Talisman Gate

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Jordan's Great Leap Nowhere

Copyright 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

July 21, 2005 Thursday


LENGTH: 1062 words

HEADLINE: Jordan's Great Leap Nowhere

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


There is a child born every three minutes in Jordan. Someone also dies every 11th minute due to an automobile accident.

Last week, the Jordanian government decided to increase the prices of gasoline and other oil products that are still heavily state-subsidized. In previous years, Saddam Hussein used to supply the Jordanians with almost free oil, even under a U.N.-mandated oil embargo. Every cab driver in Amman, now paying more for gas, is lamenting the demise of Saddam.

Maybe inhibitive gas prices will lead to fewer car crashes, but that is not how the oil hikes are being marketed by the new government. They are part of an all-out plan for economic reform; getting free Iraqi oil is a thing of the past, and the new Jordanian economy must reflect the global realities of a free market. In fact, Jordan is billing itself to the world and specifically to American investors as a model for economic reform in the Middle East.

There is indeed good news in this respect: Jordan has developed its manpower resources by educating a generation toward the fields of technology and services. Things go awry when one realizes that most of this generation expects to find employment in oil-rich Dubai, and not in their own resource-poor country. Apparently, while Jordan is making great strides in getting ready for a globalized free market, its bureaucracy remains typically Middle Eastern, that is to say, ossified and extremely reluctant to make the sacrifices that go with all-out reform. Under such circumstances, foreign investors are staying out.

Jordan, far from being a model, is a case study that economic reform must go hand in hand with political reform.

But for now, it's all the fault of the Belgians. For some bizarre reason, those who consider themselves "true" Jordanians, that is those who were living within its borders and their descendants before the influx of Palestinian refugees since 1948, have taken to the habit of referring to Jordanians of Palestinian origin as "Belajkeh," or Belgians. There are about 10 different rationalizations for this label and all are equally ridiculous.

One such "Belgian" is Bassem Awadallah, who is the 42-year-old "golden boy" of economic reform. He was born in Jerusalem, and now considers himself a true Jordanian. However, he has been the lightning rod of non-Belgian Jordanians as the evil-mastermind who is trying to create a Palestinian homeland in Jordan. His reforms, articulated since he was planning minister several years ago, were seen to cater to the more affluent, yet not influential, Jordanians of Palestinian origin, who have the cash to gobble up whatever gets privatized by the government.

His true enemies seem to be the 300 families that run Jordan, and who have been making money, and lots of money, from how things used to be run in the past. They include both "true" Jordanians and those of Palestinian origin. They, and their sons and daughters, are the ones recklessly driving all those plentiful luxury cars in Amman, and responsible for quite a number of road tragedies.

Apparently, Mr. Awadallah was dropped from the new Cabinet, where he had been poised to take on the finance portfolio, in order to get the minimal objective of gasoline price hikes done. Jordan's much-hyped great leap forward has been dwindled down by the political and financial elite into incrementally making the consumer pay for gas that is no longer free.

For now, the Jordanian economy is saved from meltdown because of its other marketable commodity: security. With oil prices beyond their wildest imagination and Swiss bank accounts more scrutinized due to worldwide terror, the wealthy of the Gulf states are pouring their petrodollars into grand real estate development projects in Amman. The Jordanian capital is also overrun by Iraq's moneyed classes, who are waiting out the turmoil back home. It is also enjoying the fruits of instability in increasingly bomb-ridden Lebanon by attracting Middle Eastern vacationers. This is yet another lucky wave in a series that has kept Jordan afloat. By the way, security is courtesy of the American taxpayer, arriving in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars in military and intelligence aid every year.

But what happens when all these palliating factors diminish over the near future, and Middle Eastern capital finds more lucrative nearby markets to invest in?

Mr. Awadallah, in a recent chat, says that Jordan needs to speed up economic reform or it will be left behind. However, political reform of the system that brought him personally down cannot be touched, he says, until the larger issue of the Israeli-Arab conflict is resolved and the right of return for Palestinians is tabled. He and most Jordanians of Palestinian origin are likely to stay put, but they will never be accepted by "true" Jordanians as fellow citizens as long as the option of returning to a place called Palestine is not given to them and they can demonstrate, by staying put, that Jordan is their final homeland.

But that is a total cop out. Instead of being at the helm of Jordan's much-needed reform, Mr. Awadallah now holds the grand title of vice chairman of the Abdullah II Fund for Development, which is a skeletally staffed think tank housed in a sleepy Amman side street. The corrupt elite used the outdated politics of xenophobia to divert public attention from his ideas to his "Belgian" background. It was only an excuse to thwart reform, and they are quite adept at finding other excuses along the way. In the final tally, without a paradigm shift into a new way of handling both political and economic change in Jordan, nothing will get done, and the country will simply ride out one lucky wave onto the next, until the waters settle or a big wave brings everything crashing down.

Jordan has stability and creativity, yet it does not have mobility. Its much-touted economic reform is being peddled by a political class that refuses to reform itself, and in the end it all adds up to nothing really changing, which suits them just fine. The reality, however, is that more Jordanians are being born into a political and economic system that is monopolized by the few and that cannot absorb them, and if change does not come gradually, then it will come at an even heavier price of turmoil. Maybe America's financial aid should be tied to mobility in the only right direction, forward.