x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Resentment rises towards Jordan's leaders in poverty-hit south

Faced with growing poverty and no prospects, an area that previously backed the government is threatening to block their city's main roads in order to be heard. Suha Philip Ma'ayeh reports from Ma'an

Protesters cook soup as they close a central square in the southern Jordanian city of Ma’an.
Protesters cook soup as they close a central square in the southern Jordanian city of Ma’an.

MA'AN, JORDAN // A growing number of unemployed inhabitants of this impoverished city in southern Jordan are getting weary, not from hours spent looking for work, but from what they say is the government's refusal to hear their pleas.

Now, they say they are prepared to graduate from street protests to blocking the city's main roads to get the government's attention.

"We want to step up our measures because nobody is listening to us," said Rashed Al Khattab, 38, one of hundreds of men who gathered one afternoon last month to protest against the lack of jobs at the Jordan Phosphate Company, the main employer in the country's underdeveloped south.

In recent months, the rumbling of discontent from Jordan's south has grown louder as poverty has deepened. As Jordanians prepare to vote for a new, 150-seat assembly on Wednesday, more residents here believe that they are no longer served by the ballots they have traditionally cast for tribal candidates.

"The regime thinks the [Muslim] Brotherhood is the only opposition in the country, and has placed everybody else on the shelf, ignoring our demands. We are boycotting the elections too," said Akram Kreishan, 60, an activist and lawyer in the town of Ma'an, 220km south of the capital, Amman.

"Our main problem lies with the political system, the king, the royal court and the Mukhabarat. In the past two years we have been asking for reforms, but the regime has fallen behind in its promises," he said.

Last month, about 200 unemployed men in Ma'an marched to one of the city's main intersections chanting "Martyrdom is better than a bitter living". They wrapped themselves in burial shrouds and prevented company trucks loaded with phosphate from reaching the port of Aqaba. Police dispersed them with tear gas.

"The company is in Ma'an and therefore it has a duty to benefit the local community. It has become a matter of dignity, and we want to obtain our rights. Our right is to have jobs there," Mr Al Khattab said. "If there is no response, we are also going to burn our voting cards."

The residents of Ma'an, like inhabitants of other towns in Jordan's predominantly Bedouin and tribal south, have their particular reasons for resentment.

Ma'an is the second-poorest city in the country, after Mafraq. About 24.2 per cent of its population live below the poverty line of US$950 (Dh3,490) a year, according to the department of statistics. An 2011 survey also showed that the annual average household spend on meat and poultry in the town stands at $850, one of the lowest in Jordan.

What heightens the sense of grievance here is that Jordan's deposits of potash and phosphate are located in the south, yet jobs, especially at the Jordan Phosphate Company, remain scarce and the local economy continues to worsen.

The town was declared a development zone in 2007 to lure investors. Work on a $170-million glass factory, which was supposed to create 250 jobs, was suspended a few years ago amid allegations of mismanagement.

The result of this growing poverty and lack of economic opportunity is festering anger, according to analysts, academics and lawyers.

"In the south, resentment is increasing and is fuelled by the economic hardships and lack of economic development projects. People feel marginalised," said Basim Tweissi, head of the development studies centre at Al Hussein Bin Talal University in Ma'an.

"Reform is not just about the election law, but it is related to economic development and equal distribution of opportunities," he said.

The persistent feeling that these problems are being ignored threatens to weaken support for the regime in an area traditionally known for its loyalty.

"Tribes are bitter because they feel they had a role in building the country," Mr Tweissi said. "Instability in the south will shake the regime's legitimacy."

Nabeel Ghishan, editor-in-chief of the Arab Al Yawm, an independent daily in Amman, said the government neglects the grievances of Jordan's poor and jobless at its peril.

"In Amman, you find the Palestinian, the Circassian, the Jordanian, but in the south the society is closed and homogeneous and they can easily organise themselves. Now there are new forces in the streets asking for a role in the decision-making process."

Unrest in the south is not unprecedented. In 1989, when the government lifted subsidies on bread, riots erupted in Ma'an and spread to several cities in the south. The late King Hussein responded by adopting some democratic reforms. That year, Jordanians went to the polls for the first time in 22 years.

In an attempt to ease the grievances outside Amman and Jordan's other urban centres, Abdullah Ensour, the prime minister, said last month that government initiatives, such as the Governorates Fund, would finance income-generating projects in rural areas and ease demand on public-sector jobs.

Several activists in Ma'an said that the lack of jobs is not the only issue.

"The problem is that there is public mistrust. The regime has two options: to listen to people so that we can overcome the current phase peacefully and to crack down on entrenched corruption. Otherwise, it will face the same fate of other Arab leaders," warned Mohammed Jarar, who also teaches at Al Hussein Bin Talal University.

To other Ma'an residents, the region's traditional close ties to the government are now at risk.

"The social contract has been shaken. The trinity of corruption, inequality and lack of social justice exists in its ugliest form," said Maher Kreishan, a lawyer. "Now we are witnessing the calm before the storm.