Liberalism in Jordan

by Nathan Shapiro

Viewing the Arab nations’ struggle in the post-colonial era, and seeing them in constant conflict with modernity, is distressing to those familiar with history, for this land was the hearth of human civilization.

A vast majority of Arabs live in illiberal societies.  These societies lack the guaranteed human rights, civil rights, and access to services fundamental to the success of Europe, North America, and much of East Asia excluding China.  Some Arab nations have powerful governments with a clear structure that provides the country with the rule of law, even if the rulers are oppressive.  Yet some Arab countries even lack the governmental framework necessary to provide the rule of law, resulting in chaos and all too often, violence.

One Arab country has stood apart from its neighbors.  The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is the most liberal Arab country.  While it is an imperfect liberalism, Jordanians enjoy more freedoms and basic rights than their Arab counterparts.

It is important not to give Jordan too much credit.  Jordan’s King Abdullah II puts on a good show for the Western world.  With his easy smile, he wears suits, not the traditional desert garments other Arab royals wear.  He has been a guest on the “Daily Show with Jon Stewart” multiple times, and is famous for his love of Star Trek.  While still a prince, he made an appearance on an episode of a “Star Trek: Voyager” episode.  It is easy to be taken in by the seemingly westernized king.  It is easy to assume that such a king would be an enlightened ruler and be a liberalizing force for good in his country.  To some extent this assumption is accurate, for Jordan is the most liberal of the Arab countries.  Yet this is a low bar and Jordan has a long way to go before achieving true liberalism.  Freedom House ranked Jordan as “not free,”  political rights and civil liberties are highly restricted, and the press is not free.  Jordan is not a democracy.   Instead it is a near absolute monarchy with a powerful executive branch and weak legislative branch.

Despite these strikes against it, Jordan is a model, albeit an imperfect model, for liberalization in the Arab world.  The World Bank classifies Jordan as an “upper-middle income” country.  For a country with essentially no natural resources like Jordan, this is a major achievement and is a sign of a strong and well-functioning civil society.  Unlike the oil-rich Arab nations, Jordan has had to develop a viable economy.  The World Bank has praised the government’s efforts in education.

Jordan has developed what the World Bank describes as a “knowledge-based economy” with a solid research and development infrastructure.  Women enjoy a high level of  “gender parity” in Jordan, something unusual for the region.  Jordan has been especially successful in the medical field.  The Kingdom has a large medical tourism industry that generates over $1 billion per year in revenue.

A strong civil society and an educated middle class are needed to begin the process of liberalization.  While dictators, King Abdullah II and his father King Hussein deserve credit for planting the seeds of liberalism.