Jordan cabinet reshuffle aimed at economic turnaround

Prime Minister Omar Razzaz creates new ministry to promote entrepreneurship and digital skills

FILE PHOTO: Jordan's Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz speaks to the media during a news conference in Amman, Jordan April 9, 2019. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed/File Photo
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Jordanian prime minister Omar Razzaz has reshuffled his cabinet in a bid to turn around the country’s economic woes, creating a new ministry to boost entrepreneurship and give citizens job skills for the digital age.

The reshuffle announced late on Thursday was the third change to Mr Razzaz's government in less than a year.

“Our message behind this reshuffle is that we recognise that economic conditions are currently the greatest challenge facing Jordanians and we are taking all steps possible to alleviate economic burdens and spur economic and social development,” said Jumana Ghunaimat, minister of state for media affairs and government spokeswoman.

The new Ministry of Entrepreneurship and Digital Economy is intended to bring together incubators, investors and young entrepreneurs and to eliminate red tape. It will also help Jordanians gain skills in the IT sector, particularly those living outside the capital, the government said.

The ministry will be headed by Muthana Gharaibeh, formerly head of the ICT ministry that was scrapped in the reshuffle.

Meanwhile, a new Ministry of Local Administration, replacing the ministry of municipal affairs, will continue the kingdom's decentralisation project to increase citizens’ participation in decision-making in their communities. The ministry will link up recently formed local and provincial councils with municipalities and will provide training and funds to the new bodies, Ms Ghunaimat said.

Walid Masri, formerly minister of municipal affairs, will head the new ministry.

The shake-up brought in six new ministers and saw the dismissal of five ministers. The ministers of labour, interior, planning and international co-operation, and health were replaced while the position of minister of state for investment affairs was scrapped.

Most notably, Salameh Hammad has returned to the cabinet as interior minister. He has held the position four times from 1993-1995, 1995-96, 2015-16 and 2016-17. He is known for defusing tensions between the state and local communities and is a respected figure among Jordan’s tribes.

Most recently, Mr Hammad in 2016 restored calm to the restive southern city of Maan, ending a year-long withdrawal of police forces from the city following a series of violent confrontations between citizens and security forces.

Mohammad Eses, who until recently was an economic adviser to King Abdullah, was appointed minister of planning and international co-operation and minister of state for economic affairs.

Jordan's unemployment rate is 18.6 per cent, with about 400,000 jobless Jordanians across the country. According to government statistics released last month, 15.7 per cent of Jordanians, or about some 1 million people, live below the poverty line.

Appointed in June last year following nationwide protests over austerity measures and taxes, Mr Razzaz, a former World Bank official, has struggled to balance IMF requirements to cut public debt while providing a safety net for vulnerable Jordanians.

Adding to Jordan’s worries is the impending announcement of a US plan for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Jordan has privately voiced reservations over what has been leaked about the deal, particularly the status of Palestinian statehood, Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem, where the Hashemite royal family retains custodianship of Islamic and Christian holy sites.

With Jordan home to 3 million Palestinian refugees and historic links to Jerusalem, observers and insiders say the government is preparing for potential nationwide protests after the unveiling of the deal, tentatively set for June.