Jordan’s economist king


From an economic perspective, many of the King’s friends have done very well for themselves. But not all of them have done it without exploiting him.

Munir Atalla
13 January 2013

A few years of the presidency of the United States takes its toll on a man, so imagine what a lifetime as King can do, or even two years as a monarch in the Middle East during the Arab Spring.  Since his ascension to the throne in 1999, King Abdullah II has aged.  The silver in his hair attests to the stresses and setbacks faced in his almost thirteen years as king. A week before Jordanians will elect their next parliament, let’s look back at the King’s record.

Businessmen in Jordan will tell you that since King Abdullah II took power, his primary concern has been the economy.  Educated in America in the 80’s, Abdullah II set about privatizing industries and attempting to encourage entrepreneurship with the quintessentially American belief that a higher GDP will make life better for the average Jo.  Yet, for the economist King, politics have always gotten in the way.

King Abdullah II has never had any interest in being the leader of the Arabs.  Where his father was ambivalent, he is notoriously uncomfortable having his picture plastered on taxicabs and roundabouts.  Where King Hussein was a charismatic charmer, he is reserved and less popular.  His rare public addresses to his citizens come almost exclusively at times when not delivering one would hardly be an option.  He is barely comfortable on the set of The Daily Show joking with John Stewart in English, which seems to be his mother tongue.  For one so naturally averse to the spotlight, being the King of Jordan throughout the Arab uprisings must have been a truly challenging feat.

It is a joke amongst Jordanians that on his deathbed, King Hussein pulled his son close and told him, “Whatever you do my son, keep the Americans happy.”  At this, Abdullah has excelled.  Some Jordanians call their country, “the fifty first state”.  Jordan has been on political autopilot for some time now: make the necessary gestures and statements to keep the largest amount of people happy.  Do whatever is necessary to keep the country stable.  Then and only then, work on the economy.

Where has that strategy led?  Jordanian Gross Domestic Product has largely followed the American economy.  Were it not for the Great Recession at the end of 2008, we might have maintained the sluggish yet constant growth seen from 1999 until 2008.  Phrases like “soaring unemployment and corruption continue to plague the country” could be plucked out of Jordanian periodicals from 2009 or the New York Times last month with equal validity. Meanwhile, a huge number of Jordanians (some say upwards of twenty percent) are on a government payroll - coveted jobs due to their permanence and pension.

It seems that the King’s strategies have not really worked.  A King is an appointer.  He is a public figure whose top priority should be to put the right people in positions of power.  King Abdullah II has surrounded himself with the wrong people, the wrong thinkers, and the wrong allies.  Anyone could tell you that Abdullah II is no philosopher or intellectual.  All leaders need a strong support network of experienced politicians close by.  But with an average of one prime minister every two years since his ascension, King Abdullah II has not yet found the right arrangement of people to run the country the way he wants it to. 

The King had appointed a chief of the Secret Service who was recently convicted of corruption and is now behind bars.  From an economic perspective, many of the King’s friends have done very well for themselves. But not all of them have done it without exploiting him.  Whether or not the King benefited is an issue of much public debate, but the facts remain that the economy has not gotten better and life for the average Jo is characterized by increasing frustration, a heavy dose of religion, and little socio-economic mobility.   The few who do well seem to prosper despite seas of red tape rather than with the help of the nurturing system Abdullah II envisioned.

Politically, America has proved itself a utilitarian ally.  Although Washington plays a large part in the country’s stability through its aid dollars, it has become clear that stability is really its only concern.  America will stick by Abdullah II’s side as long as it means a Jordan more stable for them.  When he tries to work on the economy they stall.  A more educated and economically powerful Jordanian citizenry means more questioning, less monarchy, and less stability.

Yes, there is an abundance of criticism to go around.  It is the only resource in ample supply.  Yet, for now, the Economist King is here to stay, and looking forward is the most constructive option.  Rather than brave these decisions alone, Abdullah II must relinquish power to those around him.  This brings us to the parliamentary elections that are scheduled for January 23.  Boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood, the election is likely to yield a weak parliament similar to the existing one.  The King needs to dig deep and voluntarily give up some of his privilege, despite that fact that some of his allies would not be happy about it.   While in the United States, “it’s the economy, stupid”, in the Middle East, politics can never be avoided.

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