What’s Driving Jordan’s Fuel Protests?

Suha Ma’ayeh

Image courtesy of Khalil Mazraawi / AFP

Recent protests in Jordan over rising fuel prices and calls for government intervention have been met with an all too familiar response: Rather than addressing underlying grievances, authorities are instead responding with an iron fist.

After demonstrations began on December 4 in the country’s south, Jordanian security forces used teargas and began arresting organizers and activists who showed solidarity. Protesters were called outlaws and saboteurs.

Videos on social media showed a mixed picture. Some drivers demonstrated peacefully as their trucks sat idled on the side of the road. But in several southern cities, as well as in Zarqa, 20 kilometers northeast of Amman, angry protesters burned tires and pelted police vehicles with stones.

In phone interviews, people in Maan province, 225 kilometers south of Amman where the unrest has centered, conceded that saboteurs have been present but that their numbers are small. Unfortunately, the actions of a few have perverted the demonstrations’ initial intent and given the government ammunition to link the unrest to terrorism.

On December 17, the deputy police chief of Maan, Col. Abdul Razaq Dalabeeh, was killed in clashes with demonstrators, and two other policemen were injured. Authorities responded by arresting dozens, temporarily banning TikTok, and shutting off internet in the city.

Three more police officers were killed and five injured when authorities raided the hideout of the main suspect in Dalabeeh’s killing. The suspect was also killed in the shootout, and nine were arrested. The police linked the suspects to a terrorist cell and said its members were “takfiris” – jihadists who view other Muslims as infidels.

There’s no denying that the deaths of security forces are a tragic development in Jordan’s latest unrest. And there’s no doubt that extremist groups often exploit festering grievances in marginalized areas to advance their ideology and sow discord.

But the demonstrations in Jordan’s south, which have since spread to Kerak, Tafileh, and other areas, reflect the socioeconomic failures of successive governments and have been fueled by public discontent with declining living conditions and a lack of government transparency.

Currently, unemployment stands at 22.6 percent, with youth unemployment a staggering 50 percent. Poverty is on the rise and perceptions of widespread corruption persist. The situation is particularly acute in southern cities, where complaints about government neglect are growing louder.

Despite a cautious calm that has emerged since the police deaths, tensions remain high and authorities have continued arresting activists, including a former head of Maan municipality, Majid Al Sharari.

A few days before his arrest on December 18, Al Sharari told me that the crisis is escalating as the government has been trying to evade its responsibilities by ignoring the protesters’ demands for a reduction in fuel prices. “All doors are closed, and the prime minister is absent,” Al Sharari said.

While the grievances are not specific to Maan, the city does have a history of strife. In 1989, when the government lifted subsidies on bread, riots erupted and spread to several other southern regions. The late King Hussein responded by lifting martial law and resuming parliamentary elections that had been paused since 1967.

The last large-scale protests in Jordan, in 2018 against austerity measures and tax increases, brought down the government of former Prime Minister Hani Al Mulki. Indeed, dismissing prime ministers in response to popular discontent, followed by pledges of reform, is a time-worn practice to pacify the public. Sometimes these measures temporarily succeed. But addressing root causes would be more productive than a security-minded approach.

At this point, however, the government seems intent on the latter strategy. One reason: it doesn’t have the money to slash prices. Authorities are struggling with a record budget deficit, caused partially by declining foreign aid. The government has already spent 500 million dinars (about $705 million) on capping fuel prices, and Prime Minister Bisher Al Khasawneh told parliament this month that the government doesn’t have the ability to do more. Diesel currently costs $1.26 per liter, up from $0.87 a year ago.

That said, because fuel prices are adjusted monthly in accordance with global markets, many expect prices to go down at the end of this month. Perhaps that’s one reason why the recent protests haven’t convinced the government to pursue meaningful policy changes.

This is a mistake. The space for public freedom is shrinking in Jordan while people struggle to make ends meet. In October, inflation was 5.2 percent, and although this is moderate by global comparison, surging prices of food, fuel, and other basic needs are hitting Jordanians particularly hard.

Reducing sales tax, flat taxes and custom tariffs are among the measures that the government must adopt to stimulate the economy. It must also allow for greater public freedoms and encourage free speech, fight corruption and instill good governance.

Jordan has embarked on an ambitious reform drive to move the country toward democracy over the next decade. But it can’t do that while also cracking down on dissent with strong-arm tactics. Jordanians want a stable, prosperous country. Without genuine economic and political improvements, they’re unlikely to get one anytime soon.

Suha Ma’ayeh is a journalist based in Amman, Jordan. Her work has been published in Foreign Policy and CTC Sentinel. She also reports for The Wall Street Journal and other publications on Jordan and southern Syria.