Jordan and ISIS: will the brutal murder of a fighter pilot change hearts and minds?

Showing loyalty to the King in Amman Muhammad Hamed/Reuters

Thousands of Jordanians - including the country’s Queen Rania - took to the streets of the capital Amman February 6.

They were protesting the burning alive of the Jordanian fighter pilot Moaz al-Kasabeh by ISIS and showing their support for the Jordanian government’s vow to “eliminate and wipe ISIS out completely.”

Does such a massive outpouring of public anger mark a shift in the popular mood in Jordan? Could this mean that ISIS is losing support in the region?

In order to answer these questions, it’s essential to look at the economic conditions that Jordanians – especially young Jordanians – are living in.

Economic stress

Jordan is a country of 6.5 million that suffers from high levels of unemployment affecting a quarter of its working age population. The unemployment rate among young people has reached a massive 30%. And 60% of Jordanians are under 30 years old.

The Jordanian economy took a serious hit in the immediate aftermath of the Arab uprisings of 2011.

Visitors from afar. Ali Jarekji/Reuters

Tourism and remittances, the main sources of the country’s income, declined by 16% and 4.2% respectively in late 2011. Previously, remittances had represented up to 20% of the GDP (depending on the year) while [tourism](]( ) constituted 14% of the GDP and six percent of the labor force.

CIA World Fact Book

The military conflicts in neighboring Iraq and Syria have also seriously impacted Jordan with major influxes of refugees, first from Iraq (700,000-1,000,000) and more recently Syria (500,000-750,000).

Although all registered Syrian refugees receive assistance from the the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a recent report from the International Monetary Fund highlighted the rising burden of costs – in health, security, education and welfare – that the Syrian refugees represent for the Jordanian government.

Although some of these refugees live in camps, it’s estimated that 80% of Syrians in Jordan have settled in urban areas. Many of the latter have quickly engaged in the local economy by setting up small businesses such as restaurants.

This on the face of it is a positive development but there is growing resentment among Jordanian restaurant owners, for example, that their profits are being eaten into by the foreign arrivals. And that is not the only thing that concerns the locals.

According to a 2013 survey conducted by the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies, Jordanian residents are worried about getting access to already strained local services and – critically – the limited supply of fresh water because of the high number of Syrian refugees also demanding access. Others are complaining about the loss of low-skilled jobs to migrant workers from neighboring Arab countries.

ISIS recruitment ground

With the expansion of ISIS’s role across Iraq and Syria, the group has been looking to recruit among Jordan’s unemployed youth. It has proven fertile ground.

According to official estimates, there are 1,500 Jordanians fighting with ISIS at the moment. There are only two other countries supplying a higher number of fighters: Saudi Arabia (2,500) and Tunisia (1,500-3,000).

There are a number of reasons for the significant level of support for ISIS among Jordanian youth.

Anti-American sentiments run high. According to a PEW Research Center survey, 88% of Jordanians had negative views of America in 2014. Such negative views are fueled by a perception of double standards in US policy towards the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as well as the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When the Arab uprisings of 2011 occurred, the Jordanian government acted quickly to avoid what happened in Tunisia and Egypt. They introduced socio-economic measures, including wage increases and subsidies on basic commodities such as rice, sugar and liquified gas. They were able to do this mostly thanks to help from their Gulf country neighbors.

Even so, the government has not able to counter the popularity of ISIS and especially the group’s ability to attract followers among unemployed youth. As King Abdullah II himself pointed out, the fact that ISIS can offer a monthly salary of $1000 – the equivalent of a good job in Jordan – is hugely appealing.

And the appeal goes beyond the financial. By joining ISIS, Arab youth are offered what their own governments have failed at, namely representation of their desires for justice against corrupt rulers as well as for standing up to American power in the region.

The Jordanian government was therefore caught between a rock and a hard place when it joined the anti-ISIS war effort.

On a recent field trip to Turkey, I spoke with Syrian refugees who confirmed that Syrian youth joined ISIS and other militant groups not because they believed in their interpretation of Islam, but because they felt these groups had the ability to make real change happen in the region.

If this is the prevailing perspective, you can see why ISIS does not have a difficult time recruiting young people across the region.

A Turning Point?

The brutal murder of the Jordanian fighter pilot has, however, triggered a significant shift in Jordan’s role in the war against ISIS.

Jordanian anger at ISIS. Muhammad Hamed/Reuters

Given the public outrage against the brutal actions of ISIS, King Abdullah II now feels confident to commit his country deeper to the US-led efforts to thwart ISIS.

In the US Senate, bipartisan support has emerged for increased military support to Jordan, a long time ally in the “war on terror.”

This comes in the wake of Jordan agreeing in 2014 for its territory to be used as a military base from which to launch attacks on Syria. Today 900 US military personnel are stationed in Jordan. In 2013, for example, Exercise Eager Lion – a war game between the US and Jordanian forces – was conducted in preparation for an attack on Syria.

In exchange, the US has set up a Patriot missile defense system to protect Jordan and extended economic aid.

So far, American economic aid has been in the form of grants to support Jordan’s budget deficit as well as a bilateral free trade deal that was signed in 2000. These ties will likely strengthen in the near future. However, this level of deep global economic integration will also require Jordan to implement new policies, such as restricting the number of state supported jobs and introducing income tax.

If past responses are any indication, such policy moves might well provoke more anti-government protests.

Not so easy

The current level of public support for the Jordanian government’s anti-ISIS policy may not, in other words, be long-lasting.

As I myself have observed in my field work over the past ten years in Jordan and Egypt, those governments that ally themselves with the US in the war on terror often suffer from a lack of legitimacy.

A 2014 focus group study conducted by the RAND Corporation concluded that, in particular, there was very little trust in the Jordanian government among young people. Young Jordanians feel that the political system is not capable of responding to their demands for change. Some of those interviewed in this study went so far as to say that protest is futile because of the entrenched nature of power in Jordan.

This crisis of legitimacy is compounded by the economic crisis. The free market reforms (that are often insisted upon by international donors) are seen as opportunities for elites to further tighten their grip over resources through privatization deals.

After years of protests, the government launched in 2013 a probe to investigate corruption in the privatization process. The report revealed illegal gains by close relatives of the King through the privatization of a state phosphate mining company. This in turn has galvanized rank and file workers who are now demanding not only further investigation of privatization deals but also, more broadly, political reform and a jobs-creation program.

In light of the complex nature of the challenges and social struggles faced by Jordanians, the recent outpouring of public support in the aftermath of pilot al-Kasabeh’s horrific death might represent a temporary phenomenon rather than a complete shift in public opinion against ISIS and in support of the Jordanian regime.

What is clear is that in the absence of a sustainable strategy to create jobs which would meaningfully integrate youth (including refugees) into Jordanian society, the intensification of the military effort against ISIS may very well produce a backlash not only in Jordan but also in other Arab countries in the region.

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