With the release of a 500-page manifesto aimed at solving Jordan’s economic problems, the Muslim Brotherhood wants to be known for more than just its efforts to Islamize the society. But how convincing is its economic vision?
By Elisa Oddone
The Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm in Jordan, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), unveiled a new comprehensive economic plan over the summer designed to tackle Jordan’s economic troubles. The Jordan of Tomorrow document, which is the most far-reaching economic blueprint released by the party since the early 1990s, vows to build a stable and balanced economy, achieve sustainable development in all governorates and economic well-being for everyone through a more “optimal” use of the country’s natural resources.
Jordan’s economic woes are more pressing than ever. Among the world’s 10 driest countries, the aid-reliant Kingdom currently imports around 90 percent of its energy and commodity needs, while tourism revenues and remittances have also decreased since the Arab Spring turmoil. Unemployment remains hovering around the 12 percent mark, and roughly 15 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
Suleiman al-Shiyab, head of the IAF’s economic team, told Venture the main goal of the strategy was to turn Jordan’s economy from “consumer oriented” into a “productive” one, as the country’s volume of trade disproportionately leans on its imports—worth JD15.5 billion in 2013—against its exports which are worth around JD5 billion, official figures show. Shiyab said his team gathered data from the 81 sectors making up Jordan’s economy, but focused on the 31 that contribute to more than one percent of the GDP.
A general look at the economic plan shows that its main aim is to boost the country’s gross domestic product by increasing productivity across Jordan, while decreasing reliance on foreign aid, and creating new jobs in the private sector thus easing the pressure to employ people in the public sector. It also suggests alternatives to public financing via a combination of private-public partnerships and the creation of saving funds for citizens.
The IAF eyes a lift to the country’s weak economic production. This includes plans and activities for each governorate based on the review of the services and manufacturing sectors, including the petrochemical industry, agriculture, manufacturing, mining, pharmaceutical, transportation, tourism, healthcare, and education. “We were able to recognize the unexploited potential in each sector, as well as its weaknesses trying to turn them into power,” Shiyab said.
The strategy encompasses the natural and human resources available in each area, eventually coming up with plans tailored to each governorate using SWOT analysis, to evaluate the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and potential pitfalls involved in each project.
According to the strategy, launching plans and new businesses for each governorate and sector would reduce unemployment and poverty. This would in turn lessen the urge to hire people in the public sector, where the government is struggling to assuage demands for state jobs amid another IMF-austerity program set to curtail the country’s chronic budget deficit.
The IAF’s blueprint introduces plans for the establishment of factories in Jordan’s governorates with a Jordanian workforce, thus tackling poverty and unemployment, and ushering in an “overall economic renaissance.”
One example is Maan, where focusing economic attention could help boost the town’s depressed economy while cooling down the violence that erupted there due to people’s resentment towards the government, Shiyab said. With an unemployment rate of 25 percent, much higher among its youth, protesters have repeatedly taken to the streets in the town of around 80,000 in recent months, criticizing successive governments for the lack of investments to create jobs.
Shiyab suggested building factories that would use the area’s high-grade sand to produce glass and crystal. “Local workers could find employment there, not needing to solely rely on the local cement factory, the town’s largest employer. Graduates from Jordan’s polytechnic could run the factory. China clay and basalt are also available in the area and might be used for other productions and industries,” Shiyab added.
The same method has been applied in other governorates: Using local resources to propose projects that could boost the economy on a local and national level.
The cost of providing sanctuary to over 600,000 Syrian refugees has left Jordan’s already debt-stricken budget floundering, and placed great strain on the Kingdom’s public services and infrastructure. “In 2014, the per capita gross national product was calculated taking no notice of the real number of people living in Jordan, which also includes the ones lacking the national ID number,” Shiyab said. While official figures show that Jordan’s GDP per capita is around JD3,500, Shiyab said the country’s population has increased from six to nine million, partly caused by the refugee influx, making the figure incorrect and Jordanians worse-off.
The blueprint suggests the creation of a savings fund for public sector employees, retirees, and military personnel, or direct contribution from the citizens to finance new plans and activities in each governorate.
Building partnerships between the public and private sectors in the establishment of projects through financing tools, such as Build–Operate–Transfer or Build–Own–Operate–Transfer, and encouraging Arab capital and foreign investment, as well as trade unions and cooperative societies to invest in productive projects could also rake in funds.
Since 1988, harsh political changes in the region have forced Jordan to implement IMF-supported programs, leading the country to carry out privatization using a combination of foreign investment and sale of state assets, the blueprint read. Jordan’s privatization process has exacerbated the state’s structural deficit, at around 9 percent of its GDP, according to the IAF, leaving taxes and fees the main source of state’s revenues and increasing the public debt to JD19.2 billion at the beginning of 2014, from JD3 billion in 2001.
“In light of these facts, is it wise to continue searching for economic solutions (for Jordan) from the outside, like the government is doing, or would it be more rational to look for a solution from inside the country?” the IAF economists wondered in the study, adding that there was no serious vision to tackle the Kingdom’s economic troubles. “Jordan has plenty of resources but they are not properly used to cover its deficiencies,” Shiyab said.
But other experienced economy watchers remain unconvinced by this diagnosis. “We cannot say that Jordan is underutilizing its resources or that it does not lack them,” said economist Jawad Anani. “We were prevented from accessing resources in the past due to high extraction and transformation costs, as was the case with shale oil, where, unlike today, a cheap technology was not available yet.”
However, the blueprint assured that following the IAF’s suggested plans and projects would trigger a 6 percent increase in the nominal GDP, reduce unemployment by 1.4 percent, and increase GDP per capita by 0.8 percent in specific sectors by 2020.
Having survived a regional upheaval that brought the Islamic movement to its knees, spanning from its fall in Egypt, where the group, like in Saudi Arabia, was declared a terrorist organization, to bans in several Gulf countries, Jordan’s government has refrained from taking action against its domestic Brotherhood branch.
Present in the country since the 1950s, the coexistence between the Brotherhood and the government has been one-of-a-kind due to the group’s historically large influence over the public, which has made it Jordan’s largest, and most organized, party down the years. However, the IAF still has no seats in parliament after it boycotted both the 2010 and 2013 elections following changes to the electoral law, a move the Brotherhood regarded as an effort to restrain its influence.
The Islamists have been repeatedly pointing the finger at the government for discrediting them in the public eye, making them look like carpers lacking any pragmatic or constructive agenda, only pegged to political Islam. “The IAF was always accused of being a harsh critic of the government without contributing to policy making at any pragmatic level,” Shiyab said. “Thus, we felt the urge to address the country’s economical challenges by collecting data on each productive sector from 2000 to 2013, analyze their relations, and eventually put our program in front of the nation’s eyes.”
The strategy has divided analysts’ opinions, with some dubbing it the group’s first constructive and non-religious political effort in decades. Others, however, have received it as another product of the Brotherhood’s attention-seeking approach.
Welcoming the plan while stressing that it did not add anything new to previous economic proposals, Anani said that the group had finally left its comfort zone and put itself forward as a serious political party. “They usually watched from the sidelines and criticized other people’s proposals. But with this study they have started making their own suggestions in a constructive and almost comprehensive way. This is a huge step,” Anani added.
Shiyab pointed out that the blueprint was devoid of any ideology and only followed modern economic standards of analysis. According to Anani, this was due to the IAF’s fear of being accused of sticking to political Islam, instead of being considered “economists at large,” preventing them from referring to ideas derived from the thoughts of Islamic economics, like the role of Islamic banking, health insurance, and Awqaf.
Yet, these concepts should have found space in the study, Anani said. He added that one major achievement of the strategy was the group’s recognition that there are techniques and approaches to practical problems that don’t include Islam.
On the other hand, journalist and economic analyst Salameh Dira’awi, told Venture this was merely another attempt to stress that the IAF was the most powerful party in the country. Politics and economics are inseparable, therefore the strategy implies the presence of a political agenda behind it, the analyst believes.
“The Muslim Brotherhood wants to be in the political picture in each situation and circumstance. They have now come up with this plan which does not differ in any part from what has already been suggested by the government and economic research centers over the years,” Dira’awi said. “They rolled the plan out for their own benefit to gain popularity in the street amid the current economic crisis. They know better than anyone else that there is no chance of implementing any of their proposals. Jordan’s solution to its economic crisis is not to be found in another plan but in the implementation of the projects that have been suggested over the years.”