Young crown prince is meant to embody Jordan's future, but his generation faces bleak prospects

The royal wedding of 28-year-old Crown Prince Hussein and his Saudi bride earlier this month represented the pinnacle of the monarchy’s efforts to establish the heir as the face of Jordan’s next generation

Isabel Debre
Tuesday 20 June 2023 07:06 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

Visitors to Jordan this month noticed a new addition to the royal portraits over highways and hospitals. The 28-year-old Crown Prince Hussein and his glamorous Saudi bride, Rajwa Alseif, now beam down at motorists stuck in Amman traffic.

Their royal wedding represented the pinnacle of the monarchy’s efforts to establish Hussein as the face of Jordan’s next generation — a future king who can modernize the country, slash the red tape and set loose the talents of its bulging young population. Of nearly 10 million people in Jordan, almost two-thirds are under 30.

But in the dilapidated streets of the poorer districts in the capital, Amman, and in the dusty villages of the countryside, there is little hope for change. Almost half of all young Jordanians are jobless. Those with means dream of lives abroad. Many grumble but few speak out — the government is quick to quash hints of dissent.

The story of economic pressure and political repression is common across the Middle East. Like in Egypt, Iraq and Tunisia, Jordan’s once-bloated public sector has left the state with little to spend on health and education. Efforts to slow public hiring and cut subsidies have eroded the social contract that kept citizens compliant. Many blame corrupt officials — and, increasingly, the palace — for their misery.

“The base of support is fraying,” said Tariq Tell, a Jordanian professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “Hussein has a difficult task on his hands.”

While June's royal wedding generated momentary excitement in Jordan, its luxurious setting and VIP guests also highlighted the vast gulf between the prince's life of privilege and the daily struggles of most Jordanians of his age.

Here are some of the young faces of Jordan, a country central to the future of the Middle East.

THE ENTREPRENEUR

For 28-year-old Jaser Alharasis, public school was a disappointment. There weren't enough teachers. Students were aimless. Alharasis would have been, too, he said, if not for a scholarship that trained him in artificial intelligence.

It struck him as absurd that Jordanian schools were teaching by rote, turning curious kids into disciplined subjects at a time of dizzying technological change. He and some friends began developing a program to teach robotics in Jordan’s failing public schools.

Their company, called “Robotna,” now trains thousands of students nationwide. To fund the free high-tech classes in impoverished areas, Robtona delivers the same courses to elite private schools for a fee — earning it the nickname, “Robothood."

“Jordan is already behind, and if we don’t catch up, we’ll lose more and more jobs,” Alharasis said from the Robotna office in working-class east Amman. Over a dozen staffers tapped away at computers, developing a high-tech curriculum they’ll soon pitch to the Ministry of Education. “I want things to be different for people like me, for the next generation,” he added.

But obstacles stand in the way. In a country with no bankruptcy law, failure can mean a prison sentence if debts are not paid. Jordanian tax authorities treat social enterprises as major corporations — Robotna loses 36% of its revenue to taxes each year, Alharasis said.

Old-fashioned officials routinely block Alharasis and his colleagues from entering schools. They can’t comprehend “why robotics is important, why technology is the future,” he said.

Faced with the challenges of innovating in Jordan, his peers are studying German and applying to universities there or moving to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. But Alharasis promises to stay and keep finding workarounds.

“If you can start a company in Jordan, you can start one anywhere,” he said.

THE UNEMPLOYED

With his coffee habit and thrifted jeans, 20-year-old Saif al-Bazaiah could be a university student anywhere. But after watching his cousins spend years and fortunes in university only to end up jobless, he got straight to work after high school. His father’s steel factory salary barely covered the family’s costs.

“You look at all these people studying to become engineers and doctors but at the end of the day, they have nothing,” al-Bazaiah said from his hometown of Al Qatraneh, some 95 kilometers (59 miles) south of Amman.

When work dried up in his desert village, he tried his luck in Amman, where 40% of all Jordanians live. It was grueling. Twelve-hour shifts in gas stations, restaurants and supermarkets bought him a few packs of cigarettes.

His former classmates fared no better. Instead of reckoning with the country's problems and pushing for a brighter future, he said, they sought safety in religion and social conformity.

“The greatest dream for the average Jordanian is just to buy a car, settle down, get married,” al-Bazaiah said. ”It's the only way people can live under pressure."

This month's royal wedding fever offered the country a brief diversion from that pressure. But a week later, al-Bazaiah and others in Al Qatraneh described feeling left behind — a world away from the pomp of palace life. “It's clear that Jordan has two classes — the tippity top with money and very very low without,” he said.

In a tribal leader's sitting room on the outskirts of town, a photograph of the controversial Prince Hamzah, King Abdullah II’s half-brother, hung from the wall beside the requisite royals. Hamzah, an unseated crown prince placed under house arrest in 2021 after alleging high-level corruption, still enjoys strong support from Jordan's disaffected tribes. Since the palace crisis, the monarchy has ramped up efforts to burnish Hussein's public image and cement his role as the rightful heir.

“More than anything, the challenge to the future of the crown prince as king comes from within the family and the Jordan tribes,” said Labib Kamhawi, a political analyst.

THE TEACHER

From his front porch in northern Jordan, the gangly 27-year-old Arabic teacher gazed across the valley toward a forbidding citadel of concrete and steel. The view is a dark reminder of the threats against him and his colleagues — some of whom have landed there, in the local prison, in recent months.

“Teaching used to be a respectable position,” the teacher said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “Now it's terrifying. The pressures are getting tighter and tighter,” he said, grabbing his throat as if choking himself.

Jordan's autocratic government has cracked down on teachers’ spirited protests for better pay — a trend increasingly at odds with the monarchy's image of having embraced liberal, Western values.

In 2020, authorities dissolved their union and sentenced leading activists to prison. Now, no one dares complain. They know a wayward word in a classroom or on Facebook can ruin their lives.

The newly established government-aligned teachers’ union polices its members, they say, denying promotions to outspoken teachers and pushing the politically minded into early retirement.

Meanwhile, the faltering economy has taken a toll, the Arabic instructor said, looking exhausted and unkempt after his café shift. His salary of just 400 dinars ($564) a month can't keep pace with soaring prices, he said, forcing him to work odd jobs just to make ends meet.

“How can leaders use these slogans about progress and prosperity when the country’s teachers cannot speak their minds?” he said, his voice quiet and angry. “Everything is upside down.”

THE HUMANITARIAN

In the coffee shops of Amman's affluent Abdoun district, 29-year-old Mariam Hudaib leans over her laptop, compiling data on Syrian refugees.

She got “lucky," she said, recalling how she scored her dream job at an international aid organization. Her fellow English literature graduates jockey for poorly paid teaching positions, call in favors at state-run firms or compete for scarce openings in Jordan's private sector.

But the job didn't land in her lap. Foreign organizations demand fluency in English and sharp research skills. Most Jordanians don't make the cut.

A straight-A student from a well-to-do neighborhood and close-knit family, Hudaib looks like a Jordanian success story. But she can't see a future here. The public schools and hospitals she went to as a child have deteriorated. There’s no relief from the grinding frustrations of daily life — the high prices and taxes, the low salaries and standard of living.

Hudaib is not alone. According to Arab Barometer, a pollster, nearly half of all young Jordanians now want to leave, raising concerns that the kingdom could be pushing away the people it needs most.

“I love Jordan," Hudaib said. “But I've seen enough.”

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