Wednesday, June 28, 2006


It was expected that rising costs of fuel would contribute to increasing costs of travel this year. Typically, I like to take my family to locations in Jordan, such as Petra and Aqaba, but this year we decided to go to Egypt. This decision has revealed to me some interesting economic choices related to vacationing. Let me explain.

Suppose that a family of four (mother, father and two kids) decide to spend four days and three nights at the Dead Sea. Reasonable accommodation requires renting two double rooms for the duration. It turns out that the five star hotels in the area charge a little over 100 dinars per room for casual tourists not dealing with a travel agent. So, the accommodations will cost 600 dinars. Add to that the cost of eating (lunch and dinner), which is about 25 dinars per person per day, which comes to 400 dinars over the four days. There are no alternatives but to eat in the hotel. So, this modest affair will cost about 1000 dinars, not including transportation. Transportation costs are low because of the proximity.

Economics of going to Aqaba are slightly different, since there are more options for food and accommodation. One can stay at a five star hotel at the beach, which would be at least 120 dinars a night, or one can rent a furnished apartment for as little as 25 dinars a night. The problem with the low cost option is the lack of access to the beach. Hotel beaches charge about seven or eight dinars per person (I forget). So, the family of four would have to shelve out 30 dinars a day to swim on the beach. Free public beaches are available to the south, but the services there are limited. Food costs are flexible as well. The said family of four would probably get away with spending less than 300 dinars. I wouldn’t guarantee everlasting gratitude by the wife for such a trip, however.

Now, options to going to Egypt are equally interesting. Newspaper adds have deals for five day trips, for example, including accommodation in five star hotels such as the Ramsis Hilton, for 289 dinars per person. This includes breakfast and sightseeing trips. So, the cost, except for food and souvenirs, would be about 1150 (plus 80 dinars in exit taxes). If one is on a tighter budget, the same deal is available for a four star hotel for 189 dinars per person. I really can’t fathom the economics of this, since the cost of a Royal Jordanian ticket to Cairo is about 220 dinars. Anyway, the four star deal will cost a little over 800 dinars, including the exit tax. Food would cost 20-30 dinars a day for the family, adding about 150 dinars to the total. So, Cairo, for five days, would cost about the same as four days in the Dead Sea.

For a beach trip to Sharm il Sheikh, a four day, three night deal can be done for 89 dinars per person (plus the 20 dinar exit tax). Upgrading to five star status with a beach would cost 129+20, totaling 600 dinars for the four member family. The three star hotel deal for such a family would cost about 440 dinars. I am not sure how much food costs in Sharm, but I would suppose that it is similar if not cheaper than Aqaba. My guess is that such a trip would achieve more in terms of familial satisfaction per dinar spent than the trip to Aqaba. Trips to Lebanon or Syria would also be competitive in terms of cost and enjoyment to Aqaba or the Sharm.

Anyway, it is sad that this situation is as it is. It seems to me that it is a shame that options for Jordanian travel in the country is both limited (by facilities, not wonderful settings) and costly.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

A sad precedent

This week, Jordanian authorities asked Syrian dissident, Mamoun Homsi, to leave the country. Apparently, the government does not want to upset the Syrian government. Traditionally, Jordan has prided itself as being the home of the free Arabs (maw'il il ahrar il Arab). While this decision is the purview of the government, I still felt sad to read it.

I would also note that there seems to be a distinct lack of interest in the story, especially in the blogosphere. Our opposition parties (the ones who are supposed to represent the desire for democracy and human rights) are notably silent on the issue as well. Why is a man who went to jail for asking for democratic reforms in his country not eliciting any sympathy from our leftist and Islamist movements? Could it be that they only believe in democracy and human rights when it suits their agenda?



The battle against extremism

Ever since the infamous actions and statements by parliament members representing the Islamic Action Front in the Jordanian parliament, and their subsequent detention in Al Jafer, it has become clear that the Islamist movement in Jordan is facing monumental decisions regarding it's loyalty to the country and it's stands on democracy and terrorism. For once, tough questions are being asked and answers are being demanded. The answers that should come out should be definitive and clear of the typical vacillations.

King Abdullah has made it clear during his recent CNN interview that his aim is to achieve zero tolerance or acceptance for terrorism. The Jordanian press is on message, with many opinion writers expounding on the issue, as are many bloggers. The real question is how is the Islamist movement dealing with the challenge it is facing from the government and from the public?

On the surface, the IAF is presenting a united stand. Their spokesman, Rhail Ghraibeh, told the Financial Times that the movement will not respond to government "threats", and will try to change the subject. However, hard questions seem to be simmering in the movement.

For example, Ibrahim Gharaibeh wrote in Al Ghad (and posted on his blog) an article calling for the movement to expunge those he calls "Those who espouse extremism and exhibitionist political behavior and contradict themselves as well as contradict the Muslim Brotherhood, and use fatwas for the sake of political or organizational or personal gain". He also alludes to allegations that members of the extremist wing of the Muslim Brotherhood have been implicated in corruption and financial and administrative impropriates related to their control of the "Islamic Center Charitable Society", which is an important financial and social base for the movement. The ICCS runs schools, hospitals, and distributes financial help to the poor.

Comments on the blog post include a group which is particularly enlightening. An "observer" claims that the article is in retaliation for being kicked out of the Muslim Brotherhood during the crisis when Hamas leaders were expelled from Jordan in 1999. I guess revenge is best served cold, if you believe this reasoning. The "observer" also claims that the article seems to be in defense of the moderate wing represented by Rhail Gharabeh, who is Ibrahim's brother (I didn't know that). According to the observer, the article is an invitation for splitting the MB. It seems that this debate is part of what is going on within the movement.

The head of the MB, Salem Falahat, gave an interview to the Al Hayat newspaper. He defended the visit by the MP's to Zarqawi's family, and declined to comment on whether Zarqawi was a martyr or not (the usual vacillation). Falahat also said that Abu Fares' statement that Zarqawi was a martyr represents his own view, and not of the Islamist movement. He also said that Zarqawi committed "terrorist acts", saying that this statement will have a political cost.

So, how much political cost is the Islamist movement willing to pay to stand up for the values all civilized people should support? My guess, not much more, but only time will tell.


Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Article 150

Although I am immensely happy that our four terror sympathizers are due to spend a couple of weeks in Al Jafer, I think it is important to give due consideration to the objections raised as to the propriety of legal action to suppress free expression, especially by politicians.

I am intrigued by the use of article 150 of the penal code for this purpose. This article, as translated by yours truly, states:

"Any writing, speech or work which is intended or has the effect inciting sectarian or racial strife or encourages conflict between communities and various elements of the nation will be punished for a period of no less than six months and up to three years and with a fine not exceeding 500 JD".

It is noteworthy that this is the same article that journalists are afraid of, as it has been used against them on numerous occasions. Much of the fear from this article stems from the loose phraseology, and the ability to interpret terms such as "inciting" or "encouraging" loosely.

For example, in 2003, three journalists from the Al Hilal weekly newspaper were convicted under this article, after they published a feature entitled "Aisha in the Prophet’s home". The IAF had mounted a campaign against them, issuing a fatwa declaring them apostates. The IAF was satisfied with this sentence, suggesting that they are not against article 150 in principle. More recently, Rhail Gharaibeh, the spokesman for the IAF, declared that the party is all for free speech, as long as it didn't violate a long list of prohibitions, beginning with "not offending anybody". This is quite in line with their tacit approval of article 150.

Calling a terrorist who was responsible for killing thousands of innocent civilians a martyr can be easily construed as both justifying his actions and thus encouraging others to emulate his behavior. Thus it logically fits into the definition of incitement in ways that are more evident than when they were used in the past.

So, the question is whether the IAF parliamentarians are above a law that they themselves condone and have approved of in the past. Despite all the political arguments, I would say that not enforcing the law sends a terrible message. The case should be decided by the courts, not politicians.

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Monday, June 12, 2006

I told you so

It is heartening to see outrage stemming from the blatant sympathy shown by IAF members of parliament in the wake of the death of Abu Musa'ab Zarqawi. However, with this outrage comes some level of amusement, which stems from what seems to be great surprise on behalf of the enraged.

Now, I really don't see why people are so surprised by such behavior. Ever since the terror attacks Amman last November, I have been pointing out, to the point of tedium, the discrepancy between the moderate veneer that the Islamists put forth and the reality of their behavior and attitudes. All the indications have been there to see for whoever cared to examine the evidence.

So, while I am happy to see that people are acknowledging what I have been pointing out for so many months, I am concerned that this is all short lived, before people go back to their comfortable state of denial.

Hopefully, if that happens, somebody in the cyber wilderness will have the patience to keep prodding people to think about what is behind Islamist words and the actions. I hope that it will not all fall back on Khalaf's shoulders.


Saturday, June 10, 2006

The story of Mesha

Almost three thousand years ago, specifically around 930 BC, there was a king in the southern Jordan, in the region of Moab (the Karak and Madaba area). The name of the king was Mesha. Mesha's kingdom was contemporaneous with the Jewish kingdoms of Judah (southern Palestine) and Israel (northern Palestine).

According to the Old Testament of the Bible (2 Kings, chapter 3), the kings of Judah (Jehoshaphat) and Israel (Jeroham) agreed to attack Moab after he rebelled against Israel. In agreement with the king of Edom (in the Tafileh area to the south), they marched on Moab, enduring some troubles along the way. Apparently, God was unhappy that Jeroham came along, but agreed to help the alliance anyway, after some music softened His mood.

Through deception, the alliance dealt death and devastation to the kingdom of Moab. The Biblical story says that in desperation, King Mesha gave his eldest son as an offering, after which "there was great indignation against Israel: and they departed from him, and returned to their own land".

This terse ending would be the only record of the event, had it not been for the Mesha Stella (or the Moabite stone), which was discovered in Hisban in 1868. Today it resides in the Louver Museum in Paris. It contains a detailed account of how Mesha ultimately beat back the Israeli invasion. It also details other great accomplishments.

Part of the Mesha Stella states "Now Omri had possessed all the land of Medeba (Madaba?) and dwelt in it his days and half the days of his son, forty years, but Chemosh (the Moabite god) restored it in my day. And I built Baal-Meon and I made in it the reservoir and I built Kiryathaim. And the men of Gad (one of the Jewish tribes) had dwelt in the land of Ataroth from of old and the king of Israel had built for himself Ataroth. And I fought against the city and took it, and I slew all the people of the city, a sight pleasing to Chemosh and to Moab.

And I brought back from there the altar-hearth of Duda and I dragged it before Chemosh in Kiryoth. And I caused to dwell in it the men of Sharon and the men of Meharoth".

"Chemosh said to me: "Go take Nebo against Israel"; and I went by night and fought against it from break of dawn till noon, and I took it and slew all, seven thousand men, boys, and women, and girls, for I had devoted it to Ashtar-Chemosh.

And I took from there the altar-hearths of Yahweh, and I dragged them before Chemosh. And the king of Israel built Jabaz and dwelt in it while he fought with me and Chemosh drove him out from before me. And I took from Moab two hundred men, all its chiefs, and I led them against Jahaz and took it to add unto Dibon (Dhiban, Mesha's capital)".

The decisive defeat of Israel in this text went along with accounts of numerous building projects, including building Baal-Meon (Ma'in), Kiryathaim (mentioned before) and Aroer (Kh. 'Ara'ir on the northern rim of the Mujib river gorge) , and building a highway through the Arnon (Mujib River).

One of the interesting legislations enacted by Mesha is the Mesha law. One the Stella, Mesha says " And there was no cistern in the midst of the city, in Qarhar (?); and I said to all the people: "Make you each a cistern in his house"". Cisterns were until recently the major water source used in many areas in Jordan, and some suggest we should require people to collect rainwater in new buildings as a way of alleviating some of our water problems today.

Happy Army day, sons and daughters of Mesha.

Friday, June 09, 2006

I have no words

Hamas has sent Elaph and Reuters statements mourning the death of Zarqawi. According the statement to Reuters, Hamas announced that Zarqawi is "martyr of the (Muslim Arab) nation".

Elaph reports demonstrators in Gaza demanding revenge for Zarqawi.

What can I say? I'm disgusted.

Three IAF deputies paid their condolences Friday to Zarqawi's family. Mohammad Abu Fares told his Friday congregation that Zarqawi was a mujahid (holy warrior).



Thursday, June 08, 2006

Zarqawi dead

Finally, almost seven months after the terror attack on hotels in Amman, the mastermind of this atrocity is dead. While it would have been more satisfying for his death to have happened sooner, it is of some consolation that Jordanian security and intelligence helped bring his life to an end. It will probably take many years for him to fall to the very bottom level of hell where he belongs. May he scream at the top of his voice until he reaches his final destination.

I had a hunch that something was about to happen when Jordan announced the capture of Ziad Karbouli a few weeks ago. The announcement and television confession seemed to indicate that a message was being sent to Zarqawi. The message was "your organization is infiltrated and we don't mind you knowing, since there is little you can do about it".

So, why is Jordan advertising its activities in Iraq? I suspect that there are a number of audiences that are being addressed. The Jordanian audience is being addressed to convey a message of assurance that the government is proactive in dealing with terror beyond our borders. The terrorists are being sent a message that it is better to leave Jordan alone. The most important audience, I believe, are the Iraqis. Many Iraqis are distrustful of Jordan, and feel that Jordanians are sympathetic with Zarqawi and other terror groups working in Iraq (remember the Hilleh incident?). Jordan's long term interests lie with good relationships with all groups in Iraq. While this event might help improve relations with the Shiites, it is not obvious how are relationship with the Sunnis are going. Most of the resistance in Iraq is driven by the Sunnis. However, the resistance consists of a variety of groups ranging from the Islamists to the Baathists. Early on, there seemed to be tacit agreement between these groups and Zarqawi jihadists to work together. More recently, relationships have soured, and many have suggested that the displacement of Zarqawi from Al Anbar to Diyala (where he was killed) we as a result of fighting between local tribal leaderships and Zarqawi. Local informants in Diyala seem to have made the decisive difference in the operation.

After the Iranian foreign minister's visit to Amman (a few of days before Karbouli's capture), the joint conference the Iranian FM acknowledged Jordan's role in maintaining Iraq's national unity. The Iraqis alone will not be able to cool down the mistrust and violence, especially since Iran is part of the picture. The Shiites are backed by the Iranians, and the Sunnis need a regional player to stand up for their interests. In this regard, Jordan seems to be the only game in town. Jordan's role would be more effective if the Shiites felt more comfortable with Jordan.

I pray that after the elimination of Zarqawi, more will be done to move Iraq towards peace, unity, freedom and prosperity. I would be proud if Jordan can play a positive role in this regard.

Monday, June 05, 2006

MP travels

The press today is quite interested in the expenses incurred by deputies for travel. Al Anbat has a detailed list of the nights spent abroad for each deputy, and to which countries they went. Three deputies (Abdulrahim Malhas, Abdulhafith Heet and Ibrahim Otaiwi) didn't travel at the expense of the parliament at all. The most traveled deputy was Hashem Dabbas, who spent 62 nights abroad, including seven trips to Belgium, two trips to Egypt, and trips to Morocco, Portugal and Tunisia.

Al Ghad reports that two deputies collected per diems for trips that were not made. On the other hand, deputies seem to spend a lot of time inquiring about various conferences and delegations, to the point that some think that the deputies only show up at parliament to ask about the possibility of travel, preferably to countries where the per diems are higher. Addustour has deputy Zuhair Abu Ragheb bickering about how points should be counted and who should and shouldn't go on any given delegation, saying at one time that there are large variations in how many nights each deputy spent abroad, and at the same time saying that specializations of the individuals should be a consideration. He doesn't say that travel should be curtailed because they overspent their allowances in the budget by 400000 dinars. In some cases, the deputies travel to conferences which they know nothing about, creating embarrassing situations for the heads of the delegations.

In all, the parliament spent 1.2 million dinars on travel for its members last year, spending 3505 nights abroad visiting 58 countries (excluding the nights the speaker spent abroad, which were not included in the report).

I believe that travel is a great way to expand people's horizons. Well traveled people tend to be enlightened, cosmopolitan individuals. How else will our representatives appreciate world foods, languages, religions and cultures? It seems to me that this is a good investment. The civilized manner in which affairs are dealt with can clearly be attributed to the democratic traditions of the various countries they visited.

Or not.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

The cement factory and Fuheis

As far back as I can remember, the residents of Fuheis have been complaining about the environmental impact of the cement factory which was shortsightedly placed in their town in 1951. At the time, the area was somewhat secluded, and many of the raw materials needed for the production of cement were close by. Moreover, people were not aware of the environmental consequences of having such a facility nearby.

As it happens, Fuheis lies in a beautifully forested area to the west of Amman. The area is ideal as a resort area in a country which treasures green spaces. Residents complain of noise, traffic and mostly dust emanating from the factory.

A French company (LaFarge) purchased controlling shares of the Jordan Cement Factories Company (JCFC) from the government in 1998. It was naively hoped at the time that the company would deal with the community and the environment according to standards acceptable in France. During the period of government control, promises to upgrade environmental protection measures were constantly repeated. In 1998, factory officials declared "The [environmental] plan now fully meets the international standards". After LaFarge took over, the new administration (in 2004) announced the installation of new filters which were supposed to "reduce the dust generated from 100 to 30 milligrammes per cubic metre of cement produced", which is "more than the international standards stipulate". Now the government has temporarily shut down one of the production lines at the factory, because dust emissions from the plant still violate Jordanian standards. The factory is again promising to upgrade filtering quality at the plant.

For their part, the residents of Fuheis are bent on making life as difficult as possible for the factory. A few years ago, they led a drive to prevent the company from replacing its fuel source. The company had wanted to replace the heavy fuel oil that it uses with petcoke, which is much cheaper. The government and the factory argued for the environmental safety of petcoke, but the lobbying of the residents led the king to insist on a comprehensive study the environmental impacts of the new fuel. The results led the government to drop the plan and ban the use of petcoke.

More recently, the factory is experimenting with the use of oil shale as an alternate source of fuel. Again, the residents are lobbying against this experimentation.

Given the history, it is hard not to conclude that the successive administrations of the JCFC have been dealing in bad faith with the residents of Fuheis. This has led to distrust and bad feelings. Despite financial compensation to the municipality that followed threatened legal action, trust is still missing. It is clear that it would be difficult to convince the people of Fuheis of the desire or the ability of the JCFC to eliminate the damage that it is doing to the local environment. Without concrete results, it seems difficult to imagine normal relations between the two sides.


Friday, June 02, 2006

Used batteries

I read in Al Ghad yesterday that the ministry of environment is issuing guidelines for dealing with hazardous waste in Jordan. Apparently this is on the occasion of the starting the work on the hazardous waste facility at Suwaqa. While this development is great, it seems to have come a little late. How is hazardous waste currently being dealt with?

I go through a crisis every time I realize that I need a new battery for my phone. This is because rechargeable nickel cadmium batteries are extremely harmful to the environment. Cadmium is a highly toxic heavy metal that can leach into the ground water. It should be disposed of or recycled in special facilities designed for dealing with hazardous waste.

If one is to assume that a telephone battery needs to be changed every two years, with over one million cell phones in the country, this means that about half a million used nickel cadmium batteries are thrown into the trash every year. These are mixed with banana peels, egg shells, used tissues and all other types of household waste. Municipal garbage dumps are simple pits where scavengers sift through looking for material that can be recycled, such as iron, copper and aluminum. In an effort to reduce volume, much of what is left is incinerated and buried. Of course, no effort or planning is made to mitigate the effect of hazardous waste, on people or the environment, simply because these facilities are not designed for this. In effect, very little is known about the short and long term effects of this on our precious groundwater resources.

So, the first time I had to change my phone battery, I roamed around town for half a day looking for somebody to tell me where the old battery should be disposed of. They all told me to simply through it in the trash. Being a stubborn person, I wrapped it in a plastic bag and kept in the drawer next to my bed, in the hope that one day, a suitable way of disposing of it would be provided. A year later, and after much nagging from my wife, it went into the trash.