All posts by Conner Maher

Conner Maher is a dual degree candidate at The Fletcher School and Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, researching the nexus between development, urbanization, and conflict mitigation. Conner spent the summer of 2014 conducting research in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan and has previously worked as an urban planner in the Middle East.

Supporting a Brittle Ally: Jordan’s Looming Crisis

9516849085_a22268b173_bAs the U.S continues airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Washington’s dependency on Jordan as one of its few remaining stable allies in a region of insecurity has only deepened. As a result, the U.S. has backed off on pressuring Jordan’s King Abdullah to follow through with promised reforms, namely energy and resource management policies. This strategy, governed by short-term concerns over stability in the Hashemite Kingdom, may actually threaten the long-term stability of a critical American ally.

Jordan’s energy and water shortages make it highly susceptible to conditions outside the government’s control. As a net importer of energy, ninety-six percent of Jordan’s total energy consumption is imported, with around eighty percent coming from the Arab Gas Pipeline in Egypt. These costs amount to more than forty percent of Jordan’s overall budget expenditures, with JD1.3billion of the 2013 budget dedicated to electrical subsidies. As a result, any fluctuations in electricity supply, like those caused by 2011 political unrest in Egypt, drastically affects the stability of the economy. In 2012 fuel imports for electricity generation fell by seventy-two billion cubic feet causing severe financial strain. The Jordanian government was forced to turn to expensive, short-term options, such as using diesel fuel for electricity generation rather than looking to shift to more sustainable wind and solar energy generation.

An even greater concern in Jordan is water. As the fourth poorest water nation in the world, this limited commodity needs to be conserved. A recent study concluded the nation’s aging water infrastructure leaks seventy-six billion liters per year, which is enough water to support 2.6 million people, or one third of Jordan’s population. Unsustainable agricultural production is an additional drain on limited resources. Even though sixty percent of total water usage is dedicated to agriculture—in line with worldwide consumption level—the precarious water situation makes even this allocation unsustainable. This is especially problematic as water-intensive highland crops favored by Jordanian farmers, such as maize, barley, wheat, and olives, absorb significant resources for limited or negative economic returns. One response has been the Disi Water Conveyance Project to increase available supply of water, but this project draws from a non-replenishable fossil aquifer that is shared with Saudi Arabia and cannot be a long-term solution.

These challenges are not new for Jordan, but the influx of over 640,000 Syrian refugees now places a severely strained system on the brink of collapse. With limited financial resources, Jordan is largely reliant on foreign aid and welfare payments to support not only its own population but also the growing number of refugees. Furthermore, the initial costs associated with the Syrian crisis have far exceeded preliminary estimates. With last year’s cost surpassing the initial estimate by five billion dollars, Jordan was forced to take a two billion dollar International Monetary Fund loan to cover the deficit. The ever-present water concerns have not escaped the Syrian crisis either. With the increased water usage largely unknown, we can use consumption in the Zaatari refugee camp as a benchmark. The camp only houses fourteen percent of the Syrians in Jordan, but daily consumption is over 3,000 cubic meters of water, which gives an idea of the magnitude of demand.

Multiple reforms must be undertaken to increase Jordan’s resilience and long-term stability. However, there has been little effort by the U.S. or other nations to hold Jordan accountable to previously agreed to reforms. The IMF recently relaxed the targets they had set for the Jordanian government to cut subsidies for electricity and fuel due to the country being “hit hard with exogenous shocks.” Investments in wind generation and solar power need to be top priorities to rid Jordan of its energy dependence on other countries. Likewise, the water delivery system in Jordan must be overhauled on the technical side, by developing methods to recycle greywater, and also on the policy level, by reevaluating agricultural exports and subsidies. Changes have been slow in this area, as the government is wary of stirring domestic discontent. The agricultural industry accounts for eight percent of the Jordanian workforce and is an important patronage network for King Abdullah. Indeed, the King has done the opposite, actually easing the food and energy subsidies in response to previous unrest produced by threats to cut this assistance. Yet, this cannot continue indefinitely.

Jordan may seem like an oasis of stability when compared to its neighbors, but failing to address these vulnerabilities could add the Hashemite Kingdom to the shortlist of unpredictable states. The ongoing influx of refugees and the civil war continuing unabated in Syria makes acting now all the more necessary. If the U.S. wants to keep using Jordan as a platform for regional policy projection, it needs to continue pressuring the kingdom to undertake challenging reforms for its long-term stability.


Technology’s Role in the Middle East: Building Bridges in Bytes


“Walls don’t work,” declared former Admiral James Stavridis, incoming Dean of The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, in a 2012 TED talk about the future of global security. “We cannot create security with walls. We have to build bridges.” Israel and Palestine have yet to translate this vision into reality, but technology increasingly has the potential to be one of those bridges. With a firmly entrenched technology sector in Israel and a growing Information and Communications Technology (ICT) industry in the West Bank, linking both sectors could not only be beneficial financially, but also offer an avenue for peaceful cooperation.

Since 2010, the West Bank—an area sharply divided by distinct administrative divisions—has been home to a nascent, but bourgeoning tech industry. Much of the region’s promising success derives from investments by Intel, TouchStar, and Cisco in 2008. These capital investments have helped spur economic growth, but more importantly have allowed Palestinian ICT companies to gain international credibility and respect. The ICT industry now accounts for a growing portion of the Palestinian economy: In 2011, the 250 ICT firms (which include telecommunications) in the West Bank were responsible for 6.1 percent of Palestine’s GDP, a more than seven-fold increase since 2008. With much of the private sector development in Palestine restricted, technology and Internet-based businesses remain largely untapped but prepared to grow. The founding of Sadara Ventures in Ramallah to back Palestinian technology start-ups will help fuel the expanding Palestinian ICT sector even more.

Even with this much-needed infusion of investment and credibility, the Palestinian economy is still precarious and reliant on external assistance. Twenty-three percent of the Palestinian population is unemployed, including twenty percent of the West Bank and thirty-one percent of Gaza. The lagging skills-based job market cannot keep pace with the approximately 1,500 to 2,200 computer programmers and engineers that graduate annually from Palestinian universities. Ramallah, the de facto capital of the West Bank, has doubled in size over the last ten years but is in the midst of an unsustainable construction boom. Additionally, the Palestinian Authority employs over twenty-two percent of the population with public sector jobs and salaries that are largely supplemented by foreign aid.

Yet abutting the West Bank is Israel, considered by some to be  a quasi-“Silicon Valley” and home to a slew of successful start-ups such as Waze, Inc., recently purchased for $1.1 billion by Google. Although Israel’s technology sector is firmly established, it could still reap benefits from partnering with West Bank firms, including by supplementing its demand for skilled employees by hiring qualified Palestinian employees. Murad Tahboub, founder of ASAL Technologies, describes the technology industry as reliable and a sector that “does not depend on physical goods and is resilient to political turmoil.” Wherever there is a telephone line and electricity, a Palestinian with a computer can work. Additionally, the two neighbors share the same time zone and weekend, allowing for seamless business operations. They also understand each other’s cultures, local customs, habits, and taboos. Most importantly, investing in Palestine’s ICT sector will make the Palestinian economy more durable and could pave the way for better Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Examples of partnerships between Israeli-owned and Palestinian-owned companies are rare but have the potential to be vehicles of peace and cooperation. For example, in 2008, Israeli CEO Zvi Schreiber founded, an early version of cloud computing, with the desire to combine a “business interest with my ambition to do something for peace and to help create jobs for Palestinians.” At the time, Mr. Schreiber was restricted from visiting his Ramallah office, but routine Skype video calls allowed for regular dialogue and communication. During the 2009 conflict between Hamas and Israel, even though Mr. Schreiber admitted there was office “tension,” ultimately “We remain[ed] focused on our product.” This example lends credibility to economic bridges continuing cooperation when conflicts intensify, even if only through business operations. Ultimately, when a conflict declines, these established relationships will be the first bridges between differing societies.

While these could be valuable intermediate steps towards forging more sustainable partnerships between the two sectors, the future remains uncertain. With an unprecedented six trips over the past four months, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has prioritized reviving the dormant negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, resulting in a recent announcement that talks have resumed. Prisoner releasesland exchanges, and private investment will all likely be offered as carrots during the negotiations. The latter should be emphasized over the other two, as economic linkages are the most promising bridges to peace. Indeed, the evidence to date suggests that high-speed internet could be the start of transmitting more than just data.