Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 23 May 2019

Jordan announces Ramadan measures to ease burden on citizens

Prices of fuel and electricity locked for holy month, while payments of fees and fines have been suspended until after Eid

Prime Minister Omar Razzaz's government has announced measures to help citizens cope with increased costs during Ramadan. Reuters
Prime Minister Omar Razzaz's government has announced measures to help citizens cope with increased costs during Ramadan. Reuters

Jordan's government has announced a series of measures to reduce the economic burden on citizens this Ramadan after the holy month last year was marred by nationwide protests over austerity measures to tackle high national debt.

Consumption of food, cooking fuel and electricity rises during Ramadan as families host relatives and friends for meals between sunset and sunrise and socialising continues late into the night, which can almost double the cost of living, according to economic experts.

The government announced on Tuesday that it would freeze fuel prices at April levels, keeping petrol at of 0.750 dinars (Dh0.88) a litre and cooking gas at 7 dinars a cylinder.

The government also froze the cost of power despite a recent rise in international oil prices that would normally be reflected in Jordan’s monthly floating electricity rates, and promised not to cut off water or electricity to households that have fallen behind on their utility payments.

On Wednesday, the government said it would suspend collection of fees and fines during Ramadan, and allow citizens to payments in instalments after the month ends.

The government even urged private banks across the country to “delay” loan repayments. As of Thursday, several local banks had complied with the non-binding call, informing clients via text message and social media that their monthly payments would be “frozen” and resume after the holy month.

Some families even take out loans to cope with the increased costs during Ramadan.

“We Jordanians have been loaned out,” said Hamzeh Al Ali, 55, while leaving a mosque in West Amman. He said one of his sons and two of his brothers who had borrowed money for Ramadan would benefit from the government's moves. “The decisions help a bit, but our problem is with the cost of living and wages, which forces us to borrow in the first place.”

A government report released last month showed that 15.7 per cent of Jordanians, or about one million people, lived in “absolute poverty” – households earning US$350 (Dh1,285) per month or less. government figures put unemployment at 18.6 per cent, meaning about 400,000-500,000 Jordanians lack jobs despite the government's attempts to attract foreign investment.

The protests last year were triggered by controversial decisions such as lowering the threshold for income tax liability, cutting tax exemptions and raising fuel prices, and ultimately brought down the government.

With debt levels hovering at 95 per cent of GDP in the cash-strapped kingdom, the current government of Omar Razzaz has continued with unpopular austerity policies to comply with the terms of a $723 million IMF credit line. But officials say they are sensitive to citizens’ needs and are trying to strike a balance between ending subsidies and assisting the most vulnerable.

What contributed to the success of the protests last year was that families and friends were already gathered for the post-sunset iftar meal and it was easy for large groups to then go from taraweeh prayers to protest late into the night.

There have been a smattering of calls for a return to protests on social media, but independent youth activists who helped lead last year’s demonstrations refused to give a response to what they have called “insufficient” government measures, saying only that “we will return” for protests during the holy month.

However, Jordan’s professional associations, which played a large role in organising last year’s demonstrations, have said they will not go on to the streets and have pledged to give the government time to turn around the economy.

Observers say that without one underlying issue to unite middle-class Jordanians and business people in Amman with those outside the capital, who have been holding sporadic sit-ins and marches over unemployment since the beginning of the year, there is unlikely to be a resurgence in Ramadan protests.

“Today people are talking about poverty, unemployment and corruption, but there is no one serious issue that can unify people and push them to the street in large numbers,” said Amer Al Sabaileh, an independent Jordanian political analyst and columnist.

“Most people are not interested in going to the streets without clear policies and goals in mind, and right now that just isn’t there.”

Updated: May 2, 2019 10:26 PM

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