From Negative to Positive Stability

How the Syrian Refugee Crisis Can Improve Jordan's Outlook

by Ben Connable

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من الاستقرار السلبي إلى الإيجابي: كيف يمكن لأزمة اللاجئين السوريين أن تحسِّن من آفاق مستقبل الأردن

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Research Questions

  1. How will the influx and persistent presence of Syrian refugees in Jordan affect the country's long-term stability?
  2. How can identifying the threats to Jordanian stability inform U.S. decisionmaking in support of this critical U.S. ally?

As of late 2014, many American and Jordanian experts believe Jordan to be stable. Yet while Jordan is stable, it faces a range of existing and emerging challenges. These include chronic unemployment, sporadic political unrest, budget deficits, a water shortage, and geographically isolated yet troubling internal security concerns. The Syrian refugee crisis both exacerbates these challenges and offers opportunities to the government of Jordan. If the Syrian refugees remain relatively content and continue to assimilate into northern and central Jordan, they might directly benefit the Jordanian economy by stimulating growth. Donors and lenders have increased their support to Jordan, in turn offering the government an opportunity to improve the lives of both Syrian refugees and Jordanian citizens. Most important, Jordan benefits from what one expert terms negative stability: Jordanian citizens might be dissatisfied with many aspects of their government, but the chaos in neighboring states has thus far dissuaded Jordanians from pursuing civil or violent actions that might destabilize Jordan. Jordanians do not want their country to look like Syria, Iraq, or Egypt. Jordan is likely to undergo further and perhaps unforeseen challenges in 2015 and 2016, but it has the opportunity to alleviate many of its enduring challenges. If Jordan wisely invests forthcoming international refugee support, it has the opportunity to shift popular outlook from negative to positive — and more optimistic — stability. This report's analytic forecasts should help the United States determine how to support Jordan as it faces the Syrian refugee crisis.

Key Findings

Syrian Refugees Will Likely Continue to Burden the Jordanian National Budget and Strain Service Delivery

  • The government of Jordan has a good understanding of the challenges associated with caring for and providing employment to the displaced Syrians.
  • Syrians will continue to absorb many of the low-paying, low-skill jobs within Jordan's informal economy. Current laws prevent most Syrians from affecting the formal economy.
  • Lack of employment, underemployment, and poverty will likely continue to leave large portions of the Syrian refugee population somewhat vulnerable to criminal and extremist recruitment.
  • Syrian refugees are likely to benefit the Jordanian economy in several ways.
  • Perceptions of the Syrian refugees' impact on employment might worsen as Syrians become more adept at finding work.

Jordanians' Anti-Syrian Sentiment Is Not Likely to Result in Significant Social Unrest or Destabilizing Violence

  • Jordanians are becoming accustomed to the presence of this latest wave of Syrian refugees.
  • Jordan can leverage funding for its 2015 response plan to alleviate tensions.
  • A great social threat to Jordan's stability is the degree to which Jordanians perceive that the government successfully handles the refugee crisis.
  • If services, infrastructure, and employment do not visibly improve, most Jordanians will become increasingly frustrated with both the government and the refugees.

There Will Almost Certainly Be Security Incidents Involving Syrian Refugees

  • Poverty, exposure to extreme violence in Syria, and social frustrations might lead to spikes in criminal activity across the broader Syrian refugee community.
  • Failure to temper reactions to any incident related to the refugee population is likely to contribute to anti-Syrian sentiment in Jordan and anti-Jordanian sentiment among Syrian refugees.
  • Any erosion in security in the coming years will affect the ability of nongovernmental organizations and municipalities to deliver critical services to refugees.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction to the Status of Syrian Refugees as of Late 2014

  • Chapter Two

    Assessment of Stability and Strategic Challenges: Late 2014

  • Chapter Three

    Economic Factors and Forecasted Impact

  • Chapter Four

    Social Factors and Forecasted Impact

  • Chapter Five

    Security Assessment and Forecasted Impact

  • Chapter Six

    Conclusion, Summary Forecast, and Black Swan Warnings

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the Intelligence Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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