Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 06/2011

A Decade of Struggling Reform Efforts in Jordan: The Resilience of the Rentier System

Marwan Muasher

May 2011

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


On February 1, 2011, after weeks of protests that preceded the uprisings in both Tunisia and Egypt, King Abdullah II dismissed the unpopular government of Samir Rifai and entrusted Marouf Al Bakhit, an ex-army general and former prime minister, with forming a new government. Bakhit’s major task would be “to take speedy practical and tangible steps to unleash a real political reform process that reflects [Jordan’s] vision of comprehensive reform, modernization and development.” While the references to political reform abounded in this newest letter, they were far from new. Since acceding to the throne in 1999, the king has entrusted almost every appointed government with some aspect of political reform. What was novel about this particular letter was his candid admission that “the process has been marred by gaps and imbalances” and that these were the result of “fear of change by some who resisted it to protect their own interests . . . costing the country dearly and denying it many opportunities for achievement.” In several speeches and press interviews over the last few years, the king has hinted at his frustration with those who did not wish to embrace change. The words in this letter, however, marked the clearest attack yet on those who resisted reform. The accusation was explicit: the motives behind resistance to change from such groups, which had in fact been created and sustained by the system over many decades, stemmed from their desire to protect their own private interests—even at the expense of the state. Could reform efforts have taken a different course in Jordan? In a country where the king has broad powers over all branches of government, his expressed frustration over the struggling reform efforts begs the question of why the status quo remains intact. This decade-long process, initiated by the king, has been largely ignored by an ossified layer of elites seeking to protect their own interests. The clear discrepancy between the king’s directives to the seven prime ministers he had entrusted to form governments in his twelve years of power—and the actual record of reform completed by these respective governments—points to a structural problem that is all too often ignored.