Rami G. Khouri is director of global engagement at the American University of Beirut, a nonresident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative, and an internationally syndicated columnist. He tweets @ramikhouri.
The mid-December clashes in Maan, in southern Jordan, in which four policemen were ultimately killed, along with a militant, are a troubling sign for the entire Arab world, because they are a stark reminder of three perpetual weaknesses in state-building, sustainable development and citizen-state relations throughout the region. These weaknesses plague all middle- and low-income Arab countries, and they continue to worsen almost every year. They have already shattered Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, and if current trends persist, they threaten many more countries today, including Egypt and Tunisia under their resurgent authoritarian regimes.
These are the fateful forces of social, economic and political development that is inadequate, unequal and, in the eyes of many citizens, uncaring. They have not destabilized Jordan, because its government prioritizes stability above all else, and achieves it with significant foreign support, most of all from the United States.
But Maan is a flashing red warning light. Anyone who knows Jordan also knows, as polling confirms again and again, that while Jordanians have limited confidence in their state's political institutions, they have much respect for the armed forces that they see as keeping their society safe, especially when compared to their neighbors. So when Jordanian citizens kill police and security officers—such a rarity in Jordan—what is driving that anomaly?
The immediate trigger for the unrest in Maan was an increase in fuel prices that hit truck drivers particularly hard, in a region where trucking is a major source of income. Striking truckers in southern Jordan were quickly joined by other strikers throughout the country whose families struggled to meet their basic needs. The strikes, which were initially peaceful, deteriorated into deadly clashes between protesters and police that resulted in the killing of a high-ranking police officer. When the government then sent in a security force to detain the suspected killers at their hideout, a shootout erupted that left the suspect and three policemen dead.
Rampant economic disparities have left Jordanians in provincial towns and cities like Maan feeling angry and forgotten. This marginalization, both economic and political, is mirrored across the Arab world.
- Rami G. Khouri
Previous strikes in Jordan, which occasionally led to clashes with police, have been triggered by similar economic pressure: the rising price of bread or milk, or higher fees on basic services. Jordanians in peripheral towns and cities like Maan have also long expressed their frustration over the central government's inability to focus on their own needs while it builds grandiose neoliberal development projects in Amman.
Maan's recurring bouts of rebelliousness and violence capture the central driver of discontent in the kingdom's provincial towns and cities, from Mafraq and Tafileh to Karak and Dhiban, where rampant economic disparities and inequities have left Jordanians feeling angry and forgotten. This marginalization, both economic and political, is mirrored across the Arab world. That was why so much of the Arab uprisings of 2010 and 2011—the greatest region-wide rebellion by disenchanted citizens in modern Arab history—also started in depressed provincial towns and cities from central Tunisia to southern Syria. Some of their names will always be associated with the uprisings: Sidi Bouzid, Benghazi, Daraa.
Maan was once a relatively prosperous crossroads and staging post on the pilgrimage routes to Arabia. But by the 1980s, with the construction of a new highway that bypassed it and other changes imposed by the central government, Maan lost its strategic advantages in regional transport, servicing pilgrims and being the administrative hub for the entire south of Jordan. Its few productive economic activities could not provide good jobs for young Jordanians graduating from high school or college. Investment beyond some state facilities was limited.
This is the legacy that now haunts much of the Arab region. Once-stable provincial areas like Maan used to offer their residents a decent life, especially when central governments expanded education, health care and other basic needs for its citizenry. But the post-1973 oil boom rapidly disoriented traditional economic patterns throughout the Middle East, including in Jordan. Established systems of semi-arid agriculture, including livestock farming, faded away, as youth went to the capital to find work with the government or burgeoning private sector. Most of them took informal, low-paying jobs that quickly sent them into the poor and marginalized quarters of society. A lucky few found decent jobs in the Gulf.
The neoliberal economic systems that swept over the region starting in the 1980s, burdening the state with massive foreign debt, favored privatized corporate efficiency and profits over equitable jobs and income for families. Modern Arab economies simply could not manage to combine growth and job creation with social equity. Things worsened after the chronic debt crises triggered by so-called structural adjustment programs from the International Monetary Fund, which further squeezed citizen well-being in countries like Jordan and Egypt, as prices for basic goods increased and governments curtailed their spending.
The warning signs in Jordan have been evident for decades, going back to the 1970s. Too many citizens have had their lives rocked from several directions at once. They faced more and more economic difficulty to meet their family's basic needs; they were chronically frustrated by their inability to get meaningful aid or development assistance by the state or private sector; they did not have any credible voice in political institutions like parliament or state-controlled entities like the media; and they saw no hope in the future for themselves or their children if they did not have any private source of income or wealth, like land or family members working abroad.
Credible surveys and regional polls have repeatedly confirmed these trends, in all non-energy-producing Arab countries. In a report last August, the Arab Barometer noted that 77 percent of Jordanians listed the economy and corruption as their two greatest concerns. Trust in government has also dropped by 41 percent in the past decade or so; just three-in-ten Jordanians now say they trust their government. Their trust in parliament is even lower, at just 16 percent. The armed forces, by contrast, are by far the most trusted state institution in Jordan, with 93 percent of respondents telling the Arab Barometer they trust them.
This lack of trust in government is an extension of people's marginalization based on their lived experiences. Inequality is seen as a problem by the vast majority of Jordanians—more than nine-in-ten, the highest rate in the region. And more than eight-in-ten Jordanians told the Arab Barometer that the wealth gap has increased in the past year—also the highest in the region. Widespread corruption further erodes trust in government. "Fewer than one-in-five say the government is responsive, which is the second lowest percentage in any country surveyed," the Arab Barometer also noted. "When seeking solutions to the economic challenges, Jordanians want the government to create jobs, raise wages, and limit inflation." Those are precisely the main weaknesses or outright failures of most Arab economies since the 1980s.
Fares Braizat, a respected Jordanian pollster and analyst, confirmed in an interview last week that his own studies have found that trust in government has been declining for many years. Jordanian citizens "speak out more but participate politically less," for example by voting or joining political parties, he said, "and the low trust in political systems drives people into other systems," meaning emigration, smuggling or drug rings, or in very few cases, militant groups.
In the recently published 2022 Arab Opinion Index, a regional survey conducted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, 54 percent of citizens said the economic situation in their country is bad or very bad. Outside the wealthy Gulf region, this percentage rises sharply.
"The priorities of the citizens of the Arab region are varied, but the largest bloc (60%) said that their priorities are economic in nature," the study concluded. "More than half of the citizens mentioned that unemployment, high prices, poor economic conditions, and poverty are the most important challenges facing their country." High prices and the high cost of living are the biggest problems facing people of the region, according to the Index, with the highest proportion of respondents citing that as their main concern since the survey began.
The flashing red warning sign from Maan is also coming from hundreds of small towns and villages on the periphery across the region, and in the poor, marginalized urban quarters of the biggest Arab cities.
- Rami G. Khouri
These trends across the region have persisted over decades, among politically powerless citizens who have become even more disenchanted since the Arab uprisings failed to bring about peaceful political reform. In countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan and Algeria, public protests continued until recently in attempts to bring down the ruling elites who have presided over this regional calamity. But entrenched regimes mostly ignored their fellow countrymen and women taking to the streets, and in some cases killed, injured or arrested hundreds of them.
It is no surprise that more and more Arabs express a desire to emigrate. Among the vast majority who stay in their countries, a few eventually gravitate into political radicalization, extremism and militancy. Failed or stunted economies with growing inequality under autocratic systems created the perfect conditions for opposition mainstream Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood to grow rapidly from the 1970s onward in many Arab countries; they were followed by militant Islamists like al-Qaida or the Islamic State, which exploited economic, political and social desperation to attract new adherents. This usually occurs among small groups of men or even within families, as happened with the militants in Maan who were all part of a single family.
Small groups of armed Islamists have emerged in Maan since the late 1990s. In the latest clashes last month, the government said "takfiris" were the ones who fought and killed the security officers—"takfiris" being the term that the Jordanian and other Arab governments use to describe militant Islamists. The state has also blamed drug dealers, smugglers and other such groups for attacks on the police and government targets in the past. All such groups can only take root when socio-economic and political conditions deteriorate so badly that once proud and contented citizens lose all hope and seek to change their world by the gun, even if means killing policemen.
This is the flashing red warning sign from Maan. But it is also coming from hundreds of small towns and villages on the periphery across the Arab world, and in the poor, marginalized urban quarters of the region's biggest cities. They cannot be ignored forever.