Exactly one year ago, King Abdullah closed the first Dead Sea Forum and okayed its 13-page blueprint for economic, educational, financial and administrative reforms. Away from the cameras and the press, over 150 leading private and public sector representatives had engaged in a weekend marathon of brainstorming sessions and discussions on what needed to be done to usher the country into the 21st century.
The modalities of the unprecedented retreat, the issues on the table — privatization, e-government, banking reforms, the introduction of computers and English as a second language at public schools — and the final deliberations then had raised a few eyebrows.
“Some senior officials were skeptical,” recalls one young professional who was among the participants. “While listening to some of the presentations, they would exchange [dismissive] looks,” he said, asking not to be named. “I remember that, at some point, one senior official asked what was the use of teaching English from first grade.”
Nevertheless, King Abdullah — then only at his ninth month of reign — moved swiftly and with determination to get the plan implemented. A little more than two weeks after the Forum, he appointed a 20-member Economic Consultative Council, including 14 private sector representatives and chaired by himself, to issue recommendations to the government and oversee the implementation of the modernization plan.
Eight of the ECC members are of Palestinian origin while the rest are ethnic “East Bankers” or Jordanians with roots in Syria and the Caucasus. The ECC met for the first time on December 12, less than a month after the Dead Sea Retreat, and established task forces to deal with the different sectors.
So far, it has dealt with fiscal and healthcare reforms, the restructuring of the water and finance sectors, the bloated civil service as well as economic restructuring and the privatization process. It has also helped the government prepare the necessary legislation to ensure Jordan's entry to the World Trade Organization, earlier this year.
“The ECC has achieved 75 percent of its objectives,” declared ECC rapporteur, Bassem Awadallah. “The Council's work cemented a real sense of partnership between the private and public sectors,” said Awadallah, who is also the director of the Economic Unit at the Royal Court.
The formation of the ECC, he continued, provided one of the first examples of the new King's style of governance and his hands-on approach to decision-making. “The Dead Sea Forum and the ECC are a major example of how the King does things,” Awadallah told the Jordan Times in a recent interview. “He does not want `photo opportunities.' He wants results, and he is ready to follow up on the results, and to follow up on the follow-ups”.
In April, the ECC submitted a comprehensive and ambitious plan for restructuring the banking sector. In September, it launched an e-government strategy — which experts indicate will have a major impact on overall administrative reforms. In October, the ECC finalized and submitted a draft on a new Vocational Training Council and issued a bold report on the restructuring of the Amman Stock Exchange.
“Looking at 2000, we realize it was a year of consolidation and achievements, though not without its difficulties,” commented Awadallah. “We clinched a Free Trade Agreement with the US [last month], after an admission in record time [after less than nine months of negotiations] to the WTO,” he said. Only one and a half years ago, he noted, Jordan was still on the US “Watch List 301” of countries found in consistent violation of intellectual property rights.
“It was also the year in which information technology was squarely identified as a major engine of growth with high potential,” he added. But 2001 does not have any less work in store for the ECC. “We set up the legal framework for the Aqaba Special Economic Zone,” poised to be launched on Jan. 1, 2001. “But next year the SEZ must be up and running,” continued Awadallah.
Over the next few months, the ECC will work on a courageous plan for highland agriculture reforms, calling for reducing the country's irrigated farming area by 300,000 dunums, to 130,000 dunums in five years. It will also be busy with crucial amendments to the Securities, Investment Promotion, Labor and Companies Laws. Loopholes and discrepancies in the current laws were identified in September by Reach 2.0 — a private sector effort to review last year's Reach Initiative, the national plan for the development of the IT sector.
According to Karim Kawar, an ECC member and a leading IT entrepreneur, some of the current laws greatly hamper foreign investments and ventures. “Under our Labor Law, for example, the employee owns what he produces and develops. So, a [Jordanian] Microsoft [programmer] could rightfully claim property of Word before a court of law, even if he only wrote two lines of it,” he explained.
Other ECC tasks next year will include preparing the ground for the enactment of e-commerce and e-government legislation, as well as submitting some WTO-related drafts that were not included in the agenda of last year's and this summer's parliamentary sessions. “These are all extremely technical laws,” noted Awadallah, “and we do not expect any opposition in Parliament.”
Last but not least, a Royal Commission was recently established to look into much needed judicial reforms. “The bulk of what remains to be done is the reform of the judiciary,” Awadallah commented, noting that, however, that task was not originally included in the ECC's mandate. “After that, we will have accomplished our objectives,” Awadallah said.
With that task completed, officials agree that it will be time for a Dead Sea Forum II, possibly in March, after the closing of the current ordinary session of Parliament, to take stock of the achievements. At the eventual Dead Sea Forum II, King Abdullah is likely to replace some Council members and change the structure of the body, most analysts say.
Critics argue that the inclusion of some prominent ECC members in the government of Ali Abul Ragheb, sworn in on June 17, has made the Council “redundant.” “The [former] government of Abdul Raouf Rawabdeh [March 1999-June 2000] was not as much in tune with the King's economic development agenda as Abul Ragheb's [Cabinet] is,” said a former prime minister. “Under [the] Rawabdeh [government], a parallel body was needed, but that is no longer the case, and, now that many ECC members have joined the government, one can tell that the Council is not as active as before,” he told the Jordan Times.
Abul Ragheb was appointed to the ECC in his capacity as the head of the financial committee at the Lower House; current Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Economic Affairs, Mohammad Halaiqah joined the Council as under-secretary at the Trade and Industry Ministry and head of Jordan's WTO negotiating team; current Education Minister Khaled Touqan was chosen to join the ECC while he was president of Balqa University; and, finally, current Post and Telecommunications Minister Fawwaz Zu'bi joined the ECC as a leading entrepreneur in the water sector.
“I believe the Council works even better now that more members are in government,” said Awadallah, adding that implementation of ECC recommendations might now be even swifter. Most analysts agree that the ECC should not be seen as a temporary body. “It is an appointed institution to serve a specific agenda, and it makes things a lot easier, because it over-rides government bureaucracy,” said a former minister, who preferred not to be named.
“With all the emphasis that His Majesty has put on economic development, I believe that such a body will be needed and will stay around for many years to come,” he said. — ( Jordan Times )
By Francesca Sawalha
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)