Answer to Jordan's economic woes may lie in Iraq

Jordan's transportation minister recently visited Iraq, and the prime minister may follow suit.

When Mohammad Kalaldeh, Jordan's minister of transport, visited Baghdad early this month for the first time in five years, he was disturbed by what he calls the "annihilation" of the Iraqi people.

"To see people having to sell the hinges and handles from their doors, it horrified me," he says, describing one measure that members of the Iraqi middle class use to scrape up a little money.

Just after his return to Amman, Mr. Kalaldeh continues, a pair of US officials came to ask him about his trip. "You are strangling Jordan, and you are strangling the Iraqi people in order to enforce US policy," he lectured them, referring to the decade-old, US-led United Nations trade embargo of Iraq.

The US insists that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is responsible for the deprivations of his people, not the Western powers trying to restrict Iraq from re-arming the military that the US and its coalition partners crushed during the Gulf War.

But US protestations, in the face of years of dire reports about Iraq by independent observers and humanitarian groups, are sounding increasingly hollow - especially here in Jordan, where the embargo is a pita-and-hummus issue.

Before the Gulf War, Iraq was Jordan's largest trading partner, and Jordanian officials are eager to see commercial opportunities restored.

They say Jordan's businesses are losing ground to countries - such as Dubai, Syria, and Turkey - whose trade with Iraq, some of it sanctioned by the UN and some not, is expanding.

This country's new king, Abdullah II, is trying to revamp the economy, and some analysts say his reforms aren't yet having the desired payoff. A way out of Jordan's economic troubles may lie in Iraq.

"We have a huge market on our doorstep," says Mustafa Hamarneh of the state-backed Center for Strategic Studies in Amman. Re-opening that market, he adds, "can be a very important step toward turning this country around."

Jordan's King Hussein refused to join the US-led coalition during the Gulf War. But as UN-imposed sanctions began adversely affecting his country, he began to lean more Westward.

News reports here say Jordan's prime minister is preparing a trip to Iraq early next month - the first visit by such a high-ranking Jordanian since the early 1990s. But a senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, yesterday said no decisions have been made on the matter.

Transport Minister Kalaldeh also refuses to confirm that the prime minister will go to Baghdad, but expresses the hope that he would choose to fly instead of making the journey by road. Jordan is eager to resume air links with Iraq, in the hope that it could serve as a gateway to the world for Iraqis eager to travel.

Like many Jordanians, Kalaldeh is torn between his human sympathies for the Iraqi people and his government's desire to heed the US line on the Iraqi state. Mr. Hamarneh, the analyst, says that Jordan's leaders "will not do anything to harm their position with the Americans."

Indeed, Jordan's close links to the US enable it to play a "middle power" role in the Middle East - brokering relationships and helping people get along - despite a small population of 4-1/2 million and few natural resources.

Even so, Jordan is showing some willingness to break with the US by pushing, mainly in private, for an end to the sanctions. Hamarneh says the government is simply being "pragmatic" in light of growing internal and international frustration over the sanctions.

The senior government official acknowledges increasing pressure from businesspeople and the public to help bring about an end to what many people here see as an ineffective policy tool that hurts Jordan as well. "Jordan is leading the way among the Arabs and the international community because of self-interest," observes Kalaldeh.

Russia, France, and China - three UN Security Council members that are often at odds with the US over Iraq - might disagree with Kalaldeh's assessment of Jordan's role, but the fact remains that there are solid Jordanian reasons for the government here to rise in support of America's critics.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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