By Ramsey Day
Jordan is surrounded by threats to its stability, ranging from ongoing geopolitical conflicts to the devastating civil war in neighbouring Syria and the rise of ISIL throughout the region.
Despite these incredible obstacles, this small constitutional monarchy with few natural resources has remained an island of tranquillity in the Middle East, and has built strategic partnerships with allies around the globe. Can this stability last?
The answer to that question rests with the youth of Jordan, as more than 70 per cent of the country’s population is under the age of 30. Struggling to climb even the first rung of the employment ladder, young Jordanians face enormous obstacles in a country suffering from a lagging economy, widespread poverty and low wages.
Many of the acute challenges facing young Jordanians such as high unemployment, income inequality and a lack of upward social mobility were key drivers of upheaval during the Arab Spring witnessed in several Middle East countries. The simmering grievances and sense of hopelessness that has resulted from these conditions has been exploited by terrorist recruiters throughout the region, even in relatively stable countries such as Tunisia.
Jordan has also proven vulnerable, with more than 2,500 of its citizens travelling to Iraq and Syria to join groups such as ISIL and Jabhat Fateh Al Sham.
Mindful of these risks, King Abdullah introduced many important political reforms in 2011 and 2012. Yet ultimately, long-term stability can only be achieved by bringing young people into the economic and political fold.
To do this, the government must address three critical issues: promote a more meritocratic system; modernise the university system to respond to economic demand; and create opportunities for young Jordanians to engage with the political system.
Jordan’s deep-rooted tradition of wasta, which entrenches wealth and influence within familial units or tribes, must be transformed. Many young Jordanians feel that without the right connections they will never be able to improve their position.
King Abdullah referenced this issue in a recent discussion paper, arguing that “we cannot allow [corrupt practices] to become a source of frustration for our qualified youth, by leaving our young generations victim to the conviction that their future, whether in college or in the job market, hinges on their ability to benefit from wasta and nepotism”.
The first step is to increase the effectiveness of anti-corruption enforcement mechanisms, such as the Jordan Integrity and Anti-Corruption Commission, investing in e-governance transitions and reducing the public sector. Additionally, the government should lead by example by practising a merit-based system within its own ranks.
The university system must also realign its curricula to better position graduates to meet the demands of employers. Jordan has nearly 30 universities with more than 200,000 students and graduates approximately 50,000 per year. Yet limited areas of study and outdated teaching methods emphasising rote learning over critical thinking is failing to prepare graduates to enter an already anaemic job market.
A recent survey found that recent graduates struggle to find jobs and 60 per cent of Jordanians between the ages of 15 and 29 are not in the labour force.
Young Jordanians want to build a better future for Jordan: according to a recent IRI poll, over 77 per cent of Jordanians ages 18-34 believe it’s important to engage in the development of their community.
Unfortunately, there are few sustainable opportunities to cultivate their talents or participate in the public dialogue. Just I per cent of young adults are members of a political party; only one in three eligible voters under 30 voted in the most recent parliamentary elections; and few engage in civil society activities outside of humanitarian work in support of the Syrian crisis.
More must be done to engage this vital segment of Jordan’s population. For example, the International Republican Institute’s Youth Leadership Academy is helping to develop the leadership skills of talented young Jordanians throughout the country, and recently recognised the contributions of this outstanding group of young adults at a graduation ceremony.
Programmes such as the leadership academy are helping young Jordanians to find their voice and become leaders in public life. However, to achieve lasting impact it is crucial that societal and legal barriers to political engagement are removed, and investment is made in developing, funding and implementing the planned national youth strategy.
Protecting Jordan’s stability isn’t just a matter of maintaining strong external relationships with international partners and countries – it also requires investing in the continued development of what is arguably the country’s greatest untapped resource: young citizens.
Ramsey Day is the resident country director for Jordan at the International Republican InstituteTop