The (Old) New Court Chief Who Is Helping to Pick Jordan’s Next PM

Jordan is in the midst of a political process that is unprecedented, even though it definitely falls short of the regime’s narrative that this election would bring fundamental change and parliamentary government. Despite falling short of the regime’s narrative, it is nonetheless true that the process of appointing the next government is being conducted differently from the process by which its predecessors were appointed.

Previous Prime Ministers were appointed directly by the King, while Prime Minister Ensour’s successor will be chosen in consultation with parliament. New Royal Court Chief Fayez Tarawneh will meet with the major blocs in parliament for consultations, starting with the largest. Independent MPs will be consulted afterwards.

Tarawneh’s recent appointment as Royal Court Chief was the second time that he had held the position. In a certain way, he’s always been someone whom King Abdullah has turned to when he faces difficulties. When King Abdullah first assumed the throne, Tarawneh was Prime Minister. In January 2000, when conservative Prime Minister Abdur Rauf far-Rawabdeh, and controversial liberal court chief Abdelkarim al-Kabariti were feuding over numerous issues, including economic policy, women’s rights, freedom of speech, and Jordan’s relationship with Iraq. Rawabdeh was seen as pro-Baghdad while Kabariti’s dislike of Saddam Hussein was well known.

When King Abdullah decided to replace Kabariti as Court Chief, whom did he appoint? Fayez Tarawneh, who had a strong working relationship with Rawabdeh. His stronger relationship with Rawabdeh was surely due at least in part to Kabariti’s abrasive nature (as PM Kabariti the budget for the royal court, but also cut bread subsidies and blamed the ensuing riots on Iraqi interference, and had an Iraqi diplomat expelled). However, there is something else also at work here – When Tarawneh was appointed by King Abdullah to replace Kabariti, it represented a victory for those who were opposed even to reforms that were intended to bolster the regime over the long term. Tarawneh’s good professional relationship with Rawabdeh would, in part, have been due to the fact that Tarawneh’s positions on these issues were more in line with those of Rawabdeh, a conservative plagued by rumors of corruption.

As Royal Court Chief, Tarawneh forcefully defended the government’s position prior to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, saying that Jordan’s economic relationship with the United States was vital, despite his personal objections – and those of many within the Jordanian government – to a US-led invasion of Iraq. He also implied that the US would make its decision to go to war based on its own interests rather than those of Jordan.

It is interesting to note that King Abdullah actually may have tried to get rid of Tarawneh in 2003, when he appointed him to the senate, and selected Faisal al-Fayez as his replacement at the Royal Court.  Despite this, Tarawneh remained a staunch loyalist (referred to in a cable leaked by wikileaks as a “hardcore East Banker”, and in 2005 bragged about having a local Imam at his mosque in West Amman arrested for discussing radical politics while at the mosque during prayer services, and called for the arrest of more extremist clerics, and accused the IAF of being a front for Hamas. In March 2006 he talked to the American Ambassador about his fear that the IAF and Muslim Brotherhood would triumph if direct elections for Mayors and council members were restored.  Regardless of what one thinks of the IAF, Tarawneh was willing to undermine democratic elections in order to defeat an opposing political party. This does not bode well for reform or parliamentary democracy.

Last year, when King Abdullah ousted PM Awn Khasawneh and harshly criticized him in the letter accepting his resignation in which the King accused Khasawneh of going slow on reform, he called on Tarawneh to become Prime Minister a second time, though he lasted for only a few months before Ensour was appointed to replace him. Ensour was said to be the last PM appointed directly by the King, but with Ensour unlikely to remain in his position, who is leading the negotiations from the palace’s side to choose his successor? Fayez Tarawneh.  This doesn’t mean that the election has not brought some degree of change (though less than the regime’s narrative), but Tarawneh’s role leaves those hoping for real reform over the long term with little to look forward to.