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The Islamic State's Biggest Threat to Jordan Isn't Violence — It's Economics

The Islamic State and other militant groups pose an increasing physical threat to Jordan, but it's what they're doing to the country's faltering economy that may have the greatest effects.
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For decades, Jordan has maintained a mutually beneficial relationship with the West. While the country lacks the natural resources that have made some of its neighbors very rich, its stability, comparatively moderate politics, and geographic positioning have made Jordan a crucial strategic partner for America and others in the Middle East.

This cozy relationship with Western nations amid widespread regional turmoil has brought the Hashemite Kingdom toe-to-toe with a variety of militant groups who have established a troubling presence along the country's borders. The Syrian Civil War recently witnessed al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra lead an offensive in which it captured the only functional border crossing between Syria and Jordan. And the meteoric rise of the Islamic State in Iraq has entrenched the group near Iraq's 112-mile border with Jordan.


But the biggest threat posed by the militants isn't war. It's economics.

Some effects of militancy on Jordan's economy are hard to quantify: Earlier this year, IS issued a communiqué threatening to launch attacks in Jordan, and three weeks later, the US Embassy warned foreigners to stay away from malls in Amman. Others are more direct: Thousands of trucks carrying goods into and out of Jordan used to cross the borders with Iraq and Syria every day. Today, perhaps 50 trucks make the journey, thanks to the presence of IS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and a myriad of more moderate Syrian rebel militant groups that have effectively blocked many regional trade routes.

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The result is a commercial trucking industry that has lost between $20 million and $30 million per day since the beginning of April. This, coupled with a shortage of critically needed natural resources due in part to IS attacks on transnational pipelines, has forced Jordan to increase its reliance on imports from countries like Saudi Arabia, China, and the US; the country's public debt now stands at more than $35 billion. With Jordanian economic output projections as grim as they are, its unclear when King Abdullah will be able to pay off the loans.

In an effort to revive Jordan's struggling export industry, Abdullah has reached out to his neighbors and allies to bolster Jordan's borders and take the fight to the Islamists. Just as the Jordanian and Iraqi governments were coordinating the deployment of Iraqi Sunni tribesmen to the border region between the two countries, IS launched a triple car bombing attack April 25 on the Tureibil border crossing, less than 20 miles from the town of Rutbah, an IS stronghold in the Anbar Province. While Jordanian officials have been quick to play down the IS presence in Rutbah, the group has reportedly imposed a $400 to $1,000 tax on any commercial vehicles that attempt to pass through.


Jordan's troubles with Islamist militants began long before the horrific execution of Jordanian fighter pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh early this year; IS founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, is alleged to have planned the 2005 Amman hotel bombings. And at least 2,000 similarly minded Jordanian nationals have left the country and joined IS and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and Iraq. And the country's economy has been troubled for years. Standard and Poor's and Moody's each downgraded the country's financial outlook over the past half decade. Meanwhile, the government recently raised electricity tariffs and upped tax rates for many businesses; the Jordan Chamber of Commerce expects food prices could rise by as much as 20 percent this year.

'Our country is running out of resources. Imagine if a million refugees showed up in California - how would you deal with it?'

The influx of 1.5 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees has also put massive strains on the economy, contributing to the increase in food prices - and in housing prices. The spike in living costs has contributed to what UNHCR head Antonio Guterres dubbed "host fatigue" at a recent UN Security Council meeting.

"Our country is running out of resources," a Jordanian shipping agent told me last year, echoing a sentiment I've heard over and over again in the country. "There is going to come a time when we simply cannot do anything more without suffering ourselves. Take a minute and imagine if a million refugees showed up in California - how would you deal with it?"


While he financially overextends the country, Abdullah continues to embolden his enemies - and create new ones - with his involvement in both the International Coalition against IS and the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq, none too pleased about Jordan's alliances with Saudi Arabia and the US, are continually inching closer to the border as they battle IS in Anbar Province.

Related: Canada Is Giving Jordan $125 Million to Fight the Islamic State, Aid Refugees, and Boost Its Economy

Abdullah is putting on a brave face in public, as is evident from his recent speeches hailing the country's military achievements against IS. Privately, he is begging Western allies for enough financial support to prevent the country from collapsing. But if he continues to rely on sometimes controversial allies - Jordan recently signed an agreement to purchase natural gas from Israel - without addressing the mounting economic crisis in his country, it could lead conservative elements to launch greater opposition to the monarchy. The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, which historically has had a minimal effect on the country's domestic politics, could capitalize on Abdullah's precarious position. And more militant Islamist elements, such as those holding rallies for IS in Ma'an, may be emboldened to welcome home some of those 2,000 Jordanian jihadists.

Yet it may be average Jordanian citizens who ultimately pose the biggest threat to Abdullah. The 2011 Arab Spring left Jordan relatively unchanged. But with skyrocketing costs of living combined with unpopular policy decisions both at home and abroad, the anger that spilled over so many other places in the Arab world four years ago may finally take hold.

Benjamin T. Decker is the senior intelligence analyst at the Levantine Group. Follow him on Twitter: @btdecker