Jordan's Man in Washington

Article excerpt

Being your country's envoy to the United States is never an easy assignment. But Jordanian diplomat Marwan Muasher has had particularly good training for the job: before coming to Washington in June 1997, he spent a year as Jordan's first ambassador to former enemy, Israel.

"Most of the time, I stayed at the Dan Hotel [in Tel Aviv] because we had no official residence," said Muasher, who soon after arriving visited his Palestinian mother's former house in the ancient city of Jaffa, now a Tel Aviv suburb. "We had to start from scratch, in every sense of the word. Israelis and Jordanians had different expectations of the job. We were setting precedence in many ways, even though Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel."

The 43-year-old ambassador, who speaks basic Hebrew in addition to English and his native Arabic, said his sojourn Israel was "interesting, tough and challenging" - and excellent preparation for his eventual appointment to the United States.

"Washington is also challenging and tough, but in different ways," said the softly-spoken diplomat. "There isn't the mental stress that was associated with being Jordan's first ambassador to Israel, but Washington is the centre of decision-making in the world, and the process is not controlled by one body alone. Washington is very rewarding in that sense."

Muasher, Jordan's former minister of information, is a computer engineer by profession, with a bachelor's, master's and doctorate in that field from Purdue University. He says his country's relations with the United States have improved dramatically in the nine years since the Gulf War.

"We were against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait from day one, but did not support the introduction of foreign troops to the area," he says. Nevertheless, he adds, "Jordan today enjoys wide and bi-partisan support. Our relations with Congress, the U.S. public and of course the Arab-American community is excellent. Certainly the peace process has had a lot to do with it. We have very good relations with American Jewish organisations, and have started a dialogue with them that has become institutionalised by now."

On the economic front, trade with the United States is still relatively insignificant. Jordan buys $400 million a year worth of US-manufactured automobiles, computers and heavy equipment, but only sells $15 million in exports to the United States - namely handicrafts and Dead Sea salts.

"We have already signed a partnership agreement with the European Union, and are now seeking a free-trade agreement with the United States," he said. "We're still in the preliminary stages of this agreement. This would be a major boost to our exports. (see Jordan: Financial Report, page 27)."

Muasher, who is approaching the mid-point of his five-year assignment in Washington, said his desert kingdom remains in shock over the death earlier this year of King Hussein, who had reigned since 1953.

"He was a father figure to the nation," he said, noting that 50 per cent of Jordan's 4.7 million inhabitants are under 15 years old; the vast majority of Jordanians had never known any other leader. "I think there have been positive developments in Jordan since the king's death, primarily the smoothness of the transition. People thought that once King Hussein left the scene, Jordan would cease to exist."

Nevertheless, Hussein's successor, 37-year-old King Abdullah, faces daunting challenges. Jordan's unemployment rate stands at 15 per cent, and its per-capita income totals only $1,550 a year - less than a tenth of Israel's per-capita income of $17,000. All this is compounded by Jordan's 3.4 per cent annual population growth rate - one of the world's highest.

"When you have open borders, you cannot afford a large discrepancy in income without inviting trouble," said Muasher, noting that at least 20,000 Jordanians are currently working illegally in Israel. …