The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan – a small, arid swath of land that its Western-educated monarch jokes is “between Iraq and a hard place” – teems with corruption. Most Jordanians often have no choice but to pay bribes for public services. Members of the government and the royal family regularly siphon money from public contracts and foreign aid projects. And the Kingdom’s nepotistic political system does little to hold prominent politicians and businessmen accountable when they leverage their ties to the royal family to steal disproportionate amounts of resources or redirect government funds. Corruption, it seems, crowns the Kingdom.
It is unsurprising, then, that claims of corruption permeated news of the recent rift between King Abdullah II and his half-brother, Prince Hamzah. After Prince Hamzah’s purported involvement with a conspiracy to undermine Jordan’s national security and destabilize the existing political regime led to his house arrest, he released a video claiming that his unjust detention was for speaking out against government corruption.
Although the international media has covered the dynamics of the royal family and the possibilities of a Jordanian descent into civil war, little has been written about the ways in which King Abdullah’s government can respond to the accusations of corruption and take back leadership. Given that Prince Hamzah – among others – nearly always couches criticism of the Jordanian government in terms of corruption, such a response is necessary. If the current government wants to signal its seriousness in fighting corruption, it should aggressively pursue an anticorruption agenda with five key elements:
1. Dismantle the wasta system. Jordan is notorious for its wastas, a word that means both “clout,” but that in context often connotes, “Someone I know can get me what I want, even though in a fair, meritocratic system, I ought not receive it.” Wastas can assist criminals with getting out of jail and escaping punishment for their crimes; they can help politicians get elected (through coercion and bribery); they can function as barriers to employment (if the prospective employee doesn’t have a wasta). During the pandemic, wastas enabled people to live free of pandemic-related restrictions by securing emergency travel cards meant for healthcare workers. Given wastas’ role in corruption, King Abdullah’s government should focus on eliminating, or at least reducing, wastas. This can be done by enforcing more rigorous hiring protocols across the private and public sector and implementing harsher penalties on enforcement officials who allow criminal offenders to skirt the justice system via wastas.
2. Prosecute corrupt officials. This past October, when gang members assaulted and mutilated a teenage boy in an extortion deal gone sour, several sitting congressmen were identified as having repeatedly accepted bribes to pull strings for the gang members. King Abdullah’s government should aggressively prosecute these officials in order to set precedent and deter further corruption. Moreover, diffusing and reassigning governmental responsibilities will diminish any one official’s power to exploit his position.
3. Empower the press and traditional media. An independent media can convey accurate information that citizens might not otherwise receive, thus enabling the community to respond to corruption and hold those involved accountable. In the Jordanian context, a constrained media suppresses public oversight of the government and facilitates corruption. Currently, criticism of King Abdullah is a criminal offense in Jordan. Most Jordanians censor themselves and distrust the media and news reports. If King Abdullah and his government demonstrate that the media has independence—including, but not limited to, the repeal royal-insult laws—this will bolster citizens’ faith in subsequent anticorruption efforts.
4. Support credible and transparent election campaigns. For years, King Abdullah’s government has relied on the mukhabarat, the General Intelligence Directorate, to stymie election efforts by opposition political parties. Although the Kingdom’s main opposition parties proudly acknowledge their Islamist bent and Muslim Brotherhood ties, continuing to suppress these parties only increases their public support. This is in part because these opposition parties’ campaign platforms promise to expose and weed out the Kingdom’s rampant corruption. If these parties are allowed to run without suppression, then the electorate will see that their promises are hollow and that real reform and an end to corruption will come from the existing government.
5. Bolster the Integrity and Anti-Corruption Commission. In 2016, the Jordanian cabinet passed a law establishing an Integrity and Anti-Corruption Commission. In theory, the commission was empowered to ensure that the government provided services to citizens with transparency and fairness; that whistleblowers were protected; corrupt officials were prosecuted; and accountability was widespread. In 2020, the cabinet amended the commission’s capabilities, broadened its jurisdiction, and granted it more independence in pursuing corruption cases. Functionally, however, the commission remains subordinate to the Jordanian government. If the commission were free to investigate and prosecute members of the Jordanian cabinet and parliament, this would enhance citizen confidence in the state and its institutions. In the context of the recent royal rift, for example, the commission could and should have been called upon to investigate both Prince Hamzah’s claims and any counter-accusations regarding the anti-government tribal meetings he has been accused of attending.
Although none of these efforts alone will suffice in quelling the country’s simmering instability, they would represent a more comprehensive and effective anticorruption agenda. As King Abdullah’s government continues to confront threats to its legitimacy and power, it will need to provide a measure of reassurance to an increasingly incensed populace that corruption is being addressed. Otherwise, the people themselves may take more drastic action—and if they do, there’s no guarantee they won’t dissolve the monarchy.