Jordan's Prime Minister Nadir Dhahabi shook up his government yesterday, replacing nine ministers including the Foreign Minister and Interior Minister. The primary focus of the new government will likely be the devastated economy. But there is also an important foreign policy dimension. While the shuffle has been rumored for some three months, the specific changes seem to be intended to meet the new challenges posed by the new right wing Israeli government and by the moves towards Arab and Palestinian reconciliation. They also seem to signal a tough line towards Hamas. What does this mean for Jordanian foreign policy?
First off, not much. Cabinet shuffles in Jordan are a fairly routine business. Real power (especially over foreign policy) is concentrated in the Royal Court, and no government shuffle will ever touch the core of policy. The King is really his own Foreign Minister. Governments generally go until they start to wear out their welcome, and then shuffle the deck to buy another six to nine months until it's time for the King to designate a new Prime Minister to start over. But government shuffles can serve as important signals of the King's intentions and preferences, with the personality or profile of the new cabinet members or Prime Minister suggesting where he wants policy to go.
A lot of Jordanian journalists and analysts have been complaining about the process of the government change this time. They report an unprecedented degree of official silence, hostility to the media, and lack of transparency generating a bazaar of rumours and conflicting information. This may suggest a high degree of internal controversy over the shuffle, and the generally high passions and state of tension. According to Jordanian columnist Mahir Abu Tir, for instance, the Prime Minister has wanted Joudeh as Foreign Minister for months now but Bashir refused to go.
The key changes with foreign policy significanace: Salah al-Din Bashir, confidante of the controversial Bassem Awadallah, is out as Foreign Minister. [*] Awadullah was forced out as head of the Royal Court last October amidst allegations of corruption and general hostility, and the removal of his friend Bashir completes Dhahabi's purge of his people from key positions. Bashir was known to be a skeptic about Hamas and a firm advocate of the "Moderate Camp" which has polarized Arab politics over the last few years (hence the designation "pro-Western" in line with the Bush-era concept of that term).
His replacement Nasir Joudeh, who has held a variety of government positions over the last decade and had been Minister of State for Information, is known for a good relationship with the King. He doesn't have a lot of baggage in inter-Arab politics, but he most definitely does with Hamas. He was deeply involved in an "expose" of alleged Hamas militant activity in Jordan which triggered a crisis between the Jordanian government and Hamas back in 2006, and figured prominently in the escalating tension between the government and the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood over the last few years. The new Interior Minister Nayif al-Qadhi presided over the expulsion of Hamas leaders from Jordan when he held the same position back at the end of the 1990s. Their elevation likely suggests the deep concern about rising Hamas and Islamist power in the Kingdom and in the region. So the signals are mixed: An openness to bridging Arab divides which may not extend to warming with Hamas, and perhaps a recognition of tough domestic times ahead.
Other prominent additions are a left-wing activist, Musa al-Mayateh, in at Minister of Political Development, and the editor of al-Dustour Nabil al-Sharif in at Information Minister. Both of them might contibute somewhat to opening up political space, if that's on the agenda during tough economic and political times.
UPDATE: Bisam Badarin in al-Quds al-Arabi argues that the cabinet shuffle represents a victory for the conservatives and the establishment over reformists, and -- more importantly -- demonstrates the intense fears among the Jordanian leadership that the Netanyahu government will revive the dreaded "Alternative Homeland" policy ("Jordan is Palestine"). Joudeh and Qadhi, in this reading, reinforce Jordan's adherence to the 1988 severing of ties with the West Bank and rejection of any Israeli ideas about a renewed Jordanian role across the river.
[*] I fixed a typo in this paragraph after publishing.
Photo: Jordanian government via al-Dostour