AMMAN, (Reuters) – Close U.S. ally Jordan’s King Abdullah asked former palace aide Samir al-Rifai to form a new cabinet to push forward economic reforms before parliamentary elections later next year, officials said on Wednesday.
The new government comes after an abrupt move by King Abdullah last month to end parliament’s life in mid-term that was prompted by the government’s failure to implement investor friendly laws and maintain fiscal restraint to spur growth.
Earlier, officials privately said the king accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Nader al-Dahabi and asked Rifai to form a new government.
Most constitutional powers rest with the king who appoints governments, approves legislation and can dissolve parliament. They said Abdullah will count on Rifai, 43, a politician turned businessmen whose father Zaid al-Rifai is an elder statesman, to win support for his economic and social reforms. His task will be to win over the conservative establishment, the backbone of the king’s power base, which fears accelerated reforms could erode its grip on power.
King Abdullah has faced stiff resistance from a traditional establishment bent on preserving a broad patronage system and worried about his drive to modernise a tribally structured society.
Parliament, a stronghold of tribal support, was elected in November 2007 under a controversial electoral law that reduced the representation of the largely Palestinian-dominated cities, which are Islamic strongholds, in favour of rural and Bedouin areas.
Many Jordanians fear their countrymen of Palestinian origin will settle permanently in the kingdom if they cannot return to the Palestinian territories, and are resisting their political empowerment in Jordan.
The Islamist influence in a parliament dominated by the local concerns of tribal candidates was also reduced in the fourth multi-party polls since the revival of parliamentary life after riots in 1989.
Liberal politicians say the move is part of a wider shake-up to ward off popular disenchantment over economic contraction after years of growth, and allegations of official graft.
Outgoing prime minister Nader Dahabi, a former air force chief, had been appointed by the king in November 2007.
Many politicians have accused Dahabi’s government of mismanagement as it grappled with the impact of the global downturn on the aid-dependent economy and a rise in public debt to record levels.
Jordan, with a population of six million, faces a contracting economy after several years of robust growth.
The boom was supported by strong foreign direct investments, including remittances from a large skilled work force in the Gulf Arab region.
King Abdullah had been counting on a new U.S. drive for Middle East peace, and the stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian relations is casting a shadow on a country a majority of whose six million citizens are of Palestinian origin.
The new cabinet line-up is likely to continue Jordan’s free market reforms that critics say have deepened the divide between rich and poor and traditional support for U.S. policies in the region, officials said.
Jordan’s Islamist opposition, strident opponents of Israel, alongside independent politicians and liberals say successive governments have failed to deliver greater political liberalisation.