Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Karamah dam inquiry

About ten years ago, the Karamah dam in the Jordan Valley was completed at a cost of over fifty million dinars. It lies at the terminus of a side valley known as Wadi Mallahah (the salty valley). Anyway, the idea was to use the dam to store excess water from the King Abdullah canal for use in the summer. Since then the dam has not been used, because the water stored in it became too salty for agriculture or domestic water use. The minister says that we will be able to use it eventually, after all of the salt has been washed out of the soils adjacent to the dam. In the mean time, we can desalinate the water. Geological studies indicate that there is a salt water aquifer beneath the dam that is supplying to the water body, so it looks like we will have to wait a while yet before the dam becomes clean of salt. The ministry of water thinks that tourists might like to come and enjoy the sight. After all, there are no large bodies of salt water in the Jordan valley that tourists might want to visit, are there?

The parliament has discovered this to be an issue, in something that I would brand a meaningless gesture. The parliamentarians are demanding to know why the project is a failure, and have set a date for next Monday to discuss the issue. Sure, good geologic studies of the area would have led to discarding this site. Sure, experts warned at the time that this is a waste of money. But what is the point? Is somebody going to give us our money back?

The point is that the country is currently contemplating a number of multi million and multi billion dinar projects such as the Disi conveyance system and the Red Dead canal project. Some experts have concerns about these projects, but none of these concerns are resonating with the public or politicians.

I guess we will read about parliamentary inquiries into currently considered projects in ten or fifteen years, when it is too late.


Saturday, January 20, 2007

A nuclear energy program?

King Abdullah has told Haaretz newspaper that Jordan is considering starting a peaceful nuclear energy program (thanks Batir). Obviously, this is causing quite a stir. Why would little old Jordan want to play with the big boys?

I have previously written a three part argument for the establishment of a nuclear energy program in Jordan (Parts I, II and III), so my feelings are clear. I am interested in the reactions to this. Most notable is the sneering sarcasm by Arab bloggers such as Nadeem and Issandr. These guys are no friends of Jordan, and so their negative attitude is not so surprising.

The US does not seem to object to the idea.

Now, I fully expect that such an ambition should be subject of lively debate. I just find the objections of our “Arab brethren” quite disturbing (although not really surprising). Issandr has this rambling diatribe:

The boy-king says Jordan has to even though it probably can’t afford to, because of those nasty Iranians and their Shia crescent. Which is probably a lot of bull— if Jordan gets a nuclear power station, it’s because men with little black briefcases will have toured Arab capitals trying to sell multi-billion dollar plants with the backing of their governments. If Jordan goes though with, you can bet its power station will be mostly funded by the US taxpayer thanks to the Bush administration pandering to the nuclear energy lobby.
I read the transcript and there is no linkage between the proposed program and Iran or the Shia crescent. Moreover, if the US decides to give us one for free (highly unlikely), well, they will do us more good that the likes of Issandr ever will.

As for Nadeem, he has this to offer:

Personally – I think that Jordan has been kissing American and Israeli ass for far too long to be denied the opportunity to develop (or be punished for creating) a national nuclear energy program. Seriously, how would it look to the Arab masses if even Jordan and Egypt’s sell-out governments are treated like Iran when it comes to such matters? Doing so would only create (or help solidify) the impression that whether Arab states cooperate with Zio-American imperialism or not, they'll still always be side-swiped by American-Israeli relations.
So, there should be benefits for maintaining good relationships with the west and Israel. I’m glad he sees that. Remind me again what Saddam (or Iraq) gained by pissing off the US.


A misframed debate

The National Guidance Committee of the parliament has approved the draft press law and submitted it to the full house for debate. This law has been contentious for a long time, and the press is unhappy with the current version.

The source of unhappiness is that the law does not prohibit jailing of journalists for press crimes. It merely states that “Taking into consideration other legislation, it is prohibited to arrest or punish by jail as the result of expressing an opinion through saying, writing or any other form of expression”. The term “taking into consideration” means that other laws that do prescribe jail sentences can be enforced. It turns out that there are 24 of these laws, including article 150 of the criminal code.

So, should people be jailed for expression crimes? I think that there is a problem in framing this question. I would reframe it as following: are there cases where expression should be criminalized? If so, what are these crimes? The Jordan Press Association should not ask for immunity from jail for “crimes of expression”. It should demand that there are no such things as “crimes of expression”.

It is unfortunate that we are still having this type of debate, but many people would agree that Jordanian society is not ready for the type of free expression that exists in real democracies. Our opposition parties, particularly the IAF, are openly opposed to all sorts of freedom of expression. During the last budget debate, IAF deputy Ali Utoum demanded that a statement by leftist deputy Mustafa Shneikat be scrapped from the minutes. Shneikat suggested that there should be separation between state and religion, which Utoum characterized as unconstitutional. This was based on the grounds that the constitution says that the religion of the state is Islam (whatever that means).

Given that people want democracy, as long as nobody says anything controversial (or interesting), there should be a critical review of all 24 laws in question. Even if the provisions in them are acceptable (I sincerely doubt it in most cases), then they should be spelled out, and vague wording should be clarified, so that everybody knows what is meant by “elongation of the tongue”, “insulting the dignity of the state”, “inciting sectarian strife or encouraging conflict between communities and various elements of the nation” or “insulting the fathers of the monotheistic religions (as they are dead, we will never know what they might construe as an insult)”. It would be better just to scrap all of these provisions rather that to try and define them. The vagueness of these definitions is just as chilling to freedom of expression as potential jail sentences, if not more. A cynical person would conclude that this is the whole point.

Why is everybody so afraid? Let’s do it!

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Five things you don’t know about me

After trying to pretend that I didn’t get Kinzi’s tag, I have now been cornered. Obviously, there are hundreds of things that you don’t know about me, and this is no accident. From the onset, this blog has never been about me.

On the other hand, there apparently is a lot of interest about my identity. While I appreciate this interest, I am afraid I am not ready to disclose who I am. I may do so on a personal basis, but not on line.

However, answering the question of what five things you don’t know about me is innocent enough, and I hope it will sate people’s curiosity, if only for a while (I answered a couple of such tags in the past). So, here I go:

  1. Although I love Ajloun, I am not an Ajlouni.
  2. I have not told any of my friends about this blog, because I am afraid they will tell me that it is a bad idea. This may be true, but I don’t want to hear it.
  3. I hardly ever watch the news.
  4. I hardly ever think about the past, but always try to look towards the future.
  5. I am blessed to enjoy a successful and satisfying career, a happy family and good health.

I tag no one.

Monday, January 15, 2007


The linkage between Jordanians and tomatoes is difficult to explain. One would never guess that the tomato originated in the Americas, and is not native to this region. We love fresh tomatoes, and cook them with spring beans (fasoulia), with peas (bazailah), with stuffed squash (kusa), with grape leaves, with okra (bamia), and with vegetable roasts (seenieh). We eat it with Arabic salad (fine cut), with foreign salad (with coarse cut), and with tabouleh. We eat them raw (with a sprinkle of salt, and maybe a glass of arak). We cook pastas, and we cook it in a pan with green peppers and onions (hoseh) or with garlic (gallaieh). We roast them on the grill. We love tomatoes.

In the old days, tomatoes were grown in the highlands and were rain fed. These ba’el tomatoes are not much to look at, but they are absolutely delicious, with a great aroma and with a slight tinge of leftover sulfur used as a fungicide. If you drive around in the summer in the rural areas, you might be lucky enough to get this unique treat.

As with everything else, modern life has encroached on the tomato. It is now grown and harvested all year round (given the variety of climatic regions in the country). It is grown in the Jordan valley, in the highlands and even in the desert. For the most part, these are irrigated, and not nearly as good at the rain fed variety. However, they are easy to grow, and the harvest is typically large. When the harvest is in, the prices plummet. Farmers practically give them away at prices that do not cover the cost. Our addiction to tomatoes can probably be traced to the abundance that modern farming has brought.

Of course, this does little good to the farmers. To help, the government built tomato paste factories to help soak up extra production. You can buy little cans of tomato paste for 15 piasters in any grocery store. These little cans should act as a “strategic reserve”, but housewives (including my lovely wife) try to avoid using them if at all possible. Unfortunately, they still haven’t figured out how to make decent catsup.

Anyway, what brings this on? Well, for various reasons the price of tomatoes have hovered around a way too expensive 70 piasters a kilo for the last couple of months, and they are not very good. There is usually an inverse relationship between quality and price. It seems that a mixture of frost and expanded exports have lowered the amount of fresh vegetables shipped to the local markets, causing this phenomenon. Anyway, this is creating much hardship. Humorist Ahmad Hassan Al Zoubi has written an ode to the tomato gallaieh, which is traditionally a poor people’s meal, pointing out that that a pickup load of tomatoes will cost the full salaries of five full-time employees. He jokingly says that it is now cheaper to eat at McDonalds.

It is also causing personal hardship for me, as my wife asks me daily about what she should cook. Without decent tomatoes, the choice becomes limited.

I suppose you know what is going to be planted in my garden this weekend.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

A quick cure

To those who believe that governments can not be responsive to citizen’s complaints, an interesting sequence of events transpired over the last week.

On Wednesday, Jamil Nimri wrote an article complaining about how the deregulation of pain killers has led to dramatic price increases. These increases were driven by monopolistic abuse by drug importers (such as the former health minister) and manufacturers. Whereas deregulation should have led to competition, better quality and lower prices, it appears that they tacitly conspired to raise the prices, with no protection being afforded to the consumer.

The next day, Emad Hajjaj published this cartoon.

The title is “The gas crisis and the rise in the price of pain killers”, where Abu Mahjoob is telling his friend, Abu Mohammad, that “after they gave us a headache with the gas, they raised the price of Panadol (a popular pain killer)”.

Today the government issued a decision fixing the prices of paracetamol based pain killers at the level that existed before the deregulation.

Now that was FAST!

Saturday, January 13, 2007

All good news

When we last met, it looked like there would be a raise in the public sector wage scale accompanied by a raise in fuel prices in what seemed to be a quid pro quo. Since then the finance committee has decided to reject the budget. The full house had decided that it didn't like the wishy washy way that the committee handled the initial recommendations, so they sent it back.

Any way, a large scale crisis caused by a full rejection of the budget was averted when the prime minister promised the speaker of the house to raise salaries AND not to raise fuel prices.

Good job!

SPOKE TOO SOON? Petra has cancelled the news item and replaced it with this one, which makes no mention of freezing fuel prices. We'll find out soon enough, I suppose.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

I have some good news and some bad news

First the good news. Under pressure from the parliament, the government appears to have agreed to raise the pay scale for public workers. The current scale was set over twenty years ago, and woefully underpays our teachers, police, public health workers and other civil servants. The current scale allows for a family, with the two parents working as teachers, to remain significantly under the official poverty line currently estimated at a little more than 500 dinars a month. This drives away the brightest and the more ambitious to other fields and to the private sector, and drains away morale from the very people who we should be counting on to build the youth of the country. The public sector has become a place of bitterness, apathy, cynicism, and potential corruption. I therefore hail this development.

How much will it cost? Salameh Dir’awi (Al Arab Al Yawm) estimates that each dinar per month will cost six million per year. This seems to be based on an assumption of 500,000 people in the civil service, the military as well as retirees who are not in the social security system, which I think is an overestimate. So, suggesting 20 dinars per month, he thinks that this will cost an affordable 120 million per year. I suspect this will be about the scale of the pay raise.

What about the bad news? Well, the government wants to raise the price of fuel and to impose a sales tax on it. This seems to be a part of a deal with the parliament, with the delay of the tax until 2008. Readers will remember how the government tried this during last summer’s parliament session, with no success. People are skeptical about the need for raising prices. The minister of finance said in the budget presentation that the government is breaking even in the oil business. However, the government wants to raise prices in case there is a price spike caused by a war on Iran. It is not obvious if this is a credible scenario, or whether the government knows something that we don’t. In any case, I don’t understand why they can’t hold off the price rise until this supposed spike happens. Oops. Silly me. I do understand, actually.

How much money will they make? It depends on how much a price hike is made, and the nature of the “quality” tax that will be imposed. The government/Jordan Petroleum Refining Company sell about 1.35 billion dinars worth of fuel per year. Assuming this new “quality tax” is similar to the general sales tax (16%), the revenue will be 215 million a year. While Al Arab Al Yawm says that the tax will be on all fuel, Al Ghad suggests that the tax will only be on gasoline. 1040 million liters are sold annually of various types of gasoline for a revenue of 500 million dinars. This will go up to about 660 million when unleaded gas is phased in (assuming they keep the current unleaded price the same). According to an Al Ghad table (not on line), the current cost of a liter is 360 fils, and so they make 280 fils on each liter of unleaded as it is now. You can do the math.

Sounds like a good deal for the government, but not for you or me.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

More on the finance committee report

Al Ghad today has some more details on the finance committee report on the 2007 budget, which I wrote about yesterday. The most interesting point is that most of the committee members are conditioning their approval of the budget on the government's implementation of a public sector pay raise. Thus, they are saying that they approve of the report, and not of the budget itself. It will be interesting to see if the committee members and the full parliament insist on this, or they will eventually back down. It seems that their backing down at this stage would be politically problematic, so it will be interesting to watch how this plays out.

The report notes that the government wants to establish at least nine new companies and bureaucracies. These includes a public transportation company, a company for the management and developing tourism sites, a heritage fund, an energy fund, an agricultural hazards fund, a national accreditation board, a national medical rescue board, a higher board for human resource development (that is what universities are for) and an economic and social council. So, as the government tries to avail itself of it’s responsibilities through privatization, the government keeps on growing. The report notes that the percentage of government spending to GDP is about 40%, which is the same as it was ten years ago.

Now, what is sad is that the finance committee recognizes that problematic nature of bureaucratic growth. The budget deficit is growing, public spending is growing and public services are diminishing. If it so bad, why did they approve it? Raising wages should not be the only reason for reflection.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The 2007 budget and the house finance committee

The financial committee of the parliament has finished reviewing next year’s budget, and has generally approved it. The only modification was shaving 71 million dinars from the budget from capital expenditures. These cuts are not to affect government projects. Don’t ask me how, because I don’t know. This is not to say that the committee believes in what they have recommended. Last year, they ended up voting down their own recommendations on the floor of the house.

Since elections are coming up, it is now time to ensure that MP’s have something good to tell their constituents. This year, the financial committee made such an attempt early on, suggesting that they will not approve the budget unless it contains salary rises for government employees, who have not had a pay raise since 1986. The government promised to “study” the request, and said this will be part of a long awaited reform of the public sector. This reform includes making the government more lean and efficient, along with the pay raises. In other words, the pay raises will happen when pigs fly.

Anyway, after everybody made the proper noises, the committee set the pay raises issue aside and gave their economic recommendations to the government. These (nonbinding) recommendations include the pay raises, no rise in fuel prices (yeah, right), and somehow fixing the structural problems in the economy using clear executive plans and time frames. This last one sounds good even though it is practically meaningless.

The committee also recommended the use of financial tools to reduce inflation. Of course, raising the pay scale (if it happens) will fuel inflation. I suppose that they think that by waving a magical financial wand, they can make that go away, presumably by raising interest rates. Good news if you want to buy a house.

They also want to improve competitiveness of Jordanian products, improve public administration, improve health services, education, water and energy supply, obtain self reliance, stop sprawl in government agencies, merging agencies with similar mandates, and putting budgets of independent establishments under parliament supervision (as if they are going to do a better job than they did here). They forgot to ask for a pony.

None of these recommendations have anything to do with the budget. There is still no explanation for why running costs of the government (after removal of fuel subsidies) swelled by one billion dinars in one year. I am eager to get an answer.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Yes, we are angry

The execution of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein really should not have surprised anybody but the most deluded souls. Many of those people believed that the US might hand back to country to Saddam, in hopes of reversing the mess that was created as a result of the invasion.

On the other hand, most people saw the whole charade as an insult. The Eid timing and the obvious sectarian feel of the execution were only part of the story. The farcical trials that preceded the execution are only part of the story. The oblivious (non) reactions of the Arab regimes were only part of the story. The fact that the Iranian puppet regime installed by the US, and not a sovereign Iraqi government conducted the execution is only part of the story. The televising of the event was only part of the story. How different is it from Zarqawi beheading a hapless victim for a world audience?

All of these details are really technicalities as to why people in Jordan are angry. It is not because Saddam gave them money, as Shaker Nabulsi tritely tries to explain the phenomenon. It is not because they approve of (or even believe that he committed) the atrocities attributed to him. It is not because they think that invading Kuwait was a good idea. Why, aside from all of these explanations, are people really so angry about this?

Saddam is viewed as a man who believed in the Arab nation. Under his rule, he had a strong, capable army. There was security and a modern state with lots of potential. He built an excellent scientific base, universities, infrastructure. Electricity worked. Iranian meddling in the country and in the region was under check (thanks to a brutal war). Generally, he is a man who is viewed as having worked for the betterment of his country and his nation, and who was not a traitor.

The justification that Saddam was a brutal tyrant rings hollow. There are many brutal tyrants around. He was a brutal tyrant who had the nuts to say NO, and to act on his convictions.

That, my friends, is why Jordanians are angry.