x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Jordan's reform agenda is a first step of many

Jordan's reform agenda, as set out by the king, is a good first step. But managing expectations of change is always tricky, and Jordan's case is no exception.

Across the region, those in power have responded to the uproar of the Arab revolts in different ways, from hightailing it out of the country to forcing a damaging civil war.

In Jordan, King Abdullah II is offering a third approach with a series of measured, top-down reforms. If done correctly the proposed constitutional changes could expand some rights and open up the political process a little. But sceptics are rightly wary.

Even Jordan's fiercest critics would have to concede that the kingdom has been moving in the right direction for years. The question now is whether the proposed amendments would mark the end of that road or the beginning of a new one. Even this step does not come close to the true democracy some of Jordan's 6.5 million people are demanding.

In tense times, managing change requires managing political risk. Leaders from Mikhail Gorbachev to Barack Obama could testify to the dangers that high public expectations bring. Now King Abdullah, whose 12-year reign has shown him to be a capable economic moderniser, faces a test of his attempt to manage political reform.

The fundamental problems of corruption and a resource-poor economy have created a strong public appetite for reform. But democracy-minded Jordanians are not the only ones applying pressure. Tribal leaders, who now hold disproportionate influence in parliament, have little interest in changing that. They have long backed the king but would not welcome certain changes for which others clamour.

So what changes make sense? And at what pace? The focal point of that debate is a list of proposals, published last Sunday, from a constitutional-reform study group the king set up in April.

King Abdullah has promised reforms before but they have never amounted to much beyond a new prime minister of his choosing. Now the king has welcomed the proposals from the committee he created, and he does seem to understand that this time is different.

The measures would, if enacted, offer some important shifts: the crown could no longer postpone elections; voting would be overseen by an independent commission; parliament and not the king would choose a prime minister; parliament would acquire the power to approve or reject treaties; torture would be banned and freedom of speech strengthened; and more. Yet most royal prerogatives remain untouched.

In all, these proposals are a respectable first step. It remains to be seen if they will be sufficient.