US Foreign Policy

Why Syria may be the catalyst for Jordan’s “Arab Spring”

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By Que’Nique Mykte’ Newbill – Syrian spillover increasingly poses a serious risk of broader instability in Jordan. Jordan’s closed political environment coupled with significant economic challenges and increased security-related threats constitute a precarious situation for the kingdom. In particular, King Abdullah’s refusal to implement meaningful reforms while stifling deepening social unrest puts Jordan on an unsteady equilibrium. Injecting the dynamic factor of the Syrian crisis could tip Jordan into a full popular uprising.

 Jordan’s more recent political unrest stems from its slow paced democratic reform which has achieved little since launched  more than a decade ago. Palace-led reform efforts have yielded little more than a controversial election law and several changes in government. Until now, the King has been able to pacify public unrest and popular reform demands by deflecting most of the criticism toward government ministers rather than the monarchy. Some credit the King’s staying power to the legitimacy held by Islamic monarchs or more broadly the social contract between monarchs and their people, but neither of these approaches takes into account the impact -both direct and indirect- that the Syrian crisis may have on the reform process or the new dimensions it adds to Jordan’s growing instability.

King Abdullah has heralded next year’s elections as the final reform milestone and a major turning point towards a more democratic system. Yet, opposition calls for an election boycott in protest of the election’s new voting law risk rendering the election illegitimate. Opposition groups argue that rather than creating a more inclusive system, the new law is regressive and favors the status quo. This constrained political environment – allowing no meaningful channel for dissent – has led to a lack of confidence in the government with public patience also dangerously thin. Indeed, the January 2013 elections could place Jordan at a critical juncture-not as a harbinger for democratic reform but as a final provocation that sparks widespread revolt. Even more so the advent of unpopular austerity measures expected to pass through the newly elected government sets up the kingdom up for a political showdown with the approaching elections as a potential “red line”.

The Syrian crisis exhibits complex security challenges that have prompted the kingdom to reinforce its security apparatus and subsequently adopt a harder line on political protests. Spillover from the crisis in Syria has provoked deep security concerns. The uncovering of an embassy bomb plot fueled by arms from Syria, evidence of Syria-bound jihadists traversing Jordan, and fear of more Al-Qaeda operatives taking root in Jordan underscore these heightened security  concerns. In recent months, Jordan has seen an increase in the arrest of opposition elements with protestors acting with new boldness including a minority calling for the overthrow of the monarch. The Syrian refugee situation in Jordan-the kingdom hosts more than 200,000 Syrian refugees-broadens the dimensions of the security threat.  Poor camp conditions have repeatedly incited  social unrest in the camps leading to both deportations and an increased security presence. This is in addition to dealing with allegations of Assad agents hunting down dissidents inside Jordan and managing the highly guarded secret camp of defectors.

 On the economic front, Jordan’s forecast remains bleak with the steady influx of Syrian refugees straining its already extended resources. The refugee camps represent an enormous economic burden with costs expected to reach $150 million by the end of the year. Moreover, the Syrian crisis compounds Jordan’s economic woes in broader and more systematic ways. Syria is a key trading partner for Jordan. The majority of Jordan’s exports enter through Syria and Jordan relies heavily on Syrian agricultural products. Because of these vital ties, Jordan sought an exemption from last year’s Arab League sanctions on Syria, but was unsuccessful. As the Syrian crisis deepens, exacerbating Jordan’s economic struggles, Jordan has become even more dependent on conditional aid from Western donors. Yet, conditions tied to international assistance could provoke popular unrest. In particular, IMF mandates to end fuel subsidies – may stoke larger more robust street protests – akin to those in 1989 and 1996.  Given the kingdom’s tense atmosphere, such protests could spiral into broader instability.  Last month’s protests after a new fuel hike only hint at the dangerous juncture the kingdom may be approaching.

 Political stability in Jordan has long depended on navigating various political pressures and stretching scarce economic resources. But the Syrian crisis has added another volatile dimension to these challenges, further straining the monarchy’s ability to appease widespread frustration. Inevitable austerity measures make the situation even more untenable. This unstable mix of political, security, and economic challenges – multiplied by the Syrian crisis – amount to a dangerous game of Jenga for King Abdullah with the odds not in his favor.

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