher education, and promises of a coming democracy, they have experienced the effects of relative deprivation as well—of expectations unmet—and the sense of personal violation that it inspires. At the same time, these demographics have also been blocked from raising their political voice and from participating in the rituals of democracy—rituals that take on undue importance for most people who have gone to university. That disaffection has come to constitute a pervasive social condition for those valorized as the protagonists of Jordan’s future ought therefore be unsurprising. Projected to take up the role of a silent, pro-liberalization plurality, this generation is instead dreaming of and/or plotting escapes to Europe, the Gulf, or the United States.

The Business Classes under Abdullah II

Ambiguity invests the Jordanian business community’s response to neoliberal reform as well. This outcome is easily understood through an audit of capital’s welfare in the contemporary era.

Excepting but the very elite—an elite integrated into Gulf-based circuits of accumulation and one privileged by the close relations it maintains with the Monarch—the era of liberalization can hardly be said to have been an auspicious one for the Jordanian business class. This has become more apparent in the decade since the Arab Uprisings. Between 2015 and 2017, more than half of the firms listed on the Amman Stock Exchange posted either declining rates of profit or increasing rates of loss, with nearly 36% of these firms posting at least two years of losses during the same period in question.

Making matters worse, their non-profitability only represented the tip of the iceberg: divestment and negative growth in terms of assets and fixed assets also increased markedly throughout that three year stretch. In terms of magnitudes, 55% of the firms traded on the ASE reported losses in fixed assets; if one excludes the banking and insurance sectors, that percentage jumps to 64.5%. This suggests that the collapsing rates of profitability discussed above are not the pangs of growth but a sign of terminal decline. Nor have things been better for a majority of non-publicly traded firms. Before COVID-19 had done its damage, data furnished by an ILO, UNDP, and the FAFO Institute for Labour and Social Research-conducted survey of formal sector enterprises showed that 25% of Jordanian firms were losing money and 46% were only barely breaking even.

Such hard times can be traced to exogenous variables (regional instability; the loss of access to Syrian and Iraqi markets) and to the modality of state-capital relations that Abdullah inaugurated as he pursued his liberalization of the economy. Despite the international community’s attempts at formalizing the way the regime interacted with the private sector—principally, through (i) nurturing a number of new business associations, establishing open channels through which these associations might lobby and advise policymakers; and (ii) through pushing for greater transparency within procurement and privatization processes—a handful of elites, most of whom were generational peers of the new King, were able to reconsolidate informal systems of influence, access, and patronage in the final instance. Some amongst them were even empowered to make policy themselves, including in domains where they retained a direct commercial interests. By consequence, these actors managed to maintain and bolster their hegemonic intraclass position over the past twenty years.16 As competitive energies were drained from the market and the spoils of liberalization accrued to their sprawling, multisector, family-owned conglomerates controlled, the rest of the business community found paths to prosperity blocked at every turn.

Surplus Labor under Abdullah II

Before closing, one ought note that Jordan’s liberalization project has also failed to cultivate political support amongst more marginal segments of society. When it comes to the destitute, poverty alleviation policies—conditional cash transfers in particular—generate little in the way of positive feedback effects due to the meagerness of the support provided to beneficiaries. Jordan’s informally employed, meanwhile, have largely been abandoned to fight for scraps against migrant labor in the construction, low-end service, and export processing zone-based manufacturing sectors. By dint of the precarious legal standing of the latter, these fights typically end in losses, as is attested by the fact that non-citizens filled an estimated 50-75% of all the jobs created in Jordan between 2010 and 2016.18

Making matters worse, even when the regime has purposefully sought to use policy in order to help Jordanians in the informal sector, the ultimate result of their interventions have backfired. In the case with 2010’s Social Security Law reforms19—which aimed to formalize more of the labor market through bringing informal workers into the social insurance system—legislative change actually made Jordanians workers more vulnerable to their foreign competition, for whom firms find it easier to cheat on the newly introduced social insurance obligations.20 Contrary to what has been seen in Turkey, then, where the AK Party’s pious neoliberalism won it adherents amongst the disinherited, in Jordan, the Hashemites have had no such luck.

In choosing to consolidate a narrow domestic coalition dominated by an internationally-oriented fraction of Jordanian capital—a class of actors easily patronized and nonplussed by democratic retreat—Abdullah II expressly weakened many of the sinews that had once steeled the social foundations of the Hashemite regime. Simultaneously, the blowback of actually existing liberalization left King and Kingsmen without any new supports with which they could fortify the bulwarks.

In view of these developments, a question begs asking: how does the Jordanian monarchy endure? Having disavowed what remains of its pastoral obligations and having discarded any identifiable mass constituency, how does the regime manage to redirect, absorb and reconstitute, and/or stand down challenges to it?

I am hardly the first to consider these puzzles, and we can certainly learn a great deal from answers already posited. From the research of Andre Bank21, Maria Josua22, Sean Yom23, and Camille Abescat et al, for instance, it is clear that the state’s coercive and co-optive capabilities are extremely effective in beating back, disarming, and dividing transgressive forms of opposition. As is established in the analyses of Curtis Ryan24, Laurie Brand25, Yom and al-Momani26, and Marwan Muasher27, meanwhile, the roles that Jordan’s external guarantors play in securing Hashemite stability—be it through timely financial interventions or through the specter of foreign boots on the ground—are also undeniable.

The literature28 and my own fieldwork suggests that fear pervades regime resilience in Jordan as well. Whether one speaks of a population more broadly chastened by a region in turmoil, movements and activists rendered hesitant by the prospects of repression, the Gazan Palestinians pushed into quietude by threats of denationalization and expulsion, or the Transjordanian communities unwilling to contemplate a truly post-Hashemite future, after all, a quotidian sense of dread seems to touch nearly every corner of Jordanian society. Playing off psychological tendencies already pushing Jordanians (like the rest of us) toward system justification and, relatedly, toward investing the social order with an undue sense of propriety and permanence, the notion that fear(s) too undergird the solidity of the King's status quo strikes as difficult to dispute.

Ideology and the more veiled faces of power—so beautifully unearthed by Gaventa in his study of Appalachia—finally, have likely exerted a diffuse, preemptive, and even constitutive effect on proceedings as well. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the current King has helped massage identity systems29 and actors' perceptions of agency and interest in such a manner as to generate consent, apathy toward, or even dependence upon his manifestly unjust order.30

All these explanations of Hashemite solidity hold great merit. That said, I believe they have left a lacuna in our understanding. What is more, for a number of reasons, I believe this lacuna has actually grown wider in recent years.

As various epistemic trends pushed researchers to foreground actors and subject matters long neglected—subjectivities, social movements, the subaltern, everyday acts of resistance and meaning making, and discourse, to give but a few examples—analyses commensurately de-emphasized actors and subject matters that had traditionally received pride of place in the study of politics. In the case of Jordan, this created unintended consequences: institutionalist/materialist studies of political economy fell out of favor, despite remaining irreducibly central to the character and operation of power. While the field may have wandered into new and insightful domains, the blowback was that epiphenomenon and symptom often came to occupy the entire plane of inquiry. This often led observers to search for the causes of Hashemite stability in some of the wrong places, and, as a corollary, to overstate the revolutionary potential of those ruptures, uprisings, and popular challenges that the regime has needed to face down in recent times.

With what remains of this paper, I hope to chart a different, older course, and in so doing, gain better purchase on the question of how the Jordanian monarchy endures in the absence of a mass constituency.

My thesis is that the regime’s endurance ultimately stems from its success in creating and maintaining a vacuum in associational life—more specifically, from the royalists' achievements in hollowing out, co-opting, and socially disembedding the country’s labor movement and political parties, respectively.

The logic informing this argument is as follows: by taking parties and unions off the chessboard, Jordan’s Royal Court pushes the aggrieved to adopt alternative organizational forms when mobilizing a challenge for power or meaningful reform. In conjunction with the coercive tactics deployed by the state at a more discretionary level, this sees political energies channeled into a variety of horizontal, non-hierarchically-organized protest movements, the praxes of which typically center upon street actions of a duration lasting from a few days to a few months.

Powerful as these protest movements can be in temporarily destabilizing the regime and/or in forcing a government to roll back a particularly unpopular policy, they are, by their nature, ill-equipped for sustaining a conflict across the long duree. While deft in articulating grievance and politicizing the non-engaged, after all, the organizational structure of these organic, leaderless movements makes them resistant to institutionalization, and their resource endowments impose real limits when it comes to scalability. Lacking deep roots as well as systems for socializing and materially securing movement participants, their capacity to defend against fear, ideology, memory, coercion, and co-option will also tend to dissipate with time. Even on those occasions where their initial kinetic force is such that it manages to topple a dictator (as in Tunisia or Egypt), these frailties will see to it that such movements struggle to consolidate gains in the interregnum that follows, and in so doing, clear the space for counter-revolutionary elements to return.

Though robust and independent political parties and/or labor unions do not constitute a sufficient condition for winning and sustaining democracy, data from times recent and from long ago suggests that they do constitute a necessary one. In enfeebling Jordan’s unions and partisans and in delegitimizing their standing in the eyes of the demos, then, the Hashemite regime has deprived oppositional forces of those means history has shown to be most efficacious in challenging power—and corralled them into strategies and praxes with a far lower probability of success. While this does not guarantee authoritarianism’s survival, it does force political contention onto grounds that make such an outcome considerably more likely.

If that all may offer an answer to the why of Hashemite endurance, it does not yet engage the how of the whole matter. To the extent that it is indeed the absence of strong unions and parties that explains authoritarian resilience in Jordan, how is that such an absence came into being, and how is it that it has been maintained?

To answer these questions and complete our unwinding of Abdullah II’s paradoxical reign, we must now turn to historical process tracing. Herein, we will begin by examining the hollowing of Jordan’s labor movement across time. We will then conclude by considering how the country’s political parties have been rendered non-players in contemporary politics as well.

The Breaking of Labor

The character and conduct of organized labor in Jordan today are the products of iterative policy choices, historical contingency, and exogenous material conditions particular to country’s peripheral, late developing economy.

Legally speaking, the foundations that initially structured Jordanian industrial relations were actually relatively progressive. Derived from the constitution promulgated during Talal ibn Abdullah’s brief tenure as King (1951-1952), they were shaped by the currents of the early post-colonial period and included some genuinely emancipatory principles. Offering some testament to this, Article 23 of Talal’s constitution asserted that “Work is a right for all Jordanian citizens, the state has to secure it by steering the national economy and supporting its growth.” With the subsequent passage of Labor Trade Unions Law No.35 in 1953 under the freshly crowned 19 year-old King Hussein—a piece of legislation granting any group of seven or more united by either profession or place of work the right to unionize and strike—substantive freedoms of workplace association were established as well.

By dint of these foundations and the democratic environs that more generally prevailed during the early post-war period, a nascent trade union movement did emerge and flower for a time. Though the non-industrial nature of the economy—which was itself an outcome born of Jordan’s small size, meager resource endowments, and standing as a backwater within both the Ottoman regional economy and the British imperial one—limited the breadth of this flowering’s spread, the movement still proved effective in laying deep institutional roots. By 1954, six workers’ collectives had already come together to form the General Federation of Jordan Trade Unions (GFJTU). Within a year thereafter, thirty-six trade unions had won legal recognition, with twenty-five of them choosing to line up under the banner of GFJTU.

Drifting off the winds of the era’s political climate, Jordanian labor would, from the jump, adopt a relatively active political posture. In the GFJTU's case, this meant building relations with the many left-leaning partisan organizations that were then ascendant, be they Nasserist, Ba’athist, communist, or social democratic in outlook. When Hussein attempted to corral this left’s political momentum through appointing Suleiman al-Nabulsi—leader of the moderate Social Democratic Party— Prime Minister in 1956, the labor movement offered its full support to the new cabinet.

Al-Nabulsi’s government was not long for this world, of course, as the tensions permeating the relationship between a monarchist, pro-western palace and the democratic, pan-Arabist front that Nabulsi et al represented were ultimately irresolvable. In April 1957, the fraught state of compromise gave way via a royalist coup.31 This was followed by the imposition of martial law, which Hussein would leverage in reasserting his legal and administrative control over state and society alike.

The rollback of Jordan’s brief experiment with democracy redounded swiftly onto the country’s young labor associations. Having aligned with Nabulsi, many of trade union movement’s most influential leaders were forced into involuntary exiles in Syria and Egypt. Having been tarred with spurious charges of communist affiliation, meanwhile, the GFJTU itself was also subjected to a wider campaign of repression. With those organizations deemed insufficiently apolitical and/or loyal to the throne disbanded, by 1961, the number of active unions in Jordan was reduced from 1956’s high of thirty-nine to a mere sixteen, and the number of union members was reduced to 9,000.

Prior to the ruptures of 1967, the Royal Court’s easing of restrictions on association briefly allowed for a reversal in labor’s fortunes. In the aftermath of al naksa, howeverwhich for Jordan resulted in the loss of the West Bank and Jerusalem—the political climate changed profoundly, and in a manner that would (again) prove to the detriment of the trade unions.

The shift in climate began with the rise of the Palestinian Fedayeen movements, who came to occupy a position of heightened prominence and influence throughout the region as a result of the failures of the Arab participants in the Six-Day War. Basing their operations primarily out of Jordan, the Fedayeen grew emboldened with time. By the late 1960s, they even managed to set up a series of autonomous mini-states with the sovereign territory of the Hashemite monarch—mini-states from which they militarily engaged Israel and pontificated on a revolution that would soon sweep the Middle East. Soon enough, reprisals and preemptive attacks from Israel brought fire upon major Jordanian infrastructural developments. With the naive taunts and threats of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine adding further insult to injury, a showdown between the Fedayeen and Hashemite regime became inevitable.

When this showdown eventually arrived in 1970-1971, the Jordanian labor movement’s political affinities and ethnic composition ensured it would line up behind the Fedayeen. By consequence, once a series of variables aligned to see to it that those Fedayeen were decisively defeated and expelled to Lebanon, Jordan’s unions were to find themselves counted amongst the vanquished for a second time.

Retribution from the triumphant royalists on this occasion proved comprehensive and lasting. It started with an administrative reform that put the portfolio for labor and industrial relations under the jurisdiction of a special department at the General Intelligence Directory (GID). With union activists henceforth handled under the framework of state security, little headway could be made in proselytizing or organizing. Complementing the more coercive interventions of the Mukhabarat were those of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor. In 1971, the Ministry dissolved the democratically elected executive committee of the GFJTU and replaced it with a body of government appointees. With the movement’s leadership class removed from the picture, it then used a series of temporary laws32 to grant itself the authority to monitor and surveil the internal affairs of trade unions and to disestablish those unions deemed political active or involved in the “propagation of destructive ideologies.” The less docile amongst Jordan’s trade unions were thereby either disbanded or merged with a more obedient outfit, while a new generation of quasi-regime surrogates built personal fiefdoms for themselves within what remained of the GFJTU’s organizational infrastructure. With the Ministry also investing itself with the authority to issue injunctions against strikes and the power to levy fines and criminal charges against strike organizers and participants33, the labor movement’s independence, which had more or less been respected for the past twenty-odd years, was suddenly no more.

Having brought existing workers’ associations under the thumb of the regime, the next step was to prevent any subsequent union drives from gaining momentum or legal recognition. This was achieved by establishing a regulatory troika comprised of the aforementioned Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, the now-co-opted GFJTU, and the Jordanian business elite (as represented by the national Chambers of Commerce and Industry, respectively). This superficially corporatist arrangement was granted total discretion over union certification from 1971 onward, powers it used to stop any new union from gaining legal status for almost forty years. With outstanding labor market tensions ameliorated by outward and inward migratory flows—by the export of ethnically Palestinian labor to the Gulf after 1971 and the import of low skilled Egyptian labor, whose arrival allowed for ethnically Transjordanian agriculturalists to be absorbed into the public sector in increasing number—Jordan’s unions gradually receded into social irrelevance. Feckless in later contests over privatization and the flexibilization of hiring and firing laws, the movement was a shell of its former self by the time King Abdullah II came to power in 1999.

Little would change in the intervening period, whether as regards the basic tenets of the state’s industrial relations strategy or as regards the trade union’s presence in Jordanian social life.

Under Abdullah II as under Hussein, an assortment of measures remain in place to ensure that the official associational infrastructure of the labor movement—represented by the GFJTU—is deprived of any meaningful independence. The senior ranks of the General Federation of Jordanian Trade Unions are still stewarded by ineffectual apparatchiks quiescent to the state’s wishes in the final instance. At the level of the rank and file, maneuverability is hemmed in via fairly austere restrictions on striking rights, including a provision that makes wildcat actions punishable by union dissolution.34 With no provisions for competitive unionism on the books35, finally, alternative formations are also disallowed from seeking to organize workers in the seventeen sectors represented by the GFJTU. That the GFJTU’s membership rolls declined considerably over the past twenty years, falling 15% between 2000 and 2018 (from 230,000 to 200,000), is but the most immediate fruit of these efforts. (Due to demographic expansion, this decline sufficed to push the country’s union density from 20% at the beginning of Abdullah’s rule to a mere 6% as of the present day.36). More diffusely, these policies also diminished whatever popular legitimacy the GFJTU still retained, and rendered the organization even more distant from the lived realities of working people in Jordan.  

For handling labor activists outside the co-opted institutional spaces of the GFJTU, the regime today primarily relies upon disattention and threat. Regarding disattention, at the time of writing, the state continues to refuse to certify the Jordanian Federation of Independent Trade Unions. By consequence, neither the umbrella organization nor eleven of the twelve37 industrial, agricultural, and public sector38 workers’ collectives comprising its coalition are currently allowed to open offices, collectively bargain, or collect membership fees.39 As for threat, the independent labor movement must constantly navigate the specter of repression by dint of Section 119 of the Labor Code, which assigns administrators at the Ministry of Labor the power to levy fines up to JD 1000 and to proscribe prison sentences of up to three months for those individuals that are deemed to be member to a non-recognized and/or dissolved trade union.

As for those spaces that are as yet free from activism and organizing, additional measures are in place to see to it that this remains the case. Critical here are the regime’s juridical treatment of migrant workers and its partitioning of Jordan’s geography into a vast array of legally distinct territories, be they special economic zones, special development zones, or industrial estates.

As concerns the first of these points, though permitted migrant workers were formally granted the right to join a union in 2010, provisions in the labor code continue to disallow non-nationals from forming a union or from holding a leadership position within an existing one.40 These secondary clauses are pertinent because non-nationals tend to work in siloed sectors and spaces—including the aforementioned special zones and estates—where existing unions cannot practically reach them.41 Unable to take action by their own accord, this confluence of law and logistics winds up rendering about half of the labor force (roughly 900,000 persons if one includes those without permits) effectively unorganizable.42 Clear, then, is the effect of the regime's othering of non-citizen workers on labor's institutional power.

Regarding the point on the legal partitioning of territory and its effects on labor, at the time of writing, there are thirty-seven privately-run special economic zones in operation in Jordan in addition to six publicly-run special economic zones, two special development zones, and six industrial estates (with another five planned for the years ahead). Each such zone represents a space of exception in that the workers and residents contained therein are subjected to legal regimes different from Jordan proper.43 Physically fenced off from the rest of the country, governed by separate labor laws, and populated by footloose foreign capital that threatens to relocate at the earliest sign of labor unrest44, the spread of these zones has come to constitute a structural impediment to the building of workers’ power, too.

Policy and Macroeconomic Shifts

Finally, just as broader macroeconomic conditions—namely, the non-industrial nature of the Jordanian economy in the early 1950s—hampered the development of the labor movement at an earlier stage, exogenous shifts (and the state’s response to them) continue to arrest its growth today.

At the ecological level, declining rates of output growth in the global economy—a symptom of industrial overcapacity and the near saturation of demand—represents the primary factor at work. By dint of this decline, Jordan, like many others in the late developing global south, struggles to integrate into global production and investment circuits. By extension, it also struggles to integrate large portions of its population into an economy where wage labor has come to represent the dominant social relation and the singular means for ensuring an individual and/or family’s sustenance. Compounded by a demographic boom and the intensification of urbanization trends, these struggles metabolize in the desperate labor market situation we described earlier—one defined by pervasive underemployment, unemployment, informality, and economic withdrawal.

While the material conditions exogenously imposed upon Jordan were always bound to engender bad outcomes at a local level, the response of policymakers has done little in terms of harm reduction. Blind to the structural nature of the issues at play, planners and administrators have primarily engaged the labor market through libertarian-styled interventions. Ceding the prerogative to the market in the first and final instance, these interventions reduce to weak vocational training efforts and microfinance-styled business incubation. Predictably, they do little to stop the drift of hundreds of thousands into the informal economy, and can even be said to accelerate this drift through seeding one generation after another of dukan entrepreneurs.

As this relates to the labor movement, though it would be reductionist to treat those in the informal sector--a demographic representing 44.7% of the employed workforce in Jordan as of 2017--as unthinking lumpenproletarians predisposed towards reactionary politics, it is the case that the spread of self-employment and informality has fundamentally problematized the building of worker power.

Some of this has to do with the particular sociological character of the own-account worker. Petite bourgeois in outlook to begin with, many of these individuals in Jordan also benefit from the state acquiescing to their evading and avoidance of taxes. As a result, their willingness to engage in organizing—an act which could realistically invite retribution from the state—is limited, at least in the absence of immediate injury.45

Leaving the self-employed aside, the broader challenge posed by the spread of informality concerns the difficulty of movement building in a context devoid of large shop floors and in a context of profound atomization. With so many working as competing petty traders, in the low-end service sector, or in construction—and with so many dependent on a daily wage for their survival—organizers must walk an incredibly tightrope. On the one hand, they need to overcome the isolating and enervating effects brought on by both pauperization and the fight for scraps. On the other, they need to persuade people to risk great personal harm in the absence of any safety net, such as a strike fund. Together, the logistical, strategic, and ideological complications for those trying to build networks of solidarity and trust in these spaces are immense. They too function to weaken the power of organized labor in Jordan today.

To recapitulate, due to the confluence of post-colonial macroeconomic conditions and the whims of local history, Jordan’s trade union movement, unlike its counterpart in Tunisia, has come to lack power within traditional industrial sectors (i.e. the domains of the GFJTU) and esteem amongst the population at-large. Due to the confluence of more recent macroeconomic conditions—particularly, the spread of informality—and the deployment of new repressive technologies by the state, activists have also struggled to build power within the growth sectors of Jordan’s new economy. Short, then, in breadth of reach and lacking in terms of institutional depth, independence, and coherence, the labor movement, broadly defined, cannot perform the social and political roles incumbent upon it in the struggle for democracy.

Derelict graveyard in downtown Amman

The Hollowing of Political Parties

Widening the associational vacuum created by the weakness of organized labor in Jordan is weakness of the country’s political parties. Also incapable of fulfilling their historical functions—identifying shared grievances, aggregating and representing coalitional interests, constructing social identities, overcoming collective action problems, naming allies and enemies, and directing popular energies—parties today constitute neither a meaningful bulwark against the irredentist authoritarianism of the Hashemite regime nor an instrument for building an alternative future.

Contrary to the claims of the King, the (abundant) shortcomings of Jordanian political parties are not the fruit of some ontological character defect. While hardly without blame—partisan obsessions with foreign affairs and with Israel in particular have been self-defeating—the weakness of these organizations primarily traces back to cynical royal designs and path dependencies set in motion long ago.

As was the case with the labor movement, the story here really gets started with the critical juncture that was the royalist coup of 1957. Though the standing of the country’s political parties at the time of Hussein’s power grab has often been overstated, it was undeniably trending upward.46 1956 did, after all, see party candidates outperform independents and notables in a parliamentary election for the first time. Even if low voter turnout diminishes the significance of that achievement slightly, it would be hard to argue that the partisans were not ascendant in terms of public esteem and organizational competence.

In subjecting parties to a comprehensive ban at the very moment that they were gaining a social and political foothold—a ban that would last for thirty-five years, mind you—Hussein and his Kingsmen would stunt their development in a manner that proved irreversible. In closing officers and forcing operations underground, the Royal Court preempted the professionalization of their ranks, the rationalization of their organizing, and the deepening of their ties to social and ideological constituencies. With only the Islamist current allowed to maintain any presence in public life henceforth, the parties also lost any capacity to shape and be shaped by wider movements in the culture.

The path dependencies thereby introduced became starkly apparent when political parties were finally relegalized in 1992. After decades lost to inactivity, founding cohorts were quickly if understandably found short on organizational know-how and bereft of ideological answers. Anonymous in the eyes of the demos and often unwilling to cede the floor to younger generations, such men were well and truly out of their depth in trying to navigate Jordan’s post-Cold War realities, and it showed.

Making matters worse, the Hashemite regime did not merely rely on the legacies of history and the aging of leadership classes in thwarting the country’s partisans during the coming era of defensive democratization.47 It also actively weakened the parties through (i) imposing funding restrictions and limits on proselytizing; (ii) manipulating the electoral system (through gerrymandering districts and voting system changes); and (iii) depriving elected officials of substantive powers over legislation or executive oversight.

Enforced Poverty

Proceeding sequentially, funding restrictions were first enacted through a provision in 1992’s Political Parties Law that made it illegal for parties to have external ties and/or financing. As the Jordanian left had grown highly embedded in regionalist and pan-Arabist trends of different sorts over the course of its history—whether by consequence of its domestic repression and the exiling of its leaders or as a result of leftism’s fundamental internationalism in the Middle East—this provision left them without a leg to stand upon at the moment they were finally allowed to come in from the cold.

Compounding matters further was the King's eventual curtailment of media rights. Many party weeklies had initially flourished following the passage of 1993’s Press Law.48 Once the media's response to his peace deal with Israel made Hussein suddenly skittish on the freedoms just established, however, he would opt to bring Jordan's brief glasnost to an unceremonious close. In the rollback of the Press Law that followed, the aforementioned weeklies were all quickly shuttered, depriving the parties of their second best means of raising money and their best means of developing ideological constituencies in one foul swoop.

The impoverishment of the parties that was thereby achieved was largely maintained throughout Abdullah II's reign. This was so despite the international community commencing a number of democracy promotion initiatives during the same period in question. (Those initiatives exclude parties and other political organizations from receiving any financial support under the guise of not wishing to meddle in sovereign affairs, subsidizing instead issue-based NGOs of different stripes).

Data provided by Wael Abu Anzeh, "Jordanian Political Parties Budget Analysis", Report: Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy

Electoral Machinations

Bad as enforced destitution has been, the regime's machinations with the electoral system have proven even more destructive for the parties.

This tactic was embraced as a consequence of the Lower House that was elected in 1989. Though parties had been disallowed from participating in these elections (the first of the post-martial law era), the electoral system in place—which combined multimember districting and block voting—wound up allowing Muslim Brotherhood-associated candidates to win 22 of the 80 seats available. While lacking their old vibrancy, the luminaries of the old leftist parties performed fairly decently as well.

Believing the King’s commitments to democracy to be held in earnest, upon taking their seats in the Lower House, many of these parliamentarians pushed for substantive reforms and eagerly acted as a watchdog to power. Alas, this kind of popular activism was not what the King had in mind when he opened up the political system. As a result, he and his allies subsequently introduced reforms to the electoral system to ensure future Lower House’s would host more conciliatory types.

Beginning in 1993, block voting was replaced by a single non-transferable vote system. In the context of multimember districts, SNTV incentivized voters to cast their ballot for a local patron who could deliver services and resources rather than a party candidate invested in broader, programmatic kinds of policy. At the same time, voting districts were also shamelessly gerrymandered. Wantonly violating the principle of one man one vote, this redrawing of the electoral map assigned peripheral, underpopulated areas a disproportionate number of representatives and diluted the influence of the urban areas where Islamists and leftists both drew their support. The effects of these changes upon the parties were immediate. In terms of electoral performance, organizational development, and constituency building, they all began a sharp decline, with the partial exception of the Islamic Action Front (partisan wing of the Muslim Brotherhood).

Over the subsequent twenty-seven years, the Jordanian electoral system has retained the same anti-democratic core while evolving at the margins. Reforms in 2001 and 2010 expanded the number of seats in the Lower House and introduced progressively larger quotas for female MPs, for instance, though reinstated the fundaments of SNTV while also maintaining prevailing practices of gerrymandering. Even the reforms prompted by the Arab Uprisings and introduced in 201249 and 2015 wound up working the same sleight of hand, at least when it came to districting.50 By consequence, parties continued to struggle in building lists and coalitions (including in November of 2020), to run candidates outside their parochial bases, and to develop broader constituencies. With state agents still meddling at a more discretionary level too51, the electoral system has made it nearly impossible for any organization to break out beyond the limits of what Lust-Okar calls competitive clientelism.

Powerless in Government

Finally, the regime's de-development of Jordanian political parties has also been advanced through its refusal to cede the Lower House any real power. On the one hand, the body’s relegation to a symbolic role has disallowed parties from acquiring practical experience in governance. In thereby impeding them from building institutional knowledge and public policy expertise, the oft-remarked immaturity of the parties has been made into something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other, by mystifying just how little power the Lower House actually holds, the regime also sets up elected officials to take (some of) the blame when policy choices made by King and Kingsmen inevitably go wrong. At once ensuring the parties’ organizational incompetence and the public disdain’s for them, Abdullah II’s selective liberalization of the political system has locked partisans into a game portending only illegitimacy and weakness.

For all these reasons, the vast majority of Jordan’s partisans cannot claim to represent a stable constituency, engage in political education, or represent society's bridgehead in the state. Fulfilling none of the historical functions incumbent upon them, they present as neither a credible leadership class nor a viable alternative to the status quo.


Debilitate the country’s unions and political parties though the Hashemite regime has, it has never been wholly impervious to popular challenge. Animated by the dislocation and deprivation that has spread so widely under Abdullah II, challenges have actually been frequent and variegated.

Amongst the more substantive were those mobilized at the time of the Arab Uprisings, especially the Hirak movements led by ethnically Transjordanian youth. Sociologically inclusive and politically ambitious in their nature, these movements managed to sustain momentum long after the initial protest wave—Amman-centric and dominated by educated and middle class strata—faded, and to exert genuine pressure on the regime. The protests that spread in response to the income tax law of 2018 and the enormous teachers’ strike of 2019, which I discuss at length here, rank amongst the more serious instances of popular opposition as well. So too does the historic anti-government campaign waged by the Organization of Military Retirees between 2010 and 2012. This campaign not only brought segments of the Defense Forces into coalition with the aforementioned Hirak movements and into direct ideological conflict with the Hashemite regime; it also briefly threatened to fracture the broader security sector into two after the Retirees came to the aid of protesting port workers in Aqaba in 2010—and nose to nose with the gendarmie forces that were deployed to crackdown on them.

And yet, without diminishing either the seriousness of the movements themselves or what they ultimately accomplished, it would be disingenuous to suggest that any of them threatened the Hashemite-led political economic order in earnest. A fair appraisal of their respective records might even suggest that none amongst them even aspired to threaten that order. Certainly, some made talk of reducing the power of the King and others amplified wishes that the person of the King (and the crown prince) be replaced by more amenable alternatives. Nevertheless, whether speaking of the various Hirak movements or the income tax protestors or the Military Veterans, none dared articulate a frontal challenge to the monarchy’s claim to power, nor made credible advances against the economic hegemony of the Jordanian elite. In word as much as in deed, then, it could be said that contentious forms of politics in Jordan too operate with a basic respect for redlines laid down by the Royal Court itself.

In view of the general laws of history, such that they exist, and the record of events we have reviewed, I believe these outcomes, and by extension, Jordan’s eternally authoritarian present, ultimately derive from the ways through which the Hashemite regime has cultivated the weakness of the country’s parties and labor organizations. In depriving oppositional forces of those critical institutional hubs, Abdullah II and his allies have made it vastly more likely that transgressive energies, when they emerge, dissipate or refract into discrete pulses easily absorbed or snuffed out. Lacking the institutional mechanisms needed to both stop the workings of entropy and to constructively channel the disaffection that ceaselessly emanates out from so many different quarters, those seeking change in Jordan simply haven’t the tools available needed to achieve it. In many ways, then, the regime survives not because of its positive achievements, but because of its negative ones.

The forces that aligned to keep the country’s parties and labor organizations weak were never predetermined, of course, and they need not hold going forward. While the tactics deployed by the Hashemites toward such ends certainly have a great deal to do with the weakness in question, so too have the contingent ways through which regional politics and global macroeconomic dynamics filtered down to Jordan, and so too have a handful of critical junctures that easily could have turned a different way. This being the case, the state of play the moment need not be cause of eternal pessimism.

That said, until conditions, fortune, and the acts of willful agents come together in the right mix and until strong and independent parties and labor organizations thereby break through, one can expect popular elements in Jordan will have little joy in waging a long war of position against the incumbent regime. Without the institutional capacity needed to mobilize resources at scale, institutionalize wide-ranging coalitions and relationships of trust, direct strategy and overcome collective action problems across years if not decades, and prevent localized defections, one’s odds of winning these fights are simply too steep.


1 Firms were allowed to delay payments on sales taxes and utilities, customs duties were reduced to 30% the original rate and delayed payments on whatever sums were left after these reductions were also greenlit. Mandatory social security contributions were also suspended.

2 On social protection, the NAF expanded the number of families it extended conditional cash payments to in the wake of the pandemic. To the extent that these payments were only reaching two-thirds of Jordan’s pre-pandemic poor, however, and only bridging half of the poverty gap for any given household, the impact of these expansions ought not be overstated.

3 On social insurance, for formally employed workers rendered jobless by the crisis, the Social Security Investment Fund, to which they contributed through payroll taxes, provided a few months of in-kind transfers and benefits.

Though not a fiscal intervention, one ought note that the Razzaz government did put in place certain regulatory measures aimed at protecting workers from arbitrary dismissal and others placing limits on the wage cuts that could be instated. For the initial two weeks of Jordan’s lockdown (March 18-31), Defense Order no.6 legally mandated that employers honor full salary obligations. Outside that window, for firms not allowed to resume operations, they were still legally required to pay 50% of wages so long as the amount in question did not fall below the national minimum wage of 220 JD. Subsequent modifications to Order No.6 allowed firms to unilaterally cut salaries for non-working employees by 60%, and to reduce wages for working employees by 30% if one’s firm operated in one of the twenty-four sectors deemed to have been acutely affected by the COVID-19 shock. With no meaningful payroll support extended to the vast majority of employers, however, violations of these provisions proved unsurprisingly widespread, according to research done by the Phenix Center.

For firms looking to close up shop, separate provisions allowed them to submit an appeal to the Ministry of Labor which, if approved, allowed them to halt operations and all wage payments.

4 The rhetorical shift I refer to saw the scourge of wasta brought front and center. In the framing of the regime, wasta is defined as a practice of favor trading and/or leveraging personal connections that is particular to government officials. In view of the many corruption scandals that engulfed the technocratic and private sector elites championed by the King—scandals which typically involved the party in question exploiting proximity to decisionmakers for personal enrichment—the framing of wasta as a disease of the bureaucracy is particularly rich.

For examples of elite, Abdullah-adjacent scandals, see: Bassam Awadallah, Walid Kurdi, Adel Qudah, Mohammed Rawashdeh, Khaled Shaheen, and Majdi al-Yassen (the brother of Queen Rania), amongst others.

5 In the case of the Economic Consultative Council (ECC), one can also count the parliament amongst the displaced, as the ECC was vested with extensive legislative authorities and empowered to write many of the Royal Decrees through which the King governed in the early 2000s.

6 The median monthly wage for a public sector worker in 2016 was 350 JD (in 2010, it was 473 JD). While this figure exceeds the poverty line set for a family of four, the margins we are talking about are pretty slim. See: OAMDI, 2018. Labor Market Panel Surveys (LMPS), Version 1.1 of Licensed Data Files; JLMPS 2016. Egypt: Economic Research Forum (ERF).

7 The median monthly wage for a government worker in 2016 was 400 JD. See source above for documentation.

8 On this point, it is also worth noting that public sector wages for high skilled positions are no longer competitive with private sector equivalents. This makes it harder for the state to retain the talent it desperately needs. See: Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, “Jordan’s National Employment Strategy (2011-2020)”, Report: 2010.

9 As of the early 1990s, a full 90% of those employed in southern governorates like Tafileh, Karak, and Ma’an, all almost entirely Transjordanian in ethnic composition, worked for the state, broadly defined.

10 By dint of their absorption into the public sector in the 1970s, many Transjordanian tribes and communities were uprooted and resettled in the capital. As a result, those coming of age today are not only locked out of the labor market, but also without the social and material solidity that comes with land ownership. See: Yazid Doughan, “The Reckoning of History: Young Activists, Tribal Elders, and the Uses of the Past in Jordan”, POMEPS Studies 36 (Youth Politics in the Middle East and North Africa), November 2019.

11 Recently reinstated military service requirements may provide a modicum of relief for some of these young men and women, though the meagerness of the moneys provided to draftees (100 Jordanian dinar per month) will do little to move the needle.

12 Tell credits the columns and proselytizing efforts of Transjordanian radicals like Nahid Hattar with activating the political consciousness of many in the military. He also highlights how the extension of royal dispensations—university scholarships and student aid in particular—that were once the privilege of Transjordanians alone to the Palestinian refugee camps seemed to create acute resentments.

13 This chain of events may only describe the global north’s experience with neoliberalism during its first wave (1970s-1990s) of experimentation.

14 Median earnings for those more broadly classified as high in occupational skill, meanwhile, topped out at 300 JD per month in 2016. These earnings are low enough to make an individual/family exempt from Jordan’s income tax.

For details, see: OAMDI, 2018. Labor Market Panel Surveys (LMPS), Version 1.1 of Licensed Data Files; JLMPS 2016. Egypt: Economic Research Forum (ERF).

15 Between 2010 and 2016, the rate of social insurance coverage for white-collar, high-skilled workers declined from 78% to 72%. See: Ibrahim alhawarin and Irene Selwaness, “The evolution of social security in Jordan’s Labor Market: A critical Comparison between Pre- and Post-2010 Social Security Reform”, Working Paper no.1185: Economic Research Forum (Cairo, 2018).

16 For more on this, see: Pete Moore, Doing Business in the Middle East: Politics and Economic Crisis in Jordan and Kuwait. Cambridge University Press (2004); Katherine Blue Carroll, Business as Usual? Economic Reform in Jordan. Lexington Books (2001): chapters 5-11; Anne Mariel Zimmerman, US Assistance, Development, and Hierarchy in the Middle East. Palgrave Macmillan (2017).

18 While government officials occasionally flirt with demanding enterprises hire locals and where pledges are made towards restricting the number of legal permits extended to foreign workers, the lobbying of particular business elites ensure these actions don’t shift the balance in a meaningful way.

19 See: Ragui Assaad, “The Structure and Evolution of Employment in Jordan”, in Ragui Assaad (ed.) The Jordanian Labor Market in the New Millenium. Oxford (2014).

20 For the vast majority of the self-employed or own-account workers, the cost of paying into the social insurance system as stipulated in the new law—17% of one’s monthly wage—was far too high to consider.

21 Andre Bank, “Rents, Cooptation, and Economized Discourse: Three Dimensions of Political Rule in Jordan, Morocco, and Syria, Journal of Mediterranean Studies (14:1/2), 2014.

22 Maria Josua, “Co-optation Reconsidered: Authoritarian Regime Legitimation Strategies in the Jordanian ‘Arab Spring’”, Middle East Law and Governance (8): 2016

23 Sean Yom, “Authoritarian Monarchies as an Epistemic Community: Diffusion, Repression, and Survival During the Arab Spring”, Taiwan Journal of Democracy (10:1): 2014.

24 Curtis Ryan, Inter-Arab Alliances: Regime Security and Jordanian Foreign Policy. University of Florida Press (2009).

25 Laurie Brand, Jordan’s Inter-Arab Relations: The Political Economy of Alliance Making. Columbia University Press (1994).

26 Sean Yom and Mohammad al-Momani, “The International Dimensions of Authoritarian Regime Stability: Jordan in the Post-Cold War Period”, Arab Studies Quarterly (30:1), 2008.

27 Marwan Muasher, “Jordan: Fallout from the End of an Oil Era”, Report: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (June 2020).

28 See: Sean Yom, “Bread, Fear, and Coalitional Politics in Jordan: From Tribal Origins and to Neoliberal Narrowing”, in Victor Shih (ed.) Authoritarian Stability: Duration, Financial Control, and Institutions. University of Michigan Press (2020).

29 For how this has played out in Jordan, see: Nadine Kreitmeyr, “Neoliberal co-optation and Authoritarian Renewal: Social Entrepreneurship Networks in Jordan and Morocco”, Globalizations (16:3), 2019.

Paul Esber, Who are the Jordanians? The Citizen-Subjects of Abdullah II, Dissertation: University of Sydney (2018).

30 In Jordan, processes such as these have manifested in a broad acceptance of the demos’ collective political immaturity, and its consequent need for the King as custodian-guardian.

See: Jose Ciro Martinez, “Jordan’s Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: The Production of Feeble Political Parties and the Perceived Perils of Democracy”, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (44:2), 2017.

31 For sources on this history, see: Hani Hourani, “The Jordanian Labour Movement”, Report: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (2002); and Ahmad Awad, “Jordan’s Paradoxical Approach to Trade Unions”, Report: Phenix Center (2017).

32 Specifically, Temporary Labor Law 67 and Decree 14/K1/1971

33 Strikes were also made illegal in vital industries at this time

34 Sections 134 and 135 of the Labor Code stipulate that workers may not use this tactic when a dispute is in arbitration, that workers cannot go on strike without providing the employer at least fourteen days of notice (28 days in the case of the public sector), and that the state can fine participants in illegal strikes 50 JD (and 5 JD for every day the strike persists). Section 116 affords the Ministry of Labor the power to dissolve a union, meanwhile, if it: a) violates any provision of this Code, provided that the Minister had already sent the union, before instituting the proceedings, written notice to cease the violation within a determined time-limit and that the trade union did not respond to such notice; (b) instigates walkouts, work stoppage, stay-in strikes or demonstrations in cases where such actions are prohibited under this Code or any other legislation in force.

35 See: Melani Cammett and Marsha Pripstein Posusney, “Labor market standards and labor market flexibility in the Middle East: free trade and freer unions”?, Studies in Comparative International Development (45): 2010.

36 Danish Trade Union Council for International Development Cooperation, “Jordan Labour Market Profile 2018”. Report (2019).

37 One member of this coalition has won legal recognition: the Jordanian Teachers’ Syndicate, who leveraged the Arab Spring protests and a pledge to disengage from them in forcing the state’s hand in 2011

38 The Ministry of Labor has refused to countenance the unionization of Jordan’s civil servants, despite a ruling Jordan’s Constitutional Court ruling the workers favor. See Awad (2016).

39 On this topic, see: International Trade Union Confederation, Letter to Prime Minister Omar Razzaz re: Labor Code Reforms: (January, 2019).

40 Again see: Awad (2016).

41 Foreign workers are frequently housed in special on-site dormitories, too.

42 On those occasions where organizing manages to gain some traction despite all these challenges, the Ministry of Labor has shown itself willing to intervene against the organizing of (foreign) agricultural and domestic workers in particular on a more a discretionary basis.

43 Though subjected to slight differences, in general, this treatment provides all firms within such spaces with a flat 5% corporate tax rate, exemptions or reductions on on sales tax, income tax on exported goods, land tax and building taxes, dividends tax, custom duties, and social security contributions,  de facto regulatory neglect of labor rights, unlimited, non-conditional rights when it comes to importing and employing foreign workers and allows for 100% foreign ownership (See: Investment Law No.30, 2014). Garment workers—comprising a large portion of the labor force in these zones—are also exempt from the state’s minimum wage legislation.

44 Despite the predominantly South Asian-owned garment manufacturers operated in these zonesbeing notorious for payroll delinquency, high turnover rates, and for inducing injuries at the workplace—and despite the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center having previously described labor conditions within Jordan’s export processing zones as “tantamount to bonded labor”—, they have proven teflon to labor action.

See: Mary Nazzal, “Economic Reform in Jordan: An Analysis of Structural Adjustment and Qualified Industrial Zones”

45 The uprising of souq merchants in Amman’s old downtown—precipitated by Mayor Oman Ma’ani’s attempt to lift rent controls—is one example of injury prompting solidarity. See: Pascal Debruyne and Christopher Parker, “Reassembling the Political: Placing Contentious Politics in Jordan”, in Contentious Politics in the Middle East. Palgrave Macmillan (2015).

46 See: Ellen Lust-Okar, “The Decline of Jordanian Political Parties: Myth or Reality?”, International Journal of Middle East Studies (33): 2001.

47 That only the Islamic Action Front—which by dint of being the partisan wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, retained some degree of brand recognition along with access to a long-cultivated social base—managed to maintain a steady constituency and achieve sustained success across multiple elections testifies to just how devastating and path dependent Jordan’s long winter of martial law was.

48 The rollback of press freedoms largely stemmed from the popular uproar that was precipitated by the King’s signing of 1994’s Wadi Araba treaty with Israel. Over the next four years, the weeklies would be gutted by an aggressive campaign consisting of confiscations, heavy fining, the prosecution of journalists and editors, and the eventual reinstatement of extensive state censorship in 1998. With them went the parties best bet for connecting with the public and raising money.

See: Lust-Okar (2001).

49 2012’s changes to the electoral law again foregrounded gender—by increasing the number of seats in the Lower House while rejiggering the quota system in the closed Bedouin districts (which are arranged according to tribal criteria rather than geographic ones)—while reintroducing a degree of PR-based list voting. With 123 of the 150 seats in the Lower House still chosen via SNTV a single non-transferable vote cast across a mix of 18 single member and 90 multimember districts, however, these reforms, like those of 2010, were ultimately cosmetic in nature. See: Mohammed Hussainy, “The Social Impact of Jordan’s Electoral System”, Report: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (2014).

50 The changes installed in 2015 are still the law of the land today. The reforms then introduced reduced the number of MPs in the Lower House back to 130 and retained an extensive quota system reserving seats for female, Christian, and Circassian candidates alongside nine seats reserved for three of the main Bedouin tribes. In addition, they restored open list voting and proportional representation, which marked a major step forward. That said, due to the persistence of gerrymandering practices, which allowed for the devaluing and overvaluing of voters based on geographic criteria laden with politics, this electoral law too left the same old anti-democratic principles in place.

51 Evidence of this, public sector workers running on the joint lists of a handful of leftist parties were threatened that they would be prevented from returning to their jobs if they ran as part of these coalitions, while many of those candidates that the Islamic Action Front had targeted as list-mates were discouraged from consummating such arrangements as well.

Colin Powers

Colin received his PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in 2020. He is a two-time Fulbright Fellow.