On February 1, in a controversial move, the Jordanian government effectively ended its longstanding subsidies on staple pita breads across the country. Al Jazeera reports that, as of this month, the price of one kilo of bread has risen 60 percent, from 0.25 Jordanian Dinar (JD) to 0.40 JD, or roughly $0.50. The government has indicated the policy will remain in effect for the upcoming year.
According to the New Arab, in response, some protests and minor riots have broken out in the capital, Amman. In early February, police were seen dispersing crowds of protesters in some parts of the city. Just prior to the lifting of subsidies, people took to waiting in long lines across the country as they attempted to buy as much bread as possible at the lower prices. In addition, many have expressed anger and frustration at the government’s policy.
Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki and his government have staunchly defended the move as being in the interest of Jordanian citizens. The Ministry of Industry and Trade has predicted that the government will receive a windfall of around 50 million JD ($70 million), which can be put towards benefits for Jordanian citizens, in particular public service workers, retirees, and members of the armed forces. His office has taken to Twitter to claim that even without subsidies, Jordan’s bread prices will remain the lowest in the Arab world.
Economic concerns motivate the Jordanian government. Before Jordan ended its subsidies, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) criticized the policy and labeled its spending trends unsustainable. Furthermore, according to Reuters, the Jordanian government agreed to reduce its debt in order to obtain an IMF arrangement. The government has also insinuated that low bread prices benefit foreigners such as illegal migrant workers and Syrian refugees residing in the country. According to Minister of Industry Yarub Qudah, “Jordanians consume 35 percent [of the bread], 40 percent go to non-Jordanians, and 25 percent go waste.” Thus, the government has claimed that the removal of subsides will actually redirect government spending away from foreigners and towards ordinary Jordanians.
However, most Jordanians remain very skeptical and uncertain about the current action. White pita bread is a staple in Jordan, and its price directly affects the poorest citizens. As a result, many bakeries, considering access to bread a human right, have declared a free bread initiative to aid those in need. Some bakeries have outright defied the ruling, leading the government to threaten to monitor, investigate, and punish those who refuse to abide by the current price scheme.
Al Jazeera reported that the government has promised to redistribute the savings to citizens through direct cash transfers. However, it remains to be seen how and when that will occur, especially considering the fact that many Jordanians lack bank accounts.