Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Dhiban shares with much of rural Jordan a long history of seismic societal shifts and gradual economic marginalization. This history forebodes continued unrest in underdeveloped areas as long as economic problems remain unaddressed.


 

After evening prayers on a cool Friday night in June 2019, 35 men ranging widely in age stood in a circle next to the main road connecting the towns of Mleih and Dhiban in the hills south of Amman. Several gave fiery speeches into a megaphone and criticized political corruption and economic underdevelopment in their communities as well as the complicity of the government in the US-proposed plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict known as the “Deal of the Century.”

Residents occupy a tent to protest unemployment. Their banners state that work is a right for all Jordanian citizens, Mleih, near Dhiban, Jordan, October 2019. Colfax Phillips

“We have to demonstrate on the streets to create real change,” an elderly man shouted into the megaphone. Two men held a banner that read “Freedom for the Arrested Activist,” with the picture of Sabri al-Mashaleh—a local man who was recently sentenced to two years detention in the infamous Suwaga prison for posting online comments critical of the regime—featured prominently on one side. The banner criticized the detention of citizens charged with sedition under the Cyber Crimes Law for posting politically sensitive and controversial opinions online. One of the banner holders had marched from Dhiban to Amman the week before Ramadan and demonstrated alone in front of the Royal Court where, at one point, he was allegedly encircled by Jordan’s Darak (gendarmerie) forces.

The June 2019 protest was the latest in a long history of political activism in the area. Dhiban was the birthplace of the Jordanian Arab uprising protests in January 2011, and its residents have continued pushing the boundaries of activism in the kingdom. The 2011 Dhiban movement fostered the nationwide Hirak (“the movement” in Arabic)—a broad coalition of rural, decentralized popular movements that coordinated large, nationwide protests. The Hirak was a manifestation of economic and political grievances in rural communities increasingly marginalized from the wealthier urban elite centered in Amman.

In the years following the 2011 uprisings, Dhiban residents continued their activism as others retreated. High unemployment afflicts the area: While the official national unemployment rate in the fourth quarter of 2018 was 18.7 percent—the highest in 25 years–the unemployment rate in Madaba governorate where Dhiban is located was 28.5 percent—the highest anywhere in Jordan.[1] In the summer of 2016, Dhiban residents erected a tent in the town’s main square to demonstrate against their chronic unemployment. When Darak forces dismantled the tent, violent clashes broke out with residents.

Protests broke out again in January, February and March 2018 across rural governorates, including Dhiban, in reaction to rising prices of bread, fuel and other basic commodities.[2] Protesters complained that the privatization and austerity reforms instituted by King Abdullah II over the past 20 years had consistently benefitted corrupt, Amman-based capitalist elites at the expense of the Jordanian people.[3] In February 2019, jobseekers marched from Aqaba to the Royal Court in Amman to protest youth unemployment and demand jobs in the public sector.[4] According to Dhiban activists, about 100 residents of Dhiban marched to Amman in solidarity with the Aqaba protesters—and also to express their own demands for jobs in front of the Royal Court.

But in May and June of 2018, when urban and middle-class voters mounted large demonstrations in Amman against proposed changes to the tax code, Dhiban remained silent. The reason for the inaction lies in the roots of Dhiban’s economic, social, and political discontent—a history indicative of the widening urban-rural divide in Jordan and of communities forced to political action by dire economic circumstances. Dhiban shares with much of rural Jordan a long history of seismic societal shifts and gradual economic marginalization. This history forebodes continued unrest in underdeveloped areas as long as economic problems remain unaddressed.

Neglect and Decay of Traditional Livelihoods

Dhiban is a town of more than 15,000 at the center of a district of the same name, located within the Madaba governorate south of Amman. The total population, including surrounding villages, totals some 39,000.[5] Residents settled Dhiban in the 1950s and reside in three main areas: the towns of Dhiban, Mleih and Jabal Beni Hamida. The majority of the local population hails from the Beni Hamida, former semi-nomadic Bedouins who controlled many lands east of the Dead Sea in the early twentieth century.

According to local activist Mohammed Sneid, residents of Dhiban relied upon the herding and breeding of livestock and small-scale cultivation of wheat and barley for sustenance before the establishment of the Hashemite regime in 1921 until the 1980s. Bassem, a teacher in Dhiban, views livestock as the true bedrock of the local economy; not until the 1960s and 1970s did the cultivation of crops become popular. Pastoral activities were the economic backbone of many rural communities throughout Jordan, with owning livestock a household’s only escape from poverty. Indeed, livestock was often more valuable than land ownership, particularly as land and farm sizes decreased in the twenty-first century. Livestock also served as a backup source of income in times of drought or famine, ensuring food security at the individual family level and when surplus was available to be sold to community members.[6]

Animal husbandry, however, has suffered dramatic declines in recent decades, and livestock-owning families often lack the skills or ability to transition to other sectors of the economy. Because Jordan relies on high-cost animal feed imports to support domestic livestock production, the government long subsidized the feed to make it affordable for local breeders and herders. As these subsidies were slashed over the years as a result of IMF-mandated austerity measures, the prices of livestock feed skyrocketed and many poorer households were forced to sell their animals for below-market prices.[7] Large farm holders and corporations came to dominate the feed and livestock markets. Pressured by a lack of water resources and rising consumption trends, the Jordanian government also began to import livestock from countries such as Australia and Romania, further hurting local breeders and reducing the value of domestic livestock.

While rural Bedouin communities like Dhiban are celebrated in the national narrative as “true” Jordanians, the reality is that they are among the most economically marginalized in Jordanian society.

Consequently, many households in Dhiban and the surrounding area were forced to sell their livestock to offset economic losses. According to one local breeder, “The price for a sheep is around 80 Jordanian Dinars (JD) and we used to sell it for 200JD. My neighbor had 400 sheep but now he has 60 and is thinking about selling them because there is no economic benefit to retaining them.” A Mleih resident who once owned many livestock also reports that his family now owns only four goats. Other locals tell similar stories, and many believe that the government is trying to coerce their communities into entirely abandoning their traditional way of life by inflicting harmful policies upon breeders and herders. “There are people dependent on livestock for their livelihoods in the entire Kingdom, not just in Dhiban,” asserted Bassem, “These are the people who are suffering.”

Farmers have also faced losses in recent decades, with the share of Jordanians in the agricultural sector decreasing from 16.8 percent in 1973 to 2 percent in 2010.[8] Guest workers—including Egyptians and more recently Syrians—now provide the majority of labor on farms. The conflicts in Syria and Iraq have also resulted in border closings that have cut off Jordan from traditional export markets, leading to a dramatic decrease in agricultural exports and further exacerbating losses for farmers.[9] Like the plight of livestock breeders and herders, most rural farmers do not have the skills or capital to shift to a different economic sector.

The government has attempted to invest in agricultural development projects to revitalize these traditional pillars of the rural economy, but many of these projects failed to address the priorities of local communities. In Dhiban, one project mockingly called “The Happy Farm” by locals is a failed almond tree farm. Constructed in Dhiban 18 years ago by the Jordan River Foundation (JRF), the farm was intended to provide long-term employment to locals in the area. Because local residents understood that an almond farm would require large amounts of water and would not provide sustainable employment, they asked the JRF to invest in other agricultural projects. The almond farm was established anyway, only to fail within two years.

The failed “Happy Farm” for almond trees in Dhiban, October 2019. Colfax Phillips

Locals also describe corruption and financial negligence in other development projects. “All of the development projects are neglecting the core elements of Dhiban’s economic history that have always been its strengths. The government is neglecting agriculture and breeders,” stated Sneid as he gazed at the desolate plot of dead almond trees. “We need knowledgeable people from the local area to lead these projects, not someone unknown and unqualified. They will fail otherwise.”

Beginning in the 1960s, the public sector and security apparatus served as alternative sources of employment for people in Dhiban and other rural, mainly Bedouin communities. These professions offer low wages, however, and the bloated public sector has contributed to slow economic growth and a lack of available jobs. IMF austerity measures also demand that this sector be reduced, so even low-paying jobs are increasingly unavailable. While rural Bedouin communities like Dhiban are celebrated in the national narrative as “true” Jordanians and traditionally viewed by many analysts as politically privileged in the Kingdom, the reality is that they are among the most economically marginalized in Jordanian society.

Emergence of Local Protest Movements

As Dhiban’s economic situation worsened into the twenty-first century, dissent among the local population increased. In 2006, Sneid and others organized the Day Waged Labor Movement (DWLM, or Hirak ‘Ummal al-Muyawama in Arabic) to demand permanent employment for day waged laborers who worked often for years without job security or benefits. The movement mainly involved impoverished laborers within the Ministry of Agriculture and quickly spread across many of the governorates. Organizing demonstrations between 2006 and 2015, the movement included female laborers from rural and conservative backgrounds in “sleep-in” protests with fellow male activists in front of government offices in Amman—a first for a Jordanian protest movement. The movement successfully pressured the government to abolish the day-wage laborer category and to raise the minimum wage, among other achievements. The success and progressiveness of the DWLM revolutionized how Jordanians demanded economic and political rights through a focus on issues of class rather than traditional diatribes of Palestinian-East Bank Jordanian identity politics.[10]

The DWLM was a significant precursor to the nationwide demonstrations that began in 2011. The Dhiban Youth Committee, founded by local youths and aided by Sneid and other experienced local activists from the DWLM, was also formed in 2006 and initially organized events and demonstrations to improve economic opportunities in the area and combat pollution. In contrast to the labor-rights focus of the DWLM, the Dhiban Youth Committee focused on poverty and health issues that spoke to a broader portion of the population. Committee members were mostly poor: low-wage workers, teachers, the unemployed and others from low-income backgrounds.

In late 2010, the government of then-prime minister Samir Rifai publicly announced a rise in the price of fuel, angering locals already struggling to pay for basic necessities. The Dhiban Youth Committee, with its broad platform of local grievances, was perfectly placed to organize demonstrations that spread across Jordan in the following weeks.

On Friday, January 7, 2011, seven members of the committee decided to march after prayers in front of the mosque in the center of Dhiban. They decried the fuel price increases and called for the ouster of Rifai. Unsure of how locals would react to their demands, committee members were surprised when hundreds of people joined them in the street.

As the first demonstration of Jordan’s Arab uprising, the march received widespread attention and inspired protests across the country. On January 14, 2011, thousands of Jordanians—including in Amman, Ma’an, Irbid, Karak, al-Salt and Baqa’a refugee camp—protested against economic marginalization and echoed the calls for the removal of the Rifai government. On January 28, 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood joined the protests in Amman in unison with leftist organizations and trade unions, swelling the ranks of demonstrators in the capital to the thousands. These protests in Amman, organized by formal opposition groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, called for reform and dialogue without directly challenging the king.[11] While formal opposition came to dominate most protests in the capital, the Hirak movements in Dhiban and other rural areas called for deeper changes.

Birth of the Hirak Movement

The Hirak movement emerged following the Dhiban protests on January 7, 2011. A broad collection of rural, decentralized popular movements demanding an end to corruption, the Hirak rallied for extensive economic and political reform and mobilized Jordanians from nearly every sector of society. Avoiding divisive Palestinian-East Bank Jordanian rhetoric, the Hirak instead focused on issues of class and economic marginalization. “Raising the prices does not only affect Dhiban, it affects everyone from Ramtha to Aqaba and even the refugee camps,” said Sneid. “Those who went out with the Hirak were poor people affected by the price rises and the economic policies of the government.”

Dhiban’s central geographic location in Jordan put it at the center of the coordination of different communities involved in the Hirak. Because the region is not considered to be in either the south or the north of Jordan, demonstrations in Dhiban were not viewed as belonging only to the concerns of one specific area. Rural communities found common ground in their grievances, and the boldness of the initial demonstrations in Dhiban lent inspiration to other communities and propelled the expansion of the Hirak across the country.

Hirak activists nationwide quickly began to test the limits of regime-acceptable protest and cross traditional “red lines.” They directly criticized the king and questioned the legitimacy of the Hashemite regime, for example, with Dhiban protesters half-jestingly calling for the establishment of a “Republic of Dhiban” independent of the Hashemite monarchy. They openly criticized the prime minister and other political elites. “These were previously red lines, but crossing the red lines is freedom of speech at its most basic,” said Ahmad, an activist in the Dhiban Hirak. “There should be no red lines.” Dhiban activists also argue that participation in their Hirak taught many local residents on how to demand collective economic, social and political justice through peaceful protests. They assert that the Hirak nationwide facilitated the entrance of many Jordanians, and especially youth, into activism, equipping them with a deeper knowledge of their political and economic rights.

By late 2013, the Hirak lost momentum and the scale of protests dramatically decreased. The worsening of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, heightened domestic security measures and alleged government efforts to delegitimize the movement created a climate of fear and uncertainty that discouraged organized protests.

The Continued Fight for Economic Justice

Dhiban, however, remained at the forefront of Jordanian activism. But why then was it silent during the 2018 tax protests? The answer lies in the class interests of the Hirak: The inaction of Dhiban residents reflected the wide gap between the economic priorities of urban and rural communities in the Kingdom. The proposed law would have increased taxes for the middle class while reducing the personal tax rates for earners in the lowest tax bracket (1-5,000 JD per annum) and increasing it for those in the highest tax bracket (20,001+ JD per annum).[12] With the average monthly net salary in Jordan about 460 JD after taxes (at the time of the protests),[13] the poor would have benefited from the proposed law. Despite the June protests, the law was passed in December 2018.

The widening wealth gap between Jordan’s urban and rural populations is a core grievance of poorer activists. “Raising taxes is an Amman issue,” said one resident. “The raising of prices is an issue for Dhiban and the governorates.” In fact, increasing the tax burden on the rich had been one of the demands of the Hirak movement in 2011.

Yet the socio-economic situation in Dhiban continues to worsen. Local shop owners describe low profits and wages, a decrease in demand for goods in their shops and an increase in overall unemployment—despite the increase of privately owned shops in town. Most shop owners work multiple jobs to support their families. Teachers lament the poor quality of local schools and the inability of students to attend university due to high tuition and transportation costs. Local water distributors described an outdated sewage system and the unaffordability of filtered water sold by government-owned companies. A doctor at a health center in Mleih noted that health education and culture are unsatisfactory. Many locals are unable to afford quality health treatment, and high blood pressure and diabetes are common health issues in the area. “The root cause of all these problems is poverty,” said the doctor, who often covers part or all of the cost of a patient’s medical treatment if they require immediate attention.

Many residents also express bitter feelings toward international aid programs that target refugees residing in Jordanian communities. “The real refugees living the true conditions of refugees are the Jordanian citizens, because nobody helps them,” declared Ahmad. Activists in Dhiban describe feeling like both non-Jordanians, specifically Syrians, and the urban elite have greater influence on government policies than they do. “No Beni Hamida [the tribal confederation to which most residents of Dhiban claim kinship] has ever been prime minister. No Beni Hassan has ever been prime minister. Instead, someone like Hani al-Mulki [an ex-prime minister] and his family have been at the head of the government when his family is originally Syrian and is not from a big Jordanian tribe,” said another resident. “We in Dhiban are the heart of Jordanian culture. We are Jordanian by blood and heritage, but we do not control our own country.”

These residents do not trust in political processes or government officials, especially those at the highest level of government, such as the Royal Court. Allegations of corruption among the political and economic elite of Amman remain at the top of local grievances. Many view Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz as an honest politician but believe that he is unable to make the necessary anti-corruption reforms within the national economy and political system. Locals assert that only the king has the authority to undertake such reforms. Until he does so, Dhiban and other rural areas will continue to be overlooked in future investment and development plans.

“There is nothing for us”

The societal effects of Dhiban’s tumultuous history are visible in the youngest generations in the area. Unable to find sustainable employment in the public sector and forced to search for employment in a struggling local private sector that does not provide sufficient salary, benefits or job security, their despondency and anger at the lack of work is palpable. That this generation is well educated by national standards only adds to their malaise.

“There is no work, there is nothing,” said a young man as he stood with his friends in the main square of the town. “The only thing for us to do is smoke cigarettes on the street. Nothing changed in the past year, and if you come back here in a year nothing will have changed. Youth sell drugs because they cannot find jobs. Young men cannot get married because they have no money. There is nothing for us.”

Residents of Dhiban have also vented their frustration on social media, criticizing the government’s inability to address chronic unemployment and corruption. From March to June, authorities arrested several locals under the Cyber Crime Law (passed in 2015) and its stipulations against inciting “sedition” online, fomenting significant unrest in the area. On April 10, activists erected a protest tent in Mleih in solidarity with those detained, attracting prominent activists from the area to criticize the arrests. Sneid was arrested at the end of August and held in prison for more than two weeks for accusing Hani al-Mulki and his family of corruption in a Facebook post. In response to his arrest, locals erected a protest tent next to Sneid’s house in Mleih, this time drawing activists and sympathizers from across the kingdom. Proposed amendments to the Cyber Crimes Law expected to pass later in 2019 would further limit freedom of speech online and enforce tougher penalties for those prosecuted.

Yet despite crackdowns on activism, Hirak activists in Dhiban continue to demand justice. “They have arrested many of us and have said that we were trying to undermine the government, that we wanted to overthrow the system,” said Ahmad. “I do not want to become king, and I do not want to overthrow the system. I want the king to remain the king. But I want a system with authorities that respect our rights and give us our rights and listen to us.”

The plight of Dhiban’s residents underlines the ever-widening economic gap between rural and urban areas in Jordan and the extent to which austerity reforms are worsening it. This divide is continuing to spawn unrest and demonstrations in economically marginalized communities across Jordan and will do so until the government commits to positive government and international action to address their grievances.

  

Note on Interviews:

Interviews with 30 residents of greater Dhiban were conducted from March 2017 to June 2019. All names have been changed to protect their identities except Mohammed Sneid, whose activism is well known and who gave permission to attribute his name to his words.

 


ENDNOTES

[1] Jordanian Department of Statistics (DoS), “18.7% Unemployment Rate during the fourth Quarter of 2018,” Jordanian Department of Statistics (DoS).

[2] Ahmad al-Shawabka, “’Hirak of Dhiban’ go out on a march condemning high prices,” Al-Ghad, January 26, 2018. [Arabic]

Jordan Times, “Protesters call for Parliament dissolution over bread price hike,” February 2, 2018.

[3] Laith Fakhri Al-Ajlouni and Allison Spencer Hartnett, “Making the Economy Political in Jordan’s Tax Revolts,” Middle East Report Online, February 24, 2019.

[4] Jordan Times, “Gov’t dispatches officials to talk frustrated jobseekers into stopping protest marches to Amman,” February 20, 2019.

[5] Jordanian Department of Statistics (DoS). “Estimated population of 2018 and some of the selected data,” Jordanian Department of Statistics (DoS).

[6] Raed M. Al-Atiyat and Mohammad J. Tabbaa, “Role of livestock in poverty alleviation and food security: A review study,” The Jordan Society of Scientific Research (JSSR) (2011).

[7] Christopher Jetter, “An Assessment of Subsidy Removal Effects on and Future Sustainability for Livestock Sector in the Northern Jordanian Badia,” SIT Graduate Institute/SIT Study Abroad: Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection (2008).

[8] United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), “The Informal Sector in the Jordanian Economy,” UNDP and other independent authors (2013).

[9] Netherlands Enterprise Agency, “Export Value Chain Analysis – Fruit and Vegetables Jordan,” Netherlands Enterprise Agency (2016).

[10] Sara Ababneh, “Troubling the Political: Women in the Jordanian Day-Waged Labor Movement,” Int. J. Middle East Stud. 48 (2016): 87–112.

[11] Sean L. Yom, “Tribal Politics in Contemporary Jordan: The Case of the Hirak Movement,” The Middle East Journal 68/2 (Spring 2014).

[12] PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC), “Jordan: Proposed Amendments to the Income Tax Law,” PriceWaterhouseCoopers, May 30, 2018.

[13] Numbeo, “Cost of Living in Jordan,” Numbeo, September 2018.

How to cite this article:

Colfax Phillips "Dhiban as Barometer of Jordan’s Rural Discontent," Middle East Report 292/3 (Fall/Winter 2019).
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