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Subject : Jordan: Kingdom of Corruption
Jordan: Kingdom of Corruption
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
"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
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 month long 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
"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
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
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 (he used lubricants).
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