Jordan economy holds a steady course

7 June 2023

MEED's July 2023 report on Jordan also includes:

> OIL & GAS: Jordan's oil and gas sector battles sluggish phase
> POWER & WATERJordan sustains utility infrastructure progress
> CONSTRUCTIONHospital boost for Jordan construction

 


With attention absorbed by the royal wedding of Jordan's Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah and Saudi architect Rajwa al-Saif in early June, the release of unemployment figures for the first quarter of 2023 showing joblessness at almost 22 per cent suggested it might have been a good day to bury bad news.

Stubbornly high unemployment is only one challenge facing the Hashemite Kingdom. Rising costs have also roused demonstrations. Last December, professional drivers took to the streets to protest against fuel price rises, a side effect of the imposition of IMF-backed fuel subsidy reforms that resulted in a doubling of prices.

And yet, broader inflationary pressures have been mitigated by significant strategic wheat reserves and long-term gas supply arrangements. The country’s dollar peg has also limited foreign exchange volatility.

Inflation still poses a significant risk, say analysts. “Jordan has been largely shielded from the high inflationary pressures affecting the world. However, the country inevitably faced higher prices as both food and fuel supplies have been affected by Russia’s war on Ukraine,” says Farah el-Rafei, Jordan economist at consultancy Oxford Economics.

“If inflation spikes again, this could put significant pressure on the government, given stagnant wages and high unemployment.”

Institutional acclaim

The government’s economic management has won plaudits from the IMF and ratings agencies. The IMF’s most recent assessment issued in May found that despite a challenging global and regional environment, Jordan has managed to maintain macroeconomic stability and access to international capital markets through prudent monetary and fiscal policies.

The fund lauded the kingdom’s post-pandemic recovery, projecting real GDP growth rise to 2.7 per cent in 2023, and inflation for the year to moderate to 3.8 per cent.

This has afforded space to tackle the country’s indebtedness, with ambitions to reduce public debt to 80 per cent of GDP by 2028, from around 90 per cent now. This will be achieved by continued efforts to broaden the tax base, and by improving the efficiency of public spending.  

“The country has made solid progress in implementing the structural reforms suggested by the IMF,” notes El-Rafei.

“Activity has increased via higher tourism and export revenues carried over from 2022, and this momentum is likely to be maintained in 2023.”

If inflation spikes again, this could put significant pressure on the government, given stagnant wages and high unemployment
Farah el-Rafei, Oxford Economics

Persisting difficulties

Despite Jordan’s cushioning against inflation, particularly with food stocks, there is an expectation that rises in prices in the region will inevitably catch up on growth efforts this year. 

Another risk stems from the dollar peg, where higher interest rates raise the cost of borrowing.

“While the US Federal Reserve announced a potential end to the rate hikes, leaving the rates as high as they are for an extended period might suffocate investment in Jordan,” says El-Rafei.

Jordan’s external deficit remains high, reflecting the country’s high import burden. The current account deficit widened to 7 per cent of GDP in the first half of 2022. This external deficit is expected to persist in the short term as global inflation stabilises and regional exports and investments pick up. 

Though the IMF recommends continuing the prudent policies that have preserved macroeconomic stability, the government may find it increasingly difficult to increase tax revenues and change the composition of tax revenues. 

According to Nesreen Barakat, CEO of the Jordan Strategy Forum, total tax revenues are still hovering around 15 to 17 per cent of GDP, and most of these revenues (about 70 per cent) emanate from the country’s sales tax.  

“Broadening the tax base is proving difficult,” she says. “In addition, I wonder how the government can improve the efficiency of public spending when a few spending items, such as wages, pensions and interest payments on public debt, account for a large proportion of total public spending.”

Restrategising growth

Another challenge for Jordan is that merely sustaining the post-pandemic recovery may not be enough. 

In Barakat’s view, given the unemployment challenge, much stronger real GDP growth rates are needed. “Here, I am not confident that the Jordanian economy can achieve higher growth rates in the next few years,” she says.

“If we succeed in implementing the Economic Modernisation Vision’s initiative and public sector reform, we might have a good chance in the long term. Within this context, one cannot underestimate the importance of enhancing and increasing local investments as well as foreign direct investment.”

The Economic Modernisation Vision calls for the private sector to take the lead, accounting for 73 per cent of the total $58.8bn in investment. 

The three-phase vision aims to increase average real income per capita by 3 per cent annually, create 1 million jobs and more than double the nation’s GDP over 10 years. 

For the vision to be realised, a large pipeline of public-private partnership (PPP) schemes is needed, covering water desalination, school construction, clean energy, green hydrogen, transport improvement and road construction, among others. 

Barakat says the government should not just focus on 'large' PPP projects. “The private sector cannot get involved in large and long-term PPP projects,” she says.

“The absence of an active bond market in its primary and secondary aspects makes it impossible for them (entrepreneurs as well as banks) to get involved. I see the private sector getting involved in 'small' PPP projects. This is where the government should be instrumental in determining these projects and seeking private sector partnerships.”

Green opportunities

Another new avenue of thinking is a greater interest in climate spending.

Last year saw the launch of the government’s Green Economy Financing Facility (GEFF), supported by the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development, the Green Climate Fund and the EU, to help Jordan transition to a green economy.

Some $22m of funding via three GEFF deals has been disbursed to boost private sector investment in renewable energy and efficient utilisation of water and energy resources. The International Finance Corporation has also announced a $50m investment issued by the Jordan Kuwait Bank. 

“This is particularly significant as Jordan is considered among the most vulnerable to drought due to climate change, which remains a high risk due to capacity shortages,” says El-Rafei. 

Such long-term strategising will be key to developing Jordan’s economic potential. But in the meantime, there are near-term hurdles to navigate amid a challenging international context that is forcing higher borrowing costs. The danger remains that this could choke investment opportunities that are essential to Jordan’s recovery.  

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James Gavin
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