Jordan: forward to God-knows-where

As the White House caravan moves on from Israel and Palestine to Jordan, President Obama may feel he has reached more comfortable ground. King Abdullah II – as Jeffrey Goldberg pointed out this week in his fascinating profile of the Jordanian ruler – is "emotionally and dispositionally, the most pro-American ruler in the Arab world", someone who would rather to be back at his old boarding school in Massachusetts than governing a difficult little country in the Middle East as "a semi-absolute monarch".

Abdullah is a "reasonable" Arab leader who generally says sensible things and talks in the kind of language that Americans can relate to. And that's where the danger lies: he gets an easy ride from western politicians and the western media.

Thus we find secretary of state John Kerry lauding the recent controversial elections (controversial in Jordan, anyway) as showing "full and robust participation by the Jordanian people in the election process".

If expressing good intentions were all that mattered, Abdullah would get full marks. Jordan and its monarchy are going to change, he told Goldberg:

"When my son becomes of age and becomes king, the system will be stabilised and … it will be a western democracy with a constitutional monarchy."

These are certainly not the sort of words you would hear from Arab monarchs in the Gulf. Abdullah is different: he wants his son to become king of a Jordan where "the people are happy, and they love the monarchy, just like you saw with the outpouring toward Queen Elizabeth in England".

The problem, though, is that whittling down the monarchy's powers in Britain took several hundred years – and Abdullah does not have that luxury. Given the way events are shaping in the Middle East, he probably has only a few years to achieve some concrete results. Worse still, he doesn't seem to have a clear idea of how he is going to get from A to B.

While cheerfully talking about curbing his own power, in his conversations with Goldberg he also lamented his lack of control – at least as far as implementing his aspirations for the future is concerned:

"Institutions I had trusted were just not on board. It was the mukhabarat [the secret police] and the others, and the old guard."

Plus trouble inside the royal family, too. His uncle, Walid al-Kurdi, recently fled to London rather than face charges that he embezzled millions, Goldberg notes.

Recently, King Abdullah issued two discussion papers "to share his vision" for the country's political development. The first urged voters in the January elections to challenge candidates about their policies rather than voting for tribes or personalities. The secondtalked more widely about developing a parliamentary system with "active citizenship".

Attempting to hammer home this message, the king paid a visit before the elections to Kerak, an economically depressed city 80 miles south of Amman, lecturing tribal leaders on "the importance of representative democracy". But it didn't turn out quite as he had hoped. Goldberg writes:

"The 30 or so men (and one woman, a daughter of one of the tribal leaders) sat on couches against the walls. Tea was served. The king made a short plea for economic reform and for expanding political participation, and then the floor was opened. 

"Leader after leader – many of whom were extremely old, many of whom merely had the appearance of being old – made small-bore requests and complaints. One of the men proposed an idea for the king’s consideration: 'In the old days, we had night watchmen in the towns. They would be given sticks. The government should bring this back. It would be for security, and it would create more jobs for the young men.'

"I was seated directly across the room from the king, and I caught his attention for a moment; he gave me a brief, wide-eyed look. He was interested in high-tech innovation, and in girls’ education, and in trimming the overstuffed government payroll. A jobs plan focused on men with sticks was not his idea of effective economic reform."

This highlights two very familiar problems in the Arab countries. When a head of state gets bombarded with "small-bore requests and complaints" during a visit it's a sign that power is not being delegated effectively. It means local government isn't working, or at least isn't trusted by local people to resolve local issues properly.

Secondly, the lack of engagement in bigger issues – serious questions about the future direction of the country – results from decades of exclusion from such debates. And that is something which can't be changed overnight.

All across the Arab region, but to varying degrees, we have seen gradual moves towards some kind of electoral politics, though usually without the underpinning from institutions and civil society that are needed for a workable democracy. The US hasn't helped, either, by treating free elections as its main yardstick for success: witness Iraq.

King Abdullah does seem to recognise the problem, though he may have left it too late. He did precious little about it during his first 14 years on the throne and it's far from clear whether there is much he can do about it now.

As far as most autocrats are concerned, active citizenship is fine, so long as the active citizens are the sort they approve of. But they usually balk when it turns out otherwise.

In Jordan, as elsewhere in the region, Abdullah is obviously worried about the Islamists but holding them down – by tinkering with the electoral system and other methods – doesn't work. That's what Mubarak did in Egypt and the country is now paying the price.

The positive side of Egypt, though, is that questions which should have been debated and resolved years ago – about the role of religion in the state and politics – are finally being thrashed out in the open. 

In Jordan, too, it will have to happen sometime and the king has two choices. He can lift the lid now and gamble his throne on winning the argument, or he can leave it for others to deal with after the deluge.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Friday, 22 March 2013