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Environment

Jordanians protest growing gap between rich and poor

Popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have sparked protests in many Middle East countries. In Jordan, the country's ailing economy and widening gap between rich and poor is causing unrest.

protesters shout in front of the Jordanian Parliament in the capital Amman

Anti-government protests have been picking up in Jordan lately

As he makes tea in his cramped, damp Amman apartment, Jordanian Rasmy Mahmoud Kheir recalls the better life he led in the early 1990s. Back then, he was working on a poultry farm in Saudi Arabia, making about 1000 US dollars (700 euros) a month, rent free.

"The expenses in Saudi Arabia were covered so I could send a lot of money to Jordan," he describes his living conditions at the time.

At the time, remittances from the states in the Persian Gulf area to Jordan totaled some one billion US dollars a year. But when Jordan sided with Saddam Hussein in the 1990-91 Gulf War, angry, pro-western Gulf states, like the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Qatar, lashed back, refusing to issue working papers to Jordanians without high qualifications.

Jordan's flag is flown over Amman

Jordan is a key US ally on the border to Israel

No money for food and shelter

Rasmy Mahmoud Kheir, along with waves of other blue collar Jordanians, returned home when his work permit expired and never managed to get back. Today, he takes on odd jobs in a local market and struggles to support his family and pay his monthly rent of 140 US dollars.

"It’s difficult to go from a life that is 80 percent good to 20 percent good," he says, adding that with his current income he can’t even afford basic necessities such as food and shelter.

Poverty and unemployment are some of the grievances driving the recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. And they are a root complaint of protests in Jordan.

With 75 percent of the country's wealth in the hands of just 30 percent of the population, one of the economic grievances in Jordan is its widening gap between rich and poor.

When Jordanian migrant workers like Rasmy Mahmoud Kheir returned in the 1990s, they were faced with stiff competition at home. Many of the vacated Jordanian positions in the Gulf were filled by Egyptians and South East Asians.

A water pipe in Jordan

Shortage of water is just one of the problem Jordanians face

Competition from migrant workers

Those migrant worker groups are also making a dent in the labor market back in Jordan, says University of Jordan economist Ismail Abdurhaman, because they accept lower wages than Jordanians.

"They also don’t mind non-suitable working conditions," he says, "and they are more obedient than Jordanian workers.”

Jordan now has an estimated 600,000 guest workers, and 75,000 of them are South East Asian.

Jordan's working class is getting hit from both sides. It has been locked out of the once lucrative center of migrant work – the Gulf states – and it is increasingly unable to compete, back home, against guest workers.

Remittances from Jordanians who have remained in the Gulf – highly qualified and middle class workers such as teachers or engineers – are tipping the balance even further. Their checks home total around three billion US dollars annually, according to the Central Bank of Jordan.

Jordan's King Abdullah (right) listens to the complaints of Jordanian citizens in Turki village

Wants to avoid the fate of Egypt's Mubarak: King Abdullah II (right)

Big tasks ahead for the king

This remittance stream, however, is class-specific, enriching the middle class in Jordan and widening the already gaping divide here between rich and poor.

Economist Ismail Abdurhaman says it is a dangerous tendency and "this is why the government is taking care of this question and trying to alleviate this as much as possible."

By firing his cabinet and changing his prime minister last month, King Abdullah II of Jordan managed to avoid the kind of turmoil that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

King Abdullah’s new government has many grievances to attend to, not least the country's lopsided distribution of wealth. Solving this problem will not be easy, since it will require economic and tax reforms that will irk key constituents like the middle classes and political elite.

Author: Don Duncan (nh)

Editor: Andrea Rönsberg

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