Omar al-Razzaz

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You are Omar al-Razzaz, Prime Minister of Jordan

File:Razzaz.jpg

QUOTES

Speaking of Jordan’s economic difficulties, you said: “There is no magic stick. There is no painkiller. This is a long path, a difficult path. But God willing, the target is clear and the leadership is united with the people in achieving it.”

"It is unacceptable whenever there is weak economic growth and there is a decline in revenues that we resort to imposing taxes--the priority should be for cutting public spending.

EARLY LIFE & POLITICAL CAREER

You were born in in 1960 in al-Salt, and you have a Ph.D. from Harvard University in Planning and Economics. A political independent, you headed the World Bank in Lebanon before returning to Jordan to head the Jordan Strategy Forum. In 2017, you accepted a position as Minister of Education in the government of Hani al-Mulki, your predecessor as Prime Minister. You served in this post until June 2018 when Mr. Mulki resigned as Prime Minister, and you were chosen by the King to lead a new government.

Your Prime Ministerial appointment came in the wake of protests by Jordanians who were upset at a proposed expansion of Jordan’s income tax, and a reduction in subsidies on the prices of fuel, electricity and bread. These changes were proposed by Mr. Mulki in response to demands by the International Monetary Fund to increase revenues and decrease expenditures, demands made in the wake of a $700 million loan made by the IMF. The street protests, which were the largest to take place in Jordan in many years, provoked the King to not only fire his Prime Minister, bit to temporarily call off the changes to the income tax. However, Jordan’s economy is hurting, with an 18% unemployment rate and one-third of its citizens living below the poverty line. The King’s decisions will buy you some breathing space,

BEING PRIME MINISTER

Abdullah Ensour, who served nearly four years as Prime Minister, was a noteworthy departure from recent history in Jordan. In the two years preceding Ensour’s appointment in October 2012, Jordan had five prime ministers, and Mr. Mulki barely served two years himself. Why? King Abdullah, it seems, has gotten in the habit of sacking his Prime Minister whenever he faced political difficulties, seemingly as a way to demonstrate his responsiveness—that he was “doing something.” Over time, the King needed to be seen as being both responsive and open to more serious reform so as to keep his critics from turning on the monarchy itself, which seems to have led to the recent change wherein the Prime Minister is appointed through consultation between the King and Parliament, rather than by royal decree. Once again, this would appear to be a change in degree rather than in real substance, and it is another sign of the King’s ongoing efforts to manage the system and maintain support (keep in mind, for example, that King Abdullah retains sole authority to appoint the heads of the military, security forces, police, senate and the constitutional court). In the end, it is probably wise for you to remember that your position is not secure, and that you ultimately serve at the King’s pleasure.

In a closely related matter, the concern that citizens might rise up against their unelected leaders is ramified in Jordan by the fact that a majority of Jordan’s residents are Palestinian. This fact attracted special attention because, since he took power, King Abdullah has sought to placate Jordan’s Palestinians, many of whom are concerned over what they see as Jordan’s diplomatic and economic coziness with Israel, and who might at any time revolt against over their politically and economically low status in Jordan. He also needs to maintain his parliamentary support, which led to another recent reform plan regarding representation in parliament. The plan changed the proportion of seats that reflect national and regional elections, increasing the seats awarded to regional election winners. Along with many Palestinian leaders, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party has criticized these reforms as favoring tribal strongholds, long the major source of the King’s support, and minimizing the impact of what the Brotherhood asserts is their broader-based support. As a consequence, they boycotted the last round of elections. You may well sympathize with some of these concerns, but as an “insider” you will likely argue that they should bring those arguments into the political process and seek change, rather than choosing not to participate. The ultimate questions are to what extent they will buy your argument and trust you, as well as how much reform you (and the King) will allow. This is also an illustration of the vitally important idea (for you and the King) that all parties in Jordan feel the system has their interests at heart enough so that they will continue to work within the system, rather than seeking to overturn it.

FOREIGN POLICY ISSUES

Jordan generally aligns itself with the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) on most issues of foreign policy. However, Jordan's foreign relations have consistently been pro-Western. Jordan's relationships with the West were damaged by Jordan’s support for Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, support that was largely driven by Jordan’s Palestinian community, which favored Saddam Hussein as a champion against Western supporters of Israel. After the war, Jordan restored its relations with Western countries through its enforcement of UN sanctions against Iraq, and by signing an historic peace treaty with Israel in October 1994, a treaty that you helped to negotiate. In inter-Arab relations, Jordan under King Abdullah has managed to complete the long and difficult process (since the depths of the Gulf War) of reestablishing relations with each of the Arab Gulf monarchies. Jordan has always been pressured to take a stronger stance against Israel due to the large Palestinian population in Jordan, and its close proximity to Israel, but by diplomatic means and cautiousness Jordan has managed to avoid war while maintaining good relationships with Israel and the West.

The most visible foreign policy issue with which you must contend regards the conflict in Syria. According to date from the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees Office, Jordan had admitted into the country nearly 700,000 refugees from the war in neighboring Syria (making up nearly 10% of Jordan’s population), and this has certainly increased social tensions, as well as further stretching limited economic resources. Jordan has received aid from the West and from the Gulf Arab nations to cover some of the related costs, but there can be no question that the War in Syria has exacted a significant toll on Jordan’s economy and its social stability.

It should be added that some of these refugees from Syria are actually Palestinians, and Jordan has sought to portray its decision to ultimately close its doors to people of Palestinian descent as one founded in justice, an argument that brings us back to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jordan’s argument was that the problem is ultimately Israel’s fault, and the proper solution is the return of these people to their homes in Israel/Palestine. Of course, you know that this “solution” is a political impossibility, as Israel would never consider such a proposal (you also know that the King’s policy in this regard has largely to do with his concerns about the threat to his regime represented by potential Palestinian dissent). What’s more important is how successful you will be in “selling” this stance to the Jordanian public. Many Jordanians will be only too happy to see the numbers of prospective refugees reduced, even if aid from Western and regional allies and non-governmental organizations continues to come into Jordan along with the refugees. The question is whether Jordanian Palestinians will buy this “justice-oriented” argument, or whether they will see it as yet another instance of Jordan’s mistreatment of Palestinians by limiting their political power, something that could compel them to protest. Your political skills will definitely be put to the test here.

ROLE-PLAYING NOTES

Like every Prime Minister before you, you’ve chosen to trust that the King truly supports political reforms, including anti-corruption initiatives, and that he won’t leave you hanging when push comes to shove. Indeed, your predecessors might argue that you’re putting yourself in an impossible position, and that pushing for true reform will result in your soon finding yourself in the ranks of former Prime Ministers. Mr. Mulki made some unpopular decisions, meant to head off insolvency, but it appears that the King was unwilling to pay the political price. Past history indicates that changing Prime Ministers is an easy (and public) way for the King to signify that this time he’s truly making changes….after all, there’s no chance that the King will resign, and he can’t be voted out of office.

On the foreign policy front, you are the public face for “moderate” policies regarding Israel that have never been widely popular, and while your strong relations with Israeli leaders could be hugely beneficial for Jordan’s economy, you will need to play things cautiously, as this perception can be politically damaging on the domestic front. You have been a strong opponent of growing Iranian influence in the region, fearing the potential of a radicalized “Shi’ite Crescent.”

Most of all, it will be your job to support the King’s delicate and ongoing balancing act, seeking to maintain the legitimacy of the monarchy by allotting power carefully, and by taking measured political stances that placate dissenters, making them feel (at least somewhat) heard so that they won’t turn against the monarchy. Jordan has adeptly weathered the storms of the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil war but the Kingdom is feeling the strain so, let there be no mistake, your primary job is to try to continue this political balancing act.

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