Friday, March 31, 2006

More IAF doublespeak

I almost got some good news this morning. Irhail Gharaibeh, first deputy of the head of the IAF had this to say:

We are against any impediment to freedom of the press.
Wow. That's great. Coughing up my coffee came when I read the rest

We support stiffening the penalty for anybody who touches the Religion of the Nation or its Holy symbols or its values.

Now this is more what I would expect. This reminds me to the fake "reform" document that they published a few months ago, with plenty of ambiguity and doublespeak.

Of course, to the casual reader, this all makes perfect sense. Who could be for attacking "anybody who touches the Religion of the Nation or its Holy symbols or its values"? As is always, what this means is open to interpretation, and can be meant to mean anybody who opposes the IAF. IAF deputy Mohammad Abu Fares linked criticizing the IAF with criticizing Islam, with no subsequent explanation or apology.

Or we can just trust them to do the right thing. Why shouldn't they take advantage since everybody is till spooked by THE CARTOONS.

UPDATE: In Al Rai today, Gharaibeh expounded on the need for "responsible" freedom of the press. He thinks that the following shouldn't be considered to be covered by the concept:

1- Offending others.
2- Insults.
3- Libel (I agree here).
4- Lying.
5- Offending a person's religion, beliefs and holy symbols.
6- Insulting prophets (of course).
7- Inciting sectarianism (I wonder what he thought about Abu Fares' insult of Raed Hijazeen. He and others were notably quiet about the subject).

Just for fun, he had to mention that somebody who steals 5 JD's should have his hand amputated (in some cases). Would it insult Islam if I said that this is barbaric and preposterous?


Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Jordan weapons development

The SOFEX conference being held in Amman has brought to focus (at least to me) an important realization. Jordan is aggressively entering the field of weapons production and upgrading at a regional scale. A Jordanian company has signed a partnership with a Russian firm to produce light helicopters. This is building on previous weapons and aviation achievements made by Jordan in recent years.

The hub of this action is the King Abdullah II Design and Development Bureau. The KADDB was established in 1999 "to provide an indigenous capability for the supply of independent, high-quality, efficient and cost-effective scientific and technical services to the Jordan Armed Forces". Their web site offers an impressive list of initiatives and products, with a number of spin-off companies. One interesting product is a pistol which will soon become a standard for the Jordanian armed forces.

One of the spin-offs is Seabird Aviation Jordan (in cooperation with an Australian company), which produces a range of light aircraft that have been sold throughout the region, particularly Iraq, and as far away as Australia and Ghana. Jordan Aerospace Industries also is in the field with a number of light aircraft models.

Much of the production of these enterprises seems to go to the Jordanian market, which in itself is important as it saves money for the country. From the looks of how things are going, I believe that these initiatives will flourish. The Middle East is one of the largest markets for weapons in the world. It makes sense that we should try and take advantage of our knowledge of the nature of the region and its needs. I wish I knew more about how many people are employed in these initiatives, and the amount of money involved. In any case, reading some of these web sites made me proud.

Monday, March 27, 2006


Some people might be wondering why I haven't posting very much. I think it might be due to the fact that many of the things going on are continuations of issues I spoke about early, and so I have little to add. However, the way these things are playing out is driving me nuts. So indulge me as I remind and update you on these. After you read them you will see why I don't have the heart to write.

Chicken flu: After months of forewarning and supposed planning, a dead bird finally showed up that tested positive for H5N1. About 20000 birds were culled in the Ajloun area, and as might be expected, the ensuing panic has severely damaged the livelihood of thousands of Jordanian families. Moreover, while the prices of eggs and chicken have gone through the floor, the costs of red meat and fish have risen dramatically. One can only speculate as to the damage on the nutrition of people who relied heavily on protein from chicken.

Response from the parliament: The deputies want to fire the minister of agriculture for letting in a shipment of processed Israeli turkey, contending that since bird flu has appeared in Israel, then any poultry from the country is dangerous. What a morale booster. The implication is that Jordanian poultry isn't safe either. Just what we need.

The economy: Dramatic drops in foreign aid and petroleum grants are leading the government to dramatically raise the price of fuel. Meanwhile, the deft diplomacy of Hamas has secured 55 million dollars a month from Arab countries.

Response from Foreign minister: He is busy studying the thoughts of Qaddafi. Yes. We are actually paying him to do that.

Incitement to violence: While the government, parliament and the press syndicate are trying their best to formulate ways to control the press so that THE CARTOON incident isn't repeated (and to make the most of the issue), a columnist in Ad Dustour openly called for killing the Muslim who converted to Christianity in Afghanistan. In Arabic we say that silence is a sign of approval.

Response from the IAF: silence.
Response from the Jordanian Press Association: silence.
Response from the Government: silence.
Response from parliament: silence.
I'm glad that the terror in Amman has taught us the important lesson of the danger of tolerating and condoning religious-based justification of violence. I'm nauseous.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The financial disclosure law

The financial disclosure law has long been advocated as a tool for combating corruption. The concept is to make sure that people who accept leadership posts in the government don't become wealthy due to their positions. Jordanians have long noted how previously poor or middle class people become rich after accepting a post as a minister or high government post. Because money can be made without a paper trail (through commissions, bribes and kickbacks), people who are suspected of being corrupt most often get away with it because of the lack of legal instruments to investigate the sources of their newly earned wealth.

A few years back, the lower house approved the financial disclosure law. The law simply states that people who accept certain positions should report to a special bureau their own, their spouses and their minor children's assets upon accepting their post. The records are to be sealed. In the event that allegations of impropriety arise, these records are opened and if substantial new assets are gained, then questions as to their source must be answered.

The law was shelved in the senate until recently. A couple of days ago, the legal committee approved it, but only after recommending stripping of essential components. They exempted judges and members of parliament (both houses), as well as the spouses and the children of officials who would be covered by the law.

Now, it seems to me that this law is actually a tool to protect civil servants from allegations of impropriety. Character assassinations are quite easy to commit, and the only way that people who accept high posts to protect their reputations is through such a mechanism. The only reason that people would be afraid of such a law is if they have something to hide. Exempting people who stand to gain illegally from their positions (including judges, senators and MP's) actually expose them to allegations of impropriety which would be difficult to disprove. Moreover, exempting spouses and minor children of executive officials would be a loophole through which money can be hidden. The exemption of parliamentarians was based on a constitutional clause which can be overcome, if the desire to do so exists (as argued eloquently by Ayman Safadi).

The long delay in the senate and the recommendations of their legal committee suggests that they don't like the idea. Their behavior suggests that they have something to hide. There is no better way to prove their integrity than to fully embrace the law and pass it without the modifications of the legal committee. Otherwise, the whole reason for having the law would be lost. This would be a shame both for the public, but more importantly for the reputations of honest public officials.


Friday, March 17, 2006

Tribal law or civil law?

Clashes have broken out in a small town in the Karak district. Two days ago, a murder took place there, and the perpetrator gave himself in to the police. Yesterday, the clashes took place because the tribe of the victim was not evacuated from the area, as is demanded by tribal law. Homes and cars of the perpetrator's tribe were burnt, and a major highway to the area was closed. In the end the governor of Karak ordered the evacuation of murderers' tribe. He also thanked the victims' tribe for their understanding and cooperation, instead of putting the vandals and arsons in jail themselves.

A few days ago I mentioned the problem of parallel laws in Jordan. In this case, the victim's tribe demanded a jalwa, which is the removal of the entire tribe from the region. Typically, this means the removal of anybody related by blood up to the fifth paternal ancestor. It implies that the entire tribe is responsible for the action of one of its members.

Now, in the days before a state, police and courts, this rule might have made sense. People would pull up their tents and take their goats to another grazing area. Now, it is simply anachronistic. In some cases, hundreds or thousands of people will be uprooted from their lives, livelihoods, schools and community. Why is this unfair procedure done? To respect the feelings of the victims family. What's this deal with feelings? Can't Arabs restrain themselves, or think beyond the immediate? These people are destined to live in the same community, intermarry, do business together and fight. People living in any civilized community should defer to the rule of law.

In reality, I don't blame the unemployed teenagers and young men who were behind these riots. The problem is that the state is still reluctant to assert it's authority when it comes to such matters. Murder is a crime. Vandalism and arson are also crimes. With his actions and statements, the governor validated the actions of the vandals and arsons. Is this a message that the state really wants to send to Jordanians? I hope not.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

On the road to freedom square

A funny thing has happened on the way to freedom square. The prime minister, Marouf Bakhit recently sent a revised press and publication law to parliament, with provisions that include banning the jailing of journalists, but raising the fines on publications "crimes" to 20000 JD's.

The major problem with press laws in Jordan has always been the lack of definition of what a press crime is. Article 5 of the current press law states that:
Publications shall have to show respect to the truth, and refrain from publishing any material that runs counter to the principles of freedom, national obligation, human rights and Arab-Islamic values.

Of course, what these things mean exactly is quite fluid. One might interpret the entire article to counter the principles of freedom, which would thus mean that publishing it in itself illegal. LOL.

Anyway, the National Guidance Committee in the house yesterday recommended reinstating jail for crimes relating to "insulting fathers of three monotheistic religions and their prophets", and crimes of disrespect to the king, as well as any case where a judge might see fit a jail sentence. The last one actually covers everything one might imagine. The committee left the recommended elevated fines in place and added the jail option. I am surprised that they didn't recommend dunking the offenders in boiling oil as well. The retarded parliament rejects tough sentences against so-called honor killings, but thinks that un-orthodox views should never be expressed, and should be punished by unreasonably tough measures. I'm nauseous.

So, the government wants to allow more latitude for press freedom, and the parliament wants more repression. As Batir Wardam aptly put it, this parliament is downright embarrassing. As I suspected earlier, the frenzy over THE CARTOONS was the catalyst for this massive drive against free expression.

The Jordan Press Association is against this turn of events, with the head, Tareq Momani, stating that the association can take care of these problems. The implication is that the disciplinary action taken by the JPA against Jihad Momani and Hashim Khalidi over publishing THE CARTOONS proves that the association can be just as repressive as the government. I'm even more nauseous.

Rula Hroub has a great column in Al Anbat. She correctly points out that the government rarely uses the press law to persecute journalists, but instead uses the criminal code. This allows for a fa├žade of press freedom, as only journalists who break the criminal code have problems. Problems relating to the definition of crimes such as "disrespect for the king" exist in the criminal code as well. If there is to be freedom of expression, clear definitions of terms such as libel and disrespect should be agreed upon. The more restricted the definition, the better. What we really need is an honest belief in freedom. Since our parliament really doesn't respect freedom, we shouldn't expect very much from them.


Saturday, March 11, 2006

Rule of law

Al Ghad has been covering the issue of health worker safety at public health facilities for the last couple of days. It seems that relatives accompanying patients are getting the impression that they are free to be rough with the doctors and nurses, as a way of showing concern for the patient. In the latest incident, a doctor was hospitalized after being beaten by relatives of a patient. This has been an ongoing issue that seems to be increasing in severity. Naturally, the Jordanian Medical Association wants something to be done about this.

The problem with the rule of law in Jordan is that there are actually two parallel laws, the official codes and the tribal codes. Invariably, after a doctor is beaten or a child is run over by a careless driver, the family of the perpetrator asks for an a'tweh (sort of a tribal truce) from the family of the victim, which eventually leads to a long process by which there is a sulhah (tribal reconciliation). While the victims' families might resist a sulhah, for the sake of justice to the victim, they typically succumb to the social pressure and agree to the reconciliation. When this happens, the victims family drops formal charges against the perpetrator, and the prosecutors office drops the case in court.

Now, it occurs to me that the only misdemeanors that get punished rigorously in Jordan are traffic violations. If the police catch you speeding, no amount of humanitarian appeal would sway them from giving you the ticket (unless you are a hot chick). But for the most part, if you are given a ticket, you pay.

Most Jordanians realize that the rigor which is used in traffic violations is a way to collect money. So, it seems to me that the only way to enforce the rule of law would to make it beneficial to government coffers. Thus, if somebody assaults a doctor in a clinic, and the punishment is a flat 1000 dinars, then you would see that the prosecutors' office wouldn't drop the issue even if there is a sulhah. Currently, a jail sentence of a week or a month is not a particularly good incentive for the government to punish the perpetrators. Prisoners in jail cost money. Better make them pay a hefty fine. Justice is served, the perp is punished painfully and the government makes some money. The same could be true for damage caused by reckless driving. The victims family can forfeit their rights, but the government would have no incentive to drop the matter .

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Oil exploration

The idea of finding oil in Jordan has been a recurring wet dream for Jordanians, who relish the thought of getting a lot of money without having to work for it. Instead of following Dire Straits' formula for "money for nothing and chicks for free" (by playing the guitar on the MTV), we are hoping that oil will provide everybody with the means to buy new Mercedeces and expensive mobile phones.

What will it do to make this come true? Well, we have to find the oil. There are actually two ways to make that happen. The first is to go and find it ourselves. This well take expertise and money. Are we willing to invest what it takes to do this? Of course not. We would rather spend our money on veiled unemployment, overstaffing of our ministries and government owned companies to the point of corruption and failure. So, what is behind door number two? Getting other people to do the work for us. Now that's more our style.

The Natural Resources Authority has a lot of data from previous exploration efforts and our knowledge of Jordan's geology. So, we hire companies to market our data and our fields. Currently, TransGlobal Petroleum is working on finding oil in the Dead Sea area. Lately, the NRA signed a deal by which Sonoran Oil Company would explore the Azraq basin. The parliament almost rejected the deal, on the grounds that there was a "suspicion of corruption", and sent it back to committee for restudy.

The head of the NRA, Maher Hijazin, stated at the opening of a conference that the objection by MP's was due to their lack of knowledge of the deal. Today, he explained to the committee that it was a good deal, and was in fact beneficial to Jordan, and better than previous deals conducted with other companies.

That might be the case, but it is a fact of life that if somebody is going to put up money and energy to look for oil in Jordan, they are going to want a handsome part of the profits in return. Hello! This is capitalism!

So, if we want to keep all of the money for ourselves, we should invest in looking for the oil ourselves. Pay top geologists to work on the problem, and give them the data and resources needed to do the job right. Are the MP's ready to put their money where there mouth is, and demand that the government allocate money for oil exploration in the next budget?


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Privatization of the phosphate company

The government has decided to sell 37% of the Jordan Phosphate Mines Company to the Brunei Investment Agency. The government owns 65.6% of the company, and will retain control over 25.6% after selling the 37% to BIA and 3% to the JPMC employees fund and the armed forces investment fund. This will leave the BIA as the largest stakeholder, but with less than 50% of the stock.

The deal has raised questions, since the price of the share in the Amman Stock Exchange is currently 4.4 JD, and the government is selling the shares for 4 US Dollars (2.8 JD). The head of the privatization board, Mohammad Abu Hammour, says that it is a fair price, based on the evaluation of an outside evaluator (HSBC). According to Abu Hammour, the lower price is justified by the fact that BIA is a strategic investor, and that the conditions placed on the deal suited the needs of the government and the employees of the company. He elaborated that the government will retain a say in the decision making process of the company, which is different than retaining control over the company. The status as a strategic partner stems from an implication that they have experience in running similar operations. I have scoured the web looking for evidence that this is the case, but found none. From its name, BIA seems to be a holding company, which by definition is not specialized in any specific type of economic activity. Moreover, Brunei itself doesn't have major mineral deposits except oil. If BIA is to exercise it's role as a strategic partner it will run it with a cookie cutter management philosophy, lowering costs and maximizing sales, as if they are running an airline or a laundromat. Presumably, the government has made the retaining of all of the employees a condition for the sale, which weakened their bargaining position.

The value of JPMC is divided into 75 million shares. The government will thus sell 27 750 000 shares for a value of 77.7 million Dinars. This is a relatively small deal, but the question is what are we selling exactly?

The net company sales for 2004 were 272 million JD, and the net after tax profit was 4.3 million JD. So each share paid off 0.058 JD, which is hardly overwhelming. The JPMC is not only a mining company, but also owns a large industrial complex in Aqaba which produces phosphate-based chemicals. The sales of the company in 2004 were of 4.5 million tons of phosphate rock, and 419000 tons of diammonium phosphate, as well as aluminum fluoride and phosphoric acid. The average prices for these commodities according to the World Bank were 41 and 221 USD per metric ton, respectively. Thus the phosphate rock accounted for 131 million JD, the DAP for 65.7, with the rest (about 75 million JD) from the aluminum fluoride and the phosphoric acid.

Therefore, it is obvious that over half of the sales are from the industrial complex. It is not clear from the published data where most of the costs are going (the mining or the industry), but I would hope that safeguards are in place to keep the company in one piece.

The fact that the company is barely making money doesn't mean that it is not useful for the economy. It is, after all, generating over 270 million JD in sales, and is paying the salaries of numerous families, and pays taxes of over 4 million JD per year, as well as 8 million JD in mining fees. The government share in the profit in 2004 would have been less than 3 million JD. Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free?

So, it seems that the government forfeited some of the value of its shares for the sake of ensuring employee job stability. In the long run, the company will benefit from more stringent administration, as well as allowing employment to drop due to natural attrition. Hopefully, BIA will also help expand the industrial operations of the company, which should be good for all involved, if it leads to increased employment.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Why they can't balance the budget

Al Ghad has a story today, saying that the ministry of health is planning to start charging 20 dinars per unit of blood given to non-Jordanian patients. The paper quotes the minister of health, Saeed Darwazeh as saying that the charge will save the ministry of health half a million dinars a year. According to the story, each unit of blood costs 37 dinars, even though I give it to them for free.

The story goes on to say that 8 thousand units of blood are given to non-Jordanians every year.

Now, I'm not very good at modern math (what they used to call calculus when I went to school), but according to my calculations, 20 dinars per unit times 8000 units equals 160 000 dinars.

Half a million dinars is equal to 1 000 000 divided by 2, which according to my calculations equals 500 000 dinars.

In the end, Darwazeh will be missing 500 000 minus 160 000, which is 340 000 dinars. I suppose that they will need to impose a new tax to make up for the loss.

Slow news day, but I had to share.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Mutiny Fallout

The fallout from the prison mutiny has led to some immediate results, most notably the reassignment of the director of prisoners to a post called the "temporary list" (getting paid to wait for his superiors to find a job for him), and replacing him with another officer. Clearly, he was blamed for getting himself taken hostage by the prisoners. Clearly, this is not something that he should put on his CV, but is the issue deeper? Treatment of the situation at the time was humane and reasonable, but why did this mutiny happen in the first place?

Questions raised by this episode are numerous, and span from between policy and implementation. First, policy.

It is quite obvious that these prisoners are being treated with kid gloves. The prisoners got a chance to take the guards and the director of prisons hostage because they were unarmed. It seems that this is prison policy, which is clearly candy assed. I mean, do they think they are dealing with mischievous boy scouts? One of them murdered an American diplomat. I wonder what these people need to do to be treated as DANGEROUS. The job of prisons is to protect society, not please Human Right Watch. Frankly, I don't give a rat's ass about these guys' human rights. I am sure that if they had their way, their opponents wouldn't enjoy the treatment that they are receiving.

They are also mixed with regular prisoners, rather than kept in their own sections. This mixing allows for common criminals to be indoctrinated into the Islamist ideology. This is the same system that transformed Zarqawi from a common street thug to the world class terrorist he is today.

As for implementation, questions about how these guys had cell phones by which they could coordinate with prisoners in different facilities and to call our friends at Al Jazeera, to complain about how badly they are being treated. Boo Hoo. Prisoners at Suwaqa rioted a couple of months ago, but the lessons from that incident were not internalized. There seems to be a common thread here.

Honestly, if we have too much trouble warehousing these terrorists, we should simplify our job by giving them quick trials and swift executions. That way they can meet their virgins post haste.

UPDATES: Deputy Abduljalil Ma'aitah has some pointed questions for the minister of interior. He questions why prison officials went into the cells (unarmed) rather than speaking with a representative of the prisoners outside. He also questions dragging out the negotiations, which he said lowers the credibility of the police (I would argue with that), and why another prisoner was asked to intervene on behalf of the prison officials (I wouldn't argue with that).

Columist Sultan Hattab says today that he had known before during visits to prison officials that the prisoners were making weapons in their cells. I am pulling my hair right now.

Al Anbat

I have just discovered the website of the Anbat newspaper (in Arabic). I have seen the paper on the newsstands before. The editor is Dr. Riad Hroub, who used to be the editor of Shihan. Al Anbat is a daily tabloid, and I wasn't impressed when I first bought it. However, the website made me rethink the issue, as it contains news and commentary that is not found in the other dailies. Here are some examples.

On the prison riot issue, there is a detailed report on the parliament session where the minister of interior explained in detail how the events transpired, and the approach taken to deal with the situation. The session was interesting because of a disagreement about how much credit deputies deserve for negotiating with the prisoners. The minister said that their negotiations had no effect, which obviously didn't please the deputies involved.

On the latest foiled terror attempt, there are details on how the fourth terrorist was caught. It seems that the Syrian authorities arrested him after the Jordanians told them where to look. The others were caught earlier in an apartment in Jabal Hussein after a tip off that a medicine ware house was being used to hide explosives. The story missed the target (so to speak), though, saying that it was a "civilian instillation" in Amman. News reports yesterday said that it was a major power station. There are no major power stations in Amman.

The editorial section is interesting as well. It features very divergent opinions, such as those of Ziad Abu Ghaneimah, a vocal Islamist, who has been arguing for inviting Hamas leaders to Amman. For the sake of balance, he also put a letter from a reader who totally disagrees with him. I thought that was quite noteworthy.

Other columnists also have very interesting pieces. Omar Kullab has written against Palestinian politicians retaining their Jordanian passports.

There is lots of interesting stuff. Check it out.


Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Prison mutiny

Today a coordinated prison mutiny was staged at the Juwaida prison in southern Amman, as well as in Suwaqa (in the south) and Qafqafa (in the north). The incident led to wounding of four security personnel, and the holding of the Juwaida warden and six guards as hostages for most of the day. The crisis ended with the release of the warden and the guards. Naseem has a blow-by-blow account of how the events transpired. According to the AP report,

Authorities refused to release Rishawi (the Iraqi terrorist who failed to blow herself up last November, and who the prisoners wanted released) but promised to address several demands by the prisoners, including to stop arbitrary transfers of inmates and ensure speedy trials of detainees held for months without formal charges.

Last year, top security detainees staged several strikes to protest against poor prison conditions and ill treatment. Jordan denies any systematic violations of prisoners' rights.

I think that it is important to point out that similar situations typically lead to bloodshed. Today a riot in a prison in Afghanistan left six inmates dead. Earlier this month, a riot in a California prison left one inmate dead, and fifty injured. Last year, 22 inmates died in a revolt of Islamist prisoners in the Philippines, and in 2004, 34 prisoners died in a rebellion in Brazil.

So, I would say that it is noteworthy that the prison warden risked his life to deal with the situation first hand, rather than send in the troops in with guns blazing. While guards being taken hostage might be considered lame, I am sure that this would not have happened had these guards chosen to confront the prisoners with their weapons. While I would hope that an inquiry on why this happened is conducted and published, my gut conclusion is that legendary abusive Jordanian police were no where to be found. And if the guards are so abusive, why weren't they harmed by the prisoners? Some of the prisoners clearly have nothing to lose, and are not above violence.

Why is it so difficult for people to give credit where it is due? Just because the government is emphasizing it doesn't mean that it should be ignored.