King Abdullah II on finding opportunities amidst the challenges of the ongoing Arab Spring

King Abdullah II

 

The events that have swept through the Middle East recently have been described in many different ways, and have generated a vast array of scenarios and resulted in a multitude of new regional dynamics and postures. The only universally accepted certainty is that our region has changed forever. There’s no going back on the aspirations of Arab societies, especially youths, to have a bigger say in decision-making, live in dignity, access jobs, and enjoy their right to equal opportunities and freedoms. As history teaches us, the question at such momentous times is not whether to accept change, but how to embrace it in a way that serves the people’s needs and aspirations – as well as ensuring stability and development.

In Jordan, the winds of change that blew across the region ushered in the most far-reaching political reform process in our country’s history, and one of the most significant democratisation experiences in our region. Educational, economic and other reforms over the past decade had been geared towards empowering our people and providing them with the tools they need to realise their potential in an environment of good governance. When the “Arab Spring” came along, we embraced it as an opportunity to push forward the reform envelope. Our political transformation process has not been without its challenges, as change in any society is always met with resistance stemming from the inherent uncertainty associated with it. Still, we have made significant progress.

The legislative achievements of the past year reflect the scope and depth of the Jordanian reform process. One-third of the constitution was amended, creating new democratic institutions, such as the Independent Elections Commission and the Constitutional Court, strengthening civil liberties, enhancing the separation of powers, and introducing new checks and balances. Most importantly, these changes are the beginning, not the end, of a new era in reform.

Our goal is parliamentary government. Our strategy hinges on strengthening political parties so that they can play their rightful role in shaping governments and policies; empowering Parliament, by bolstering its representativeness; and enhancing the independence and capacity of the judiciary. After the next elections, the new House of Deputies will be included in the consultative process for the designation of the prime minister.

In addition to legislation on key aspects of political life, change is already tangible and far-reaching. On the labour front, a teachers’ association was formed, adding to our vibrant landscape of professional associations and trade unions. New political parties are breaking out of old moulds and ideologies. The voices of our globally-aware, digitally-connected youth are getting louder and clearer. This engaged, pulsing civil society will be a major pillar of our democratic future.

Our approach sees in reform a guarantee of stability and development. This approach has set us apart since the onset of the Arab Spring, and distinguished us as a haven of stability in which emerging regional governments could find a keen partner, and where businesses fleeing uncertainty could relocate.

The dramatic events all around us have resulted in severe economic dislocations, made all the more painful by the global economic crisis. Regional unrest has slowed investments and caused a dramatic decline in tourism receipts, a top foreign currency earner in many countries. Resources that could have been allocated to development had to be rechanneled towards emergency social spending and fiscal challenges.

In Jordan, disruptions in the Egyptian gas supply caused an exponential increase in our energy bill. The Syrian crisis, brewing on our northern border, has already undermined some of our strategic trade routes and markets. And the flow of Syrians across our border – some 125,000 as of June 2012 – is further straining our limited resources.

But the Arab Spring has opened new economic and investment opportunities, too, repositioning Jordan on the global business map. The countries emerging from recent events have tremendous needs and solid economic foundations. They are now eager to rebuild and forge new partnerships.

This is where Jordan comes in – as a strategically positioned bridge for global investors and a natural partner in regional rebuilding efforts. A stable and reliable gateway, Jordan allows free market access to over 1bn consumers, thanks to several free trade and investment agreements. We have developed our infrastructure and encouraged public-private partnerships. We have created fiscal incentives and a regulatory framework conducive to foreign investment, allowing for full repatriation of profits and capital.

The government is now working on even smarter tools, streamlining investment-related legislation; establishing tighter deadlines for decisions on investments; and creating a more transparent and accessible exemptions system. These will further facilitate access to ripe opportunities, especially in ICT, professional services and engineering, tourism, health and pharmaceuticals. Jordan will also soon offer new significant infrastructural investment opportunities to enhance energy, water and food security and develop the renewable energy and transport sectors through public-private partnerships.

The challenge of unemployment, coupled with regional turmoil, has demanded that we focus our energies on two pillars of sustainable growth: entrepreneurship and the development of regions outside Amman. Labour-intensive projects, such as call centres, logistics hubs and chemical factories are being set up in the north and south. Since unemployment is higher in governorates and among university graduates, initiatives were launched to develop entrepreneurship, with government and non-governmental organisations, which have provided training, resources, networking opportunities and incubators for small businesses. The results of our programmes to foster entrepreneurship have been particularly successful in the IT sector, with international stakeholders ranking Jordan among the world’s best places to launch a tech start-up. Jordan already produces and manages 75% of the region’s Arabic-language internet content. The largest Arabic-language web companies are Jordanian. This is another strength we derive from what others might view as a weakness: we are a country of human resources, as opposed to natural resources.

About 70% of Jordanians are under 30 years old. Today’s young Jordanians were raised in a global environment of internet connectivity and real-time communications. This was made possible by an aggressive and ambitious education reform effort, which introduced English language from grade one and connected 86% of all schools to the internet.

We were swift in establishing the necessary institutions and infrastructure to harness this vast human potential, including IT parks and specialised universities, as well as centres that incubate promising businesses and connect them to angel investors. Agreements with technology giants such as Microsoft and Cisco continue to strengthen our IT sector, allowing the industry to target new specialisations, such as health care-ICT.

In our troubled neighbourhood, we continue to chase opportunities for an elusive peace amid the challenge of continued conflict. Jordan’s latest peace efforts stem from the conviction that the Arab Spring – as an unprecedented collective call for dignity, freedoms and rights – demands, does not preclude, a just and final settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which remains the core-cause of regional tension and instability.

Our quests – for peace and stability around our borders, and for democracy and growth within our borders – are inescapably connected. No nation will achieve its potential until security, stability and peace prevail. We are confident the clear and consensual reform course we have embarked upon will add to our strength as a beacon of progress, moderation and stability in a region that is ripe with opportunities.

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King Abdullah II

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