Image: “The enemy’s gas is occupation” [via Jordan BDS]
Recently, Jordan’s government-owned National Electric Power Company (NEPCO) signed a 15 year, $10 billion deal to import Israeli-extracted liquid natural gas. In the eyes of the appointed government of the Hashemite Kingdom, the deal is a boon. Jordan is a notoriously resource poor country, having to import 96% of its energy needs from other countries. In previous decades, Saddam Hussain’s Iraq and Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt provided subsidized fuel to fill the country’s energy needs. However, according to the Jordanian government, the loss of these providers and the damage to gas pipelines due to recent unrest in the Sinai have caused NEPCO to rack up billions of dollars in debt. At the same time, energy prices have steadily risen for Jordanians. The government claims that this deal will lower energy costs and save NEPCO $600 million a year.
Despite these supposed benefits, the deal has caused widespread and unified protests of a scale unseen in Jordan since the start of the Arab Spring. First and foremost, protesters are incensed by the decision to enter into such an agreement with Israel. Opponents point to Israel’s continued settler colonial project and military occupation that violate the human, political and civil rights of Palestinians as reasons to reject a deal with the country. The Jordan branch of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement estimated that the deal would result in $8.4 billion of Jordanian money going straight to the Israeli government. Such funds, they argue, would contribute to Israel’s military spending and settlement construction which have been the crux of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land.
Using the hashtag “the enemy’s gas is occupation,” Jordan BDS has led a campaign against the deal since it was first proposed in 2014. That year, it succeeded in securing a rejection by the elected Jordanian parliament of the exact same deal that was signed this month. The group has since led protests across the country. They have also organized electricity strikes and candlelight protests to demonstrate that Jordanians would rather have no energy than buy gas from the state that occupies and oppresses the Palestinian people.
It is not only the party with whom the deal was struck that is causing protests, however. Questions are also being raised about how and why a deal opposed by 90% of respondents in a TV news poll was signed in secret against the will of the people and parliament. Additionally, opponents are wondering whether such a deal needed to be made in the first place. Such questions relate to the very nature of Jordan’s system of government and the concentration of power in the hands of the king and his appointed government.
As discussed in a recent post here on Discoursing Back, King Abdullah II has carefully cultivated an image as a moderate and modernizer seeking to drag his country into the 21st century through incremental reforms and gradual democratization. However, this narrative obscures the role of the current king and the monarchy historically in undermining and outlawing democratic and pluralistic reform in order to ensure the power of the monarchy and its position of favor in the eyes of western powers. Therefore, despite projecting the appearance of democracy through parliamentary elections, the real power lies with the king and his appointed government. The case of this gas deal is the perfect illustration of these dynamics.
Firstly, the deal signed last week was the exact same deal rejected by the elected, but essentially, powerless Jordanian parliament almost two years ago. In order to avoid such opposition this time around, the deal was signed in secret after parliament was dissolved and before the newly elected one could take its seats. A campaigner against the deal also stated that Jordanians only learned of the deal through international media as the government waited a week before publicly commenting on it. Opponents also argue that the deal itself is unconstitutional. According to Article 33 of the Jordanian constitution, the parliament must be consulted regarding treaties or agreements that involve financial commitments from the Treasury. The government argues that because NEPCO is technically a private company the article does not apply. However, opponents argue that the agreement must be brought in front of the parliament because NEPCO is fully owned by the government.
Additionally, there have been questions if a deal of this scope and duration even needed to be signed, regardless of Israel’s involvement. While Jordan is still reliant on foreign sources of energy and costs remain high, investment has been made in alternative forms of energy like wind and solar and local energy like oil shale deposits. At the same time, the port at Aqaba is equipped to import natural gas from other sources which has resulted in the re-sale of surplus gas abroad. In fact, during the initial 2014 debate over the gas deal, the minister of energy listed six alternatives to the deal that could be investigated. It seems, however, these other avenues were not pursued.
While reports of US pressure may help to explain the government’s decision to sign the deal, the full story remains unclear. What is apparent is that the illusion of democracy in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan perpetuated by parliamentary elections obscures the reality of the locations of political power in the country. Despite overwhelming popular and parliamentary opposition to this gas deal and its questionable legality, it was signed in secret. Far from being the vanguard of democracy in Jordan, the monarchy, acting through an appointed government that can be dissolved at any time, takes decisions that fly in the face of the people. The gas deal with Israel is just one manifestation of this reality.