Jordanians sceptical of corruption crackdown

The government faces an uphill battle to prove corruption laws apply equally to all

People wait for the lunar eclipse at Amman Citadel in Jordan July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
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The man at the heart of a multi-million dollar corruption case in Jordan is a virtual unknown and that's making people suspicious.

Weeks ago, Jordanian officials announced the arrest of 30 people over a counterfeit cigarette production and smuggling scheme that involved an estimated $100 million (Dh367.3m) in annual lost tax and customs revenue.

At the heart of the case was a businessman, Awni Mutee, who was able to flee the kingdom the day before the raid on his factories. There is almost nothing publicly known about Mr Mutee, who unlike many Jordanian businessmen is not known to come from a prominent family or a powerful tribe. No one has come forward in local media to offer information on what kind of businesses he ran, or even that they knew him as a neighbour.

Which leaves many Jordanians suspecting he was merely a front man or full guy for shadowy business elites in the country, despite officials on Tuesday issuing a red notice through Interpol for his arrest and extradition. The government’s forwarding of the cigarettes case to the country’s State Security Court, a mixed military-civil tribunal which conducts some of its proceedings behind closed doors, and local news reports on Wednesday claiming Mr Mutee’s presence in Lebanon is “not confirmed,” has done little to diminish suspicions.

From fruit sellers to imams and government clerks, one word is on the lips of Jordanians — corruption.

While officials are vowing to prosecute the cigarette case thoroughly and use it as a springboard for a wider anti-corruption drive, there's a perception among ordinary Jordanians that the elite are not playing by the same rules.

As the new government looks to make some tough economic decisions, it also needs to rebuild public trust. As such, battling corruption — real and perceived — has taken centre-stage.

And the main source of pressure in the clean-up campaign is the monarch.

"Combating corruption remains, as we have said before, the main priority for this government, for me, for all our institutions in the country," King Abdullah told the Cabinet in an address on Sunday.
"The message to the people is: we want to break the back of corruption in the country. It's enough… we want to move forward." No one was above the law, he said.

Prime Minister Omar Al Razzaz was quick to reiterate that the government was following the king’s directives, saying that this time there was political will. Less than two months ago, his predecessor resigned following nationwide protests at the state of the economy.

“There is no impunity for the corrupt,” Mr Al Razzaz wrote in posts on Facebook and Twitter on Tuesday. “This time, [by] insisting on tackling corruption, the political will is crucial to uprooting it and holding the corrupt accountable."

Mr Al Razzaz has a tall task before him in winning over a deeply sceptical public.

The newly appointed Jordanian Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz (C) meets with member of Union leaders in Amman, on June 7, 2018.  Al-Razzaz said that a deal has been reached to withdraw a proposed income tax law that has sparked a week of angry protests. "An agreement has been found to withdraw the bill," Razzaz told journalists after meeting legislators, without setting a firm date for parliament to send the legislation back to the government. 
Jordanian Prime Minister Omar Al Razzaz says fighting corruption is a priority. AFP

While Jordanians are eager to see the cigarettes case followed through and millions of dollars returned to the state, nearly all doubt whether any “big names” — elite businessmen and officials — will end up behind bars. All say this case is just the “tip of the iceberg”.

“In Jordan, the poor people, the working class, we are the only ones that follow the law, pay fines, pay taxes and pay customs,” said Omar Ibrahim, a 26-year-old fruit seller in a crowded central Amman market.

“But the big bosses, the masterminds, they play by a different set of rules, and they never get mentioned and they are never held accountable.”


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Recent history gives Jordanians plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the chances of change.

The most high-profile corruption case to be brought to light in recent years involved the embezzlement of more than $40 million (Dh146.9m) from the Jordan Phosphates Mines Company. However, the man convicted – Walid Kurdi, former chief executive and husband of King Abdullah’s paternal aunt – fled Jordan and has never served jail time.

In 2013, an Amman criminal court sentenced Kurdi to 37 years in prison and fined him JD253 million (Dh1.3 billion) in his absence. Today Kurdi is living in the UK despite an extradition request filed with Interpol by Amman.

The only major figure serving time for corruption is Mohammed Dahabi, a former intelligence chief handed a 13-year prison sentence in 2012 for the embezzlement of $34m (Dh124.9m). Yet many insist the “selective” arrest of Dahabi was politically motivated and used to settle a score between power brokers.

Meanwhile, social media channels are afire with other names and alleged corrupt practices people say they want exposed, implicating officials ranging from ministers to mayors.

epa06129818 King Abdullah II of Jordan inspects honor guards during the welcoming ceremony in the West Bank town of Ramallah, 07 August 2017. King Abdullah is on a one-day visit to Ramallah to meet the Palestinian leadership.  EPA/ALAA BADARNEH
King Abdullah II of Jordan faces an uphill battle tackling corruption. EPA

“His majesty is working hard and doing the right things … yet we have seen in previous cases such as the phosphates case, in the end, no one was held accountable and the public does not even know the whereabouts of the accused,” says Rania Bader, spokesperson for NGO Rasheed (Transparency International-Jordan).

“I think the public trust isn’t there yet,” Ms Bader said. “The government must take concrete actions and steps to pinpoint the sources of corruption in a transparent manner for the public.”

The issue of corruption has come back into the spotlight at a critical time in Jordan. With the country facing a JD523 million (Dh2.7 billion) deficit and a debt-to-GDP ratio hovering above 90 per cent, the government will have to reconsider an unpopular income tax and assess government hiring to cut debt and continue an IMF loan programme.

In a public-opinion poll by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan in July, subjects identified corruption as the second leading reason behind Jordan’s economic woes, right behind rising prices and the cost of living.

According to an Arab Barometer survey conducted in 2016, 79 per cent of Jordanians believe there is corruption within state institutions and agencies to a medium or large extent.

During economic protests that shook Jordan in June, demonstrators repeated a common refrain: crackdown on corruption first before raising our taxes.

“There is a gap between what the king said in his statements and what happens on the ground,” says Hassan Barari, professor of political science at the University of Jordan. “It seems that while the king is saying something that rings nicely in the ears of people, his agencies — whether it be the judicial system, government, or parliament — are not doing anything when it comes to corruption.”

Rather than just a few high-profile cases, Transparency International and others are calling for the government to undertake deeper reforms; to ensure external audits, improve public sector management, transparency in political financing and assets declarations for officials and politicians, legislative oversight, and even public hearings on draft laws.

Yet perhaps even the most critical step for Jordan to eliminate corruption, they say, is financial and public sector procurement reform to transparently show how government contracts are awarded, to whom and who benefits.

Until those steps are taken, the public resentment will likely continue.

“The networks of officials, of businessmen and fat cats is wider than the government would have you believe. The cigarettes case is a drop in the ocean,” says Mohammed Suleiman, an Amman taxi driver.

“We don’t want to see drops, we want the whole ocean drained.”