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Jordan’s New PM Faces Uphill Struggle As Economy Continues to Flounder

Jordan- Omar Razzaz
Jordanian Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz meets with members of Union leaders in Amman, on June 7, 2018. Photo AFP

Jordan’s new Prime Minister Omar Razzaz stepped into a daunting situation when he was appointed on 5 June 2018, amid popularr anger over proposed economic reforms that would have increased taxes and other expenses for all Jordanians.

Yet if anyone is up for the challenge of forging a path that will satisfy both the Jordanian people and the country’s international funders, it is Razzaz. A Harvard-educated intellectual and economist and an outspoken proponent of political reforms, he is widely respected across the social spectrum.

Even so, his position is precarious, as King Abdullah II has frequently ousted prime ministers and reshuffled the government to appease protesters over the years. Razzaz is the thirteenth person to hold the position since 2000.

King Abdullah II, in announcing that former Prime Minister Hani Mulki would step aside, praised Razzaz as “a patriotic man of the people, who enjoys a close connection with Jordanian youth, and a visionary who has left a positive mark on every public position you assumed in a number of leading national institutions. You have accumulated deep national and international experience that would, with the help of God and his blessings, aid you in undertaking this immense national responsibility before you.”

In a Twitter post following his appointment, Razzaz pledged ‘to dialogue with the various parties and work with them to reach a just tax system that is fair to all and goes beyond the concept of collection to achieve development’.

His first order of business was to withdraw the controversial tax bill when his cabinet, made up of a mix of old and new faces, was sworn in on 14 June. The more difficult task will be deciding what to replace the tax bill with, given Jordan’s economic woes and dependency on international financial institutions.

Razzaz comes from a family of intellectuals. He is the son of Munif Razzaz, an Arab nationalist and former secretary general of the Baath Party, and the brother of late Jordanian novelist Monis Razzaz.

He studied and worked at some of the most prominent institutions in the United States, receiving a master’s degree from MIT, a PhD from Harvard University and a post-doctorate degree from Harvard Law School. He worked at MIT as an assistant professor from 1995 to 1997 before joining the World Bank, where he worked in various posts, including as country manager of the Lebanon office. He returned to Jordan in 2006. He has since held a series of private and public sector positions, including as director general of the Social Security Corporation, chairman of the board of directors of the Jordan Ahli Bank and, most recently, as minister of education.

In this latter position, he was tasked with overhauling Jordan’s public education system, particularly the Tawjihi (General Secondary Education Certificate Examination). Among other changes, his plan included allowing students to retake the exam unlimited times and instituting a tiered grading system rather than a simple pass or fail. Different university specializations were given different thresholds for the minimum acceptable score to admit applicants.

He criticized the education system’s tendency to focus on rote learning over critical thinking and the gap in opportunities offered to different classes of students.

“We all know that there is a gap in our education system, between private and public education. There is even a gap within the same class between those sitting in the front seats and those sitting in the back,” he told Venture Magazine in 2017. “We have to narrow this gap so that education can be an opportunity for everyone to achieve their goals.”

He also criticized the inefficiency and corruption in the Jordanian government. In a 2016 op-ed for The Jordan Times on the role of parliament in setting economic policy, he wrote: ‘Unfortunately, over the past years, the MPs’ influence on the economy has been reduced to individual interferences driven by nepotism or wasta and narrow benefits rather than national interests. In general, the relationship between the legislative and executive branches has been characterized by bickering associated with a clientelistic exchange of favours, as opposed to separation of powers with functioning checks and balances.’

He condemned parliament for not taking an active role in reviewing the government’s budget proposals, and noted the lack of power to monitor and hold accountable government agencies.

If Razzaz’s appointment was meant to appease protesters and prevent anger towards the king from escalating, the plan appears to have been somewhat successful: the number of demonstrators dropped off, although the demonstrations continued.

Many of those who had taken part in or supported the protests expressed cautious optimism and congratulated Razzaz on his appointment on social media and elsewhere. One Jordanian Twitter user wrote, ’I’m so proud of my beloved Jordan! Extremely happy and optimistic for the choice of the new PM.’ Another state, ’Although it is not over yet, replacing the old prime minister with a smart intelligent person is a treasure to Jordan. Looking forward to having a brighter Jordan and smart decisions from now on.’

However, others questioned whether Razzaz represented a real change of direction. The online magazine 7iber noted that in light of ‘the chants of “the World Bank will not govern us” and “down with the rule of the IMF” … not only is it a glaring contradiction that the appointed prime minister used to serve as the director of the World Bank’s office in Beirut but that he is also presented as a response that aligns with popular will’.

Lamis Andoni, a Palestinian-Jordanian journalist, is sceptical about his ability to make real changes in economic policies that have relied on austerity measures and to take an active role in advising and pushing back against the palace. “He’s really knowledgeable and he has the expertise – that’s not the issue,” she said. “But will he challenge all of these measures? It’s not enough to have clean hands anymore.”

Razzaz addressed his sceptics on Twitter, writing, ‘Many of you chanted, “You used to test our children, now it is our turn to test you.” I am ready for this test, which will be a book open to the experiences of the whole world, but the questions and answers will come only from the womb of Jordan, with its royal vision, and from the minds and hands of its loyal and faithful sons and daughters.’

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