Discontent in the Middle East

Jordan’s elite stifles economic opportunity

Stephen Beard Feb 9, 2011
Discontent in the Middle East

Jordan’s elite stifles economic opportunity

Stephen Beard Feb 9, 2011


Kai Ryssdal: Tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets once again today. It wasn’t just political protests in Cairo, either. Labor unions were out on strike in other parts of the country as well.

Across the region — from Tunisia to Egypt and over to Jordan — people are demanding change. They want political change, obviously, but they also economic change. They want a chance at prosperity and an end to the wealthy elites who they believe are sucking their countries dry.

From Amman, Jordan, Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports.

Stephen Beard: Traffic in the streets of this capital has been unusually light since the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt began. Jordanians have been rushing home early to watch the unfolding events on TV. Jordan has been mesmerized.

Oraib Al-Rantawi, a political commentator says, most of the Arab world’s been infused with a new spirit.

Oraib Al-Rantawi: We are living in the Tunisian, the Egyptian moment. This is the spirit. Nobody will stop it!

It is, he says, a spirit of rebellion against state-sponsored theft. Across the Middle East, many people believe their autocratic leaders have been robbing them blind.

Labib Kamhawi: When you don’t have democracy, you have no accountability, no transparency and then you have corruption.

That’s Jordanian businessman Labib Kamhawi. He says that like most Middle Eastern countries, Jordan is run by a clique of wealthy families and individuals — politicians in cahoots with business people. Kamhawi says many of them plunder the public purse, hog the best jobs and try to skim a bit off every government contract.

Kamhawi: The corruption really covers all aspects of life which left people who don’t belong to this class helpless.

Not everyone agrees that Jordan is a hotbed of corruption. Local economist Yusuf Mansur.

Yusuf Mansur: There is corruption, there is corruption. However, as an economist, I don’t see it as massive or as widespread as in other countries.

That does not reassure critics of the system. One of them claims there’s an unofficial poverty line for corrupt individuals: If they don’t manage to rip off more than $50 million during their careers, they’re not doing well.

But Jordan is an undemocratic monarchy. King Abdullah hires and fires his governments. Critics like Labib Kamhawi do have a question to answer:

Beard: Is the king and his family profiting personally from this corruption?

Kamhawi: The law punishes anybody who talks about the king or the royal family. So we cannot talk. You ask the king. You don’t ask me.

The king declined an invitation to appear on this program. But one expatriate Jordanian journalist is not so reticent. He’s been circulating over the Internet an open letter addresses to Queen Rania.

Letter, read aloud: What gives you the right to celebrate your birthday with a party costing $15 million? And for the king to give you a yacht costing $83 million in a poor country that has no oil, lives off aid and cannot buy milk for its children?

Around half the Jordanian population lives on less or little more than $2.50 a day.

In Amman, I’m Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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