There has long been a tendency to view violence and instability in the Middle East as neatly divided by national borders and armies. However, as fighting in Syria continues to spill over into Iraq – where extremist groups have filled a power vacuum formed by internal instability and insecurity – it is clear that military aid alone cannot contain the region’s conflicts.
Jordan is no stranger to these struggles, having witnessed decades of violence, instability, and invasion in neighboring Iraq and Palestine. More recently, the Syrian civil war has slowed once-thriving bilateral trade, while sending more than 600,000 refugees across the kingdom’s borders. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict provokes demonstrations in Jordan with every flare-up, with calls for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador in the wake of the Gaza offensive
Thus far, I feel that Jordan has proved its resilience as a nation, in the face of repeated predictions of its imminent demise. Over the decades, it has successfully navigated waves of Arab nationalism, secured internal instability, and normalized relations with Israel. It has met its commitments under international law to host refugees from Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and now Syria, even as international support has fallen far short of the funds pledged.
Yet as King Abdullah has increasingly noted, Jordan continues to require substantial support in the face of impending crises that risk stretching the country to breaking point. Waves of refugees have put heavy pressure on scarce water resources, increased competition for jobs amid high unemployment, and stretched its health and education services to the limit. The Syrian conflict is estimated to have shaved at least two points off Gross Domestic Product growth.
The recent advances of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have stoked fears that Jordan may be the group’s next target, as it contests border crossings and appeals to communities inside the kingdom.
In early July, dozens demonstrated in support of the group in the southern region of Ma’an. As many as 1,000 Jordanians have gone to Syria to take up arms with a range of groups, mainly coming from economically depressed regions such as Zarqa and Rusayfa. This is prompting fears that more extremist fighters might return home to establish a base of support within Jordan.
Though the Jordanian army is an effective fighting force, it can do little to combat a sense of economic and political marginalization in rural areas. While the government has leveraged fears of the Syrian conflict spilling over into Jordan to garner support from its citizens and foreign governments, fear alone is no antidote to the bitterness felt in many areas of the kingdom.
Maintaining Jordan as a Bulwark
To maintain Jordan as a bulwark against extremist advances, its friends will have to offer more than stopgap aid, advanced weaponry or words of praise. While Jordan relies on grants to support refugee populations, it needs long-term, targeted support for its economy.
Investments stand to achieve inclusive growth by taking advantage of a highly educated population and existing commercial infrastructure. Specialized programs should target funds to new refugees and underserved regions, helping to incorporate both into the mainstream economy. The country’s water and energy sectors will also require significant investments to keep up with mounting demand.
Long an ally of the kingdom, the United States has guaranteed over $2 billion in loans over the past year. Most of these funds, however, will go towards supporting the Jordanian government’s day-to-day expenses, not towards helping the economy stand on its own. This September, the expected renegotiation of a key five-year aid deal provides an important opportunity for the United States to help channel funds towards more productive investments.
The current crisis requires a broader, coordinated effort to help expand Jordan’s economy. Further collaboration with other actors in the region will be decisive. Gulf Arab states have pledged billions of dollars in short-term aid, but closer coordination with the country’s Ministry for Planning and International Cooperation is needed to steer funds towards critical, long-term infrastructure projects.
Israel must move beyond a purely military view of Jordanian security to understand that its actions in the West Bank and Gaza undermine Jordan’s stability while severely straining bilateral ties. Iran, too, might find a role, as it now faces a common enemy in ISIS. For its part, the Jordanian government must expand previous reforms to provide for greater transparency in its actions, while maintaining judicial independence.
Maintaining Jordan’s economy and security is a sound, strategic investment for the international community. The costs of doing so are minimal compared with the potential consequences of the kingdom’s collapse.
This piece was originally published in Al Arabiya. You can find it here.