Jordan reshuffles cabinet as it faces economic, security challenges

Jordan is struggling with a heavy debt burden and is expected to stick to an economic reform programme that includes subsidy cuts.
Sunday 04/03/2018
Jordanian King Abdullah II arriving for a meeting at the Jordanian Royal Palace in Amman, last year.  (AP)
Final say. Jordanian King Abdullah II arrives at the Jordanian Royal Palace in Amman, last year. (AP)

LONDON - Jordanian King Abdullah II has approved a cabinet reshuffle, replacing ministers in key domestic portfolios such as interior, labour and the economy at a time of continued economic downturn.

King Abdullah has the final say on key policies but frequent cabinet personnel changes are considered a way of deflecting frustration among Jordanians over rising prices and unemployment.

Jordanian Prime Minister Hani Mulki, who retained his post, appointed the king’s chief of staff as special deputy for economic affairs in an apparent bid to soothe widespread anger over flagging growth.

Mulki’s reshuffle, the sixth since he became prime minister in May 2016, comes three days after hundreds of protesters in Salt, 30km west of Amman, demanded his resignation and called for King Abdullah to force the government to roll back price increases and end high-level corruption.

King Abdullah issued a royal decree approving the appointment of Major-General Fadel al-Hamoud as police chief in a shake-up that two officials tied to events in Salt and recent law and order lapses.

Mulki avoided a vote of no-confidence in parliament after deputies sought to bring down the government over the price hikes that raised taxes on most consumer and food products and some fuel items. That was followed by a doubling of the prices of subsidised bread.

Jafar Hassan, chief of staff of the office of King Abdullah, was placed in the post of deputy prime minister for economic affairs, a role that had been vacant in Mulki’s previous cabinet.

Hassan, a former planning minister, will be leading a ministerial team overseeing a tough 3-year programme agreed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) of long-delayed structural reforms to cut public debt to 77% of GDP by 2021 from 94% now.

Mulki imposed steep IMF-mandated tax hikes to cut rising public debt that has hit the incomes of ordinary Jordanians, causing his popularity to plummet.

Finance Minister Omar Malhas kept his position in the reshuffle.

Ayman Safadi, a long-time adviser to the royal family remained foreign minister. He has been leading the kingdom’s talks with Washington over its Middle East policy.

Politicians and economists said tough fiscal consolidation plan and price hikes are worsening the plight of poorer Jordanians. Removing subsidies triggered civil unrest in the past. Unlike previous hikes, only a few scattered protests have taken place but slogans carried by demonstrators in the rally in Salt were the most critical so far.

“We will wage an intifada (uprising) until prices go down. There are limits to our patience,” protesters chanted. Some indirectly blamed King Abdullah. Authorities sent gendarmerie reinforcements to Salt.

The government said cash transfers to low-income citizens have mitigated the effect of price rises.

Jordan’s economic growth has been affected by regional conflicts weighing on investor sentiment and as consumer demand generated by Syrian refugees staying in Jordan has receded, the IMF said.

Real GDP growth was revised to 2% in 2017, about 1 percentage point lower than anticipated at the start of the IMF programme, and was expected to be approximately 3% this year, almost half the level it attained a decade ago.

Jordan is struggling with a heavy debt burden and is expected by international lenders to stick to an economic reform programme including subsidy cuts.

Mulki said the government achieved a “huge success” in its financial reform process over the past two years, the state's official Petra news agency said.

The reshuffle is also meant to address issues other than the economy.

“The prime minister said that the second focus of the government will be enhancing the rule of law, noting that the cabinet finalised laws related to developing the judiciary,” reported the Jordan Times.

“The government’s agenda will also focus on youth as a main pillar of the Jordanian society’s cohesion, as they comprise a majority of the population. This necessitates developing youth programmes that have to include political and economic education and not only sports,” added the newspaper, citing Mulki.

The reshuffle involved security officials, highlighting the country’s exposure to terror threats. Western allies view Jordan’s stability as key to fighting extremism and the United States recently pledged more than $6 billion in aid through 2022.

Jordan, however, appears to be hoping for more aid from other countries.

“Many, especially the G20 countries, should follow suit and sign agreements like the Jordanian-US deal. Incidentally, the G20 accounts for 85% of the global GDP,” wrote Khalid Dalal in an opinion article in the Jordan Times.

“If the world loves Jordan and admires its stances, as it says, it must prove it in deeds, not in words only,” he added.

Critics of the cabinet reshuffle noted the absence of female ministers among the new appointees.