When an Arab leader removes his chief of intelligence, it's a sign that some kind of serious internal shake-up is underway. And that's just what has been happening here as the storm of political reform settles deeper over the Arab world.
On May 5, King Abdullah removed the director of Jordan's General Intelligence Directorate, Gen. Saad Kheir. Though Kheir was widely respected for his skill in counterterrorism operations, the Jordanian monarch believed the intelligence chief had become an obstacle to the political and economic reforms he hopes to launch this summer.
The Jordanian moves are the latest evidence of the reform battle taking shape here, and in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. The Bush administration is pushing for reforms and is seen by many Arabs as a driving force. But the recent events in Jordan are a reminder that, in the end, all politics is local. Abdullah has been advocating reform for six years, but he has made limited progress because of entrenched domestic opposition. Now he has decided to move more aggressively.
Kheir was widely regarded as the second most powerful man in Jordan. As in most Arab countries, the intelligence service here maintains extensive files and a pervasive network of informants, which gives the intelligence chief considerable political leverage. Kheir was an especially effective spymaster and a favorite of former CIA director George Tenet. Abdullah has moved Kheir to the palace as national security adviser, where he can continue his anti-terrorism efforts.
Abdullah has taken other steps to shake up Jordan over the past two months, including forming a new government in April in which reformists are more prominent, installing a new chief of the royal palace and replacing the director of public security. Because these moves followed a trip to Washington by the king in late March, the chattering classes in Amman have speculated that they resulted from U.S. pressure. But there's little evidence of that. Indeed, when Abdullah explained his reform plans in a White House meeting in March, President Bush is said to have approved, but cautioned, "Take it easy."
"What the king found was that not all agencies were in line with his program," a top adviser to Abdullah said. "One arm was working against the other. People were confused. The king decided to bring in a team that was reformist and worked in tandem."
The top royal adviser explained the king's decision to replace the chiefs of intelligence and public security: "The intelligence agencies wanted to continue their grip on the country. They felt that by opening up, they might lose that grip. They confused security and policy issues. Being an intelligence agency in this part of the world, that's how they always operated."
Abdullah is also trying to address public worries about corruption. He plans to announce soon an ombudsman who will take over the anti-corruption department that was run by the intelligence agency. And he is moving to end government contracts for a prominent Jordanian businessman, Khaled Shaheen, who has been criticized in media reports for being too close to the palace and the security agencies. Shaheen's assistant said he was traveling and couldn't be reached for comment.
Jordan's economic reforms are being framed by the finance minister, Bassem Awadallah, who returned to government in the April reshuffle. He plans to announce in July a plan to reduce about $620 million in oil subsidies over the next two to three years, and to cut the budget deficit by about $600 million over the same period. He will also launch a roughly $500 million privatization of Jordan's telecommunications, power generation and phosphate mining industries. Awadallah has been a lightning rod for conservative critics, and attacks on him are likely to increase when the new fiscal measures begin to bite.
A "national agenda" of political reforms is being prepared by Marwan Muasher, a former foreign minister who became director of the royal court in the recent shake-up. He hopes to launch this plan in September with a series of 10-year targets, such as providing national health care, halving unemployment from the current 14 percent, and doubling per capita income. Abdullah is likely to call for a national referendum to endorse the package.
Jordan has been something of an oasis of tranquility in a turbulent neighborhood, and many Jordanians worry that the reform effort will bring instability. But Abdullah is convinced that the coming storm over reform is preferable to the hurricane that would result from inactivity. "We need to accelerate," says the top adviser. "We cannot stay where we are."