King counts on new faces to impel Jordan’s reform momentum

Jordanians believe that reforms can be introduced successfully if the job is given to non-traditional figures who are popularly accepted and known for their integrity.
Thursday 24/06/2021
A file photo shows  Jordan’s King Abdullah II giving a speech to parliament, in Amman Jordan. (AP)
A file photo shows Jordan’s King Abdullah II giving a speech to parliament, in Amman Jordan. (AP)

AMMAN – Over the past few months, Jordan has gone through political turmoil that it has never witnessed since its founding 100 years ago this year. This turmoil has left the kingdom with major challenges that need to be addressed by the government.

In the past, the country was able to remain stable in the midst of a region considered the most chaotic in the world. This was possible thanks to effective royal decisions that in foreign policy terms protected Jordan’s position both regionally and internationlly.

Despite the limited natural resources and power and a difficult economic situation, Jordan’s King Abdullah II managed to keep his country on the world’s political map as a key player, capable of keeping pace with the rapid developments in the region. Jordan’s politicians and government officials however failed to exploit the monarch’s positive achievements.

The failure of the political elite to attach sufficient importance to the king’s views, as well as errors by some officials, helped exacerbate problems in the kingdom, quickly turning them into severe crises.

Between October 2016 and April 2017,  Abdullah issued what are known as the “ Seven discussion papers,” which represent his vision for the achievement of comprehensive reform.

Recently, in a meeting with leading politicians, the king called for the introduction of the reforms in a way that transforms the lives of citizens while taking into account their views and benefiting from the proposals of experts.

Abdullah made clear  that “the process of political, economic and administrative reform does not need slogans, but rather requires studying and dividing roles to reach tangible results.” He stressed the need to communicate with citizens, to listen to their observations and opinions on reform and to benefit from the views of experts.

Observers note that the Jordanian monarch is counting on injecting new blood and using non-traditional figures to break the current political deadlock and bring about real reforms.

The king recently chose a consensual figure, Samir Zaid al-Rifai, to head the committee charged with modernising the political system. The committee, which includes a group of personalities from a range of political backgrounds, has been asked to come up with reforms that would enable Jordan to overcome its severe crises, particularly the economic deterioration.

Royal Jordanian Air Force AS332 Super Puma helicopter flies over the State Security Court in Amman, June 21, 2021. (AFP)
Royal Jordanian Air Force AS332 Super Puma helicopter flies over the State Security Court in Amman, June 21, 2021. (AFP)

Jordanian writer Musa Hawamdeh considered that “the committee’s composition emphasises broad political and societal diversity, but previous political experiences taught us that committees are not important if they do not yield helpful results.”

Hawamdeh explained to The Arab Weekly, that “the committee includes a number of names that represent several political and social currents, including the secretary-general of the Communist Party, in addition to other members who hold excellent national positions. The committee also boasts a broad and large tribal representation.”

The calls for reform and change stem from recent crises in the kingdom. Political parties have so far failed to manage these crises and respond to the aspirations of Jordanians who are beset by a severe economic decline.

In a report published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, writers Ghaith al-Omari and Robert Satloff concluded “Trust in public institutions, with the notable exceptions of the monarchy and the military/security sector, is very low due to widespread perceptions of inefficiency and corruption.”

“These views have been amplified by a series of tragic accidents attributable to dereliction of public duty in recent years, especially after several COVID-19 patients died in a new government hospital last month because of failures in supplying oxygen,” the two writers noted.

While “calls for demonstrations over the past few weeks did not garner wide participation, due in no small part to preemptive security measures,” according to Omari and Satloff, “they nevertheless raised concerns about simmering public dissatisfaction. “

The crises this year began in a government hospital in Salt, after seven patients died because of an oxygen shortage. The deaths prompted the king to intervene personally, visit the hospital and ask the director to resign immediately. Minister of Health Nazir Obeidat was later dismissed and the case was transferred to the judiciary.

The incident provoked popular discontent and protests erupted to demand a change in the management of state affairs. Protesters also called for the overthrow of the government and parliament.

On April 3, the Jordanians held their breath again and lived through a difficult night, after the arrest of Bassem Awadallah and Sharif Hassan bin Zaid amid allegations that they tried to destabilise Jordan with foreign help. Bin Zaid is a member of the royal family and Awadallah is a former head of the royal court.

On April 4, the Jordanian government accused former Crown Prince Hamzah, 41, and other individuals of being involved in “vicious schemes” aimed at “undermining Jordan’s security and stability.” About 20 people were arrested.

These developments, never seen in the past, shocked the Jordanians. They also cast doubt on the ability of the authorities to manage such crises, drawing sharp criticism about the government’s ambiguous statements, after the authorities revealed foreign meddling but failed to  mention the countries involved.

The dispute between King Abdullah and his brother, Prince Hamzah, was resolved within the Hashemite family, after the mediation of their uncle, Hassan bin Talal. Sixteen people involved in the plot were released by royal diecree and two main defendants Bin Zaid and Awadallah were referred to the courts, where they pleaded not guilty on Monday to sedition and incitement charges.

This legal action, along with the end to the dispute within the royal family,  might have resolved the political turmoil, except that a new crisis erupted. Parliament voted to expel a Jordanian lawmaker who had raled against power cuts and called for protests.

MP Oussama al-Ajarma had demanded a debate on electricity cuts in Amman and other districts on May 21, accusing the government of deliberately cutting power to forestall a protest march by Jordanian tribes in support of the Palestinian cause.

But his request was turned down by the speaker and Ajarma was suspended from parliament on May 27, before resigning in protest on June 2.

Following the MP’s suspension, the parliament was targeted by a wave of fierce criticism over its poor performance and weak positions, especially when it comes to key issues such as the Palestinian conflict and the Israeli encroachment on Jordan’s regional role.

Many Jordanians slammed the parliament’s mismanagement of the country’s crises and supported Ajarma, pressing the need to introduce the comprehensive reforms previously proposed by the king.

Jordanians believe that reforms can be introduced successfully if the job is  given to non-traditional figures who are popularly accepted and known for their integrity.

They also consider that the king’s reform plan, to which he referred in his widely-published discussion papers, will achieve political, economic and administrative well-being for citizens, if it is adopted by experienced and knowledgeable officials.

The Jordanian king will likely make drastic changes in senior state positions,  not least in the light of two almost back-to-back crises.

However change in Jordan depends on the abilities of the new faces, and their readiness to adopt a fresh approach in managing state affairs, in line with the king’s reform plan.