In January 2022, Jordan’s parliament approved a bold package of democratic reforms that had been introduced by a royal commission. The next month, POMED published a report, co-authored by Sean Yom and Wael Al-Khatib, examining the package’s prospects for success. “Jordan now stands at an impasse,” the authors wrote. “The core reforms endorsed by the royal committee may indeed catalyze an astonishing trajectory of democratization, or resistance from the government may entrench the existing autocratic system.”
One and a half years later, POMED Managing Director Arwa Shobaki caught up with Sean Yom to take stock of the reform process so far. The process, Yom says, has vindicated skeptics’ fears, with the government showing few signs of living up to its lofty promises of democratic transformation. Meanwhile, Jordan’s repressive new cybercrimes law, which King Abdullah II approved in August, shows that the regime’s continued desire to tighten control over public life will keep impeding any efforts toward genuine democratization.
With Jordan’s political stagnation contributing to an ever-worsening economic crisis, Yom calls for Jordan’s government to finally implement its promised political and economic reforms that could turn the country into a model for the Arab world. The United States, he adds, should abandon its longstanding business-as-usual approach to Jordan and throw its weight behind the reform process.
POMED: In your report with Wael Al-Khatib last year, you wrote that the Jordanian government’s reform plan might lead to either greater democratization or entrenched authoritarianism. Eighteen months on, which of those two outcomes would you say is more likely? Has the government taken any meaningful steps to deliver the reforms?
Sean Yom: I am disappointed to say that we are witnessing authoritarian retrenchment.
To be fair, the reform plan is a long-term vision, and it would take years to bear fruit even in the best of circumstances. The royal committee’s political reforms were bold in their language, promising to promote social shifts including increased gender equality, administrative decentralization, and youth engagement. Rhetorically, the government remains committed to these goals, and officials today declare they are creating a new model of citizenship based on equality, inclusion, and patriotism.
Yet the centerpiece of the reforms concerns political power, and here, little progress has been made. Remember that the roadmap proposed turning the existing system of ruling monarchism—in which the hereditary monarchy, security institutions, and royally appointed government hold preponderant power—into a full-fledged parliamentary democratic system. Such systemic reforms are always costly, and it does not appear that those in power are willing to pay the costs. Instead, the national leadership has committed to only very incremental steps—and combined them with deepening repression.
In our report, we wrote that Jordanians initially regarded the reform plan with skepticism, as they had seen the same cycle of events before: “When economic or political crises inflame public unrest, authorities seek to regain mass confidence by apologizing for the government’s errors and by appointing committees to formulate seemingly dramatic reforms that ultimately turn out to be cosmetic.” Unfortunately, this pattern seems to be repeating itself.
In your analysis of the reform process, you described its success as dependent on three major forces: popular pressure from the streets, the state honoring its commitment, and encouragement from the United States. How would you assess these three forces to date?
Popular pressure for change will always be present in Jordan. Activists constantly mobilize over economic problems and controversial government decisions. Western headlines only cover the largest events, such as the riots over rising fuel prices last December, but small-scale demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins still happen on a weekly basis.
Demands for reform come not just from well-organized groups like Islamists and leftists, but also new grassroots networks and social movements that form even in the face of repression. The current generation of protesters reflects the youthful character of Jordanian society: Nearly two-thirds of Jordanians are under 30 years old, and the median age is 24. Protests are also being fueled by grievances from tribal Jordanians, who are generally pro-government but are increasingly frustrated by the same problems that incense other citizens, including endemic corruption, high unemployment, exorbitant living costs, and arbitrary repression. In sum, there is a lot of dissent circulating among the public, who are demanding the simplest of political goods: to matter in national decision-making, and to feel that their voices are being heard by authorities who care.
The state’s commitment to reform, on the other hand, remains suspect. At the official level, royal speeches continue to invoke a democratic future. But Jordanians have heard this all before: The monarchy convened royal committees to enact reforms in 2005 and again in 2011 during the Arab Spring, but none markedly changed the political system. Early indications suggest that this time will not be any different.
Finally, the U.S. role in this has been disappointing. The United States did criticize the repressive new cybercrimes law, and various voices within the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development continue to espouse the importance of political liberalization. Strategic interests, however, always take precedence. Those interests include providing Jordan with the economic aid necessary to finance its budget and underwrite development, along with military assistance to equip and modernize its armed forces. The 2022 Memorandum of Understanding on Strategic Partnership, which commits the United States to providing the kingdom with $1.45 billion annually through 2029, suggests that, for Washington, the certitude of a well-financed and well-armed Jordanian state tied to its interests continues to outweigh the uncertainty raised by bold democratic reforms, despite many Jordanians themselves demanding the latter.
Every U.S. president who has met with King Abdullah, from George W. Bush and Barack Obama to Donald Trump and now Joe Biden, has praised Jordan as a model of reform or an oasis of moderation in the Middle East. Yet they have never utilized U.S. leverage to persuade Jordan to undertake the changes necessary to turn this vision into reality, even though—and this is the irony—the Jordanian government itself has promised to reform. The United States could, for instance, condition a significant portion of foreign aid to Jordan on the government hitting key benchmarks, such as devolving royal powers to parliament, to incentivize the very democratic reforms that Jordan’s leadership pledged in 2021. But that sort of talk has yet to enter the official bilateral agenda.
For Jordan’s government to live up to its reform plan and transition into a parliamentary democracy, what changes need to happen?
Democratizing this system requires many institutional changes, foremost among them an elevation of parliament as the locus of Jordan’s political system. This requires that parliament become nationally representative, competitively elected, and endowed with real power.
The current electoral system overweights rural tribal areas while underrepresenting Palestinian-dominant urban areas like Amman, where opposition groups like Islamists and leftists carry more support. As a result, parliament has long boosted largely pro-government constituencies—wealthy independents, tribal representatives, and other conservative voices—while excluding not only opposition parties but also Palestinian-Jordanians, who make up the majority of the population.
The government’s modest changes to electoral and party laws are not enough to change this. The reform roadmap calls for gradually increasing the proportion of seats allocated to parties by 2024, but the majority of seats will still come from local districts that reproduce the same malapportionment of the current system. The roadmap’s language suggested that over time, these local districts would be completely replaced by the national general district, producing a truly nationally representative parliament free from local gerrymandering. Yet officials have given no word about how this transition will happen after 2024, probably because forecasting to tribal communities—historically stalwart supporters of the Hashemite monarchy—that they can no longer elect MPs at the local level would cause a stir. The new political party law is likewise insufficient, likely to lead to parties that are tame creations of state manipulation, led by conservative elites and wealthy businesspeople whose interests naturally align with the government—the same political class that fills the lower house today.
Most critically, true democratization requires that parliament gain executive and legislative authority at the cost of royal power. Parliament must be responsible for choosing the prime minister, who would in turn form a government with the power to oversee the national budget, monitor military affairs, and conduct foreign policy—all traditionally the preserve of the monarchy and security institutions. In other words, the logical implication of democratization is a radical redistribution of power within the Jordanian state.
Yet officials never mention such a reconfiguration when they speak of democracy. On the contrary, when the 2021 political reforms passed into law, the government inserted into them a raft of amendments that expanded royal power—such as the king’s ability to appoint senior officials by decree alone—while creating a National Security Council comprising the prime minister, security and military heads, and other high-ranking elites. Even if future parliaments gain the power to form the government, this royal council could theoretically have more practical power over financial, military, intelligence, and foreign policy matters than the elected one.
This, then, is what worries Jordanian activists the most: that all this high-level talk of democratization will eventually crash into the reality that certain actors within the state are unwilling to give up their power. The last year and a half has not provided much hope that this is going to change.
Speaking of this gap between rhetoric and reality, King Abdullah claimed on August 15 that “Jordan was never an oppressive country and will never be one”—just three days after he had signed a cybercrimes law that tightened government control over the internet. Why do you think the government is pursuing such a law now? And how do laws like this align with the government’s promises of reform?
The new cybercrimes law shows the chasm between what Jordanian officials preach—a future of democracy and openness—and the reality of public life, where government policies are driven by security-driven anxieties about what Jordanians say, write, and think. As many critics have pointed out, the law criminalizes an impossibly broad swath of online activity. Now, authorities can flexibly interpret whether something as innocuous as “liking” a Facebook post qualifies as undermining national unity, promoting immorality, or spreading fake news, among other nebulous categories of offense.
The original 2013 iteration of the law already gave officials broad legal authority to ban any website deemed too “dangerous” for mass consumption, and the government used it to ban some online platforms outright. In 2021, it blocked the social media app Clubhouse, and last year it did the same to TikTok. This July, award-winning satirical website AlHudood joined hundreds of other websites already on the blacklist.
But the cybercrimes law goes further than this. As the law was debated this summer, Jordanian activists, international NGOs like Human Rights Watch, and even the State Department warned that it would exert a chilling effect on all public discourse. They were right: Soon after the law passed, a number of Jordanian journalists, writers, and academics known for their critical opinions shut down their social media accounts for fear of running afoul of the sweeping new statute.
The context of the law is important to keep in mind. It comes after a few years of very sensitive crises roiled Jordanian politics, such as the government’s draconian COVID-19 response, the Prince Hamzah affair, the Pandora Papers leak, and last year’s fuel price protests that resulted in the death of a police officer. These events elicited uncomfortably loud public discussions despite official media gags on the conventional print and broadcast media. At some point, officials may have recognized that they needed a new framework to regulate public speech and especially online spaces, the last bastions for critical chatter. Citizens will now be forced to self-censor online, as Jordanian journalists have long had to do.
The law thus embodies the heavy-handed policing that the Jordanian state still enforces even as it promises a democratic future. But genuine democratization means abandoning this mentality, where ceaseless appeals for national security justify ever-tightening controls over public life. Simply put, it is impossible to reconcile what the 2021 political reforms pledged in theory with what the cybercrimes law does in practice.
You mentioned multiple crises in Jordan over the past few years, but the biggest crisis of all is the economic one. A World Bank report released this year found that more than one-third of the Jordanian population is living below the poverty line—roughly 168 Jordanian dinars ($237) monthly. I see despair every time I visit Jordan, and I know that many feel their only option to make a decent living is to find a way out of the country. What is the government’s response to this crisis, and how would democratic advancement aid economic progress?
The economic crisis is even worse than those numbers suggest, with Jordanians experiencing widespread food insecurity, high unemployment (particularly among youth), and diminishing social services—problems all magnified in the country’s large refugee population. Some of these issues are out of the government’s control; Jordan’s lack of domestic water and energy sources, its exceptional youth bulge, and wars on its borders, for example, all add up to a challenging economic climate. Yet the government has control over its spending priorities, and its choices here exacerbate rather than allay the economic emergency. Without democratic progress, and a government that is accountable to its people, Jordan is unlikely to make the types of economic changes needed to end the constant cycle of crises.
The government’s misplaced spending priorities are highlighted by the fact that two-thirds of the national budget each year flows to just two outlays: public sector salaries and pensions, plus military and security spending. Military and security spending has consumed an average 30 percent of annualized current expenditures since the 1980s—a half-century-long span where Jordan fought no major wars. Public salaries and pensions are high due to the government’s history of relentlessly expanding payrolls for political reasons, which temporarily reduced unemployment but created a bloated bureaucracy. Even today, the government tactically raises public salaries or pensions during periods of protest as a political concession, but this exponentially adds to their long-term cost. As a result, the government has precious few resources left to modernize the economy. Productive initiatives are long overdue, such as overhauling the outdated education system, spurring entrepreneurship, upgrading technological skills, and raising the indefensibly low rate of female participation in the workforce.
What keeps everything afloat is a combination of debt and foreign aid, immersing the government in a vicious cycle. The Jordanian treasury must not only pay back that public debt—debt interest alone devoured 14 percent of the 2023 budget—but also rely on financial assistance from the United States, European Union, multilateral donors like the World Bank, and occasionally Gulf states to underwrite its protracted overspending.
At some point, the choice of how to allocate what limited public resources exist must take precedence. And again, the United States can take a much stronger stance in nudging Jordan toward more responsible spending, such as trimming its public sector or spending less on the military.
Ultimately, that is what worries me the most within U.S.-Jordanian relations. I am concerned that certain bedrocks of the bilateral alliance—the peace treaty with Israel, military cooperation, and diplomatic intimacy—are so dominant that Washington is afraid of promoting the very economic policies and political reforms that would help turn the Hashemite Kingdom into a model country for the Arab world. Imagine a Jordan that is economically prosperous despite its nearby conflicts and lack of natural resources, and proudly democratic despite residing next to some of the most illiberal countries in the world. This is the Jordan that not only would reflect well upon the United States, but more importantly would enshrine the interests and rights of Jordanians themselves.
I remain optimistic that Jordan can reach that destination, but it will require its government to seriously rethink its priorities at the domestic level—and the United States to likewise reconsider its external strategies. Otherwise, it will be business as usual, and not for the better.