Living with a new set of rules

15 March 1996

JORDAN has kicked off in 1996 with a new government, new faces at the court and security services and a call from King Hussain for an administrative revolution. Appointing former foreign affairs minister Abdel Karim Kabariti as prime minister on 4 February, the King instructed him to 'effect a total and comprehensive overhaul of the state apparatus and its upper echelons and to propagate awareness among young people in a pure and white revolution.'

Developments that are already advanced in Jordan's external relations may have prompted the call for change in other areas. When a peace treaty was signed with Israel in 1994, Jordanians were expecting rapid economic and social progress as a result of the radical political realignment. Yet the benefits have been slow to materialise.

The peace with Israel and Jordan's progress in its IMF-supported restructuring programme have attrcacted international political and economic support. A planned May visit to Jordan by Denmark's Queen Margrethe and Prince Henrik, accompanied by a delegation of Danish industrialists, is one of a string of visits that have underlined the international respect that Jordan attracts and its enhanced status among investors looking for a foothold in the region.

Negotiations on a partnership with the EU which will offer substantial economic benefits are also progressing well. But the results of peace remain intangible to most Jordanians who, despite their limited democracy, are free to voice their discontent openly.

Public criticism

Mainstream daily newspapers and a dozen party weeklies maintain a barrage of criticism of economic and political developments. Indeed their coverage of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination provoked a furious reponse from King Hussain. But, the king is ever sensitive to the prevailing political currents. His call for change is believed to have been influenced by a direct approach from Toujan Faisal, Jordan's only female member of parliament, when she got no response to her complaints of growing human rights abuses in the country.

Jordanians are gradually coming to terms with the reality that the political support they won for the peace treaty will not bring about an instant shower of aid or sweeping economic change. 'People expected immediate results,' says one banker. 'It would have been more rational to expect them in two-five years.' Yet many have grown restive in the face of indifferent government and restrictions on their freedom. The re-election of Jordan Engineers' Association president Leith Shbeilat, currently awaiting trial for his criticism of the king, is seen as a protest against the lack of political freedom as much as a demonstration of genuine support for his policies.

Although most Jordanians would welcome change, few believe it can be achieved in the face of unresolved differences over Jordanian-Palestinian and government-Islamist relations. They are prepared to give Kabariti and his new team a chance, but not for long. 'If, after three months, I see laws have been changed and the relationship between government departments and the public has improved, then I will believe in it,' says one businessman.

One of the hardest adjustments of recent months has been the complete turnaround on Iraq. Much of the enthusiasm for Saddam Hussein had faded after the end of the Kuwait crisis, and the murder of Iraqi defector Hussain Kamel and members of his family after their return from exile in February has only compounded the sense of disappointment. However, Jordanians retain a strong sympathy for the Iraqi people, a distaste for what they see as interference in its internal affairs and a deep-seated distrust of any shift in Jordan's policy that they believe carries LTS fingerprints.

Concern that Jordan may be pressured into action against Iraq has been exacerbated by Iraqi opposition groups' plans to open offices in Amman and comments by US officials that they are working with Jordan to undermine the regime in Baghdad

New ties

Worries about the relationship with Iraq also have a practical element. Jordan's exports of goods and services to Iraq in 1996 could be worth up to $400 million and as many as 250 factories are still heavily dependent on Iraqi business. Jordan's relationship with its Gulf neighbours continues to improve, but economic benefits that could help compensate for a loosening of ties with Iraq are proving slow to appear.

Telephone links with Kuwait have been restored and King Hussain and Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah were the first to take advantage of them, speaking at Eid al-Fitr for the first time since the Gulf crisis. The improvement could herald a restoration of trade links and even the return of some Jordanian workers to Kuwait. However, while Saudi Arabia now has a resident ambassador in Amman, promises of faster processing for Saudi visas and the smoother flow of Jordanian goods through Saudi territory have yet to be fulfilled.

Jordanians would also like to see the development of relations with Israel matched by an improvement in ties with the Palestinian territories. Kabariti visited Gaza as foreign affairs minister last December and the development of relations is expected to be one of his priorities. The government's handling of the Jordanian-Palestinian relationship will be a key to its success at home, where for many it remains the touchstone of political progress. A perceived improvement in the Interior Ministry's attitude towards Jordanians of Palestinian origin has been taken as a sign that the new government is serious in its desire for reform.

Palestinian-Jordanian Relations are still very sensitive and can sour very quickly. When Jordan's 1994 census included a detailed set of questions on the place of birth of all current residents, their fathers and grandfathers, it seemed the question of the Jordanian-Palestinian balance in the population was finally to be settled. The government's decision that it was 'not in the public interest' to publish the statistics was greeted with incredulity and speculation about the precise balance of the population continues.

In his policy statement to parliament on 28 February, Kabariti reiterated his support for Palestinian efforts to establish an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital. If he backs this up with steps to develop Jordanian-Palestinian economic ties and ease movement across the Jordan river, he should secure strong support and undermine Islamist and left-wing opposition to the speed of normalisation with Israel. At the same time, he will bolster confidence in Jordan's business community that the peace process really does deliver dividends.

Exchange rate: $1= JD 0.709

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