Mon, 07 Feb 2000

Jordan's king marks first year on the throne

By Randa Habib

AMMAN (AFP): Jordan's King Abdullah II, propelled to the throne a year ago Monday following the death of his father, King Hussein, has steered the kingdom along a road of reforms that has won him kudos at home and abroad.

Jordanian politicians, analysts and diplomats based in Amman have praised Abdullah's performance although concern reigned about what kind of sovereign he would make when he was crowned Feb. 7, 1999.

"Uncertainty was rife in Jordan because of many regional issues such as the Middle East peace process and Jordan's tense relations with some Arab countries over its good ties with Israel," ex-prime minister Taher al-Masri told AFP.

Masri, a senator in parliament's upper house, said the mood has changed largely thanks to the almost-spontaneous support Abdullah won at home and from many countries.

Abdullah smoothed ties with former Arab foes, namely Syria and Kuwait, ending Jordan's isolation in the region that followed its siding with Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War and its 1994 peace treaty with Israel.

The new monarch, who turned 38 on Jan. 30, is combining his diplomatic victories with a series of steps to shake Jordan out of its economic lethargy.

"Abdullah succeeded in projecting Jordan into the 21st century thanks to the dynamic style of his generation and his determination to push full steam ahead with economic reforms," a Western diplomat told AFP.

Government officials are having a hard time catching up with Abdullah.

"Most of them are unable to keep up with him. He imposes a tough schedule while they have been used to taking their time to implement royal instructions," said a close aide to the king, who declined to be identified.

Abdullah candidly admits his impatience.

"When we speak of a certain project and a cabinet minister tells me that it will be implemented I always say 'when,'" the monarch recently said.

Political analyst Rami Khouri said Abdullah was quick to identify the problems facing Jordan and seek solutions.

"He is very impressive in identifying his priorities, political and economic, and in working to mobilize people to bring about the necessary changes in the country," Khouri said.

"He has clearly come down on the side of people who want to modernize and reform the system and combines tradition and a modern approach to deal with the issues, but in the long term he will have to choose modernism to secure progress," Khouri said.

Early on in his reign Abdullah vowed to introduce political, social and economic reforms to help steer Jordan into the new millennium and stressed that the 21st century "will bring a lot of economic challenges".

"That is why we must review our national policies," Abdullah said.

In December, the king announced the creation of a 20-member "economic consultative council" made up of high-ranking financial experts from the public and private sectors.

The council's job is to monitor implementation of economic, social, educational and administrative reforms in Jordan, which is burdened by US$7.2 billion in external debt and an unemployment rate of up to 25 percent.

"This is an unprecedented initiative which reflects the king's belief that in order to make progress in the country one must break with administrative red tape," Masri said.

Abdullah's policies have paid off.

In January, Jordan won a much-coveted seat in the World Trade Organization.

And in order to learn his country's problems firsthand and fight administrative corruption and inefficiency, Abdullah has taken a leaf out of his father's notebook -- donning disguises to check up on civil servants.

These undercover missions have helped "keep people on their toes," he said on Wednesday.