Arab world sees corruption and mismanagement

While Arab citizens or subjects have complained against their rulers, Jordanian government – that is, King Abdullah – wants to build a brand-new city in the desert to relieve congestion in the capital, Amman, and in Jordan’s second most populous city, Zarqa. Writes Hugh Fitzgerald

We hear and read constantly about the two complaints that Arab citizens or subjects have against their rulers: mismanagement and corruption. The corruption is clear: two heads of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal and Moussa abu Marzouk, amassed fortunes of $2.5 billion apiece; Mahmoud Abbas of the P.A., together with his two grasping sons Tarek and Nasser, has acquired a family fortune of $400 million; Bashar and his wife have, according to the American government, between $1 and $2 million; General Al-Sissi has a net worth of $185 million (a neat trick, given that his annual salary is $72,000); King Abdullah of Jordan has a net worth of $750 million; the late Tunisian ruler, Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, had roughly $9 billion stashed in bank accounts and real estate in several countries, including Canada, Saudi Arabia and Switzerland; at his death Colonel Qaddafi had a net worth of $70 billion. And then there are the hundreds of billions of dollars that the nations of the Gulf — in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar — receive from the sale of oil, and that the monarchical families simply appropriate, as theirs by right, vast sums that should rightly be considered be considered as belonging not to their families, but to the nation.

That is the corruption in the Arab world we talk about.

Then there is mismanagement.

The many Arab kings and despots are used to getting their own way, and some have grandiose plans — think of the Saudi Crown Prince who is planning on spending $500 billion on his Vision 2030 project. If they have an idea for some mega project, no “experts” — accountants, urban planners, architects, engineers — will be allowed to get in their way, nothing will deter them from spending vast sums. Brand new cities, as Mohammed bin Salman reminds us, seem to be in vogue. He is merely an extreme example — because his country is so very rich — of the phenomenon.

In order to relieve the overcrowding in Cairo – which had 5 million people in 1950 and has more than 20 million today — the Egyptian government established in 2000, by decree, the future city of New Cairo. It is located in the desert some twenty-five kilometers east of the capital and is now complete. Can the city be called a success? It was intended to have a population of five million. Instead, there are only half a million people there, one-tenth the expected number. No one will publicly ask where the government went wrong in its planning – perhaps placing a city smack in the midst of the desert was flawed. What did the engineers, the urban planners, the transportation experts, the demographers have to say about this project as it was being built? The dismal result speaks for itself.

Now the Jordanian government – that is, King Abdullah – wants to build a brand new city in the desert to relieve congestion in the capital, Amman, and in Jordan’s second most populous city, Zarqa. A report on the plans, and the nearly universal doubts that have been expressed about them, and that the King is determined to ignore, can be found here:Plans for new Jordanian city raises concern among experts,” by Debbie Mohnblatt, The Media Line, January 20, 2023:

The Jordanian government announced its plan last week to build a new city to help boost the economy and address overcrowding. The proposal for the city, which is meant to be located roughly between the capital Amman and Zarqa, the second-most populous city in Jordan, has been panned by urban planning experts, who say that the government is ignoring their concerns.

Jordan intends for the proposed city, which has no name yet, to become a key driver in the Jordanian economy. The new city is meant to attract investment, create job opportunities, and help address the kingdom’s population growth. Jordan currently has around 11 million residents and is facing overcrowding in its two most populous cities.

In a meeting with King Abdullah II at Al Husseiniya Palace, Prime Minister Bisher Al-Khasawneh announced that studies and planning would be completed within two years and that implementation would begin in 2025. When completed, the city is expected to house up to a million people.

The state plans to allocate 442 million Jordanian dinars (about $623 million) from the state budget for the new city’s infrastructure over the course of 10 years. The city will be built on state-owned land, a tactic that is intended to ease the decision-making processes around the development.

Experts believe the plans for the new city are untenable and have urged the government to reconsider the project’s launch. Dr. Murad Kalaldeh, an architect, president of the Jordanian Planning Forum, and lecturer at Al-Balqaʼ Applied University, told The Media Line, “We have great concerns about whether this vision of the government is the right one or not. We think that there are a lot of challenges that might injure the whole idea,” he said.

Almost all the members of the Jordanian Planning Forum, an association of urban planners and engineers, are against the project. “We made several meetings, and we issued a public statement saying that the government should reconsider the whole idea and think of other locations that might go along with the original planning strategies which are based on decentralization,” Kalaldeh said.

Kalaldeh believes that creating a new city in the proposed location will increase overcrowding instead of relieving it. “Almost 70% of the population is already located in Amman and Zarqa, and if this city will be constructed in between these two cities, the agglomeration in the area will increase,” he said, referring to the process in which human settlements become increasingly dense.

What the distinguished architect – and president of the Jordanian Planning Forum – Murad Kalaldeh worries about is that instead of relieving congestion in Amman and Zarqa, which already contain 70% of the entire population of the country, the new city placed between them will lead to greater congestion in the whole area, creating a kind of population corridor akin to that which has developed between Boston, New York, and Washington.

People living in other areas of the country will be invited to relocate to this zone, which will hurt the country’s economy overall, Kalaldeh said.

In other areas of the country, he explained, “people are involved in what we call land-based activities, such as mining, tourism, and agriculture. You need people living there to foster these economic activities.”

“That is why bringing all the people to one spot, which already has almost 70% of the population, will have a negative impact on the economy,” he added.

Murad Kalaldeh is afraid that the new city will lure even more people from agricultural work in the south to urban living and livelihoods. But too many people in Jordan already live in Amman and Zarqa, and now, another city that would house one million people would make the percentage of Jordanians who live in cities rise even higher.

According to urban planner Montaser Hiyari, there are other places in Jordan that urgently need improvement. He believes that the government should invest in those places first.

Ninety-three percent of Jordanian residents live in the northern half of the country and only 7% live in the country’s south, Hiyari noted. He suggested that government investments could be better used to develop the south, which is facing high rates of poverty and unemployment.

Given such enormous imbalance between Jordan’s north – containing 93% of the country’s population – and its south, with only 7%, why should more investment be put into the urbanized and relatively well-off north instead of in the underdeveloped and impoverished south? Has the King simply written off the south, precisely because it has so few people, and most of them are poor, while he feels the need to retain the support of the more populous and richer north? Jordanian urban planners think the opposite should be done: the government spend more on the rural south, raise the standard of living of those who are farmers, build infrastructure, including roads, schools, hospitals, that will attract more people to settle there, and to work in agriculture and raising livestock.

“I don’t agree on the location unless there are other factors in consideration that are not published or publicized by the government,” Hiyari told The Media Line. The decision to locate the new city in the north “[underscores] the efforts to improve the northern part of Jordan and keep the southern part with its existing suffering,” he said.

According to Kalaldeh, the budget allocated for the project is also insufficient. Only 50 million Jordanian dinars (about $70 million) of public funds will be invested in the new city annually for 10 years. “It is nothing for the expected cost of such a huge project,” Kalaldeh said, adding that the relative lack of state investment is the reason that the government is calling for public-private partnerships and inviting developers to invest in this city [the actual figure given by the government is $623 million over ten years]….

The Jordanian government is not exactly showing confidence in its own project. It is only going to spend $623 million of its own money. Just how it expects to woo outside investors to supply the billions of dollars that the new city will cost is unknown. The place chosen has no obvious advantages; it is far from both water and energy sources. It is singularly unappealing: flat desert all around. The government can force some people to live in it, once it is completed in ten years, by moving some government offices to the city, but that alone will not bring any significant swelling of the population. Tens, rather than hundreds, of thousands, of people may show up. We should not forget another massive Jordanian project, on which a Saudi king invested one billion dinars, to build a new city, Al-Sharq, that was supposed to have a population of 500,000, but after fifteen years of trying to attract people, the city still has a population of only 37,000.

Bleak, flat desert all around is not the kind of landscape that will attract people to settle in. It’s what people flee from, and it should not require an urban planner to point this out to King Abdullah and his cronies. The government apparently intends to force people to move to the new city, by moving some government offices there. Government employees will then have no choice but to live in the city. But if they find the surroundings so unpleasant, many may choose to give up government employment in order to take up other work that will allow them to live in Amman or Zarqa, or to live and work outside Jordan. The rich Arab states of the Gulf can always use fellow Arabs from Jordan to staff their offices, since the Saudis, Kuwaitis, Emiratis, and Qataris, as is well known, have no desire to show up for work for more than a few hours a day, and rely on armies of ex-pats.

King Abdullah’s plans for the city, we now know, are opposed universally by Jordanian engineers, architects, and urban planners. The government has not even begun to address the financial model, or how it plans to attract the billions of dollars that will be needed, since Amman only plans to spend $623 million on the project. Those plans do not address the desperate need to develop Jordan’s impoverished south rather than add to the urban congestion in the north. Priorities are completely wrong. Amman and Zarqa together contain 70% of Jordan’s population; putting another city between them “to relieve congestion” will do nothing of the sort. It will contribute to one vast conurbation, extending from Amman through the new, unnamed city, to Zarqa, much like the East Coast corridor in the U.S. The King needs to learn humility, and listen to his urban planners, architects, and engineers, who are appalled by this latest example — there have been others, like the planned city of Al-Sharq — of Abdullah’s mismanagement. There’s still time to stop this royal folly.

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