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Jordan: The Case for Cautious Optimism

Mary Nazzal-Batayneh
Jordan: The Case for Cautious Optimism

It is somewhat challenging to be an optimist in Jordan these days, on both women’s issues and broader economic issues. On the women’s front, Jordan ranks 138th out of 149 countries in the 2018 Global Gender Gap Index. While some find the index problematic, it does shed light on the existing reality that Jordan’s gender parity is far from what it can and should be. On the economic front, businesses are closing down on a regular basis. Citizens demanding jobs marched from the port city of Aqaba to the capital Amman. Commentator Professor Sean Yom has characterized protest movements in Jordan as “ritual” not “revolution.” But recent days have seen a strong and distinct wave of cynicism dominating the local discourse. Cynicism, of course that, is understandable given the years of continuous so-called reform efforts and the worrying levels of unemployment and underemployment across the country.

Given all this, how does one build a case for cautious optimism? I will attempt to do so by drawing on three areas of my present-day professional life.

When I co-founded Landmark Hotels, a Jordanian hotel and hospitality company, I had a vision to create a family-friendly work environment. The rate of women’s economic participation in Jordan is around 16%. The number of females working in the hotel industry is especially low due to cultural norms; these two issues together posed a challenge. We started making changes in the hotel including the following: we opened a free on-site day care for the children of our employees, we instituted a zero-tolerance harassment policy, we started gender diversity and gender sensitivity training, we had everyone sign a gender/inclusion charter, we started a female-buddy system, and we trained women on non-traditional areas of work such as plumbing and building. As a result, we have seen an increase in the number of women we are able to recruit, retain, and promote. Landmark is now supporting a national campaign to encourage more women to join the hospitality industry.

Minor changes can be made to encourage more women to join the workforce. The private sector must engage and drive change so we all can see and benefit from the long-term impact of enabling women in the workforce. In addition, the existing political will needs to be strengthened and may need to evolve into concrete support for the private sector to make these changes. Jordan has committed to a comprehensive “Women’s Economic Empowerment Action Plan” with a target to increase women’s economic participation to 27% by 2025. An inclusive approach that brings together the broad spectrum of our society is essential to reach this critical goal.

Additionally, SEP is a social enterprise located in the poorest Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan, the Jerash/Gaza camp. It has created jobs for hundreds of women in the camp who embroider luxury fashion and home accessories. SEP operates in a transparent and highly professional manner which allows the SEP artists to feel a sense of immediate security coupled with a sense of hope for future growth. It was also founded with the belief that the women were naturally ‘able’ and that empowerment would come through simply giving high-end training and access to opportunities to improve their overall well-being. Her Majesty Queen Rania often invokes the fishing rod analogy, and this is precisely what SEP has done - it has provided fishing rods to one of the most disenfranchised refugee populations in Jordan, Palestinian refugees from Gaza. The lesson here is that the so-called “burden” of refugees can be alleviated with an inclusive and strategic economic plan that benefits host communities and refugees equally and that recognizes that refugees are individuals with an array of abilities and expertise that can and should be tapped in to.

Another reason for optimism is that the global capital markets are witnessing a new wave of socially-conscious investors including millennials who are considering sustainability issues when making investment decisions.  UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are proving to not only be a framework for sustainable development but also a framework for sustainable investment.

I am a Founding Partner in a new global firm, 17 Asset Management, which is dedicated to driving private capital towards SDG-aligned investments. We have chosen Jordan as our first country of operation as we believe that there is huge opportunity for sustainable growth. For example, the gender gap and refugee conundrum faced by Jordan could actually be an opportunity for those interested in gender-lens and refugee-lens investing. Donors already give to Jordan, so we should shift to a model where their funds are used more strategically to catalyse private capital in a blended financial model. 17 Asset Management and SEAF have partnered to create the SDG Jordan Growth Fund that will employ a blended financial strategy to generate an attractive financial return while mitigating risk and catalysing sustainable economic growth in Jordan. The Fund will measure success based on financial return and generated positive social impact aligned with the SDGs, such as the impact on women, refugees, and youth in Jordan.

Decision makers in Jordan should be open to new and bold ideas that could help move the country away of its current state of dependency and position Jordan as a country worthy of investment from responsible and socially-conscious investors, not as merely an aid receptacle. Jordan has the opportunity to be on the front line in providing global investors with opportunities that are not only SDG-aligned, but also de-risked. 

Optimism in present-day Jordan is a luxury that unfortunately only a privileged few can enjoy. But for me the case for cautious optimism is clear. It is this sentiment that propels me and many others like me forward, towards creating a future where we hope many more of our country-people can shed the heaviness of cynicism and revel in some of the lightness of optimism.   

About the Author

Mary Nazzal-Batayneh

Mary Nazzal-Batayneh

Barrister (English Bar); Founding Partner of 17 Asset Management; Founder of Landmark Hotels; Selected as one of Forbes ‘Most Powerful Arab Women.’
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