Sean Yom, Temple University and Wael Al-Khatib, USAID

*This memo is part of POMEPS Studies 31, Social Policy in the Middle East and North Africa. Download the full PDF here.

Why does the Jordanian state struggle to connect with its youths, who constitute two-thirds of the population? Most Arab states have experienced a youth bulge since the 1990s, and the youth-driven nature of the Arab uprisings exposed the oft-vast disconnect between youth preferences and political authority across the region. Yet Jordanian social policies have failed to furnish the goods and services necessary to satisfy young citizens as manifest in recent trends. During the 2011 to 12 Jordanian Spring, youth movements launched thousands of protests in a collective demand for democratic and economic reforms. In the next years, over 3,000 Jordanians left to join the Islamic State, raising the specter of violent radicalization among youth communities at home. Today, youth mobilization continues to churn at a dizzying pace, with each year generating a dozen new activist networks and social movements.

Current and previous governmental policy initiatives

In this context, Jordanian social policies currently seek to achieve “youth cultivation” – that is, satisfying broad-based grievances by unifying youth cohorts, incorporating their preferences into state institutions, and thereafter generating positive externalities such as more popular support for the monarchy. Such policies, such as providing entrepreneurial capital to extending education outside schools, are enshrined in the 2018 to 2025 National Youth Strategy.[1] As King Abdullah averred, these programs are designed to unleash “the immense energies, promising capabilities, and diverse talents of our youth” in a way that will transform the kingdom into a Singaporean simulacrum – a productive, prosperous, and most importantly stable autocracy.[2]

However, youth cultivation has struggled to gain traction since the Jordanian Spring. Not just the current pace of political mobilization, but also the emotions of alienation among Jordanian teenagers and millennials persist. Further, no survey instrument (including the Arab Barometer) systematically illustrates that youth cohorts today feel that economic and political conditions have improved relative to ten years ago. Moreover, past youth-oriented social policies have failed, revealing the government’s poor track record int his field. The predecessor to the current national youth strategy is the 2005 to 2009 National Youth Strategy, which failed to predict the groundswell of youth opposition during the 2011 to 12 protest wave.[3] In turn, that was preceded by the 2001 creation of the Higher Council of Youth as a cabinet-level ministry, which promised to prioritize youth demands in the political process. All these efforts were heavily supported by international aid donors, yet all failed to achieve their benchmarks.

 

Why do youth initiatives fail while other government policies succeed?

The easiest explanation for such social policy failures is limited state capacity. Either the Jordanian state lacks the institutional will and mechanisms to reach its youth audience, such as the energy subsidy reforms described by AbdelNaeem in this volume, or else it lacks the money and resources to sustain these bureaucratic interventions, as suggested by Thompson’s study of Saudi welfarist provisions also in this volume. However, we find explanations centered upon limited state capacity unconvincing. It is true that many post-colonial states afflicted with rentierism have struggled to penetrate and organize their societies, and Western donors know well how Jordan stumbles in providing the most basic goods like education and health care. Yet at the same time, Jordan also has surprising examples of complex and effective policy changes that should never have occurred if its state apparatus was crippled with incapacity. In the last two decades, such success stories include military upgrading, municipal rezoning, industrial diversification, welfarist cutbacks, Eurobond issuances, and tax overhauls.

These policy successes were driven by unmitigable threats, such as fiscal shortages or international pressures, which compelled the government to carry out sweeping reforms. Today, the political overhead of youth alienation presents a similarly urgent threat; as the Arab uprisings showed, a neglected youth populace can be the author of revolution. However, despite recognizing this, the Jordanian state remains extremely unsuccessful at inducing young citizens to buy into its messaging.

Rather than limited state capacity, we posit an alternative explanation: youth cultivation fails because it is designed to fail.[4] By designed to fail, we mean that youth-oriented social policies convey the impression of a responsive state engaging its youngest citizens, but they operate alongside two parallel strategies that are explicitly political – fragment the landscape of youth movements by encouraging parochialism and saturate youths with multiple, overlapping points of state exposure to undermine unity. Of the potential reasons for this, we posit the sociological condition of generational mistrust. Drawing upon our own field-based interactions, we argue that regime elites – e.g., bureaucrats, ministers, officers, advisers, royal observers – fundamentally distrust youths, who constitute not only a social category but also a collective agent of instability, whose mobilizational potential must be fractured.

By implication, this insinuates that the sources of political conflict in Jordan no longer solely emanate from the Palestinian-Transjordanian divide, which has long defined society and structured the political economy. As the Jordanian Spring illustrated, conflict is as likely to pit crowds of youth drawn from both Palestinian and Transjordanian communities against state powerholders who are often at least twice the age of protesters. It is not communalism but generationalism that will define Jordan’s future dynamics of mobilization and confrontation.

Attitudes of and about youths in Jordan

By numbers, Jordan’s demographics match regional trends. Nearly two-thirds of the kingdom’s population of 7.5 million non-transient residents falls under 30 years of age, almost evenly split between the 0-14 and 15-29 age brackets.[5] The median age is 22. That youth unemployment currently stands at 37 percent – double the official overall rate of 18.2 percent, starkly contrasting bloated levels of educational attainment – has elicited an alarmist literature. International studies and Jordanian reports frequently invoke terms like “crisis” and “emergency,” framing youth constituencies as a political timebomb that must be defused.[6] This is a common trope; as Asef Bayat has commented, “The idea of youths as a revolutionary class is not new,” and during confrontations with rebellious social forces, autocratic regimes frequently subject their youngest residents to moral and political discipline.[7]

From their own experiences, Jordanian teenagers and millennials provide more nuanced reasons why they are likely to reject political authority, as manifest our qualitative interviews over the past six years as well as new focus-group studies.[8] For many youths, age is a more important marker of personal identity than origin (e.g., Palestinian or Transjordanian, Muslim or Christian). When asked to describe their overall attitudes towards social and political life in Jordan, our interviewees frequently invoked four emotions.

The first is helplessness, fueled by material deprivation like unemployment and poverty, and amplified by the belief that economic mobility is fundamentally determined by forces beyond their individual control, such as wasta and inherited privilege. The second is injustice, the perception that royal powerholders and senior officials (including the coercive apparatus) perpetuate massive corruption and favoritism. The third is anxiety, anchored in profound uncertainty about the geopolitical environment, given the Syrian civil war and often triggered by Syrian refugees and resource scarcity. The fourth is indignation, embedded in the conviction that ruling elites do not want greater democracy, even after Jordanian Spring protests.

Such expressions starkly contrast with the views of public officials.[9] When asked to furnish their images and attitudes towards shabab (youths), these elites described young Jordanians through one of three paternalistic frames: misguided troublemakers, like hirak tribal activists, who caused havoc during the Jordanian Spring; idle ingrates, especially Palestinian youths, who do not vote and care little about national security; and sympathetic targets of Islamic State-style radicalization, who need to be guided away from non-approved interpretations of religion.

While still very raw data, these preliminary emotive summaries suggest at the least two generational experiences at crosswinds with one another. They imply a real gap of perception between social policymakers and social policy targets, which bolsters the following arguments.

Fragmenting the youth mobilization landscape

The Jordanian government claims to recognize the depth of youth alienation. Over the past several years, it has undertaken a flurry of youth cultivation policies embodied in the 2018 to 2025 National Youth Strategy and other social projects. However, when socially contextualized, these initiatives are heavily skewed along two political logics.

First, government policies tend to enhance social fragmentation by mobilizing new youth actors with incompatible ideas, who are, thus, unlikely to politically unify youths at a national scale.[10] Officially, current youth cultivation policies do not encourage self-mobilization: if young Jordanians wish to mobilize, such as by creating new social clubs or debate forums, they should do so through a government body or civil society sponsor. In reality though, political authorities have allowed nearly four-dozen new youth movements with at least 100 members to independently form, mobilize, and strategize since 2012. One example is Shaghaf, a group we investigated previously in its explicit rejection of political ideology and call for grassroots monitoring of parliament.[11]

Another is the “Neo-Wasfi” movement, which lionizes the late Prime Minister Wasfi Tell. Neo-Wasfism is the latest expression of Transjordanian nationalism from tribal communities disaffected by neoliberal economics since the early 2000s.[12] The movement amplifies the rhetoric of hirak protesters from the Jordanian Spring, such as attacking technocratic elites like Ja‘far Hassan and Imad Fakhoury.[13] Savaging these “digital ministers,” as neo-Wasfists deride, has elicited little backlash despite that such discourse breaches the statutory limitations of political criticism set by the Anti-Terror Law. A third is Nashama, a movement at Jordan University (long the national bellwether of student activism) that coalesced as an alternative to dominant religious and identity-based student groups, such as the Islamist and Palestinian-based Awdeh movements. Nashama coalesced as a network of tutors and speakers championing a curated national history bereft of identity debates.[14] Their success came in the 2017 to 2018 elections for JU’s student government, in which they shattered Islamist control over the student union.

These groups are not examples of cooptation, because they are not absorbed into any infrastructure of patronage. Neither are they targets of coercion, as they are officially allowed by political authorities. They occupy a fuzzier category in which the cabinet government, royal voices, and security apparatus welcome their entry into the public arena, knowing their ideas are parochial enough as to foreclose national-level mobilization.

It may be argued that this strategy of fragmentation reflects benign neglect or lack of knowledge on part of the government, not a deliberative choice. However, older actors that explicitly confront autocratic power by calling for unified resistance, such as the Jordanian Spring hirak, remain subject to surveillance and violence, especially when they organize new demonstrations in towns like Dhiban and Salt.[15] As another example, consider the 2014 to 2015 fissuring of the Muslim Brotherhood, then one of the most coherent ideological organizations calling for national mobilization for reform. The government not only engineered the institutional breakdown of the group, but also notably backed the regime-friendly Zamzam faction over the more obstinate Brotherhood old guard, including their efforts to siphon off the Brotherhood’s large youth wing.[16] Such examples suggest that the Jordanian state has not lost its repressive touch and that the encouragement of new youth actors is a purposive decision.

Further, this strategy of fragmentation may reflect the hard lessons learned during the Jordanian Spring, when the Transjordanian-Palestinian divide was frequently overcome through unified mobilization and shared ideals. For instance, many hirak groups were infused by Palestinian activists (including Islamists) who joined these tribal protesters, while Amman-based groups like Jayin, March 24, and 1952 Constitution Movement drew upon Transjordanian volunteers. By encouraging instead a newer breed of youth forces who pursue grass-roots goals in relative isolation from one another, the regime undermines the potentiality of such unity occurring again.

Institutional overload 

The second strategy that undercuts youth cultivation is institutional overloading. This means creating so many overlapping public organs and programs charged with policy interventions that youths are effectively enmeshed from above, and thus more oriented towards the state rather than each other. This “immobilization by a thousand cuts” involves many moving parts.

At the top are the royal palace’s own creations. For a number of years, the We Are All Jordan Commission represented the most public effort by the monarchy to have consistent social contact with young citizens. By the Jordanian Spring, however, the Commission had devolved to a series of lavish conferences to celebrate royal initiatives (or, in one case, the king’s birthday). Today, the lead royal entity for youth cultivation is the Crown Prince Foundation, established in 2015. The CPF patronizes prominent events, from small technology fairs to large international events like the 2015 UN-sponsored Global Forum on Youth, Peace, and Security.[17] While other royal “nongovernmental” organizations (RONGOs) such as the Jordanian Hashemite Fund for Human Development, Queen Rania Foundation, Jordan River Foundation, and Royal Film Commission also formulate youth and social innovation schemes, the CPF dominates newspaper headlines as the most visible expression of the monarchy’s involvement in educating and empowering youths.

At the local level, the government has also created independent but overlapping programs. One example is the Jordanian Youth Government, which by 2019, intends to appoint a mock ministerial team of youths to track public policies.[18] Public funding also flows to youth councils in prominent towns outside Amman such as Mafraq and Madaba, which all traffic in the same imagery – youth empowerment, capacity-building, political participation – by giving young Jordanians an opportunity to shadow older bureaucrats.[19] In addition, government-civil society partnerships abound, producing small-scale projects such as electoral monitor training and civic educational seminars. Al-Hayat, Jordan Media Institute, Leaders of Tomorrow, Ruwwad Tanmiyyah, and Hikaya Center are examples of such civil society partners.

This dense array of official initiatives could arguably stem from lack of skills or institutional incapacity. However, what strongly suggests deliberative choices behind this strategy is this: all youth-oriented official programming, which metaphorically expresses the singular voice of a responsive state, bypasses the one institution created to be that official voice in the first place – the Ministry of Youth.

In 2015, the government retooled the Higher Council of Youth as the Ministry of Youth, promising a larger budget and greater autonomy. Lack of resources had been problematic before; that summer, for instance, HCY employees held a sit-in to protest their meager salaries.[20] However, while its salaries have improved, the ministry today is still insulated from the youth cultivation projects undertaken from civil society, government organs, and the monarchy. Instead, its planning priorities emphasize cultural workshops, vocational training, sporting matches, and social events like the Al-Karama Battle celebration.

That the Ministry does not brandish authority over the organizing, registering, and centralizing of youth social policies within an institutional ecology that prizes hierarchical control is significant. It flows from the same reason why there is no youth quota in the Jordanian parliament and the minimum age of electoral candidacy remains 30 – as opposed to fellow monarchy Morocco, whose parliament does have a youth quota and a minimum candidacy age of 23. Policy change is absent not because regime powerholders lack the knowledge or capacity to implement it; it is absent because they simply do not allow it.

Conclusion

These insights have implications for Jordanian youth mobilization and the social policies aimed at it. Most immediately, youth alienation today may persist not in spite of state decision-making but partly because of it. Despite the discourse of youth cultivation, the Jordanian government’s political strategies veer towards not engaging and empowering its youngest citizens, but rather fragmenting the social landscape and overloading residents with small-scale programs.

The second and more long-term implication concerns the generational gap. This structural cleavage, not the Palestinian-Transjordanian divide, helps explain why political authorities today remain wary of renewed conflict and popular mobilization. It also explains why youth cultivation is failing – because it was never intended to succeed, at least not in the manner envisioned by its advocates.


[1] Ministry of Youth, الاستراتيجية الوطنية للشباب: 2018-2025 (Amman, 2018).

[2] “Developing Human Resources and Education Imperative for Jordan’s Progress,” Seventh Discussion Paper of HM King Abdullah II ibn Hussein, 15 April 2017 <https://kingabdullah.jo/en/vision/discussion-papers>.

[3] Higher Council of Youth and UNDP, الاستراتيجية الوطنية للشـباب فـي الأردن: 2005-2009 (Amman, 2004).

[4] By this, we avoid the easy answer that an authoritarian regime would rationally sabotage social policies that could empower a democratic majority. While this is true, Jordanian youth programming as described in official documents has dropped the language of democratic change and now instead emphasizes non-political goals such as entrepreneurship, happiness, and stability.

[5] Figures in this paragraph come from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators, which for Jordan draws upon International Labour Organization estimates, United Nations Development Programme studies, and the Jordanian Department of Statistics’ own contributed surveys.

[6] See, for instance, OECD Development Centre, Youth Wellbeing Policy Review of Jordan (Paris, 2018); USAID, Jordan National Youth Assessment (USAID/MIS, 2015); and Ryan Brown et al., Youth in Jordan: Transitions from Education to Employment (RAND, 2014). For journalistic accounts, see Jordan Times, “Jordanian Youth Still Has Not Reached Decent Wellbeing,” 6 September 2017; Haaretz, “Jordan’s Stability at Stake as Fury Over Economic Hardship Rages,” 8 March 2018; “The Anger in Jordan’s Streets,” The Atlantic, 28 July 2017; and Joost Hiltermann, “Jordan: How Close to Danger?” New York Review of Books, 29 March 2016.

[7] Asef Bayat, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 108.

[8] Since 2012, we have conducted semi-structured interviews with more than 80 youth activists, aged 17 to 31, drawn from around the country, belonging to different movements, communities, and networks, and selected through spatial sampling. While this research is being absorbed into scholarly work that has yet to appear in print, the following represents highlights. Our conclusions converge with other researchers conducting focused group-level studies of youths. See, for example, Neven Bondokji, Kim Wilkinson, and Leen Aghabi, Trapped between Destructive Choices: Radicalisation Drivers Affecting Youth in Jordan (Amman: WANA, 2016).

[9] Since 2012, we have conducted semi-structured and unstructured interviews with 23 government officials, including ministry employees and civil servants. They were selected through snowball sampling.

[10] This may build upon the experience of the intelligence services during the Arab Spring, which often sought to splinter hirak groups by both spreading rumors of Palestinian militancy or else creating fake protest groups that deliberately espoused extreme views that would incite public backlash.

[11] Sean Yom and Wael Al-Khatib, “How A New Youth Movement Is Emerging in Jordan Ahead of Elections,” Washington Post, 14 September 2016.

[12] Personal interview by author with Neo-Wasfi member, Amman, Jordan, 28 March 2018.

[13] “الوصفيون الجدد في الاردن بعد الاسعار: إقالة حكومة الملقي وحل مجلس الأصنام” — Rai al-Youm, 20 January 2018. See also “الــوصــفــيون الــجــدد : الرؤية الاصلاحية تتجسد بما يلي” – AllofJo.Net, 26 March 2018.

[14] Personal interview by author with Jordan University student, Amman, Jordan, 3 April 2018.

[15] Al-Jazeera, “Jordan: Violent Protests in Dhiban over Unemployment,” 23 June 2016.

[16] Personal interview by author with Islamist activist, Amman, Jordan, 26 March 2018.

[17] For instance, Jordan Times, “Crown Prince Joins Youth Campaigning against Tobacco, Drugs,” 29 June 2016.

[18] The JYG has its own website: <http://shababgovjo.org/>.

[19] Most of these localized projects, whether wholly governmental or governmental-civil society, maintain informative websites. The Madaba youth council and its sponsoring Political Youth Forum can be found at: <http://www.yppjo.org/ar/>.

[20] Jordan Times, “Youth Council Employees Protest to Demand Higher Pay,” 1 June 2015.

The politics of youth policymaking in Jordan