Jordan remains remarkably tolerant and safe despite regional troubles
Tunisia is usually credited as the single bright spot of the Arab Spring. It established a liberal constitution and functioning democracy with a peaceful hand-over from an Islamic party to a secular government, though economic and terrorist challenges remain.
However, another star has emerged, Jordan. Though the monarchy was little troubled by Arab Spring demonstrations and has yet to establish a full democracy—it would be roughly comparable to Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; a powerful monarchy with an emerging parliament—Jordan has succeeded where no other non-Gulf Arab state has, in economic reform.
Jordan has moved to the top 10 nations in the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World Index.
This is crucial. Much research has shown that without liberal institutions, such as competitive markets, democracies become regressive and repressive.
When economic freedom is denied and governments or crony elites control the economy, being part of the “right” group, whether religious, tribal or ethnic, means everything—getting a good job, having opportunity, even the chance for corrupt looting of the state. This sets group against group in a desperate power struggle, all too obvious from the Arab world.
Open markets treat the individual as an individual rather than a member of a group. That brings members of different groups in peaceful contact through voluntary exchange. Studies have shown that economic freedom boosts tolerance, a necessary condition for successful democracies. Those who argue for state control should look around the world and try to identify a single stable, peaceful democracy without free markets.
I was recently in Jordan to address two meetings of more than 100 people each, sponsored by the Young Entrepreneurs of Jordan and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom. High levels of economic freedom have been show in fact-based, peer-reviewed literature to promote economic growth and a number of other positive outcomes, including increased tolerance and civil peace.
The World Development Indictors show Jordan’s per capita economy, corrected for inflation, has grown by 130 per cent since 1975 compared to about 70 per cent regionally and globally ( the world average of all countries) over the same period. It has grown by 45 per cent since 2001, compared to 37 per cent regionally and 34 per cent globally.
This is a remarkable performance given the troubles in Jordan’s neighbourhood and its astonishing population growth, powered not just by births but also by a continuing flood of refugees and migrants. Jordan’s population of roughly eight million is four times larger than in 1975; if Canada had the same population growth, we would be a country of 100 million.
Jordan’s current refugee crisis, however, is unparalleled; almost 650,000 are already in Jordan and thousands more are trying to get in. That would be the equivalent to Canada accepting 2.5 million refugees.
Despite these pressures, Jordan remains a remarkably tolerant and safe place, as would be predicted by its level of economic freedom.
However, the refugee crisis, violence on Jordan’s borders, danger of radicalization, and European and U.S. financial crises have all taken their toll on Jordan’s growth in recent years, which has been modest, while debt and deficits have soared.
In the meetings, while a few pumped for protected business and large government, most demanded a competent, shrunken public service (now 42 per cent of the workforce), increased female participation (now under 20 per cent, low even for the region), and an educational system that produces work skills rather than pieces of paper that “qualify” graduates for civil service employment.
A former head of the Amman airport noted that when he became CEO he found one person working with five employees standing around to watch—the situation, he argued, of the civil service today.
That Jordanians remain tolerant while demanding significant reform in the most forthright terms in a public meeting speaks to the impact of its open economic policy and provides hope for the region.