How Jordan's King manages his politicians and press
While King Abdullah battles parliament, laws to encourage economic growth are not being passed.
Rumors were flying in Jordan this week that King Abdullah planned to dissolve the government. The sources were considered reliable, most of them close to Abdullah, who tends to release trial balloons before acting. That's what happened a month ago when the king let it be known he intended to dissolve parliament; an official announcement followed on the Saturday night news.
One journalist said this week, without publishing it, that the king "is dissatisfied with the functioning of several of his ministers, and a list has already been drawn up." Other journalists said the same. The court at first issued reassurances, but two days later Prime Minister Nader al-Dahabi resigned after having managed to stay in office for two years. He was the sixth premier since Abdullah became king.
On Wednesday Abdullah named a former royal court minister, Samir Rifai, as new prime minister. Rifai, 43, belongs to a family of politicians. His father, Zeid Rifai, the current president of the Senate, was prime minister several times in the 1970s and '80s.
When Dahabi took office two years ago, he was given two missions: to advance Jordan's standing in the Arab world, with an emphasis on dealing with the Palestinian problem, and to push through the king's economic reforms. The Jordanian parliament, which has 110 members and was elected just days before the cabinet was chosen, includes only six representatives of the Islamic Bloc, 11 fewer than in the previous parliament. The new parliament, in any case, seemed interested in cooperating with the government.
Soon, however, the prime minister and king realized that parliament was sabotaging reform plans. For example, last summer parliament members did not show up to meetings on new tax and social security laws. Other times they preferred to go on vacation instead of passing laws promoted by the king. So the king dissolved parliament, allowing the government to pass the social security law on its own as a temporary measure; according to the constitution, the government can do this when parliament doesn't convene.
A few weeks earlier, in a way that seemed staged, Jordanian newspapers began publishing negative articles about parliament, including details about concessions awarded to legislators. One MP distributed license plates to relatives that said "House of Parliament" and all bore the same number.
Legislators responded with a public campaign against the papers. Finally, the journalists decided to boycott parliamentary sessions, but not before publishing thousands of reader comments including stories of legislators' corrupt behavior and calling for parliament's dissolution.
According to sources at Jordanian newspapers, many of the stories were fed to the papers by the government, which was sick of the legislators' attitude. The legislators, who knew where the accusations were coming from, were quick to choose their own tactic: an investigative committee to examine the functioning of the ministries run by their attackers. The result was a terse announcement on parliament's disso lution and preparations for new elections, whose date has not yet been set.
Until it became clear that its fate, too, had been decided, al-Dahabi's government tried to advance bills that had been stymied by parliament. At the beginning of the week, the prime minister ordered ministers to present bills that had not yet come under discussion, so that at least some of them could be signed as temporary measures. This was not the first time the government passed bills instead of parliament. From 2001 to 2003, the king authorized 110 of them when parliament was suspended.
Abdullah's major headache now is the kingdom's financial condition. "Shame on those in authority here who claim that the collapse in Dubai has no effect on the Jordanian economy," wrote Ismail al-Sharif in the newspaper Al-Dustour this week. He was responding to remarks by Finance Minister Bassem al-Salem.
Al-Sharif noted that at least 35,000 Jordanians work in Dubai and that citizens from the United Arab Emirates have invested in the Jordanian stock market. "Can it be that developments in Dubai do not have an effect on us?" he wrote. "Are we cut off from the world?" He recalled that similar comments were made by Jordanian authorities when world markets fell a year ago. Then too, "they told us that Jordan was not affected."
Jordanian economist Salama al-Darawi says that while the world crisis is not having a major effect on Jordan, this is only because Jordan's economy is weak and small. Its main worry is funding cuts from donor countries and an even steeper decline in foreign investment. Saudi Arabia and the United States are the biggest contributors to Jordan, and will keep the money coming, but inflation is worsening in the kingdom: 13 percent compared with 6.7 percent last year.
Healthy annual economic growth of 7 percent since 2002 and 8 percent since 2006 is receding. In the first half of this year the figure fell to 2.8 percent, and foreign grants to the state tumbled 71 percent. Also in the first half, foreign investment dropped 65 percent from the same period last year. And the big money brought in by Iraqi refugees who fled to Jordan during the war and built homes and stores is running out.
Despite the grim figures, parliament showed no signs of passing laws to encourage growth. The king dissolved it. Now there's a new prime minister who will form his own cabinet. Jordan's national slogan determines its priorities as "Allah, Country and King." But Abdullah has his own priorities, the kingdom's survival above all. Democracy can wait.