Letter From Jordan

Letter From Jordan

Since Abdullah II assumed the throne in 1999, Jordan has become increasingly authoritarian and corrupt.


Poetry as political manifesto has a long history in the Arab world. The Prophet Mohammed frequently won over converts to Islam with elegant recitals. Caliphs often deployed serrated verses from their court poet to undermine rivals. So in January, when revered Jordanian poet Haider Mahmoud wrote a thinly veiled ode to King Abdullah II warning him about deepening corruption in the Hashemite Kingdom, the palace quickly went to work–on him.

Mahmoud was attacked in Jordan’s state-controlled press as a traitor, and his son was pressured into resigning his position at the foreign ministry. Jordan’s then-prime minister, Faisal al-Fayez, ordered the mayor of Amman to fire Mahmoud as general director of the city’s cultural center. (Faisal backed off after learning the position was unpaid, but Mahmoud resigned anyway.) The offending poem–titled “Saray,” a Turkish word for “the palace,” but also “the sultan”–became known to Jordanians only after it appeared in a London-based Arabic-language newspaper because no local publisher would touch it.

Mahmoud, who generally avoids controversy, says he wrote “Saray” out of concern that Jordan’s vertiginous corruption threatens the integrity, and perhaps the very survival, of the monarchy. “It was not an attack,” he says. “I care for this country. The poem was a message from the people to the leader against the corruption around him.”

Mahmoud got off easy. These days, public criticism of the Hashemite monarchy can lead to official harassment, detention, arrest and imprisonment–usually in rapid succession. Since February 1999, when Abdullah assumed the throne after his father died of cancer, Jordan has become increasingly authoritarian. At a time when several Arab regimes are at least feinting toward political reform, Jordan is goose-stepping backward. Freedom of assembly has been restricted, and the threshold for dissent has been ratcheted down as political prisoners accumulate and oppositionists are rattled out of bed for interrogation. Journalists have been intimidated or bribed into spying on colleagues and sources. Street demonstrations have been all but eliminated by laws that require protesters to carry permits that are prohibitively difficult to obtain. The tax burden on ordinary Jordanians has intensified as living standards steadily recede. The appeal of Islamic groups is rising inversely to the monarchy’s diminished credibility, even among the kingdom’s traditionally secular, closely knit and increasingly restive tribes.

Corruption, defiantly uninhibited compared with the low-key looting that percolated under the late King Hussein, has soared. And although diplomats tend to absolve Abdullah of wrongdoing–he is deceived, they imply, by courtiers scheming behind his back–a growing number of Jordanians believe that the 43-year-old monarch is not only aware of the plundering but may be very much a part of it.

“I don’t think the monarchy enjoys any popularity with the people,” says Toujan Faisal, a former member of Parliament who was jailed for 100 days three years ago after she accused the government of graft. “King Hussein tolerated a margin of corruption, but not the extent to which it exists now.”

In short, Jordan has degenerated into the kind of despotic kleptocracy the Bush Administration says it will no longer tolerate. But tolerate it the White House does, inclusive of the roughly $450 million in annual economic and military aid that has become the standard rate for maintaining Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel and its support for America’s “war on terror.”

True, Washington has always indulged Jordan, a buffer state between Israel and the other Arab nations–the country is even shaped like a bottle stopper–by turning a blind eye to its human rights abuses. And it was Hussein, after all, who installed as heir apparent the little-known and unseasoned Abdullah just before he succumbed to cancer. In February the State Department gave Jordan a delicate reproach in its annual human rights report. But beyond that, the kingdom is under little public pressure to fight corruption and allow its rubber-stamp Parliament and feeble political opposition to assert themselves.

“The Hashemites are the fair-haired boys,” says a US government official. “The King is such a sycophant, telling Washington what it wants to hear and bashing people like [Syrian president] Bashar al-Assad, that they get away with everything.”

Americans got a glimpse at the dark side of their plucky Arab ally early this year, when President Bush was asked at a news conference about Ali Hattar, a Jordanian mechanical engineer who spent a night in jail and was fined after he publicly condemned Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel and called for a boycott of US goods. Bush was unaware of the case, which had been otherwise overlooked by the Western press.

Hattar was only the most recent target in a series of controversial arrests and detentions that have followed Abdullah’s ascension to power. In December 1999 Khalil Deek, a US citizen, was arrested in Pakistan and deported to his native Jordan on suspicion of having links with Al Qaeda. He was interrogated without a lawyer present and jailed without charge, only to be released two years later for lack of evidence. Faisal, the former parliamentarian, was jailed in March 2002 for “spreading rumors that incite disturbances and crimes,” among other charges, and was freed after a monthlong hunger strike. The former university lecturer says she was imprisoned only after security agents tried to buy her silence with offers of money and luxury cars. “I asked for reform and was offered only bribes and then jail,” she says.

In January security agents staged a midnight roundup of Islamic leaders who had criticized government policies while leading Friday prayers. Several were taken to a police precinct and left there overnight. According to the government, the men were detained for violating the state’s laws on preaching and spiritual guidance. “It was very, very savage treatment,” says Abdul-Lateef Arabiyat, former secretary-general of the Islamic Action Front, who like most of Jordan’s established Muslim leaders is fiercely moderate. “This would not have happened under King Hussein.”

Then, in early March, leaders of Jordan’s Professional Associations Council, a federation of white-collar unions, called for a sit-in to protest a draft law they say would neutralize their ability to organize and mount the closest thing Jordan has to political opposition. Police shut down the demonstration by cordoning off the council’s headquarters, the fourth time this year that authorities have banned such an assembly. Security agents also detained a television news crew that had filmed the incident and confiscated its video.

“Even during martial law [during Jordan’s 1970 civil war], public gathering was a right for the people,” says Hussein Mjali, who in March resigned as head of the Jordanian Bar Association to protest the draft law. “Now it is a gift from the ruler.”

The steady erosion of civil liberties is matched only by the seismic growth of corruption. A large share of the private fortunes that fled war-torn Iraq has been deposited in Jordan, where it is leavening an underground economy that had already thrived off the UN-run Oil for Food program. Enormous villas have mushroomed in Amman’s most fashionable districts, and luxury cars choke the city’s roads. It is a gross and potentially destabilizing display of wealth in a country with an annual per capita income of $1,700, chronic unemployment and a population growth rate of 2.6 percent. And in harmony with Jordan’s growing tolerance of corruption, this month King Abdullah agreed to overturn the 1992 conviction of Pentagon outcast Ahmad Chalabi, now a deputy prime minister in Iraq’s new government, for his role in the collapse of a major Jordanian bank. “There is a new look to the corruption in Jordan,” says journalist Abdullah Abu Romman. “Traditionally, we’d say the corrupt man is a thief. Now we look up to him as someone who was smart enough to avoid getting caught.”

Enter the Shaheen brothers. From humble beginnings as West Bank vegetable merchants, Khaled, Riyadh and Akram Shaheen have established themselves as the Jordanian government’s contractors of choice. According to a 1999 Times of London story, the Shaheens have known Abdullah since Khaled met him at a sports event in Dubai nearly ten years ago. Khaled, reported the Times, “went on to shower [the King] with gifts, including, allegedly, a Porsche.” Not long after Abdullah’s coronation, the government dropped Mercedes-Benz as its fleet automobile and logged a massive order with BMW–which had only months before tapped the Shaheens as its local distributor.

Since then, the Shaheens have rung up one major contract after another. In 2003 a Shaheen-controlled company was given a large share of a contract to train Iraqi policemen, even though it had no experience in such work (the value of the Shaheens’ share is unknown, but the total cost of the operation could surpass $1 billion). In March 2004 a Shaheen subsidiary won a $72 million Pentagon contract to supply fuel to coalition forces in Iraq. The deal was canceled a week later because the company was unable to meet its obligations. It turned out the Shaheens knew nothing of the oil-supply business beyond what they learned by smuggling more than 7 million barrels from Iraq in 2003, according to an investigation by Britain’s Financial Times and Italy’s Il Sole 24 Ore. A government spokesperson said there is no relationship between King Abdullah and the Shaheens.

Business continues to come the Shaheens’ way despite their poor credit history. In 1995 Jordan’s Arab Bank sued the family to recoup $40 million in outstanding loans. Five years later the Standard Chartered Bank of London filed suit against the brothers for unpaid debts worth $77 million. “The Shaheens have been a factor for years,” says a diplomat in Amman. “They have given the consistent impression that this is not a level playing field. And it doesn’t help when they talk about having top-level protection.”

Charges of corruption have even tainted Jordan’s awqaf, the charitable trust that in Islamic countries is an important source of finance for social welfare programs. Ghazi Zaben, a first-term parliamentarian, recently opened an investigation into awqaf funding, and is also looking into allegations that the former minister of awqaf and Islamic affairs, Ahmad Hilayel, profited from hajj-related travel packages. Hilayel, who was replaced in a recent Cabinet shuffle, was attacked in Mecca late last year by pilgrims angered at what they said was price-gouging by companies related to him.

Zaben, a plastic surgeon by trade, said he launched his investigation because of discrepancies between what the awqaf was reporting as allocations to his district and what his constituents were actually collecting. “These numbers don’t add up,” says Zaben, leafing through a file of documents several inches thick. “At this point we can’t say the awqaf is corrupt, though we do know [Hilayel’s wife] has stakes in companies that arrange trips to Mecca and those crowds obviously thought they had a good reason to beat him up. That’s why we’re having these hearings.”

Corruption probes in Jordan have a way of getting blocked, however, and Zaben says he has already been pressured by Hilayel’s “good will messengers” to back off. “Frankly, I don’t think I’ll get very far,” he says. “But it’s worth it. Perhaps it will encourage other MPs to launch their own investigations.”

Zaben represents the Central Badia district, a cluster of villages linked by rutted, single-lane roads. It is inhabited largely by the Beni Sakhr, a once-powerful tribe that has been diminished over the years by poverty entrenched by official neglect. Like many Bedouin tribesmen, the Beni Sakhr lack the skills needed to survive in a modern economy, and the state has failed to provide them with adequate education and vocational training.Zaben considers himself fortunate to have secured the state funds needed to build a new highway that will dramatically cut the time it takes to get from one end of Badia to the other. Projects like this, he says, help him compete with the Islamists for influence among his constituents. “People are now more religious,” he says above the din of a steamroller smashing chunks of granite into a foundation for the new road. “What else do they have?”

Zaben tours his district, a mere forty-minute drive from Amman, in his son’s late-model Jeep Cherokee. He is warmly welcomed as he calls unannounced on homes made of cinder-block walls and corrugated steel roofs suspended by narrow, roughly hewn wooden beams. The average income here is about half the national level and most families rely on the awqaf to get by. Beni Sakhr tribesmen used to be well represented in Jordan’s armed forces until the government required new recruits to have at least a high school education.

“We’re not getting the schools we need,” says Awad Shamoor, a minor sheik, after greeting Zaben in an outdoor circle of tea-sipping notables. Shamoor, a security guard at a high school, makes about $100 a month. He is affluent by Badia standards, with two of his seven children in college. To finance their tuition and other expenses, he has been selling strips of his estate–land that has been in his family for generations–to wealthy Palestinians. “I used to own 200 dunams [about 800 acres],” Shamoor says between sips of tea. “Now I’m down to ten.”

As Shamoor’s estate has dwindled, King Abdullah has expanded his–or at least that’s how some Jordanian dissidents are interpreting a May 10, 2000, government memo. In the memo, a copy of which has been obtained by The Nation, the Aqaba Regional Authority informs the land registrar of a decision “to register all the land that belongs to the treasury that is in field no. 1 and also the land no. 51 which is in field no. 3 from Aqaba land, in His Majesty Abdullah’s name”; in a similar memo, dated less than a year later, the registrar orders its regional offices to “register land in Naour, Lipat, Bilalal, Um Qasyr, Samek, in the name of His Majesty, Abdullah, [and] to cancel land use…from list no. 7…for municipal use and re-register it in the name of His Majesty Abdullah (God protect and preserve him).” The government spokesperson acknowledged “swaps” between crown property and public land, but only to expedite public-works projects. In such exchanges, she said, the value greatly favors the state rather than the crown.

Rumors of a royal land grab have simmered for years. In 2001, according to a source close to the palace, Abdullah sold for $43 million property his father confiscated under martial law in 1982. The palace denies this. Laith Shubuilat, a former parliamentarian who has spent much of his political career in opposition, says a recent decision to let the army control Jordan’s largest freshwater reserve will give the King de facto control of it.

“The army is the King’s power base,” says Shubuilat. “The King is robbing the government and the army is his bagman.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, there is in Jordan today a transcendent nostalgia for the light touch of the late king. Six years after his death Jordanians of all ethnicities and sects–even among those who oppose the monarchy–speak mystically of Hussein as if he were still among them, like a twitch in an amputated limb. It is why many cherish the 25-year-old Prince Hamzah, Hussein’s son by Queen Noor, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his father and is said to have inherited his legendary charisma and body language. Days before his death Hussein made the elevation of Abdullah as his successor conditional on Abdullah’s maintaining Hamzah as crown prince and heir apparent.

Last year Hamzah abruptly vacated his offices to make room for a primary school run by Queen Rania for the children of Amman’s rich elites–a conspicuous and somewhat ironic move in a country with a failing public school system. In November Abdullah relieved Hamzah as crown prince–a gesture, the king declared in a televised message, that would allow his half-brother “more freedom of movement.” Following the announcement palace officials phoned journalists and recommended they keep the reporting to a minimum. “We were told it was purely a family matter,” says Randa Habib, Jordan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse.

In response to his dismissal, Hamzah sent the king a verse from the Koran, published by several Jordanian newspapers, about the hypocrisies of unjust leadership.

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