December 14, 2009 / 4:33 PM / 10 years ago

Jordan king swears in new conservative government

AMMAN (Reuters) - Jordan’s King Abdullah, a close ally of the United States, swore in a government on Monday headed by the scion of a powerful political family and charged it with speeding reforms before parliamentary elections next year.

Jordan's new Prime Minister Samir Rifai swears in at the Royal Palace in Amman December 14, 2009. REUTERS/Yousef Allan

Samir Rifai, a 43-year-old former palace aide-turned businessman and son of elder statesman Zaid al-Rifai, was asked by the monarch to take over from Nader Dahabi, who quit having led a much-criticized government for two years.

The king has told Rifai to improve governance and push for genuine political reforms ahead of multi-party polls scheduled at the end of 2010, officials said.

The cabinet line-up was dominated by conservative politicians, tribal loyalists and technocrats who held sway before the outgoing government of Western-leaning pro-reformists.

Mohammad Abu Hamour became finance in a new 28-member cabinet in which the posts of foreign and interior ministers remain unchanged, the state news agency Petra said.

Abu Hamour, who was finance minister in a previous administration, replaced Bassem al-Salem, a liberal businessman who had pushed an austerity budget to curb runaway government spending that sent public debt to record levels.

Rajai al-Muasher is a prominent businessman and vocal critic of the liberal reformists and supporter of a wider role for the state in the economy. He becomes deputy prime minister and is expected to have a big say in shaping reforms, officials added.

FEARS

Jordan 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.

Rifai however pledged to usher in an economic turnaround to restore investor morale and push reforms to modernize laws that make the kingdom more attractive to foreign investors.

Officials say the monarch would count on Rifai to surmount hurdles seen with previous conservative administrations that frustrated the palace with its defense of the powerful state bureaucracy that seeks to reverse free market reforms.

The traditional establishment fears reforms would hand their countrymen of Palestinian origin a bigger political role.

Many ordinary Jordanians have become disenchanted with governments backed by a conservative establishment that regards democratic change as a challenge to its hold on power.

The new government comes after an abrupt move by the monarch last month to end parliament’s life in mid-term.

It was accused of inept handling of legislation and obstructing free market reforms crucial to spur the stagnant economy.

Parliament, a stronghold of tribal support, was elected in 2007 under an electoral law that reduced the representation of the largely Palestinian-dominated cities, which are Islamist strongholds, in favor of rural and Bedouin areas.

Many Jordanians are resisting the political empowerment of their countrymen of Palestinian origin, a majority of the country’s six million population, for fear they will settle permanently in the kingdom if they cannot return to the Palestinian territories.

Since ascending the throne over a decade ago, King Abdullah has overseen dynamic changes in Jordan’s economy, but critics say the gap between rich and poor has widened, while political reform has stagnated.

Most powers rest with king, who appoints governments, approves legislation and can dissolve parliament.

Writing by Suleiman al-Khalidi; Editing by Jon Hemming

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