A man of change?

King Abdullah’s rhetoric of reform has little impact on the status quo

King Abdullah of Jordan continues to rule in all shapes and sizes. The country is filled with images of Abdullah as a pilot, student, family man and Bedouin. In Amman, there is even one poster of him cheering in a football jersey next to the smiling face of Ronaldo. The message is clear. King Abdullah is like a father to all his subjects. He also remains a trusted friend of the West that continues to portray him as a man of change. Surprisingly, Abdullah’s talk of reform since his ascendency to the throne in 1999 has actually manifested very little. 

Politically, the constitutional reforms suggested last summer were disappointingly meager, as they hardly limit the king’s powers and still await parliamentary approval this spring. The same is true for the new election law — no one expects a fundamental change. Abdullah’s support base in the sparsely populated tribal and rural areas is likely to continue to dominate over the densely populated and predominantly Palestinian urban areas. Economically, Jordan under Abdullah’s reign has increasingly adopted a free market ideology. Yet, while the country has shown a healthy gross domestic product growth rate in recent years, most observers agree that the increase in wealth has not been evenly distributed, while corruption has been gradually on the rise. On the 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index issued by Transparency International, Jordan ranked 56th out of a total 183 countries. In 2004, the kingdom ranked 37th.

As Jordan’s reputation was fading, something needed to be done. Consequently, the Anti-Corruption Law (ACL) was passed in 2006, which shortly after gave birth to the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC). Admittedly, the ACC has since uncovered a series of major scandals: in 2010 four suspects were sentenced to three years behind bars for paying $18 million in bribes with the aim to obtain a multi-billion dollar contract to expand the country’s one and only oil refinery. They included an ex-minister, a former adviser to the prime minister and a billionaire with, reportedly, good contacts at the royal court.

The ACC is currently investigating the wrongdoings in a major affordable homes building scheme that allegedly involves a former Minister of Housing. Mawared, a property development firm with close ties to the military, is also under investigation.

Still, it remains to be seen if Jordan is serious about fighting corruption, especially since King Abdullah last year replaced Prime Minister Sami Rifai with Maroun Bakhit. It was a decision that raised quite some eyebrows, as Bakhit in a previous stint at the helm supervised the most tainted elections in Jordan’s history in addition to the “Casinogate” scandal.

In 2007, former Tourism Minister Osama Dabbas signed a contract with an Iraqi investor to build a casino on the Dead Sea coast. Within a week however, the Bakhit government changed its mind, even though the investor in that case was contractually entitled to damages worth some $2 billion. The case was eventually settled out of court.

As soon as his second coming was a reality, Bakhit referred Casinogate to the ACC. He had little choice, as he had vowed “to open all corruption files with transparency and with no exceptions” and “there will be no immunity for an official, no closed files and no protection for the corrupt.” In reality, the former general set out to do the exact opposite. Based on recommendations by the ACC, Jordan's parliament managed to obtain the required two-third majority to prosecute Dabbas, but not Bakhit. The latter went on to amend the ACL by adding Article 23, which penalizes an accusation of corruption “on false grounds” with a fine of up to $86,000, which seems to have but one goal: to stop the media from meddling in potentially embarrassing affairs and keep the decision to investigate corruption cases firmly in the hands of the establishment. Shortly after, Bakhit was replaced by Awn Shawkat al-Khasawneh, King Abdullah’s 9th premier in 12 years. Looking back at those 12 years, one cannot but conclude that very little of the promised reform has actually materialized.

There is one exception: the streets of Amman are increasingly adorned with the images of Abdullah’s son Hussein — there is little Hussein serious in a suit, little Hussein smiling in a shirt and little Hussein complete with Bedouin scarf watering an olive tree. Thanks to this most salient successful policy change of his father, one can only imagine the day young Hussein himself ascends to the throne, heralded by the horns of reform and bearing the mantle of a better tomorrow that looks surprisingly similar to yesterday.

Peter Speetjens

Peter Speetjens is a Dutch journalist & analyst based in Brazil.