Monday, July 28, 2008

Noblesse oblige

King Abullah's II visit to Balqa' is telling of the begging custom that has become the modus operandi of the day.  

I happened to see the King's visits on TV to several Governates all over the Kingdom. The audience of each visit was more or less indicative of the level of needs of the various governates where these royal visits took place. During these encounters several notables of the communities in question gave speeches of welcome fused with list of grievances for which they were seeking relief.

There is nothing wrong with having poor communities voice hardship and seek the support of the government. In fact it is great that such calls fall directly on the lion’s ears. After all, empowering and providing safety nets in areas where government intervention is necessary, is but one of the most important mandates entrusted to the public sector.

My surprise came specifically at watching the latest town meeting that took place in Balqa Governate. To me, a brief survey of the notables of Balqa and the big families that are hailed from its great capital Al-Salt, tell me that there is a lot of wealth residing there. I have no statistics on which I base my observation. It is merely an observation.

Nevertheless, assuming that my observation is valid, I am sure that we could agree that a goverante that houses such wealth should not wait for the king to visit so that a petition for a hospital or a school or a program or I don’t' know what, gets acted upon.  These very needs should be the trigger point to be proactive in addressing the civic needs of any given community.    

As I was watching all the extremely well dressed and obviously well off notables hold the microphone and talk (petition is more like it), I could not help but think to myself “To whom much is given much is obliged”.

Finally, there is no disrespect intended by this post to the great people of Balqa’. In fact this is probably one of the greatest goverantes of Jordan. However, what I noticed in the Balqa’ town meeting could apply countrywide on all those who are given but do not see the need to be obliged.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


“Out of all of you, I may be among the earliest residents of Amman, and have recollections of it when it was but a village at a time when it would have been an exaggeration to refer to it as a city…. At that time each one of us knew everyone else, their phone numbers, and every car in town.”
Late King Hussein bin Talal, during a visit to Greater Amman Municipality shortly before his passing.

A recent post by Mohammad Omar reminded me of how much I really love Amman. My childhood memories are all nestled within the charming corners of Amman, its streets, its stairs, the small shops with shopkeepers holding tight to their grid-lined debt notepads, and the wee hours of the morning when the hara kids would all gather to wait for the school bus to pick us up in loads.

Amman has changed and with it so has its spirit. To say that I wish it remained the same would be unrealistic at best, and selfish at worst. All I can say is that no matter how it changes, Amman remains the darling of many of us who grew up knowing it as a village. We might feel protective over it and in the process resist much needed change. No matter what happens, Amman to me is like a kid, I might have a burning desire to discipline it out of concern, but at the end of the day I can never turn my back on it. It is deeply and so dearly engraved in me.

Few years ago, I asked a dear friend of mine, Nora Boustany (Columnist at the Washington Post) to write something about her working years in Amman. What she wrote sums up why many passers by consider Amman addictive, and why it is beloved by anyone who gets a taste of its charm. Nora wrote:

“The clear, sun-bathed days waiting for me always made coming back to Amman a special homecoming. But even the pale blue moonlight over its pink stone houses has its own magic for me. The city with its open spaces and hills, whispering fortunetellers and sprawling palace became my second home. After the turmoil of Beirut in wartime, the uncertainties of Washington as a chosen exile and my travels across the obscure medinas and bazaars of the Middle East, Amman is where I felt most comfortable. It is where my spirit was able to roam freely and wander to feed itself. Its modernity, romance and truth will always draw me back.”

Monday, July 21, 2008

Bloogy boring!

I recently noticed that an increasing number of bloggers in Jordan (and some Arab countries) are expressing boredom of blogging and lack of enthusiasm for writing. Some are even contemplating end of blogging all together. It seems that the novelty of the blogsphere as well as of blogging has worn off. I strongly believe that the censorship imposed (implicitly) has a lot to do with turning the blogsphere into an increasingly boring venue for sharing ideas and expressing one's self.

I started blogging in 2007. I had a lazy start, but then my frequency of writing picked up as the months went by. Today I find myself bored as well. I also find that the past 18 months have been a great learning experience as far the local online community is concerned.

My most stark observations about the blogsphere in Jordan is how overwhelmingly negative it tends to be. Sometimes, I honestly feel mentally tired from the constant bickering that takes place without really presenting the issue in question within a reasonable and well structured context. I also noticed that there is a sense of elitism among certain bloggers, that reminds me of the obnoxious or nerd-ish cliques one finds in high school. More disappointing is the tendency of some bloggers to become a reflection of the mainstream media packaged in somewhat semi-critical tones that serves at nothing but to insult the reader's intelligence. The most annoying blogs are those whose authors wreak of narcissism.

Having said all of that, I must not forget my immediate impression and surprise when I started surfing the Jordanian blogsphere: how eloquent certain Jordanians are and how widespread they are.

One thing that our blogsphere lacks is humor (with the exception of Hajjaj maybe). I guess we, Jordanians, are not known for it. Or as any drama teacher might tell me, making people laugh through writings is probably one of the hardest things to do.

Finally, I must admit that I was pleased to read various bloggers express disappointment and boredom from blogging as well as from the blogs out there. I have been feeling it too. To see that I am not alone, means that there is definitely something that is driving the blogsphere into the annals of the "quite" boring.

By the way, I did a little exercise on a blog aggregator. I listed the number of postings per month and per year over 31 months. Sure enough, the general feeling out there can be backed by actual figures. The number of postings has been falling over the past few years. The rate of the fall is not alarming. However, one would expect that as time goes by the number of bloggers to grow, and with it the number of blogposts.  Not so.  
 (see graph - blue:  2006 - red: 2007 -- yellow: 2008)

Mind twister

This exercise must be done in your head only . Do NOT use paper and pencil or a calculator. Try it!
Take 1000 and add 40 to it. Now add another 1000 . Now add 30 . Add another 1000 . Now add 20 . Now add another 1000 Now add 10.

What is the total?

Did you get 5000 ?


Correct answer is 4100!!!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Moral Hazard

Moral hazard is a term that is predominantly associated with finance and financial transactions. For example, in insurance, it “means that people may take greater risks than they would do without it because they know they are protected, so the insurer may get more claims than it bargained for.”

Lately I have been thinking of moral hazard and its applicability in politics. If we assume that political action is insurable against risk, then who would be the insurers as well as the regulators? More important who determines what the threshold of risk is and at what level to pull the plug?

As long as our branches of government remain weak in exercising their main mandate of providing checks and balances, the risk of moral hazard will most likely be there. The dangerous part is that, unlike business, the price we might pay for the risk associated with poor political action might be too painful.

Moral hazard in politics may lead politicians to take serious and poorly calculated risks given that they seem to be under the false impression of being bailed out (as long as they are in bed with the regulators). Little do they know that there is no free lunches, and the bail outs will one day accumulate to levels of claims for which the final bill is too expensive and the outcome is extremely hazardous!

“Brown Envelope” Culture

I just read this term in an article about the poor state of corporate governance in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). “Brown envelope” refers to cash kick-backs (bribes) that are usually handed out in brown envelopes. Corruption is reported to be across the board, especially in the construction industry given the large-scale projects that are taking place there. Moreover, the article points out that the Middle East is especially prone to this culture given that it is a predominantly cash-based economy. According to a recent report poor corporate governance in the GCC is estimated to cost the region close to $300 billion a year.

Speaking of corruption, economist Paulo Mauro of the IMF wrote an interesting and informative paper on the causes and consequences of corruption. A lot of what Mauro argues could be applied to our economy.  Other work on corruption points out to an interesting fact that shows that sometimes corruption has a favorable effect of increasing the levels of efficiency in an economy!

P.S.  Brown envelope....some "people" love you!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Bunnies and Play Boys

I spent last weekend at the Dead Sea. On Saturday morning I got a call from my 28-year old friend, who is the son of a friend of mine. He is someone I see as a young brother and I genuinely like him. He told me that he was staying at the same hotel where I was. So I invited him over for a drink.

He arrived to my room with a beautiful young girl who is obviously his girlfriend. She was wearing a bikini and a matching dress on top. The dress was short and quite open from the chest side. Her outfit was extremely uninhibited, and she had the good looks to make it all the sexier. From carrying out small talk here and there, I realized that she was a decent girl. She definitely came from a very good family. She would not in any shape or form qualify for a cheap girl. She is liberal, but that's about it. From our small talk it was evident that it was not their first time at the Dead Sea. I also sensed that they had at times spent the whole weekend there, meaning that they stayed overnight. All of which would have been absolutely irrelevant had I not known the culture he comes from.

Suddenly I was faced with the hypocrisy that I have abhorred about our society all along. Leading on girls with the promise of love and maybe even marriage, when I know for a fact that when it comes to the “I do’s”, this poor girl will be automatically eliminated form the list. A list that is in the making by the mother who is continuously surveying the family for any “good” girl worthy of her son. Most probably the mother has already in store a “cousin in waiting”. It is for sure that the cousin is also veiled since this happens to be part of the selection criteria. The lucky cousin would now be waiting for prince charming to be done with screwing around so that he can claim his virgin trophy.

I am normally enchanted when I see couples, especially young couples who seem in love. It gives me hope for the beautiful things in life, for nothing beats the beauty of love. Seeing this couple, however, aroused in me exactly the opposite feelings. I was extremely uncomfortable. I felt protective over the girl; while at the same time my affection to the guy made me feel extremely sorry for him. I know he probably wishes he was free of the shackles of his family, mother, and his whole upbringing. Sadly, no matter how much he pretends, what this poor girl did by being normal and open with him, was making sure that the relationship between them would be stripped of any normalcy. By being touchable she has automatically moved herself into the league of the "plagued untouchables".

I wish I could take this girl aside and explain to her what she got herself into. I wish I could explain to her the signs of what to look for. Maybe I should come up with a generic list to be given to all, and not exclusively to this girl in particular. The list would apply because what I saw with this couple this weekend seems to be the norm and not the exception. Young men choosing to lead a double life in their bachelorhood, which they eventually revert to in their married life. Deception and dishonesty are traits once engraved, no marriage certificate could alter.

I like the idea of the list. I will call it the “young women salvation” list. How about “make sure he introduces you to his mother” as a first rule on the list. I am sure my new list has a lot in common with the energizer bunny in that it can go on and on and on. Energizer bunny…hmmm….. maybe rule number two should be “make sure he does not mistake you for an energizer bunny!!! “

Friday, July 11, 2008

Funding a Festival

Now that the dust surrounding Jordan Festival has “sort” of settled, a key question remains to be answered: the return on what seems to be a relatively huge investment.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear a government official directly involved with this “Festival” justify the return as being simply non-monetary. The official explained that the crowd that this “Festival” has so far drawn shows that it managed to attract visitors from various countries, implying an increase in the number of visitors to Jordan (yet to be proven, but let us assume that it is correct). This line of reasoning is at the heart of the multiplier effect argument that many in the tourism private sector have been calling for when reaching out to the government. Needless to say that these calls have always fallen on deaf ears. Therefore, to see a government official reason along these lines is refreshing to say the least.

The problem with believing that the government is suddenly strategically thinking along multiplier effect lines is that it contradicts facts on the ground. If Jordan Festival has been the muse that inspired the government to start thinking along these lines, then how about the far more important muses within the tourism industry that need to be treated with such enlightened thinking.

Unfortunately, the way I see it is that arguing that Jordan Festival will manage to attract more visitors to the Kingdom is only a selective choice of an argument that happens to serve the government side in this particular instance. My feeling comes from watching the government on numerous occasions employ a selective choice of “buzz” arguments that are built on weak (or non existent) premises simply to justify losing propositions. If the government has all of a sudden realized the importance of tourism as well as the multiplier effect that it creates, it should then take a serious look at the industry and the “milking” approach it applies towards it. The tourism sector is one of the most promising sectors for the economy of Jordan. It is, to use a cliché, the “oil of Jordan”. More important the tourism industry is built on pillars made mostly of private investors, who unlike the organizers of the Jordan Festival, look for real return on their investments. If buying and selling land becomes more lucrative than sustaining a whole industry through building the necessary superstructures (hotels, restaurants, etc), then what the government is doing by not paying enough attention to the laws regulating and “truly” encouraging investing in this industry is simply driving a very serious group of investors into non-productive sectors of the economy. The government needs to stop looking at the tourism industry as a cash cow to milk, and instead start looking at it as one of the most serious strategic sectors of the economy. It should stop looking at it with dollar sign lenses that promise to finance the treasury because of failures elsewhere in the economy. This shortsighted approach is robbing the country of much needed real opportunities embedded in sound strategic plans that could truly unleash the true potential of this lucrative sector.

Finally, and to go back to the “Festival”, if the government is serious about looking at its return in non-monetary terms, it needs to back its argument up with transparent and clear disclosures. Dodging fair and reasonable questions by throwing fancy arguments does not cut it. After all, the Festival is a relatively huge investment that is funded by taxpayers’ money. Failure to come out with satisfactory answers will only add to the cynicism that is already attached to it.

In hindsight, it seems that the best thing that ever happened to this Festival was probably the whole boycott fiasco. It produced an unintended consequence that resulted in adding it to the list of taboo subjects that no one is allowed to question or even talk about…unless it is to praise it of course!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Rumor Mill.....Then what ?! (Part 2)

The recent talk of rumors and innuendoes reminds of Yogi Berra's: "Deja vu all over again!" "Deja vu" three years ago, August 17, 2005 to be exact, when we woke up to major news headlines reporting severe lash out on rumor mongers:

اما الحكي في الصالونات ..وهي غير موجوده والحمد لله الا في بعض مناطق العاصمة والتي يمارس بعض روادها او اصحابها تسريب
الاشاعات والاخبار الكاذبة الى الصحافة الاجنبية لخدمة اجنداتهم الخاصة او الاستقواء على هذا الوطن من خلال علاقاتهم ببعض الجهات الخارجية.

واريد ان يعرف هؤلاء الاشخاص ان لا احد يستطيع ان يستقوي على الوطن ولا علينا لاننا على حق وانتماؤنا لهذا الوطن اقوى بكثير من كل من يحاول الاستقواء بأي جهة أخرى ..وانا اعرف هؤلاء الاشخاص واعرف اهدافهم وحركاتهم حتى انا ما سلمت من «الطخ والحكي الفارغ».

كل الظواهر السلبية في حياتنا العامّة كان لها حصّة في الخطاب..الصالونات السياسية, والصحافة الاسبوعية الصفراء, والتسريبات والإشاعات وإلقاء اللوم على الآخرين، وكذلك الظواهر الاجتماعية-الثقافية المنهكة كالواسطة والمحسوبية, والتعطّل بانتظار الوظيفة المكتبية. 

وأعطى الخطاب أمثلة دقيقة وحيّة من أداء الطبقة السياسية "عندما يكون الواحد في المنصب كل شيء صحيح وعندما لا يكون في المنصب كل شيء غلط " وطال النقد اولئك الذين يستقوون بـ"التوجيهات من فوق" لتمرير ما يريدون. فأيام الحسين رحمه الله كان يقال انها تعليمات "من فوق" والآن يتمادى هؤلاء بالقول انها من "رأس الهرم"!.

To quote the famous Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr:  Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose (The more things change, the more they stay the same).