This is a very, very interesting interview that HM King Abdullah gave yesterday. He tackles some of the most controversial issues that have been plaguing the country recently such as the land sales, the Jordan festival, the Aqaba fiasco, the old-guard vs. new guard gap, economic policies of the last decade and of course, prices. His answers are very detailed and even some of the topics are things he shouldn’t be dealing with to begin with, but, this reminded me of the late King Hussein’s (God rest his soul) approach, who used to address the nation (usually on TV) whenever the situation got bad and there was just a list of things that needed tackling. It’s ironic that things will get to a point where the government is playing so much defense that people stop believing it, and it becomes the type of mess that the King is forced to clean up. So in any case, I have to give him credit for actually doing this. It’s best to forget about the interviewee’s questions when reading this, but if there’s anything you read today, it should be this:
His Majesty King Abdullah II
Interview with Petra News Agency
1 July 2008
Q: Your Majesty, you have expressed preference for this interview to be candid and transparent in addressing controversial issues that are circulating among Jordanian elites. So I apologise in advance if some of the questions might seem out of context and inappropriate, but I’m only trying to follow your instructions to be as candid as possible.
A: I’m absolutely fine with that; and as you mentioned, I have asked that this interview be completely candid and I do want to address some controversial issues so that we can get beyond them and move forward to create a better and more prosperous Jordan. And as I always say, in Jordan we have nothing to hide.
Q: Since Your Majesty requested that my questions deal with controversial issues which is a bit unusual. If you don’t mind me asking, why now?
A: Because today our country faces tremendous challenges, at the same time we also have opportunities that were never available to us before; opportunities that that can help us resolve some of our long-term problems and free us from the shackles of these problems once and for all. But it is extremely important that we all at least make a sincere effort to understand the level of challenges and opportunities; without resorting to negativities, rumours character assassinations and emotional arguments. Today, I am extremely shocked and dismayed at the low level of debate transpiring in some elite and media circles. Throughout my life I have grown accustomed to rumours about myself and my family, and Jordan, but today, I feel that these rumours are negatively affecting the future of Jordan and I simply cannot remain silent.
Q: What are the challenges and opportunities as you see them?
A: We have three main challenges: prices, prices, prices. Of course we have other major challenges such as unemployment, poverty and government debt, but it is fair to say that today the high prices are on everyone’s mind. Everyday it is an issue that haunts me and is a major concern of mine due to the tremendous challenge it poses to the majority of Jordanians.
Wherever I go I consult experts to help me get answers; I’ve talked to local experts and international experts, from developing and developed countries, from different schools of thought; from the far left to the far right. The answers are always similar. This is a problem the whole world is suffering from and the developing world, which we are a part of, is being hit the hardest. No government in the world, as far as I know, has found a short-term answer to completely shield its people from the high prices, anyone who claims otherwise is being unfair.
But there are things governments can do in the short-term to mitigate the impact. In Jordan, the government has taken several measures to protect citizens against the high cost of living; we have increased the wages of public sector and military employees and retirees and encouraged the private sector to do the same; we increased the number of beneficiaries of national aid and increased their monthly share of aid; we provided incentives to encourage youth to be productive; we embarked on a large subsidised housing program, Decent Housing for Decent Living, provided financial support for military and teachers’ housing funds and provided thousands of homes for needy families to counter the high real estate costs. The government has also interjected in the market in order to drive prices of basic goods as low as possible by subsidising certain goods directly, and reducing duties and taxes on other commodities and through selling at cost at civil and military consumer stores with more outlets in cities, villages and the Badia, in addition to opening street markets. I am the first to admit that this is not enough and that we need to do more and we will do more God willing.
In the medium- to long-term, however, nearly all experts agree that a big part of solving our problems lies in our ability to promote investment; both local and foreign. This will help reduce poverty and increase employment opportunities for youth who are the future. Therefore, and as part of our keenness to spread development returns across the Kingdom, we issued directives to establish economic development zones in Aqaba, Maan, Mafraq and Irbid, where the economic activity will build on the competitiveness of these areas. Encouraging national and foreign investment is not a new or secret prescription; nearly all the advanced and prosperous nations have very open and encouraging attitudes towards private investment. In many developed countries it is sometimes easier to invest in them than to get a visa to visit them.
And this where, today, a tremendous opportunity for Jordan exists. Although like all nations around the world we are suffering from the problem of high prices, we are in fact in a better position than most countries, even those with more natural resources. We have strong ties with our brothers in the Gulf countries that are benefiting the most from the high oil prices. Like my father before me, I have always invested a lot of time and energy to have warm and brotherly relations with all Arab countries and especially Gulf countries. And thank God there is an amazing amount of goodwill towards Jordan from our brothers in the Gulf, and for that I am very proud and grateful. Unlike a few years ago, when oil prices were very low, today our brothers from the Gulf have tremendous means and a sincere will to help us. No doubt they are providing economic assistance to the national budget and especially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that honourably stood by us during the past few years. But they can help us multiples more through investment. I want every Jordanian to understand the magnitude of the opportunity; some experts are saying that the speed of wealth creation in the Arab Gulf is unparalleled in human history. If we don’t do our best to try to benefit from this extremely rare economic boom then we would have lost much and failed to exploit an opportunity to develop and modernise our country. No one knows how long this boom will last; some say three-five years, others say 10-20 years. All I know is that it would be wise to act as if the boom will end next week. If we don’t attract Gulf investment others certainly will. No one is going to wait for us.
Q: Perhaps when it comes to the governmentâ€™s investment promotion strategy, part of the controversy lies in the sale of government land to private sector investors. In your opinion is that something that is appropriate for the government to do?
A: The simple answer is yes, but only after careful scrutiny. I come from a military background and my instinct is to be extremely protective over public assets. I have listened vary carefully to some very emotional arguments against the sale of government land; some will have us believe that government land is holy and should never be sold. They want me to use my powers to prevent the government from selling any of its land. I personally read a lot about the issue and consulted many experts; more importantly, I looked at how countries across the world deal with this issue. Selling government property, including land, is common practice across the world. There are many instances when government land should not be up for sale and I will talk about them later.
Land is one of the key components of production, that is used across the world and over different eras, to develop modernise and build the future for generations to come. I believe that investing in part of government land, whether through sale, rent or partnership is a legitimate option for the government as long as the proceeds are invested for public use and for the use of future generations. In order to do that it can either raise taxes, take on debt or sell government assets. This is how government across the world operate; they usually use a combination of all three methods. Not to allow Jordan to use a major source of government financing that all governments use will put us at a disadvantage.
For example, selling government land to pay off international debt, which Jordan recently did, has saved current and future generations from paying high interest payment on the debt and has made Jordanâ€™s debt rating more attractive for international investment. And again I want to remind people that we have paid off $2.4 billion of our debt this year which resulted in reducing the percentage of international debt to the GDP from 46% to 29%.
This is a very legitimate use of land sale, and governments across the world do it all the time. Selling government land to build a school or hospital that will serve many generations to come is of course another very legitimate option. Also, making government land available for private investment in order to create jobs and help reduce poverty is yet another legitimate use of government land sale. For example, allowing the private sector to build hotels on government land in the Dead Sea and in Aqaba or anywhere else in Jordan to encourage tourism and create jobs should be welcome. Often governments give investors land at subsidized prices in order to attract them to areas that otherwise would be unattractive to them. Moreover, in order to hedge their bets, sometimes governments enter into joint ventures with the private sector to develop government land. This is a method that has been used extensively and successfully in Jordan; in Abdali, Zarqa and Aqaba. When the government sells land to Jordanian, Arab or foreign investors, it maintains its sovereignty over the land, and the land will neither leave the country’s border nor be wiped off the country’s map.
Let us also remember, that just like selling land the government can also buy land. If in the future the government sees fit, it has broad powers to buy land it deems will benefit the public as long as it compensates the owner fairly and in accordance with the law. And governments across the world do that all the time. I am saying this because some are painting government sale of its assets in a non-reversible doom and gloom scenario whereas in fact the government has many options in the present and the future. These options are adopted on a daily basis by governments all over the world.
Compared to other nations, in Jordan, we have a large percentage of land owned by the government, estimated at 80%. This is considered to be relative high compared to other countries. In the West, for example it is 30%. This represents an opportunity especially in light of the high level of interest in Jordan these days.
What I am trying to say, is that the debate should not focus on whether the government has the right to sell public land or any other public asset for that matter, because it obviously does have the right to sell land, but how the proceeds from the sales are used? If the process is transparent, and if the benefit of selling outweighs that of maintaining ownership, then this represents an opportunity that the Jordanian people should benefit from. To this end, I have recently set up a committee to scrutinize and evaluate any potential land sale deals that are tied to military land.
Moreover, I welcome, and indeed encourage, public criticism when it comes to the question of transparency and to whether some government assets should indeed be sold. In any country, sale of government assets is usually controversial. But currently the level of debate in Jordan has dropped to unacceptable levels with over-dramatization, rumours and opinions that are based on total ignorance of the issues; to the point where, even mature and lucid criticism is drowned out by rumours and ignorance.
Some have painted it as something that is out of the ordinary and only happens in Jordan, whereas in fact all governments engage in such activities. Others tie it to an American-Zionist conspiracy to dismantle the Jordanian state, others lay claim to massive corruption deals, whilst others claim that a group of liberals are dismantling my father the late King Husseinâ€™s legacy and much more. Even I have been implicated in some of the gossip.
I remember once having a conversation with my father, God rest his soul, about rumours circulating around a certain government official. He told me to be very careful before repeating anything I heard, because he said the difference between a lie and the truth is very simple â€“ proof. He said that people who make dangerous claims that can jeopardize peopleâ€™s reputations and careers without any proof are either ignorant or cowards. He told me that we would never allow Jordan to be hijacked by cowards and ignorant. Today, this is my message to my brothers and sisters, the honourable citizens, that public policy will never be held hostage to rumours and ignorance. The world is becoming an increasingly complicated and technical place. I realise that some governmentsâ€™ policies may be misunderstood and may face public discontent, indeed governments may sometimes make big mistakes, but if anyone has any proof of any intentional wrong-doing, please stand up and let it be known. My door is open. I am honoured to belong to a Hashemite Family that is firmly shut to rumours and irresponsible discourse.
Q: I feel that rumours have increased dramatically in the past few months. What are your thoughts on that?
A: I think there are two main reasons: one, the increase in prices has caused a lot of discontent with the public and makes for fertile ground for believing lies and rumours; and hence different groups are using this discontent to further their own political agendas. For example, we now see those who oppose economic openness are more vocal in their criticism of government economic policies even though they do not have a viable alternative and cannot point to one anywhere in the world. Criticism of government policies in tough times and using it to further a certain groupâ€™s agenda is fair play and happens all over the world. But using blatant lies and childish rumours that obstructs our progress is not fair play and is unacceptable.
The second reason for the increase in rumours is the great interest of Arab investors to invest in Jordan. Over the years this government, previous governments, myself and my father King Hussein before me, have worked extremely hard to promote Jordan as an investment destination; finally this is beginning to pay off in a big way. Obviously the sudden increase in oil prices has been a major help. This is a good thing, but when we talk about such large investments, which historically we are not used to in Jordan, automatically people start talking about corruption. This is normal. Also, the speed with which the government sometimes has to act in order to attract Arab and especially Gulf investment can take society by surprise and cause a lot of talk. But it is important for the Jordanian people to understand that this need for speed is directly related to the need to invest the proceeds of oil sales in order to maximize their returns. Whether we like it or not, this is the way the world works. Countries that cater to that speed will win and others that let cumbersome bureaucracy get in the way will lose. All countries around the world and in the region are competing for Gulf investments, and like I said earlier no one is going to wait for us.
This does not mean that investment should come at the expense of transparency. Absolutely not. I am an ambitious person, especially when it comes to Jordan; I believe we can do both; and we can do both â€“ investment and transparency â€“ extremely well. But first as a society we have to get over a few hurdles that disturb us once and for all. We have to believe that investment both foreign and local is a good thing for our country and our people, so is privatization; there are some that are putting such basic concepts into question and that is really slowing us down. All countries in the world have privatization programs in place, all countries have investment promotion strategies and all countries sell state assets such as land to promote development. If every time the government engages in such activities it is viewed as engaging in an evil and corrupt act then we will never succeed as a nation. The debate should focus on transparency and the use of the proceeds of these funds, instead of continuing with baseless accusations. Our culture and national identity will never be for sale, as claimed by some malicious rumours.
Q: Perhaps one of the most controversial projects that caused a major stir in Jordanian circles is the sale of the Medical City; can you tell us more about it?
A: First, let me make a small but extremely important correction to your question: the Medical City has not been sold. Let me start at the beginning. It is no secret that the infrastructure of the Medical City at all levels is under massive strain and needs major investment. Major elements of the Medical City were designed in the late 1950s by a UK firm and construction started in the late 1960s and the first building was opened in the late 1960s. Therefore, it was built when Jordan was still a very poor nation and did not take into account the major upheavals that occurred while it was being built and thereafter. For example, the 1967 war, the massive growth in population, the rise in oil prices and the 1970s oil boom, the first Iraq war and so on and so forth. We all know the implications of these events. Subsequent investments were made but not enough to meet the growing demand. There is no doubt that the Medical City is one of the most successful investments made in Jordanâ€™s history. It has served us well for the past 40 years, and we need it to serve us in the same capacity for the next 40 years.
A brief look, every morning, at the huge numbers of patients and others flocking to the Medical City is enough to appreciate the heavy strain on this institution and the urgent need to expand and develop its facilities. These concerns were conveyed to me on many occasions by many of its devoted physicians and workers over the past few years.
A few months ago, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of Royal Medical Services told me that they had asked the government for JD150 million to develop the Medical Cityâ€™s infrastructure that is badly needed in order for the hospital to be able to meet todayâ€™s growing demand and reduce some of the strain on the current infrastructure. The governmentâ€™s response was that its budget was under massive strain.
The government explored available options with the Royal Medical Services, including delaying the development of medical services for a few years, but this would come at a painful cost to Jordanian people in need of medical care. The government also considered the possibility of borrowing the necessary funds to develop and upgrade the Medical City’s infrastructure as soon as possible. This was not ideal in light of our strategic goal to reduce our high debt levels. One of the options was to consider selling the property of King Hussein Medical City in Amman and use the proceeds to build a brand new medical complex on another plot of government land.
The logic behind this idea was as follows: the current value of land in the area of the Medical City is very high. If this land is sold at this high value and if the government can allocate an alternative plot of land to the Medical City for free, then we can use the proceeds of the land sale to build a 21st century medical complex that will meet our peopleâ€™s medical demands for the next forty years and more God willing. Moreover, the plan was to also use the proceeds to upgrade all the military hospitals across the Kingdom so that patients donâ€™t have to travel long distances for routine procedures. The idea was not to marginally improve our medical services but to have a major paradigm shift in the level of service we provide to our beloved Jordanians. It is very important to reiterate that the idea was not to privatize the Medical City as some rumours claimed; it was to sell the old property to private investors for real estate development, and have the new modern facilities owned by the government and managed, as always, by the Medical Services of our armed forces.
So the question is why was this not immediately announced? Well, for the simple and logical reason that it was still an idea and not government policy. It is very important for all Jordanians to understand that. There are thousands of ideas floating around in government departments all the time. Before ideas turn into policy and announced to the public, they need to be studied to determine their feasibility. And as you well know, most ideas never become policy.
In fact, this particular idea has many challenges: does the government have an appropriate plot of land for a new complex? How much will the new complex cost? Are investors interested in such a proposal? And if so, how much are they willing to pay for the old complex? Will that amount be enough to pay for the new complex? Additionally, are investors willing to wait at least four-five years until the new facility is built before they can make use of the land they bought? There are so many other questions and challenges that needed answers before announcing this proposal. All parties involved quickly got to work. The government started looking for potential locations. The management of the Medical City met several times to discuss the idea, and potential investors were consulted to get their preliminary thoughts on the matter. It was only right to give the government enough time to properly study such an idea.
This did not happen. The idea was conceived in the beginning of February of this year and rumours of the sale of the Medical City started circulating three or four weeks later. As expected, the government did not have enough information to answer the barrage of questions from the media and the public. There were definitely mistakes that were made in the media and communication strategy and in explaining the issue.
Today, as things stand, the Medical City as an institution and a name will not be sold to anyone, but there is a possibility that some of its assets may be sold. The government needs more time to study the matter more diligently. Rumours that it was already sold are not true; rumours that the sale is part of a conspiracy to dismantle the Jordanian state are nonsense; rumours of government corruption are fantasy. And before you ask me, no, the University of Jordan has not been sold nor has the Sports City and no one has any intention of doing so.
Q: Thank you for your direct and straight-forward answer, but I have to dwell a little bit more on this issue. Beyond the rumours, there are some who argue that the Medical City is part of our history and should never be soldâ€¦the emotional attachment and the memories are too strong. What do you think of this logic?
A: I understand the high emotional value of this national institution for many of us. For me personally, the Medical City is the place where I last saw my father alive; it is the place where all my children, Hussein, Iman, Salma and Hashim were born; it is the place where I have been treated all my life. I know doctors that spent their whole careers working in these buildings. The emotional attachment is indeed strong. But we have to weigh this against what is most beneficial for the millions of Jordanian patients who receive treatment at the Medical City and who will use it in the future. If we have a chance to drastically improve the medical service we provide to our people should we pass it up? We have to remember that history is not just something we inherit; it is also something that we make. I look at the history of the Medical City with extreme pride and appreciation. It is one of the institutions that make us proud. The question is: if we donâ€™t make the right investments today in the Medical City, how will future generations perceive this? This is a question for all Jordanians to answer.
Q: Another controversial story is the sale of the container port in Aqaba. Can you elaborate more on this?
A: As announced officially, the land of the container port in Aqaba was sold by the government for $500 million paid in advance and before receiving the land which will be in five years. In addition, the state budget will receive 3% of the overall proceeds of the project.
All the proceeds were used to buy back some of our foreign debt and saved the Jordanian government $240 million per year which can be used for government projects to improve educational, health services, fight poverty and provide job opportunities over the next 15 year.
It took long and hard negotiations by our government to convince our international debtors to allow us to buy back our debt, and negotiating a discount was even tougher. I was personally involved in convincing world leaders to support our request. All this was done with full transparency and was reported in newspapers. After agreement was reached on 17 October 2007, it was crucial to implement before the end of the March, 2008 deadline.
The Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA) has been for many years trying to move the container port further down the coast and away from touristic sites and the city centre, as part of the master plan for the authority.
The proceeds of the sale were supposed to go to building a new port. ASEZA never got an attractive price for the current port that would enable it to build a new one. After some sites were proposed as investment opportunities for our brothers in the Arab Gulf, agreement was reached to invest in this port to cover the amount needed to pay the debt. The idea was to convince them not to look at this in purely commercial and investment terms, but as a way to help Jordan in these very difficult times; to consider it as part investment and part aid. As always, our brothers from the UAE came through for us, and for that, we are extremely grateful.
Automatically, some journalists without investigating the matter started spreading rumours of a massive corruption deal. It seems that some of our journalists forgot what journalism is all about. It is about reading, researching and investing in pursuit of the truth; not sitting behind a desk, making up silly stories. Had they done their homework, they would have realized that the port land in Aqaba was previously made available for sale at much lower prices. And if these same journalists really did their homework, they would have realized that Egypt across the sea from us gives away prime beach properties on the Red Sea for free to attract foreign investors, and their strategy has worked wonderfully with more Jordanians going to Sharm El Sheikh than to Aqaba. And now other Arab countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia are providing land at subsidized prices to promote investment.
Q: Do you agree with those who believe that Jordanian investors should have priority over foreign investors when it comes to the sale of government assets?
A: Overall, I donâ€™t agree with this. I have an issue with the word â€œpriorityâ€; it could insinuate bias towards Jordanian businessmen at the expense of national and public interests. Why should the government do that especially that the Jordanian private sector has every right to turn around and sell to foreign investors? And that happens often. Why should the Jordanian private sector have more freedom in this respect than the government which represents the people? Obviously this does not mean we should stand against Jordanian investors. Similarly, in todayâ€™s world, foreign investors are better informed and have plenty of options from around the world to choose from; they shun countries where they feel are biased against them. We need to have a level playing for everybody and always keep the interest of the public in mind and not that of a narrow group of special interests.
Foreign investment is extremely important for any country in the world; because no country; however large or rich, is as large or as rich as the rest of the world combined. This is especially true for small countries like Jordan. Our GDP is around $16 billion, the GDP of Gulf countries is around $1.8 trillion, while the GDP of the world combined is around $65 trillion. It doesnâ€™t take a genius to figure out that if we rely on the Jordanian private sector alone we would miss out on major opportunities for our people. We need both local and foreign investment. If we look at Western developed and rich nations, we realize that until today they are the biggest recipients of foreign investment and this is a big reason why they have become so prosperous. Now countries like China are competing with them in attracting private investment.
In this day and age, it is really sad that some in Jordan feel that this is not an option for us; that we canâ€™t learn from the West the way they learned from us centuries ago; that by doing so we are selling ourselves and our culture to others. And they are so vocal about it, without having any credible alternatives. They would rather tie the governmentâ€™s hands, sit in a corner and continue to complain about how bad the situation is.
What I also find very sad is that some people will give you long lectures about joint Arab action and the need for more coordination between Arab states and the urgent need for a unified Arab market and for boycotting Western goods. When Arab investors finally come to Jordan they treat them like they’re coming from Mars to invade our country.
As a military man, I was trained to align my words with my actions. For I am a Hashemite Arab nationalist. I am extremely happy and proud that today our brothers from the Gulf have the means to transform their countries and ours. They are most welcome in Jordan. Today, more than ever, we need their support.
Q: Another very hot topic around town is the Jordan Festival and the fact that a company called Publicis is organizing the event. Some are saying that Publicis has close ties with Israel. The Minister of Tourism and Antiquities has denied that. Many are still calling for a boycott. It is important that we hear directly from you what the truth is.
A: I recently discussed this issue with the Prime Minister; Publicis is not the company that is organizing the Jordan Festival. It is another company called Visiteurs Du Soir.
Today Arab artists are contemplating cancelling their performances and Arab tourists that were planning on visiting Jordan are cancelling their trips. The government is now wasting its valuable time and resources trying to do damage control. All this because some so-called journalists are too careless and incompetent to do their basic work; it is shameful. This is a case study on how to shoot yourself in the foot, on how to be irresponsible, on how to do a massive disservice to your country and your people and on how to stop our development. Indeed, our worst enemies lie within. Should Jordan’s future be held hostage to rumours and gossip? And should false information be the reference for our Jordanian press? Should we remain silent until the truth becomes the victim of irresponsible journalism?
Let us assume for a moment that it is in fact Publicis that is helping to organize the event. In fact I cannot think of a major company that doesnâ€™t do business with Israel. If all these companies are off-limits then we are in deep trouble. For example, Intel whose chips power 80% of computers around the world has billions of dollars of investments in Israel; its closest competitor AMD also has large investments in Israel. Does that mean we should throw our computers away? This is nonsense. If we follow this line of thought, then we will be doing the best service to Israel. All it has to do is use the best technology and best talent in the world and automatically it would be off-limits to us.
Q: But some say, that we donâ€™t need an international company to help us organize the Jordan Festival, we should have used a Jordanian company.
A: Perhaps there is a Jordanian company that can do the job. Iâ€™m not involved in the details. However, throughout my life Iâ€™ve realized something; the smartest people I meet are the ones who easily admit that they donâ€™t know something and then work hard to find answers; the ones who always get into trouble are the ones who claim to know it all. I truly believe that our human resources are our greatest assets. Equally I also believe that more than anytime in history, the success of institutions, companies and indeed nations, is contingent on their ability to attract and nurture talent wherever it may come from. Transfer of knowledge is vital for any country in this day and age, and thank God our wealth of local talent provides a fertile ground for this knowledge to take root and grow, ultimately enhancing our ability to compete not only regionally but internationally. In Jordan we canâ€™t claim that we know how to do everything well, like all countries around the world it is sometimes good for us to use international experts for our own benefit.
Q: Some have questioned the rationale of cancelling the Jerash Festival and replacing it with the Jordan Festival.
A: Again you have to ask our ministers of tourism and culture about the details. As far as I know, the Jerash Festival has been deteriorating over the years although the government has never wavered in its support for it. I personally added my financial support to the festival over the past few years. There are many reasons for that, some administrative and others competitive. Unlike in the past, Jerash today has to compete with several high calibre festivals in the Arab world. After years of slow decline, last year the government out-sourced the management of the Jerash Festival to a local company in an effort to breathe life into the festival. It was a resounding failure, to the point where many artists participating refused to commit to the following year. Clearly it was time to take drastic action, there was a consensus among a large number of those involved, chief amongst them were the Jerash Festival Committee that it was time to evolve. With the best interest of Jordan in mind, even Her Majesty Queen Noor herself sent a letter to me stating as much. The government then came up with the concept of an event that would attract tourists whether they are visiting Amman or Jerash, in the hope that, if successful, it would spread to other parts of the country. In order to alleviate the fears of artists after last yearâ€™s bad performance, they contracted a foreign firm with vast experience in events management which is Visiteurs Du Soir.
Q: There are those who pledge their deep loyalty to you but are claiming that you are surrounded by a group of liberals who are hijacking the country, setting public policy and trying to dismantle the legacy of King Hussein.
A: Letâ€™s not mince words, let me be clear in the way I understand this nonsense, it is either that I am a part of this conspiracy, or that I am far removed and donâ€™t know whatâ€™s going on in my country. Both insinuations are insulting. The reality is, in fact, that both scenarios cannot be further from the truth.
I keep hearing the word liberals being floated around these days, I personally think that some people are using big words and donâ€™t quite understand their meaning. In summary, liberalism is an academic school of thought that believes that everything should be left to market forces and that government should not interfere with these market forces.
The people around me have been working diligently on initiatives like Decent Housing for Decent Living which is subsidized housing, or trying to find aid to continue to subsidize certain commodities, or renovating villages and schools, or establishing a social safety net to protect the poor; all in direct conflict with radical liberal theory. That doesnâ€™t mean that we are against privatization or strengthening the private sector or increasing investment in the country, for I donâ€™t subscribe exclusively to any one doctrine. Not liberal or conservative; not left or right; not old guard or new guard â€¦ My one and only doctrine is the best interest of Jordan.
Itâ€™s funny that these people who are spreading these bankrupt theories have inherent suspicions of everything that has succeeded in this modern world, and cannot propose alternative paths for success. Because they do not have a credible vision for the future, they immerse themselves in negativity and romanticize mediocrity in the name of nostalgia. I have a vision for the future: I want Jordan to be the most prosperous country in the world; I want it to be open to the world and unafraid. We have a deep-rooted culture and a strong national fabric that make us invincible to challenges. We are the inheritors of the Great Arab Revolt; the homeland of Arab Islamic Hashemite heritage and the country that is rich with its tribes that will remain the pillar of its strength, steadfastness, stability and progress; we are a state of law and equal opportunity, justice and equality; a state of institutions that are protected by the Constitution and by its brave armed forces and security institutions of which we are proud.
My father, the late King Hussein was a big force for change and always focused on the future. He was never afraid of evolving; on the contrary he embraced change. He was always a strong advocate of measures that would strengthen and diversify our economy and indeed he always tried to promote Jordan as an investment destination. Unfortunately the opportunity that the current boom presents us today was not available to him at the time, certainly not in this magnitude.
In fact, many people around me were groomed by my father, and their backgrounds are clear to all. Nader Dahabi, the current prime minister, served before my reign in a distinguished manner in the Air Force, as head of Royal Jordanian. I am very proud of his accomplishments and very happy with his current performance. The Chief of the Royal Court, Bassem Awadallah, received his college education on scholarship from my father; he served with distinction in four of my fatherâ€™s governments and received two medals from my father. And no one can question the backgrounds of the soldiers of Al Hussein in our military forces, from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the average soldier in the field. The security apparatus, not least of all the General Intelligence Department headed by Mohammed Dahabi, another long serving graduate of this institution that has served and protected our country in ways that we will never be able to fully appreciate. From the President of Upper House to the Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament; they are all my fatherâ€™s men and I am proud of them and their accomplishments.
When it comes to the legacy of His Majesty the late King Hussein, God rest his soul, I will not tolerate any outbidding whatsoever. He is my father, I feel he is a part of me, and the protection and the guardianship of his legacy comes as naturally to me as the air I breathe. It gives me great comfort to revive his memory in whichever way possible, whether itâ€™s through recounting lessons learnt from him, experiences shared with him, or simply emulating his example. Nothing sounds better to me than the mention of King Hussein and that has been the reason why so many public buildings, spaces and institutions have been named after him lately, from the King Hussein Mosque, to The King Hussein University, to the King Hussein Park, to the King Hussein Airport in Aqaba, to the King Hussein Museum, to the King Hussein Biotech and Cancer Institute, and the King Hussein Economic Development Zone in Mafraq and God willing there will be many more to come. The King Hussein Medical City will always carry that dear name, for as long as I’m alive.
Q: Given the hard times today, some are saying that the economic policies of the past ten years have failedâ€¦ do you agree with that?
A: Every indicator and every expert agrees that Jordan is making steady progress. To deny that is a crime to all the hard-working civil servants in our public sector, in this government and in previous governments. And I am proud of their accomplishments, and both rich and poor, have benefited from this progress. However, we all have to admit that these benefits have not reached all Jordanians and that is why we need to work harder and faster than before. There are no easy and quick solutions to combat poverty and unemployment. If there were, then these problems will not exist around the world.
Also, there is no doubt that the recent dramatic increases in prices have undermined some of the progress that we have made. To blame this on current and previous policies is a sham. No one in the world could have predicted these increases in prices and the Jordanian government has no control over them. In fact, I would agree that the matters would have been much worse had we not taken the measures we took in the past.
Let me give you an example, had the government not taken the decision to gradually free oil prices since 2005, the budget would have been burdened this year by an additional JD1.5 billion which would have posed a serious threat to Jordan’s financial stability. I would also like to give another example, in February 2004 Jordan signed an agreement to transfer Egyptian gas to Jordan and to start using Egyptian gas instead of oil to generate electricity. At the time, the price of oil was very low and we were getting it at subsidized prices. The logic behind building the gas pipeline was to diversify our energy sources and shift towards gas in addition to not restricting gas imports to one source. It is credible for that some people thought it was an unnecessary investment as long as we receive cheap oil from our Arab brothers. Not credibly, rumours were flying around that people were getting commissions from building the pipeline and that that was the only reason it was built. Today, I am proud to tell my people that the price of electricity would have doubled had we not taken that decision; had we succumbed to rumours and the nonsense. I am also proud that the decision reduced the cost of providing electricity by JD150 million annually.
There is something I want all Jordanians to understand. Even with our diversification away from oil, our fuel bill has gone up from JD400 million in 2004 to an anticipated JD3,000 million this year. That means that a lot of foreign currency is leaving the country and we have to make up for it. There are four main ways we can bring foreign currency into the country: workerâ€™s remittances from Jordanians working abroad, exports, tourism and foreign investments. We can increase Jordanians’ remittances by investing in education and increase exports by having a friendly business environment for local and foreign investors; we increase our tourism revenues by promoting Jordan through initiatives like the Jordan Festival and by making government land available for touristic development as in Aqaba and the Dead Sea; and we increase foreign investment through privatisation and everything else I mentioned. Previous governments have done just that, and this is what is allowing our foreign reserves to increase despite having to pay for the increased fuel bill.
There are some today who are willing to question all the tools that have been used by previous governments to avoid disaster. They are against foreign investment, they are against privatisation, they are attacking the Jordan Festival, they are against selling land for development purposes; and sadly, they have no alternatives. Beware of them.
My message to this government is that you have challenges that have not been faced by previous governments, at the same time opportunities exist like never before. Listen to professionals and experts and ignore rumours and gossip. And always communicate clearly and transparently with our people.
Q: Some claim that there is interference by the Royal Court in governmental affairs which defies the Constitutionâ€¦
A: From where I sit as the head of the nation, I regard it as my top priority to protect and guard the Constitution and ensure that my three branches of government â€“ executive, legislative and judicial abide by it to the last letter. Indeed, it is our respect and solid adherence to our Constitution that has distinguished us as a nation of institutions. Although the government is accountable to me and to the people through Parliament, I ensure that the boundaries that define the government’s mandate are sacred and never crossed, not in my name or anyone else’s. Surely I do not hesitate to guide and set priorities through the letter of designation to the government, and lend my advice when it is necessary, but at the end of the day, the government is the executive branch and it is responsible to do just that – execute.
Q: Perhaps the frankness of my questions has led you to delve into the details of matters, and for that, please accept my sincere apologies…
A: You are right, it is not customary for me to address the specifics of issues to this level, nor do I intend to make it the norm in the future. Certainly, my focus is always on the larger issues. However, I felt that the prevailing atmosphere at this time warrants that I make an exception. I felt it is crucial to set the record straight on certain issues and to clarify and dispel some of the misinformation that is being recklessly exchanged. Whether deliberately or unintentionally, those who engage in such idle talk can cause tremendous harm to our nation and its reputation, as well as undermine efforts on the ground aimed at improving our citizens’ lives. My people’s opportunities and welfare are things I fiercely defend. Personally, my door is and will always be open to everyone and every view, as long as the overarching intention is the wellbeing of Jordan and Jordanians. To my very core, I have always viewed us as one family, the united and closely knit family of Jordan. As I know it, the prevailing emotion in this family is one that is characterised by goodwill not suspicion, by love not animosity, by cooperation not accusation. Although the members of this family may disagree and argue at times, as long as they don’t intend harm to this central unit, there will always be a place for each and every one of them in my heart.
Q: Finally, what is the advice you would give to Jordanians?
A: I will take the cue from the verse from the Holy Koran: In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Compassionate, “O ye who believe! If a wicked person comes to you with any news, ascertain the truth, lest ye harm people unwittingly, and afterwards become full of repentance for what ye have done”.
And the first word of God Almighty to our beloved Arab Hashemite Prophet Mohammad: Read. We should read about the world around us before we judge ourselves and let us learn from the experiences of others, let us be open to the world and unafraid, for this is the only way we will progress. Let knowledge be your weapon and don’t believe rumours, especially when someone tells you “it’s from reliable sources”. Finally, know that you mean everything to me.