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In Jordan, King Abdullah II getting earful from tribal leaders

At the heart of the discontent is Jordan's growing Palestinian population, which threatens to erode the tribes' hold on money and power. The king also faces pressure to end corruption and his grip on political power.

February 24, 2011|By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times

"In one year, one profited three times the sales price. This is not just corruption, it is audacious corruption," said retired Gen. Ali Habashneh, who was one of a number of senior military veterans who signed a public letter last year demanding reforms.

Much of the public blame seems to focus less on King Abdullah than on his queen, Rania. The beautiful Kuwaiti-born Palestinian's vacations in St. Tropez in the company of rock star Bono and model Naomi Campbell have not sat well among Jordanians who are reeling under rising food and fuel prices in a capital city that has the highest cost of living in the Arab world.

Public irritation came to a boiling point in September, when the queen hosted an opulent party for her 40th birthday in the scenic desert valley of Wadi Rum. Though some villages in southern Jordan can barely pay for electricity, the party reportedly featured a large number "40" in lights.

The event raised $1.6 million for charity and wasn't that glitzy, said Ayman Safadi, who was deputy prime minister in the government that was sacked this month.

"Any middle-class Jordanian would have thrown a better party," he said. "And the food? I came back and had to order a hamburger because I was still hungry."

Simmering at the heart of the tribal discontent is the issue of Palestinian demography that has bedeviled the kingdom since the 1967 war with Israel.

Tribesmen of Jordanian stock from the East Bank of the Jordan River worry that the growing number of Palestinians who have moved in from the West Bank and elsewhere will erode their traditional hold on money and power.

Although the Palestinian population is officially pegged at 49%, most observers believe it has reached 60% and is growing. Yet Palestinians typically hold fewer than 20% of the seats in the elected lower house of parliament (a figure that slipped to 12% in the November elections).

Analysts say true reform will almost surely erode the East Bank Jordanians' hold on power and, in the process, the massive system of public subsidies they enjoy. This is not only controversial but maybe impossible — East Bank tribesmen have traditionally formed the bulk of the army and police.

It means, in stark terms, taking away generations of perks from, as one analyst put it, "the guys with the guns — good luck."

Yet the king's decision to appease the East Bank by restoring many subsidies, raising public wages and appointing a new prime minister from the tribal old guard, many analysts say, is almost sure to slow the pace of economic reforms, crucial to new investment and jobs.

It is in many ways a no-win situation for the king at a time when winning may be a matter of survival.

Safadi insisted that the king remains popular and had made it clear he was committed to reform even before events elsewhere in the region increased their urgency.

Kamhawi, the political analyst and reform advocate, is skeptical.

"The government is not wholeheartedly for reform," he said. "The government considers it its duty now to defuse the tension. And this will not work."

"The issue is not the king, or royalty. We don't care about that. We have so far nobody at all proclaiming their intention to change the regime. But the regime has to accept that this is not an open check to say, 'OK, well, accept the regime as it is.' No. The regime has to change according to the will of the people."

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