Jordan's King Abdullah swears in new government of old faces

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Jordan’s King Abdullah swore in a new interim government on Monday that comes into office facing historic unemployment and a spiraling pandemic that its predecessor failed to contain.

Replacing premier Omar Razzaz, Bisher Al Khasawneh, a longtime diplomat new to governance, formed a government made overwhelmingly of cabinet veterans, former ministers and ambassadors.

Sources at the prime ministry and those close to the Royal Court say the experienced “safe hands” were selected to guide Jordan through its largest economic crisis and wave of public discontent in its modern history.

At a socially-distanced swearing in ceremony in front of the king at the Husseini Palace on Monday, Mr Al Khasawneh stressed that “the government will give the pandemic file special importance” vowing to enhance health services, improve the co-ordination between partners in the health sector, and to develop “a new epidemiological monitoring and investigation strategy to cope with the communal transmission phase of the virus” and better contact tracing.

For Interior Minister, Mr Al Khasawneh replaced Salamah Hamad with General Tawfiq Basha Al Halalmeh, the first director of Jordan’s gendarmerie, who helped develop the fledgling service into an elite internal security and counter-terrorism force and remains an influential voice in Jordan’s security sector.

Ali Al Ayad, a former minister and ambassador to Israel, returned to the post of minister of media affairs and government spokesperson, nine years since he last served in the post.

For the post of Deputy Prime Minister and minister of state for economic affairs, he tapped Umayya Toukan, a previous finance minister and longtime governor of the Central Bank of Jordan.

Nayef Al Fayez is another former minister called up to return to his old post, serving once again as minister of tourism to address a critical sector that accounts for 14 per cent of the kingdom’s GDP and has been decimated by pandemic.

Mr Al Fayez has served as tourism minister three separate times over the last decade, most recently in 2016.

Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi kept his position. Reuters

Most notably, the new government replaced Saad Al Jaber, the charismatic health minister who relied heavily on his casual and personable media personality to convince Jordanians of the seriousness of the coronavirus and the need for a costly three-month lockdown.

Mr Al Jaber’s sometimes flippant and oft-quotable approach made him a polarising figure; his claims that Coronavirus had “dried up and died” in Jordan in June after a three-month lockdown became a symbol of the government’s squandering of its hard-earned gains against the virus.

Replacing the outgoing Mr Al Jaber is Dr Nathir Obeidat, spokesperson for Jordan’s Covid- 19 taskforce whose measured, sober and facts-based discussion on Coronavirus with media stood in stark contrast with the outgoing Mr Al Jaber.

The strategic post of foreign minister was one of the few which remained unchanged, with Ayman Safadi retaining the post as the kingdom’s top diplomat, a position he has held since 2017. Minister of Education Tayseer Naimi also kept his role.

King Abdullah tapped Mr Al Khasawneh, who served as Jordan’s ambassador to Egypt, France and the Arab League, as prime minister late last Wednesday, noting in his letter of designation that the new government comes at an “exceptional time.”

Although constitutionally the king-appointed prime minister forms a government independently, former ministers and royal court officials told The National that the palace and security services have large sway over cabinet selections.

The interim government has several tall tasks at hand, the most immediate of which is the coronavirus.

Despite “crushing the curve” in the spring and pushing cases down to 0 for weeks, mismanagement at the country’s borders with Syria and Saudi Arabia led infected truck drivers and border staff to import the virus back into Jordanian communities.

Since then, the Razzaz government struggled to find a balance between reviving the economy and stopping the spread of covid-19, following a strategy of localised lockdowns and weekend curfews that did little to prevent the infections jumping to more than 1,000 cases and 10-15 deaths per day.

Health experts are now warning of a potential collapse of the health system, which has seen dozens of nurses and doctors contract the virus and hospital beds become scarce.

The economic crisis is just as immediate and, for Jordan, with longer-term implications. Jordan’s economy has struggled to recover from a three-month coronavirus lockdown imposed in March.

Its debt crisis has widened to more than 100 per cent of GDP, exacerbated by a drop in tax revenue and costly social measures designed to keep citizens afloat.

Jordan’s unemployment is at a historic 23 per cent, according to official statistics, although independent researchers and think-tanks place the actual joblessness rate near 40 per cent.

The vast majority of Jordanians who have retained their employment are receiving 50 per cent to 75 per cent of their normal monthly salaries.

Compounding the challenges facing the government is the uncertainty surrounding its shelf-life, and indeed its constitutional mandate.

The country’s constitution mandates that once parliament is dissolved upon completion of its ordinary session to pave way for elections, government must also resign in order to prevent a premier running the government without the constitutional check of the legislative body.

King Abdullah tasked Mr Al Khasawneh’s interim government to serve until parliamentary elections- scheduled for November 10- are carried out and a new government is sworn in.

But the country’s Independent High Electoral Commission has hinted multiple times this month that elections may be postponed should Jordan’s Coronavirus cases continue to climb.

Hanging above the elections, as with everything else in Jordan, is the prospect of a second national lockdown.

In order to prevent a collapse of the health system, experts in the Covid-19 taskforce have pushed the government to impose a two- or three-week national lockdown in order to slow transmission.

Incoming Health Minister Dr Obeidat, in his capacity as Covid-19 taskforce spokesperson, warned last week that weekend and local lockdowns as enacted by the previous government were “ineffective at this stage” and that a “two- or three-week lockdown” would be needed to curb communal transmission.

It is unclear how a national lockdown would delay an election campaign season that is already in full swing, and whether the Khasawneh government will serve past its interim label.

Updated: October 12, 2020 07:41 PM

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