King's snail's pace reforms angers Jordanians

Jordan's monarchy comes under unprecedented criticism, spurring fears of wider unrest; anger builds over corruption-plagued housing projects.

King Abdullah_311 reuters (photo credit: Alexander Natruskin / Reuters)
King Abdullah_311 reuters
(photo credit: Alexander Natruskin / Reuters)
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.
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."
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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 welfare programs.
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 States.
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 year.
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.