Jordanians are chattering about how the interim government is facing a number of difficult choices, none of which are of its own making. There is painful medicine for Jordanians in the prescription agreed with the IMF this past week, and people felt it immediately in prices paid for energy and power. No one argues that Jordan needs to take immediate steps to stop its slide into even lower growth, and there is little disagreement among leading Jordanian economists about how to move forward. However, medium and long term reforms will not do much to alleviate the pressure felt by consumers.
This is the dilemma facing oil producers and non-oil producers alike: How to bring about long-needed reforms that will ameliorate inadequate planning and decision-making by past leadership. One approach is HRH Mohammed bin Salman – high visibility, high energy, let’s take on entrenched interests approach while continuing to coddle citizens, which Saudi Arabia can afford to do.
On the other, there are Jordan and Morocco, balancing competing economic interests among potentially volatile political constituencies. Their way forward is constrained by internal and external factors that are not easily controlled. Morocco is in a more favorable neighborhood that encourages FDI and a more stable domestic political structure. Jordan faces both short and long-term challenges that are intertwined with all of their neighbors.
An article in The Jordan Times on the reaction to the IMF tough love agreement noted, “This means there are more hard times ahead for Jordanians…the targets set by the government seem too difficult to achieve within the framework and the time schedule agreed on with the IMF.” The government is in a quandary inherited from the previous administration. With a public debt equal to 93% of the country’s gross domestic product, “and the stubborn problems of poverty and unemployment,” former finance minister Mohammad Abu Hammour blamed the fact that “There have been no real economic reforms over the past years in Jordan. Reforms should have been incremental, because they cannot be done overnight.”
The former minister said that the situation is already gloomy as exports dropped by 10% in 2015, foreign direct investments declined by 35%, and “unemployment rose to the unprecedented 14.2% mark.”
While Arab countries face similar dilemmas – a demographic bulge, inadequate education resulting in a mismatch between education and employment, and stagnant to slowing growth, the political dynamics of each country require avoiding a single remedy formula.
In Saudi Arabia the focus is on economic restructuring to promote jobs for men and women and soak up all those Saudis who are being educated abroad since there are few excellent universities in the Kingdom. This, of course, does not resolve the issue of those young people who are not university bound but still want jobs.
Jordan is different. It has no sovereign funds to bridge its economy to a brighter tomorrow. It hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees that have absorbed any spare capacity to deliver services. And it has to rely on infusions of foreign funds and loans to maintain its operations.
So what should Jordan’s government do? Given the obstacles of growing an economy burdened by providing services to citizens and refugees, here are three paths to follow, each with its own consequences. First, Jordan needs to cut government spending – always tough when there are so many vested interests in the current system. Secondly, Jordan needs to move more proactively to create a more business-friendly environment, promoting transparency, reducing corruption, and building public-private partnerships focused on short to medium term results.
One area that needs more emphasis is on convincing wealthy Jordanians at home and abroad to make significant job-creating investments in their country. Real estate aside, there must be more productive sectors for Jordanian, and Moroccan investors. Jordan and Morocco have wealthy citizens that could contribute to the country’s growth if they were incentivized properly. Investment capital is notoriously risk averse so this will take the most persuasive power of both monarchs.
Local investment funds, properly incentivized, can be quite powerful in the near term for targeting job growth for unemployed university graduates as well as those in the vocational/technical skills groups. When under- and unemployed youth believe that they can get jobs with wages for more than basic necessities, they will take advantage of many programs available to equip them for jobs in commerce and industry…but they must see a way forward.
Jordanian economist Hosam Ayesh summed it up best when he said “Increasing prices of water and electricity as of next year will push up the prices of many commodities. Citizens are always asked to tighten the belt, but shortly, there will be no belt to tighten.” Long days ahead.