Friday, May 23, 2008

Jordan and the collapse of the “moderation axis”

Ever since the disastrous decision in 1990 to stand against the use of military power to liberate Kuwait, Jordanian policy has been to firmly align its foreign policy with the desires of the US and its Arab proxies in the Gulf and Egypt. Of course, this was nothing new, as traditional Jordanian policy was western leaning, despite the Gulf war detour.

And since the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent alignment that followed, Jordan, along with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE as well as the parliamentary government of Lebanon and Mahmoud Abbas’ Fateh government in Palestine coalesced into what has become known as the “moderation axis”. In opposition, Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizbollah, with the sometimes backing of Qatar, formed the “axis of objection”. While not publicly supporting of US politics in Iraq or even the US’ apparent desire to strike Iran militarily, the widespread impression is that the Arab members of the AoM were willing to barter their position on these issues in exchange for US pressure on Israel to resolve the Palestinian issue. The desire for peace with Israel was codified into what is known as the “Beirut declaration”, which was based on a Saudi initiative.

Anyway, the AoM is now on the run. Hamas is in control of Gaza, and the Palestinian issue is on the back burner, with Abbas threatening to resign. The Lebanese government caved into the demands of Hizbollah (with Qatari intervention). And for icing on the cake, Israel is conducting back channel peace negotiations with Syria.

And where does that leave us? On a political level, the possible repercussions of the collapse of whatever is left of the Palestinian authority are as stark as ever. On the economic level, the Saudis and Emaratis are reportedly refusing to help out with our serious economic problems, despite them sitting on piles of money that they don’t know what to do with. Our membership in the AoM is not enough to appease the US, who seems to be insistent that the final solution of the Palestinian issue should be on Jordan’s expense. It is ironic that we have joined the team that , even if it wins, is hostile to Jordan and it's interests. And even as Syria is negotiating with Israel, they refuse to deal with Jordan on any of the hanging bilateral issues (including border, trade and water issues).

And reading recent press commentary, it is clear that even people who had serious problems with our foreign policy are finding it too difficult to gloat. The biggest question is what next? One option is to wait for the election of a new president in the US. Odds are that this is a poor bet, and so we need to play a better game.

What are our cards?

Foremost is security and security cooperation. Everybody in the MoA is quite happy to use Jordanian intelligence and their security capabilities. This includes the US (especially Jordan’s relationship with Iraqi Sunnis), and Saudi Arabia, who’s control of Al Qaeda is partially due to Jordanian help.

Then there is diplomacy. Here the adage “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free” is particularly apt. We gave away all our diplomatic chips without getting anything tangible in return. Any reexamination of our diplomacy should include a fresh look at diplomatic initiatives towards Iran, Hamas and Syria.

Finally, national unity and stubbornness. This should start with explaining what the challenges are, what the requirements are, and why we refuse to capitulate. Real steps should be made for more self-reliance, especially in energy and food production. To be open with the people, the regime should also make real movement towards political pluralism and personal and public accountability. This will require the cessation of all the controversial land sales until a national consensus is achieved (even partially). This is the only way to get the people behind such a challenge.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Something else to start denying

Despite all of the fuss made about the sale of the new army headquarters and the King Hussein Medical Center, an even more expensive and questionable project is sliding by. This is the proposed government complex in Wadi Abdoun, or what is known as the Abdoun corridor. I mentioned this before, as well as the fact that most commentators, including Fahed Fanek (who is hardly anti-capitalism), think it is a bad idea.

Mullah Nader’s denials not withstanding, the mayor of Amman is still saying that the project is still on track, despite the fact that the initial investor, Najib Miqati, has decided that the investment is not worth it. The mayor, Omar Ma’ani, says that the project will be offered to investors in three to four months. He says it is too simplify government procedures and to make things easier for the citizen blah blah blah.

What is most interesting is that he says that they want to move all the courts and the ministry of justice to a new “justice village”. One only has to look at this Google Earth image to see why this is so interesting.

Note the relationship between our central court house (which has only been in service a few years) and the Abdali project (I wonder what the whited out area is. Can anybody fill me in?). Anyway, I think this interest in relocating the courts may not really be driven by an uncontrollable urge to make things easy on people. Maybe I’m just cynical.

The municipality contorted the law to no ends to be able to confiscate a much smaller parcel of land from Talal Abu Ghazaleh for the Abdali project. Ironically, the courts let them get away with it.

Questions I think should be answered:

1- How much will this “justice village” cost?

2- How much will we get for the current central court house, and how much was spent to build it in the first place?

3- Who will get the money and how will it be spent?

4- When will they stop treating us like idiots?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A tough crowd

Members of parliament were not particularly impressed by Mullah Nader's explanation on the land sale issue. Some even called on him to resign. It is possible that they were speaking to the cameras, but still the same this reflects widespread dissolution and skepticism on the management of the economy in general and the land sale issue in particular.

Nariman Rousan, who has a penchant for saying embarrassing things, accused the government of being run from behind the scenes by Bassem Awadallah. She said that all these deals are "suspicious" and compared Awadallah to Israeli Spy Eli Cohen (who almost became defense minister of Syria). A crowd pleaser that embarrassed the parliament speaker (who had previously helped torpedo Awadallah's appointment as minister of finance) into disavowing these statements.

Many people suspect Awadallah to be behind many of the initiatives to sell state property, among other things. However, this is not a personal issue.

Most of the MP's comments on the land sale defense were skeptical and angry. Samih Bino suggested that a "high security official" owns a lot of land in the area, and that Dahabi consulted with him on the issue. Abelraouf Rawabdeh pointed out that once the land becomes under the control of a private company (even if run by the SSC), then it will be out of the jurisdiction of parliament to monitor what happens. He also pointed out that this land was originally confiscated for the public benefit, and not private investment.

In summation, Mamdouh Abbadi estimated that 95% of the deputies were against the sale. An account by MP Bassam Haddadin suggests that the afternoon session, without the cameras, was less rowdy.

Editorial comments on the meeting were also interesting. Majid Toubeh (Al Ghad) highlighted the widespread anger throughout the country as a main driving force for the "parliamentary intifada". The PM's explanations were not convincing, and parliamentarians accused him of insulting people's intelligence and for not being forthright.

Other columnists took a wider view, discussing the debate on wider economic policies. Mohammad Abu Ruman slipped up by suggesting that only the "neoliberal" economic team have any concrete plans, unlike their opponents. Samih Maitah took a different track, and said that everybody has the same plan, although there is skepticism over the intentions of the "neoliberals", and a belief that they don't care about the social ramifications of their decisions.

Anyway, none of these discussions will amount to a hill of beans. If they did, we might hear something different.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Dude, who sold my country?

The prime minister met informally with the parliament last Thursday to explain the plans to sell the new army headquarters and possibly the King Hussein Medical Center. Here are the main points:

1- The government puts the welfare of the citizen above all else blah blah blah.

2- The government commits to be transparent, frank and open blah blah blah.

3- The government has formed a guiding committee to look into using all state lands and what to do with them.

4- The government’s priority is to lure investments, and not erecting buildings or residential areas.

5- But, if the government fails in luring job-producing investments, what are they to do? The government must facilitate investments as dictated by the investors. I don’t understand the logic. If investments don’t help the economy, why should the government facilitate them?

6- Investors told them they want to open regional offices in Amman because of it’s access to Iraqi markets and because it is cheaper than Dubai.

7- The government studied what buildings investors might like and decided that the new army headquarters might fit the bill. Going back to point 5, will these offices be staffed by Jordanians or by representatives of the multi-national companies that will occupy them?

8- They haven’t sold anything, yet.

9- The lying rumor mongers spread lies that the deal has been done.

10- The Social Security Corporation will be “leading the investment”. Previously, the minister of labor, Bassem Salem, who is also the head of the SSC board, said that the corporation will establish a company with a capital of 100 million dinars for this purpose. He also said that they will have “strategic partners”. Now, the lowest estimate for the value of the property has been put at 2 billion. So, the SSC company will have capital to cover 5% of the value of the property. Of course, you can’t but a Hyundai with a 5% down-payment. Who are they kidding? Anyway…

11- Jordanians will have priority in the investment (presumably unlike the Aqaba deal).

12- The SSC will seek funding through “Islamic bonds”. More on Mullah Nader’s Talibani stances in a future post, although I have mentioned one aspect earlier. BTW, it is not his business how the SSC funds its projects or for him to impose his ideological preferences on it.

13- If no Jordanian investor has 2 billion dinars laying around, and the Islamic bonds are too expensive, then the will seek foreign investors in a “transparent open process”.

14- They will “discuss” with the army medical services (who run the KHMC) whether they would like to move to a God forsaken corner of the Jordanian desert or not. It will be purely up to them. Right.

15- In any case, the medical services will still do their job, wherever they are.

16- Everybody should seek non-conventional solutions for the economic situation. Of course, he gives himself too much credit here. There is nothing non-conventional or innovative about this. Most Jordanians have sold their properties to cope with financial difficulties. In the long-run, they lost their assets and spent the money.

17- The money will be used to build a new medical center and to pay off some of the country’s outstanding debt (how much is, of course, left vague).

18- The scheme will create jobs and help the economy blah blah blah.

19- We should trust them.

To me, I would say that I have no ideological issue with holding on to any property, as long as the deal will help improve the economy and create jobs. On the other hand, this long statement not withstanding, the whole scheme does not make any sense. Clearly, the involvement of the SSC is for cosmetic purposes (a fig leaf, if you will). The Islamic bonds scheme seems to be the key. Who can object to Islamic bonds? That would be, well, un-Islamic. My guess is that the Imarati investors will come in through this door, which, as I said, I have no problem with although I resent the insult to my intelligence.

And how much will it cost to build new army headquarters and a new medical center? Construction costs have skyrocketed in the last couple of years. Of course, massive projects provide for opportunities for massive kick-backs. Sorry. I didn’t say that.

Anyway, the discussion after the meeting was interesting as well. More on that later.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008


Her majesty queen Rania has adopted a highly significant campaign to lower traffic casualties. The campaign even has a catchy name, kafa, meaning enough. I will not go into why Jordanians would be more interested in the Egyptian movement with a similar name.

Anyway, I have read somewhere that it is best to lead by example. So, in the interest of a more credible approach to all of this, I would humbly suggest that maybe royal motorcades should follow the same road rules as the rest of us schmucks.

I have been nearly driven off the road many times by a convoy of giant black SUV’s on the airport road. The motorcade insists on taking up one and a half lanes, and the speed at which they travel is highly dangerous (much higher than the prescribed 80 km/hr). If you are not careful, they will easily throw you off the road as the human garbage they want you to feel you are.

So, if her majesty could please have her and her family’s motorcade follow the same rules that we follow, maybe they would set a good precedent for everybody else.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Standard BS

The geniuses of the higher education council yesterday announced that they are lowering minimum university entrance requirements for some fields at private and some public universities. Now, students are required to get 55% on the Tawjihi examination to be accepted in a number of fields. Previously, the minimum was 60%.

Now, I have been scratching my head about this all day. Why 55%? I mean, if they said 50% (the minimum passing grade), then that would make more sense. The logic would be that anybody who passes the Tawjihi has the right to continue his or her university studies. Despite the flaws in this logic, it does have a certain sense to it. But 55%? Why not 52%? Did they conduct some study that said that a 55% student was academically qualified for undergraduate studies, but 54% was just too low? Is this to maintain some pretence that they are interested in maintaining high quality in our higher education system? Like they are saying “sure, we have standards!”. What a joke.

Of course, the point is to help private universities maintain high enrollment levels. Most of these clowns are shareholders in private universities, and so they have a vested interest in packing them in. This way, classes are full, and the cash flows out of parents’ pockets into theirs. A perfect set up.

What about the students and their families? Sure, they are happier in the short run. But in the longer view, are they being served or abused. Are they being kept from going into the labor market or getting professional training that will allow them to make a decent living? Will the degrees they receive equip them to face the requirements for high quality white collar jobs that they are supposedly being trained for? As far as I can tell, getting students a university degree is a requirement made by parents and not by employers. From a statistical perspective, weak students in high school tend to be weak students in universities. Of course, universities (especially private ones) are loath to expel failing students because they make money off of them. In the final analysis, these students graduate and obtain diplomas, but are of little use in the workplace. Does anybody care?

Is it the job of the higher education system to respond to society’s preferences, or does it have a responsibility to reshape people’s attitudes to better reflect the country’s needs?

We keep hearing talk about giving our new generation the tools for dealing with the modern job market. Clearly, actions speak louder than words.