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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / Education, Training and Labor

Jordanian Economy, Education, Democratization: A conversation with Dr. Omar Al-Razzaz

JMEPP Senior Staff Writer Christina Bouri, and Editor-in-Chief, Ghazi Ghazi sat down with Dr. Omar Al-Razzaz on March 10th to discuss the Jordanian economy and labor market, the education system,  the effects of climate change and COVID-19 on the Kingdom of Jordan, and democratization efforts in the country. Dr. Razzaz served as the 42nd Prime Minister of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan from 2018-2020. He also served as Jordan’s minister of education (2017-2018), director of Jordan’s Social Security Corporation (2006-2010), executive chairman of Jordan Ahli Bank (2014-2017), chair of the King Abdullah Fund for Development (2012-2014), founder and chair of the Jordan Strategy Forum (2012-2017), sector leader and country manager at the World Bank (1997-2006), and Ford Chair and assistant professor at MIT’s International Development and Regional Planning Program. He completed a post-doctorate at Harvard Law School (1992) and earned a Ph.D. in urban planning with a minor in economics from Harvard University (1991), a master’s from MIT (1987), and a bachelor’s in engineering from Louisiana Tech University (1985).

Labor Market
What are avenues for improving the Jordanian labor market and affording jobs to many unemployed Jordanian youths? What programs exist to aid Jordanian youth in entering the labor market? How do you solve the issue of “brain drain”?

In any country, creating new jobs requires sustainable and inclusive growth in the economy. The challenge that Jordan faces is that it’s a small country in a troubled neighborhood, so growth depends to a large extent on external factors such as political instability, disrupted trade roots, and refugees flowing over the borders. Since 2008, Jordan’s growth rate has gone down from 6.5 to, most recently, just under 2%. The natural economic cycle isn’t producing enough jobs for Jordanians. At the same time, unemployment among youth is at its highest, approaching 50%. What do we do? There are no quick, easy answers. There are things beyond our immediate control and others within our control.  Beyond our control is regional stability. If we see countries such as Syria and Iraq entering a post-war reconstruction phase, this would be a huge boost for Jordanian export industries and services and bring about stability for the whole region.  

What is within our control are two things:  First, we need to focus on exports of services and products that Jordan is well-positioned for, especially after COVID and beyond surrounding countries.  These include IT and business services, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, and agribusiness.  We have a highly qualified labor force that can do that. The challenge for Jordan is exporting goods and services beyond our neighborhood. Jordanian products and services have reached Europe, Asia, and the United States with products of varying complexity. We’ve proven ourselves in all these sectors; we just need to focus and identify key areas that will grow the economy and provide jobs for Jordanians. Indeed, jobs for Jordanians do not mean attracting high skills needed from the Jordanian diaspora or highly skilled foreign workers.  But it would require re-examining our open-door policy towards unskilled foreign workers. That is one of the flaws of the past few decades. The Jordanian private sector had grown fast between 2002 and  2008 but had relied on foreign workers instead of unemployed Jordanian youth.

Second, we need to make sure that the vast reservoir of unemployed Jordanian youth is not left to fend for themselves.  Indeed, the longer they are in the unemployment rank, the less likely they would be hired by the private sector.  Many countries around the world are facing this and have opted for civic programs and public works that would engage the youth and provide them with social and employability skills, which many have missed during the pandemic.  Training on social services (home-based healthcare and early childhood), up-skilling and re-skilling for IT and business services, on-the-job training through the private sector, municipal work, and public infrastructure, which leads to vocational and technical certification is essential to make sure that youth are well prepared to enter the labor market. We simply cannot sacrifice this young generation and allow it to lose hope.  We cannot tell them, “Tough luck, wait till the next economic boom.” That’s why we started national programs on school-to-work transition. These got disrupted by COVID, but now is the time to revive them.

When you were appointed as Prime Minister, you faced a colossal national debt to GDP ratio, high unemployment (close to 20%), and an uneasy Jordanian public. How did you navigate this?

In my view, it was very important to acknowledge first how hard things were for the average Jordanian. Real incomes had been going down in real terms, and unemployment was going up. So, we needed to understand where people were coming from and then manage and get our fiscal situation in order and our economy growing again. We developed a comprehensive Reform Matrix that tackled fiscal reform (including a new income tax law), barriers to business, youth and female employment, and civil service reforms. This Matrix became the basis for dialogue internally and externally on social services, investment priorities, and foreign-funded programs. The government articulated specific outputs, outcomes, timetables, and responsible entities for execution.  The Matrix became the basis for the London Initiative, which helped Jordan finance its public debt and attract investments into the country. Looking back, the most important thing is that we “owned” that reform agenda, and we promoted it nationally and internationally.  I feel that a lot was achieved in 2019. In 2020, and in spite of COVID, we managed to stay on track with most reforms that required legislation by the government.  Indeed, the Doing Business Index acknowledged that Jordan was among the countries which had seen the greatest jump in its ranking. But unfortunately, COVID did affect our ability on the ground, especially in executing employment programs.

During your tenure as the Minister of Education (2017-2018) under PM Hani Mulki, what were some of the most pressing issues in the Jordanian education system?

Education is very important for Jordan and Jordanians. We don’t have natural resources. This is something late King Hussein had recognized early in the  60s and invested heavily in schools. For  Jordan,  staying at the cutting edge of education is of national importance as human resources are our most important asset. Yet unfortunately, we were falling behind—in international comparative exams like the PISA and TIMSS. Jordan had been receiving low-performance levels in math, science, and reading year by year since 2008. Something had to be done with how we teach. We needed to move away from rote memorization and help students gain 21st-century skills, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, and technical vocational/technical training. Unfortunately, these were not being provided or learned as the textbooks were huge, and the exams were based on regurgitating information from the textbooks. This was a culture that needed to be changed,  but where do you start? We started with the National Human Resource Development Strategy and on different fronts. This was a challenge. But, as we started doing that, by 2018, the performance was starting to improve. We had PISA and TIMSS exams where the trend reversed, and we began moving in the right direction. What does this prove? This proves that we need to take serious action. We need to be accountable for the performance of our education. These are long-term, not quick, fixes. But you need to start immediately, and results will start showing quickly. I am optimistic that our education system is on the right track, but the faster we move, the better. Making early childhood education a requirement, revamping the curriculum, teacher training, and evaluation, and improving the school environment are moving at different speeds.  We need to keep track, ensure that we are measuring outcomes, and improve as we go forward.  

Global Climate Crisis
What foreseeable impacts does the pressing global climate crisis present Jordan with? Given the many years Jordan has served as a refuge and asylum for many forcibly displaced peoples, how will the climate crisis further impact this?

 Jordan has one of the world’s poorest water per capita ratios in the world. Our share is around 70 liters per person per day, and the United Nations declared minimum is 100 liters per person per day. We are below the minimum. To add insult to injury, we get wave after wave of refugees, and we have 1.3 million Syrians who add tremendous pressure on Jordan’s water resources. Our water shortage was already severe, and climate change will make it worse. Another important factor is that rural communities in Jordan were involved in animal grazing and herding and seasonal agriculture on arable land for centuries. This was an important income supplement for many families living outside of cities. Now, this is all becoming much harder to sustain. This begs the question, what will these families do? Will they move to cities and add to the pressures of unemployment? Or stay and face the unpredictability of seasons and long droughts, heatwaves, floods, and all the other symptoms of climate change.

First, climate change is a global challenge that requires a global response in the form of collective action. That’s why Jordan is a strong supporter of the Paris Agreement. Second, Jordan’s share of CO2 emissions is minimal, almost nothing.  Nonetheless, we are suffering all the impacts like many third-world countries. The only way to address this is to develop global financing solutions for mitigation and adaptation for countries like Jordan. Third, these global financing solutions should be conditional on committing to a green economy moving forward.   This would create jobs for rural households in forestation and water harvesting. Many things can be done to create a sustainable agricultural sector, even with less water. Agriculture in general in Jordan needs to be revamped.  The fruits and vegetables we often plant are water-intensive. The technologies we use are not water efficient. We need to rethink the technologies we are using. Aquaponic and hydroponic agriculture is seen in Jordan but is the exception rather than the rule. We need to be much more efficient in using water for agriculture. Currently, about 50% of Jordan’s water usage goes to agriculture. Going forward, it needs to be more efficiently used.

I wrote an essay in the Project Syndicate talking about global collective action. In it, I say we need a global structure that is binding. These sorts of decelerations by countries that ‘hope to do this’ by so and so will not work unless there is a binding global structure that says country x is a member of this and needs to reduce CO2 emissions by this time, and if it doesn’t, there will be ramifications.

Read Dr. Razzaz’s article in Project Syndicate, “How to avert a global climate catastrophe,” here

COVID-19 Pandemic
What are the social, cultural, and economic ramifications of COVID-19 in Jordan? As Prime Minister (2018-2020) during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, how did you navigate what is an issue of collective action? What were the most pressing obstacles, including the economic malaise which ensued as well as the pressure placed on the health sector?

This was definitely the toughest period of my government. I remember in February of 2020, we first had to bring our Jordanian students from Wuhan by a military airplane, and then we had to figure out how to respond.  No one knew the nature of the virus or how it would evolve. We had very little information about it, and there was a debate around the world and one opinion predicting that the virus would kill a lot of people, especially the elderly.  I remember Boris Johnson saying something along the line of, “Say goodbye to your elderly because herd immunity is going to have to be the way, and they won’t be around for a long time.” Another opinion was coming from countries part of the WHO that said we would need to hunker down and do whatever we can to minimize infections and move very quickly on the vaccine and to get a better understanding of it. It struck me that the idea of herd immunity was so foreign to our culture and our values. We cherish our elderly and take care of them, so the idea of saying “Sorry, we have to say goodbye” was inconsistent with everything we believe in. That’s why we decided on a very early lockdown. We were guessing because we didn’t have good information about anything. That lockdown was actually helpful because it really lowered the rate of infections and fatalities, and that time allowed us to get testing equipment that was not around and eventually got us to sign on with Pfizer and others to provide us with a vaccine. We were also able to build hospital capacity to accommodate patients in the ICU. It basically gave us time. Now, was it hard economically? Absolutely. But looking back, had we not imposed a lockdown back then, we would have paid a heavy economic price twice: We would have paid economically for that early period because trade was disrupted anyway around the world, and there wasn’t any tourism going on. And then we would have paid an additional price in terms of high rates of infection and hospitalization disrupting the economy when the world was starting to open up. In a nutshell, lockdown bought us time. The whole experience was like driving a car with a rearview mirror but an opaque windshield: you could see the past but had no clue what the future holds. In such an atmosphere, there is no “evidence-based policymaking.” There are only values and best guesses.  

At some point, HM King Abdullah II discussed how the vaccine should be treated as a public good, something that should be non-excludable and non-rivalrous. What can you say about that in Jordan and how it rolled out? What can you say about the superstitions of taking the vaccine because of the misinformation and disinformation that was being spread?

 The West spent the last four- or five decades lecturing developing countries on the importance of globalization and the free flow of goods and services and capital. Then, when the world faced COVID, countries in the West started hoarding vaccines. This is clearly hypocritical and a form of genocide. When HM the King talks about this being a public good, it is indeed a global public good, and if anything, it should lead us to rethink the structure of intellectual property rights, logistics, and awareness amongst the people. Awareness is important because, as you said, not just in Jordan but in the United States as well, there are those who believe that the whole thing is a conspiracy. I don’t think we managed to eliminate that perception and all the disinformation about COVID, but to a large extent, we pushed for an almost daily presence by the Minister of Information and the Minister of Health. My request to them was to state the numbers as they were and address any rumors they heard. Social media was filled with numbers and stories and a lot of other such misinformation. Much of it was not true and even dangerous. After a short time, people began tuning in to the government’s daily updates on the number of infections and fatalities, and that process gained credibility. The fact that people were listening to that source helped us a lot in conveying the accurate picture. I think this is absolutely crucial. And there are lessons to be learned for other sectors on the importance of disclosing information,  engaging people, and addressing their fears. A lot of people were afraid of the side effects of the vaccine, etc. There were things that the world didn’t know, and so we can either make fun of the people who rejected the vaccine or engage with them about what they’re afraid of and what the real risks are, as well as the risks of doing nothing.

There are currently democratization efforts underway that, within ten years, would allow for the political parties to choose their governments. Given the recent disagreements in parliament, how do you predict the efforts to democratize Jordan’s constitutional monarchy will unfold? How do you think this will solve the low voter turnout which exists among university students? Also, how might these efforts make parliament welcoming to women and Jordan’s youth?  How can we solve short-term thinking (political myopia) at the government level?

The recent efforts in the Royal Committee instructed by HM the King to make developments towards democratization actually started in the previous decade when HM the king wrote seven papers titled “The discussion papers,” all of which discussed a transition to democratization. What we have learned from the rest of the world is that there is no recipe or a single guidebook to get there. We all know what a full-fledged democracy looks like. We know it when we see it. But how you get there is much easier said than done. It’s quite complicated. If you don’t have real pluralism among parties, one party will take over, and it’ll become a one-party state. In many countries we’ve seen, like Tunisia, Algeria, and Sudan, you get a military state or a one-party state. We all agree that if you want to make that transition, it must be gradual. That is why the laws that were proposed in parliament had a 10-year process in which the representation of parties would increase with each new parliament. That approach is important. We should expect that there would be resistance to the idea. Basically, it is an idea of challenging the status quo and challenging privileges. I do think that for the silent majority, especially youth and women, it’s crucial to move along that path. Jordanians – and many people around the world –  are nostalgic for a period where things were simpler and clearer, where the government did everything for them, and a major segment of the youth got employed in the public sector. This is gone. We must accept this, move on, and have governments that are accountable to the people. When the wrong government comes in and makes the wrong decisions, people will realize that they made the wrong choice, and they will learn. This is what I would like to emphasize with reference to institutions that are accountable, and, over time, people will learn and improve upon their decision-making. In Jordan,  the quality of people who are elected at the municipal level and the governorate level is quite good, which means people are learning and choosing the best people for their local environments. We need to get to this on the national level.

As for “short-term thinking,” this is common in democracies and autocracies alike.  Everyone, citizens, parliamentarians, and governments, want “quick wins.” This is understandable. But one thing I’ve learned is how long it takes to bring about structural change in institutions that have operated in fixed ways for many decades. We have launched some programs with immediate impact that citizens can feel while also setting longer-term goals that will bear fruit down the road. Citizens want to change immediately; that’s normal and healthy, but the process of achieving long-term change requires building or reforming institutions and establishing accountability through engaging citizens in everything we do. There are no saviors in this business, only builders of institutions.

What do you think of what’s going on in Ukraine?

It is very sad for me as a citizen of Jordan to see history repeating itself again and again, with innocent civilians being massacred and displaced. I would like to thank Poland for the amazing role it is playing in accommodating millions of families.  It is very tough for a country to stretch its absorptive capacity overnight.  Jordan has had to learn how to do that with waves of refugees from Palestine, Iraq, Syria, and other countries.   No matter how much we try, these families and their children will be traumatized for life.  I think the famous poet, Mahmoud Darwish, summed it well in the case of Palestine, but it applies everywhere.  He wrote, “The war will end. The leaders will shake hands. The old woman will keep waiting for her martyred son. That girl will wait for her beloved husband. And those children will wait for their heroic father.  I don’t know who sold our homeland.  But I saw who paid the price.”