The Delicate Balance: Jordan’s Overpopulation Crisis

Author:  Muhammad Hudhud, Johns Hopkins University

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It was bustling almost every night. Chickens were spinning in the oven, shawarma was being sliced, and the neatly dressed workers were either preparing a dish or taking orders. Joodee is a new, clean “take-away” (carryout) restaurant chain in the heart of Amman, Jordan. Friends are at cafes watching the soccer game, and families are out enjoying the cool Jordan weather. There is safety, and there is security. Joodee is one of the many new Syrian businesses popping up across Jordan. And while its owners may be successful, they are lucky.

What started in Syria just 3 years ago as peaceful demonstrations demanding democracy and change has escalated to a violent proxy and civil war, killing about 200,000 and producing the largest refugee population in the world, surpassing Afghanistan. Such refugees have fled to neighboring Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan to name a few. Fortunately for Jordan, new businesses like Joodee are appearing, and as such jobs are being created. However, the rate of expansion cannot keep up with the population growth. In relation to Syria, those who left early enough in the conflict or have “waasta” (connections) are relatively well off. It must be said that connections in the Arab world are simply an everyday routine. From “top-notch” schools, to jobs and taxes, to paperwork and subsequently corruption, waasta is in large part how the Arab world functions, even after the Arab Spring. For Syrians without such connections, bribe money, or simply left too late, they are either confined to the refugee camps on the outskirts of the country, or turned away back to Syria. The Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis, Saudis, Emiratis, and so forth who are able to freely move within Jordan tend to concentrate in Amman.

An influx in Palestinian immigration has also invigorated Jordan’s economy. For example, Amman’s first steel-wool factory opened in 1968 under the management and supervision of a newly arrived Palestinian family. Since then, numerous other factories of all types have opened, providing jobs, services, and infrastructure to Jordan’s growing economy. Unlike a few decades ago however, the volume of refugees entering Jordan has simply been a nightmare for the Kingdom. In the past few years however, traffic has become much more congested, gas prices have soared (Jordan does not have oil to export), and the prices of produce have as well. Statistically, Jordan’s population has exploded from just under six million in 2008, to over 8 million today; most live in the capital, Amman. There are many factors that contribute to Jordan’s overpopulation crisis. First, the Palestinian diaspora has kept a steady stream of refugees flowing into Jordan since 1948 (then Trans-Jordan). For that reason, ethnic Palestinians comprise the majority of Jordan’s population. Second, many residents from the Arabian Gulf travel to Jordan in the summer time to escape the heat and humidity of the Gulf States, often building summer homes. Most importantly however, Jordan’s characteristic stability and security has attracted people from all surrounding countries for jobs, education, and simply a better life: Palestine and Egypt to the west, Lebanon and Syria to the north, and Iraq to the East.

The influx of such refugees has in turn created the overpopulation crisis Jordan’s infrastructure simply is not ready for. The Monarchy has not incentivized building projects to accommodate its new population. The already narrow streets make traffic tantamount to attempting to fit an elephant in a cooking funnel, and the lack of expanding in the capital has caused more and more people to squeeze into apartments in the city. To King Abdullah’s credit, he has effectively kept Jordan safe, keeping the violence and unrest of surrounding countries out. While the country is safe, the King must come up with solutions to tackle this infrastructural crisis and invigorate the economy. King Abdullah II and his administration must promote the building of new infrastructure, new schools, and new homes. Simply, Amman must literally expand. For until Jordan has the adequate means to provide for its new inhabitants, the cost of living will rise, the city will become ever-more congested, and its population will be caught in a vicious cycle of ‘dysfunctionality.’

A glimpse of Amman’s congestion back in February. Jordanian news outlet Albawaba reports 1.8 million cars hitting the streets amid rush hour. Amman’s population is 4.1 million
A glimpse of Amman’s congestion back in February. Jordanian news outlet Albawaba reports 1.8 million cars hitting the streets amid rush hour. Amman’s population is 4.1 million
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