Britain’s ambassador to Jordan is confident Brexit won’t impact his country’s long standing commitment to the Kingdom.
By Dina Al Wakeel
Jordan has received millions of dollars from Britain to help it cope with the Syrian refugee crisis, and hundreds of young Jordanians head to British universities each year to study. These are just two examples of the many and varied political and economic ties that have long existed between the two countries.
Some have interpreted Britain’s seismic decision to leave the European Union as a desire to roll-back support for countries like Jordan and disengage from the world stage. But as he explains here, Britain’s Ambassador to the Kingdom, Edward Oakden, believes these fears are misplaced.
How concerned should Jordanians be about Britain’s decision to leave the EU?
I think you should be careful to distinguish between political debate and performed and implemented policy of the government. We’ve just gone through a period of the party conferences in which each party debated what their policies should be for the next year and for the next government. But what the Prime Minister and the whole government has made clear time and time again is that we will remain a global Britain. In other words, we are not going to turn our back on the world. We will still put 1.7 percent of our GDP into development, a lot of which comes to Jordan. We are Europeans, we have European interest and European values. So although we will leave the European institutions we wont turn our back on Europe.
Also with Brexit, some have been calling to clamp down on visas for foreign students. What does that mean for Jordanian students, many of whom choose to study in the UK each year?
We have record numbers of Jordanians studying in the UK. It’s about 1,500 new visas, up slightly on last year. Where there is a debate about student visas in the UK is about stopping the abuse, because there have been a number of cases of schools that have been fraudulently set up in the UK offering very low quality of education. What we want to do is to raise the overall offering of education in the UK. We also want to make sure that if students are going to stay in the UK after they finish their study, that they benefit the UK and that seems to be reasonable. But again we are not going to close in on ourselves. We want an open Britain that’s engaging with the world.
Jordan has recently signed an agreement with the EU that facilitated the entrance of Jordanian goods. Will Jordanian companies enjoy the same privilege in the UK post Brexit?
I think for the moment they should assume that it would make no difference at all. Clearly we have to decide after Brexit what the new trade arrangements will be. But I think it is safe to say that we have a 500-year record at least for being a free trading nation, so it is almost inconceivable that we would have less liberal arrangements with Jordan than the EU has at the moment. The most likely is that the existing arrangements in the short-term will simply be rolled over. It’s not something that Jordanian companies should worry about now.
Jordan has one of the largest refugee populations in the world. Do you think Britain could do more to ease this burden by taking in more displaced Syrians?
What we see as our most effective way of addressing the extraordinary pressures that Jordan faces is helping refugees in the country. So last year our aid to Jordan doubled, we’ve given well over half a billion pounds of aid, half of which goes for Jordanian host communities, including government and organizations helping people. The whole point of the London Conference on supporting Syria that we held in February last year was to raise short-term amounts of money. So we raised $6 billion for this year, $12 billion for two years. And of that $6 billion, we reckon $4.5 million has already been delivered. But the other aim was to put in place a longer term means of support for Jordan so that we help to create jobs in particular and more lasting prosperity. We completely applaud the Jordanian government’s commitment that all children in the Kingdom should be in school this year.
Besides the issue of refugees, what do you see as the other main challenges facing Jordan’s economy and how can they best be solved?
The first are the external challenges. No country would want to be in Jordan’s position where virtually all of its external borders are cut off by the crises. And obviously going through to Saudi Arabia is a very long way around so Jordan’s geographical position has made its economic challenge harder. But none of us has any alternative but to deal with the situation as it is and not as we would like it to be. And the absolutely core challenge it seems to be for Jordan as for the UK and for any country on earth is how to ensure that both this generation but even more for those who are in school now have jobs in the future. So where can Jordan find its value added that will give it something that others don’t have? Jordan is very strong in the IT and the pharmaceutical sectors, as well as renewable energy. There are real possibilities. The question is how you can grow companies and exports, and also grow people’s skills? This comes back to the absolutely crucial second requirement: education. What we found in the UK after making plenty of mistakes ourselves is that one of the most effective ways is to identify what business needs. What is the demand for say vocational professions and then extrapolate that back into vocational colleges to make sure that they are producing what industry wants. And this can be done, but it will need concentrated efforts by the government to raise education standards and modernize them to deal with the challenges not of now but of where the international economy will be in 15 years time. We are very happy, amongst others, to be offering support.
Last month you brought the Jordanian government and the private sector together. How big of a role should the private sector play in boosting the economy?
Ever since I arrived here in May last year I’ve been struck by how many energetic businessmen see the government as the enemy. And I happen to know that the government feels like they’re trying to do the best for the private sector. And so in a humble way I thought that maybe we can provide some sort of a forum by which the government and the private sector can talk together.
We invited the Entrepreneurs Associations and those organizations that help businesses to set up like INJAZ and OASIS500, together with members of the government. Deputy Prime Minister Jawad Anani very kindly came along with Minister of ICT Majd Shwaikeh, who has got a very strong private sector background, and Minister of Tourism Lina Annab who again has a big private sector background.
One of the reasons that we hold these meetings is because in many ways in the UK we face the same challenges. It seems to us that entrepreneurialism is becoming more and more important and that’s partly because a cultural change seems to be going on and it isn’t just a short-term response to the economic crisis.What people, including women, are now valuing is autonomy, creativity, and the ability to control and pursue their careers more than just having linear career trajectory. The other thing we found in the UK is what you need is a flexible labor market that encourages people to work, like a favorable tax regime and government support for startup schemes to incentivize business activity. That particularly helps smaller companies that create most jobs. So through putting a lot of effort we’ve created a startup culture;in the UK 6,000 businesses start up every day.
The UK is the biggest venture capital and angel investment market in Europe and the strongest globally outside the United States.
How can Jordan learn from all of that and create a similar culture?
What we tried to do at this event was to get everybody talking about what would best enable the business environment. They all came up with the same ideas: cutting red tape, a more predictable tax environment, faster bureaucracy, knowing where to go to solve a problem, and no more Wasta. The deputy PM said the government has committed itself to addressing them.
A few months ago His Majesty King Abdullah formed the economic policy council that came up with 38 recommendations, including the ones I just mentioned to help address these issues.
When I talk to either the government or the private sector they understand that this needs to happen now more than before. Why? Because the scale of remittances from the gulf is falling, the degree to which the gulf can help to subsidize businesses here is falling, and companies are leaving to places like Dubai because they have a predictable business environment. And that is what the government is committed to delivering and one of the things that we are trying to do within the embassy is to support them in delivering that.