King Abdullah II’s efforts to navigate Jordan through the turmoil of the Arab Spring by slow-going reform and tactical retreats in the face of popular protests are failing to win over a public more willing than ever to question the institution of the monarchy.
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In his latest in a series of promised political changes, the king on Sunday said he would loosen his grip on power by surrendering to parliament the right to appoint cabinet ministers. But he gave no timetable for doing it and warned that sudden change could lead to "chaos and unrest."
A day later, clashes erupted during a visit by Abdullah to southern Jordan where youths reportedly threw stones at security services and the king’s motorcade. Reflecting the seriousness of the incident in a country where lese majeste
is a crime, the government quickly denied the reports.
“The glass barrier of no criticism of the monarch is gradually being
chopped away. I would anticipate a lot of serious changes over the next
few months,” said an observer of the Jordanian scene who spoke to The
Media Line on condition of anonymity, warning that tensions had reached a
point that a single “spark,” such as the death of a protestor by
police, could cause mass unrest as it did in Tunisia last December.
While the Jordanian street hasn’t been swept up in the Arab Spring, the
monarchy has sustained multiple blows that have undermined its
authority. The economy, already reeling from higher food and oil prices,
was hurt further this spring by disruptions of natural gas imports from
Egypt. High-profile corruption cases and unfulfilled promises of reform
have underscored the government’s failings.
Like the Gulf sheikhdoms, Jordan is ruled by an absolute monarch, is an
ally of the West and enjoys a strategic value to the US that makes it
more important than its small population and tiny economy would suggest.
But unlike the Gulf monarchs, Abdullah’s kingdom has no oil and the
cash to keep his subjects content with make-work schemes and generous
Two weeks ago, the kingdom was buffeted by the resignations of Health
Minister Yassine Al-Hasban and Justice Minister Hussein Al-Majali, who
stepped down at the end of May after top businessman Khalid Shahin,
jailed for over graft in connection with a $2.1 billion oil refinery
upgrade, was allowed to leave prison for medical treatment in the United
This week, a new and potential bigger scandal appears to be on its way
after Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit on Tuesday transferred an
investigation into corruption in the “Decent Housing for Decent Living”
project to the legislature.
The five billion-dinar ($7 billion) project, launched by Abdullah in
2008, was supposed to develop more than 120,000 homes for low-income
Jordanians, but it has stumbled amid allegations of corruption. The
Anti-Corruption Commission was looking into the affair, but this week
the government acceded to lawmakers’ requests that they handle it after
four ministers were implicated in the initial probe.
Last Friday, thousands of Jordanians demonstrated in the capital Amman
and across the country against corruption and in favor of reforms,
including an elected government. "What happened to reform? We want to
rest!" declared one banner. “We do not want committees. We want our
money and our land," said another, according to Agence France Presse.
When unrest first broke out in Jordan last January, Abdullah reacted
quickly, dismissing his cabinet and unveiling a $169 million program of
subsidies and jobs to reduce price and unemployment. The protests,
however, continued even if they haven’t reached the size or level of
violence seen elsewhere in the Arab world.
But neither has the king moved quickly to implement reform. On Tuesday,
he upset activists by saying it would take “at least two or three years”
for Jordan to develop “mature and well enough established” political
parties. Regarding the creation of effective political parties as a
precursor for wider political change, many read the king’s remarks as a
message that reform would take years to begin.
While corruption and political reform capture headlines, Jordan’s dire
economic situation is playing a critical part in the discontent.
Even as the global economy has recovered, Jordan has failed to benefit
much. The International Monetary Fund expects gross domestic product to
grow 3.3% in 2011, not much faster than in 2010 while unemployment
hovers stubbornly above 12%. Before the outbreak of unrest, the
government had been counting on GDP growth of as much as 6 percent this
Egypt resumed gas supplies to Jordan last Friday after a six-week hiatus
caused by an attack on the pipeline carrying the gas. But Jordan is
committed to negotiating a new, higher price with Egypt by the end of
June. Egyptian gas provides 80% of Jordan’s electric power.
“The overall situation in Jordan and the fiscal situation in particular
is becoming worse by the day irrespective of events in other parts of
the region,” said Riad Al-Khouri, an economist and member of the board
of the British organization Questscope. “This is a standalone crisis. If
suddenly the Syrian, Yemeni, Libyan and Bahraini problems were over,
the Jordanian one would still be there.”
Jordan’s richer Gulf neighbors have offered it a helping hand, extending
membership to it and another regional monarchy, Morocco, to the Gulf
Cooperation Council. Economists say GCC membership would likely win
Jordan more financial assistance and enable more Jordanians to work in
the Gulf, alleviating the country’s unemployment.
But GCC membership isn’t on the immediate horizon, and analysts warned
that it would probably also entail a price as the Gulf monarchies insist
Abdullah abandon democratic reform in order to gain admission to what
is in effect a club of kings.