Supporting a Brittle Ally: Jordan’s Looming Crisis

by Conner Maher

As 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, absorbsignificant 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 industryaccounts 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.

About the Author

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.

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