AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — As a poorly paid public school teacher, Khaled Jaber always needed a side hustle, working as a private tutor and using his car as a taxi to help pay the bills. For unexpected needs, such as medical expenses, he has had to borrow money from relatives.
Somehow, the 44-year-old muddled through life, sustained by his love of teaching high school Arabic and the respect his job earned him in the community.
But his fragile equilibrium has been upended by the government’s harsh treatment of tens of thousands of teachers over the past two years. Their union, leveraging mass protests and a one-month strike, obtained a 35% salary increase, only to then be dissolved by the government. Thirteen union leaders were dragged to court and each faces a one-year prison term pending appeal.
The increased authoritarianism — noted in the downgrade of Jordan from “partly free” to “not free” this year by the US advocacy group Freedom House — stands in contrast to the monarchy’s image of having embraced liberal Western values and being a reliable ally in a turbulent region.
In Jaber’s case, the heavy-handed silencing of protests leaves him feeling disrespected, while the salary increase has barely made a dent because of exploding prices.
Even the right to complain has been taken away, he said.
“Allow the space for me to speak, to go out to the street and scream, as long as the stance is peaceful,” he said, speaking in his small apartment on the edge of Amman, as if appealing to the authorities. “Allow the space for me to express my distress.”
The crackdown on expression has contributed to a growing malaise in the kingdom.
A years-long economic downturn, accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, means more than half of young Jordanians are now unemployed and the country is sinking deeper into debt.
Recent revelations that King Abdullah II secretly amassed more than $106 million in luxury properties abroad have further undermined public trust. News of the offshore acquisitions came just months after the king’s half-brother, Prince Hamzah, alleged corruption at the very top, engulfing the typically discreet royal family in a rare scandal.
Anger at this trifecta of increased repression, a worsening economy and perceived corruption is bubbling just under the surface, several activists said. Only fear of being jailed or inadvertently igniting self-destructive chaos, akin to events in Syria, is keeping a lid on mass protests, they said.
“There is no doubt that this generates pressure,” Maisara Malas, 59, an engineer and union activist, said of the widening gap between a detached, high-living elite and the vast majority of Jordanians. “The people are getting poorer, and the ruling regime is getting richer.”
Any hint of instability should worry Jordan’s Western allies, foremost the United States, who value the kingdom for its help in the fight against Islamic extremists, its security ties with Israel and its willingness to host refugees.
But the focus of the Biden administration has shifted to the Indo-Pacific, with Middle East policy in maintenance mode and the approach to Jordan seemingly on autopilot, said Seth Binder of the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington-based advocacy group.
In comparison to troubled Syria or Yemen, US officials apply to Jordan “this tired trope of an Arab regime that is a moderate regime,” he said. “That misses what is really happening and raises some real concerns.”
Jordan is the second-largest recipient of bilateral US aid in the region, after Israel. In a 2018 memorandum, the US assured Jordan that it would receive at least $1.3 billion a year for five years. Congress, where Jordan enjoys bipartisan support, has gone beyond that. In 2021, it appropriated $1.7 billion, including $845 million in direct budget support. For the upcoming fiscal year, the Biden administration proposes $1.3 billion, including $490 million in budget support, or money not earmarked for specific programs.
In a report circulated among Washington decision-makers in September, Binder’s group called for more stringent conditions to be attached to direct cash transfers, and to eventually phase them out. Aid should be leveraged in a push for economic and political reforms, it said.
“A cash transfer to the government is a privilege that should be reserved for US partners committed to democracy and human rights and not known for rampant corruption,” the report said.
The State Department said in a response that aid to Jordan is in the direct national security interest of the US, describing the kingdom as an “invaluable ally.” It said the US carefully monitors its aid programs to Jordan and that the US routinely engages the Jordanian government on a wide range of issues, including human rights.
Jordanian officials pushed back against corruption allegations. “Every (aid) dollar that is provided is accounted for,” Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told The Associated Press last week. Direct cash transfers are “accounted for in the budget the government executes, and it’s subject to audit.”
Safadi also defended the king’s purchase of luxury homes, revealed earlier this month in a massive leak of documents dubbed the Pandora Papers. Safadi said the monarch used private funds and cited security and privacy needs as a reason for keeping the transactions secret.
Former information minister Mohammed Momani said he regretted Jordan’s downgrade to “not free,” but argued that the kingdom still did better than most countries in the region.
“We know that Jordan is not Sweden, but we also know that we are among the very few best countries when it comes to freedom of expression in the Middle East,” he said. “So the situation is not as we hoped we would have, but it is not as dark as some people would paint it.”
All power in Jordan rests with the king, who appoints and dismisses governments. Parliament is compliant because of a single-vote electoral system that discourages the formation of strong political parties. Abdullah has repeatedly promised to open the political system, but then pulled back amid concerns of losing control to an Islamist surge.
After the Prince Hamzah scandal in the spring, the king appointed a committee of experts who now propose reserving one-third of seats in the 2024 parliament election for political parties. The quota would rise to two-thirds in a decade and eventually reach 100%, said Momani, a member of the committee.
Momani said this is the most significant reform attempt in three decades, though the latest ideas generated little excitement in Jordan, where many view promises of change with skepticism.
Jaber, the Arabic teacher, is among those with a bleak outlook. He said he expects his four children to be worse off than he is, citing high unemployment and rising prices.
“When a student goes to university, he and his family will owe thousands (of dinars). How long does he need to get a job? When will he be able to get married? When will he build a house?” he said. “I don’t see that there is a positive or rosy future, as some officials say. Things are getting worse and more desperate for me and for others.”