Amman, Asharq Al-Awsat- It is difficult making an appointment to meet Jordanian Prime Minister Samir Rifai. His schedule is always full and his preoccupations are many. He is expected to handle a diverse multitude of files and issues internally and externally and on the political and economic levels. This is in addition to his determination to follow up on the minutest detail. We requested a press interview from the prime minister’s office in the middle of February and our request was approved in principle. However, a definite date was not set. We were asked to wait until the government presented its plans to tackle the economic issues. Our wait took long but relief came in a telephone call from the prime minister’s office setting Friday [12 March] as the date to hold the interview in his office in Amman. The date came as a surprise since Friday is an official holiday. I arrived with my photographer, colleague Mahmud Jabr on time and “His Excellency the Prime Minister” – as he is called in Jordan – was waiting. He apologized for selecting a Friday for our appointment but we told him that the press works round the clock and does not distinguish between Friday or Saturday or Thursday. Moreover, the timing of the interview with Prime Minister Rifai raised its importance since it was being held immediately after he accompanied Jordan’s King Abdullah II on two important visits to Britain and Russia and after the king’s meeting in Amman with US Vice President Joe Biden. It also preceded the king’s tour of several Arab and Gulf countries.
The first question that Asharq Al-Awsat posed to the prime minister was about King Abdullah II’s visit to Britain and Russia and Biden’s visit. He replied: “These visits come to complement the efforts that His Majesty the king is exerting to solve the Palestinian issue after an international position has formed on the establishment of a Palestinian state on the basis of the two-state solution. This is in addition to discussing the peace process file, the preparations for the Arab summit, and the results of the Arab foreign ministers’ meetings on the peace process that stem form the Saudi and Egyptians stands in support of the Palestinian position”. He added that the discussions dealt with the consolidation of bilateral relations with Britain and Russia, especially in the economic fields. As for Biden’s visit, it is part of a tour that included Israel and the Palestinian lands. During this visit, “we sensed the understanding of the United States of the Palestinian stand in view of Israel’s intransigence”. He went on to say that Biden’s visit is not in lieu of the visit of special envoy George Mitchell but complements it. “We emphasized that Israel’s unilateral measures should come to an immediate stop since they undermine the chances for making peace, especially the building of settlements and other measures that aim at changing the character of Jerusalem and the holy places there. The discussions also dealt with the efforts being exerted aimed at overcoming the obstacles that are impeding progress on the ground to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on the basis of the two-state solution that constitutes the basic condition to bring security and stability to the region. “We also sensed him to be serious in moving forward and emerging from the impasse and resuming the peace process”.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, what is the alternative?
[Rifai] There is no other option except that of peace. We must deal with the logic of peace before the world so that the Palestinians would regain their dignity and their rights. There is no other occupation in the 21st century except that of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian lands. If no progress is made on the peace process the region would suffer a catastrophe. In my personal opinion, it will be war somewhere and a catastrophe to the peoples in the region. However, once again I reiterate that I am optimistic about emerging from this tunnel.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Your government has proclaimed war on terrorism and this proclamation had a huge impact. What are the ramifications and how do you view the issue?
[Rifai] We did not proclaim war on terrorism only recently. Our war on terrorism is not new and it takes various forms. We have been fighting terrorism as a culture and as preludes before we fought it as outcomes and immediate targets. Jordan has made important cultural and intellectual contributions in its war on terrorism. Perhaps the most prominent contribution has been the “Amman Document” that constitutes as consensual reference point about the values and image of Islam. Through our war against terrorism as a global phenomenon, we are protecting our country, principles, citizens, and brethren. The fact is that Jordan has been a target for decades by the various forms and shapes of terrorism. There are many reasons why Jordan is targeted: Jordan’s geographic location that imposes on it many obligations and Jordan’s rational and moderate stand that defends Arab issues and defends the image of centrist and tolerant Islam in confronting the currents of excess, extremism, and the forces of darkness in general. The government’s position came not as a proclamation of war on terrorism. This has been our war as long as terrorism targets us and targets our religion and our values and principles. Our stand confirms this truth and shows it to our people clearly and with full transparency. We have nothing to hide, particularly since the supreme interests of our country and our nation is the only motivation behind all our measures and policies.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you assess Jordanian-Saudi relations on the political, economic, and security levels? Is the joint relationship between the two countries part of the policy of axes? What are your hopes in this regard?
[Rifai] The Jordanian-Saudi relationship is an old and firm one with deep-rooted traditions. This relationship is not governed by transient or temporary issues or topics. We feel that we and our Saudi brothers are in the same trench as we stand in defense of the issues of the ummah [Muslim nation] and seek to protect our region and its security, stability, and future of its peoples. Everyone knows that the relationship between His Majesty King Abdullah II Bin al-Hussein and his brother the custodian of the two holy shrines is a special and distinctive relationship. We seek to raise Jordanian-Saudi relations to the level that exists between the two leaderships in order to realize the aspirations of the higher political will in both fraternal countries. We wish to raise this relationship to higher levels of cooperation and coordination in the service of the two fraternal Arab nations. It is incumbent upon me to express feelings of pride with the pioneer role that His Majesty the custodian of the two holy shrines is playing and to his ardent and persistent search to strengthen the bonds of brotherhood and unity at a time when the Arab nation is in dire need of his wisdom, blessed efforts, noble Arab character, and persistent determination to achieve Arab solidarity in the service of tolerant Islam and keeping its image bright and shining. Moreover, Jordanian-Saudi relations on the popular level are firm and intertwined with deep social and cultural roots that strengthen the bonds of this relationship and steer us toward more qualitative cooperation so that we could perform our duties toward the facts of history and geography.
Regarding the issue of axes, I wish to point out that Jordan has proclaimed its principled rejection early on of the logic of forming axes. We refuse to go back to this era in history that had destructive and negative effects on the cohesion of Arab ranks and unity of position. Jordan and Saudi Arabia are together within the framework of Arab solidarity and a unified Arab stand in the service of the Arab nation’s issues, particularly the Palestinian issue in accordance with the resolutions of international legitimacy and the points of reference of the peace process. We support anything that serves the Palestinian issue and its future and we oppose anything and anyone that tries to undermine the priority nature and centrality of this issue. This is the clear and broad headline of the required Arab stand. Moreover, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have stood together and within the framework of Arab solidarity to abort any external attempts to embroil the region in regional and international conflicts so that this region would not, God forbid, turn into a sphere for foreign influence and a struggle for gains at the expense of the security, stability, and Arab identity of this region. This principled stand does not in any shape or form constitute a policy of axes. It is an Arab logic that seeks to establish a unified Arab stand based on the principles of equality and mutual cooperation and the highest levels of coordination in order to deal with challenges that may come up and to defend Arab issues and their priorities on the international level.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you assess Jordanian-Saudi economic relations?
[Rifai] On the economic level, I can say that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has become Jordan’s primary trade partner in the past two years. The figures of the volume of trade exchange show a constant growth in both directions. In 2009, Jordanian exports to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia reached about 377.5 million dinars and imports reached 1.729 billion dinars. Saudi Arabia employs about 80,000 Jordanian workers, which is about 50 percent of the total of Jordan’s workers employed in the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] countries. Moreover, Saudi investments came at the top 10 countries that have the highest investments in Jordan. Since 1996 until the end of 2009, direct Saudi investments in Jordan that benefited from the investments promotion law reached 940 million dinars. The biggest Saudi investments in Jordan were in the industrial sector and amounted to 730 million dinars. This was followed by investments in the hotel industry totaling about 150 million dinars. The remaining investments were distributed over the sectors of agriculture, transport, hospitals, entertainment theme parks, and tourism. There are also more than $4 billion in Saudi investments in the services sector such as transport, infrastructure, energy, logistic services, finance, commerce, and in the media. Saudi investments in the special economic zone in Al-Aqabah are about 80 percent of the total of foreign investments. Saudi investments have an added value and a direct effect on the economy and the workforce. The Saudi investor is “serious” and is the best kind of investor in Jordan. The government gives Saudi investors all forms of support. The meetings of the 12th session of the joint Saudi-Jordanian committee were held in Riyadh between 13 and 14 January 2009. The committee discussed all the various forms of joint cooperation, particularly the consolidation of cooperation in the economic, trade, and investment fields and ways to raise them to higher levels in order to achieve the common interests of the two fraternal countries via all forms of mechanisms. Agreement was reached to remove all the obstacles not related to customs that restrict the entry of some Jordanian products to the Saudi market. Final solutions were reached through the points of contact that were formed within the framework of the Economic and Social Council. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia promised to back the Jordanian request to sign an agreement for economic cooperation and free trade exchange with the GCC countries when this subject is discussed within the GCC. We look forward to the convocation of the 13th session of the joint Jordanian-Saudi committee in Amman in May, God willing. On the same level, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are tied to many agreements, protocols, memoranda of understanding, and executive programs that regulate the economic relations between the two countries. We look forward to completing the discussions on a draft agreement to avert dual taxation and to conclude an agreement to promote and protect investments between the two countries.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is the Jordan decentralization plan still on the table?
[Rifai] The decentralization plan still stands and it is in the process of preparations. The dialogues and debates continue regarding the form of the required legislation and the date of the elections. There is absolutely no reversal of this vision and this plan. All our efforts at present are focused on completing the preparations so that the picture would be final and clear. The government views the decentralization plan as a duty that should be implemented and with the required speed once the preparatory steps have been finalized. You know that there is a clear stipulation in the royal letter of designation to the government regarding a draft law for decentralized elections this year. A date will be set when these elections will be held and with the required efficiency.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the political objective of the decentralization plan? Is it related to what is happening on the Palestinian lands?
[Rifai] The primary objective of decentralization is a developmental one and the political angle of it is also related to this objective. We are talking about political development side by side with economic development, cultural development, social development, and so on. The political aspect of it is confined to a clear goal; namely, the expansion of the base of participation and giving the sons and residents of provinces the right to set their services priorities, development projects, and various economic projects. This should be accomplished after exerting genuine efforts to build and train resources and capabilities. This is how we understand the decentralization plan. It is an internal developmental requirement that represents a qualitative step on the level of participation and interaction. Jordan is a country that knows how to develop its institutions and expand the base of participation. This has been the goal of the Jordanian state regardless of what happens around us. Regarding what is happening on the Palestinian lands; Jordan’s position is firm and final. It was expressed by His Majesty the king in very clear language that does not brook any other interpretation. We support the two-state solution in accordance with international legitimacy and the points of reference of the peace process. We do not accept any other solution. Jordan views any calls outside the framework of this solution as attempts to sidestep the Palestinian rights and circumvent international legitimacy and its firm resolutions to end the occupation and restore all the Palestinian and Arab rights. Thus, there are no external dimensions to our internal decisions and strategies. The Jordanian state is a strong and firm state and in harmony with its mission and principles on which it was established. We are not the weak side at whose expense the requirements are being arranged. The plan for decentralization is based on delegating, transferring, and redistributing powers, responsibilities, and resources pertaining to domestic administrative, developmental, and services affairs between the government and the provinces and elected local bodies in order to strengthen popular participation in determining the needs and arranging priorities. This would enable the citizen to participate in the decision-making process and formulate the required plans and to execute, follow up on, and evaluate such plans by drawing up and enforcing mechanisms that entrench the principles of transparency, fairness, and accountability. These local administrations and bodies would be subject to government oversight in order to strengthen popular participation in the decision-making process so as to complete the political and administrative reform process and push the democratic march forward.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is Jordan’s position on the Hamas movement? Are there any contacts with the Hamas leadership?
[Rifai] Jordan deals officially with the Palestinian National Authority [PA] and its institutions. As is well known, we do not deal with factions or organizations but with governments and through official and diplomatic channels. In the Palestinian case, we deal with the PA and its President Mahmud Abbas. With our Arab brethren, we seek to achieve the two-state solution to guarantee the establishment of the independent and viable Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. This is our goal and this is what we seek to accomplish in the service of the Palestinian issue and the rights of the Palestinian people. As for the relationship between Fatah and Hamas, we have always supported Palestinian reconciliation and ending the state of geographic and political division among the Palestinians. On top of its negative effects and consequences, such division contributes to weakening and undermining the image of the Palestinians before the international community. It also gives Israel additional excuses to stall and procrastinate in order to sidestep the requirements of a just settlement.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is Jordan’s stand on Netanyahu’s intransigence regarding the two-state solution and to the US Administration’s submission to the demands of the Israeli leadership?
[Rifai] Jordan’s stand was expressed by His Majesty King Abdullah II Bin al-Hussein clearly, accurately, and repeatedly. The Israelis have to understand that their security and future cannot be realized by fortifying themselves behind the “fortress” mentality but by comprehensive peace, restoring rights to their rightful owners, and natural assimilation in the region. This can be reached only in one way, that is, the “Arab initiative”. The intransigence and inflexibility of Israel’s rightist government and all its efforts to procrastinate and sidestep the Palestinian rights and the resolutions of international legitimacy do not mean the end of everything. The entire international community supports the two-state solution. The world stand is pressuring in favor of peace and the implementation of the resolutions of international legitimacy. In fact, I view Israel’s intransigence as an expression of weakness, not of strength. The rightist government cannot continue to sidestep the requirements of international legitimacy. The only alternative is the two-state solution. Objectively, it is the one-state solution that Israel fears and that places it before the demographic requirements.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But there are many Arab voices that argue that the ideal way to confront Netanyahu’s intransigence is by abolishing the Arab initiative as long as the other side is inflexible and does not want peace. What do you think of this approach?
[Rifai] Despite the circumstances that surround such a call and the indignation resulting from Israel’s violations – and with all due respect to the good intentions that stand behind such a call – I am convinced that the biggest service that can be extended to Israel’s rightist intransigence is abolishing the Arab initiative which is one of the most prominent of the strength of the Arab position and an important and basic point of reference to the peace process. Moreover, we should not forget that the Arab initiative has placed the entire international community before its responsibilities when it offered a formula for just peace compatible with international legitimacy and the wishes of the international community to solve the Palestinian issue and establish regional peace that will reflect positively on world peace on several files and issues. I wish to clarify at this point that the strength of the Palestinian issue does not stem only from the Palestinian factor or the Arab factor. To be more frank, these two factors are going through a period of division and weakness. The more effective strength of the Palestinian issue is the strength of its legitimacy and the strength of the international position that supports it and backs a solution to it. Thus, the Arab initiative came in harmony with these facts and to address the international community in a language that it understands and accepts and not any other language. As we understand it in Jordan, the Arab initiative has been the most effective Arab effort in the past two decades in confronting Israeli intransigence. It is a document of condemnation of the Zionist right. Abandoning the Arab initiative – regardless of the circumstances, intentions, and sentiments – serves only the rightist government that is suffering from a crisis. Continuing to cling to and insisting on the initiative increases the embarrassment of the intransigent side and its isolation before the international community.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Your government recently referred the corruption case in the expansion of the oil refinery to the judiciary. The case involved a number of former senior officials and present officials. What is the latest on this case?
[Rifai] The whole issue from its beginning until its end becomes clear is a judicial case. The government exercised its procedural role in referring the case to investigation in accordance to normal procedure. Since the complaint pertains to state economic security and deal with a vital and strategic sector, the sector of energy, the government referred the case to the state security court in accordance with the provisions stipulated in the “state security” law. This is the role of the government; it is no more than a procedural role. What is most important for us and before any other consideration is the independence of the judiciary. In its reply to the royal letter of designation, the government pledged to combat corruption with total accuracy and transparency and to be committed to sound and correct legal procedures. This is especially true since we are proud that Jordan is primarily a state of law and institutions. There are enough guarantees that are stipulated in the law that protect any plaintiff or defendant from any other considerations. I wish to assert here that the government is totally committed to combating corruption in all its financial, administrative, and other forms and through respected and independent bodies that carry out this function and refer such cases to the fair and independent judiciary. This way, the approach to the fight against corruption becomes institutionalized and strikes deeper roots to confront this malady that I once again assert is the most dangerous enemy of the state and of any state because it erodes institutions from the inside and makes the citizen lose confidence in the justice and values on which he grew up.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the status of the parliamentary elections that your government pledged to hold in the fourth quarter of this year? What are the measures that the government is taking to encourage citizen participation following the dissatisfaction with the performance of the last parliament?
[Rifai] The parliamentary elections will definitely be held in the fourth quarter of this year. This is a top priority with no ambiguity or question. We are now in the final stages of drafting the new election law. We want it to represent on its own a quality step forward and an incentive to mature and broad participation under the highest degrees of accuracy, integrity, and transparency. I wish to affirm once again that the government pledged to do this and committed itself to it in the reply to the royal letter of designation in which His Majesty the king, may God protect him, gave instructions to hold the required fair elections in accordance with a new law that is more responsive and more suitable to the aspirations of the citizens. On the level of measures and incentives, the government will do all that is required to accomplish this duty. It has indeed begun to take steps and programs in this direction. The government has only one interest in this context; namely, expanding and broadening the base of participation. The next parliament should be representative of the broadest possible sector of society. We have begun to move in this direction with important and vital sectors with the hope to raise the level of participation. We started with the youth sector in view of its important and primary role, particularly since His Majesty the king has been investing in this sector and wagering on the potentials of youths who His Majesty has called “The Knights of Change”. We will also focus on the sector of the Jordanian woman in order to raise the level of her participation and representation in the next parliament. There are many other steps that will be announced in time.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] A lot is being said about economic conditions in Jordan and the serious difficulties that the economic situation is facing. How are you dealing with this fact?
[Rifai] The data we have are not easy; they represent a real challenge to the government in how to deal with them. That is why the government has taken a series of important measures, primarily drawing up an executive plan to set the government’s priorities and to defer projects and programs that can be deferred with difficulty. In fact, we approved the most necessary projects that require minimal expenses to be subsidized and we decided not to take decisions that necessitate ending the subsidies or raising the prices of basic commodities. We also issued instructions to minimize government expenditures, including the formation of official delegations, procurement of supplies and furniture, and freezing government appointments. These are all hard decisions but they are necessary and should be taken in view of the circumstances. The government’s final goal is to protect Jordan’s economic security. This is a goal that our citizens understand and appreciate. It is also a fact that the Jordanian citizen is mature and educated. He can shoulder his national duties. Even if he shoulders a lot, a Jordanian citizen understands the feeling of partnership and feels responsible for the future of his children. What is most important for us is for the Jordanian citizenship to sense that the government is serious and fair and that the state and its resources are beyond the reach of corruption and those that sow corruption. At this point, it is necessary to bring up another fact which is equally important. A principal part of our resources and expenditures are spent in the service of our Arab role and in defense of our principles. These issues are costly on the political level as well as on the economic level. We are prepared to shoulder our responsibilities on the political level and we persistently and seriously seek to shoulder our economic responsibilities as long as we are advocates of a message. Our Arab stand is firm and basic, and we are part of this region and its security and stability.