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The Middle East: History threatens to repeat itself

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If the notion that history repeats itself is accurate, it is nowhere truer than in the Middle East where the international community, caught by surprise by the 2011 popular Arab revolts, has reverted to opting for political stability as opposed to sustainability, ignoring the undercurrents of change wracking the Middle East. Major powers do so at their peril.

The failure of the United States, Europe, China and Russia to recognize key drivers of fundamental societal change and revisit the underpinnings of their policies towards the Middle East and beyond threatens to nullify professed aims of wanting to end bloodshed, curb extremism, stabilize the region and protect their interests.

In a just published study, Jose Antonio Sabadell, a former Spanish and European Union diplomat, argues that the narrow focus of the West, and by extension of China and Russia, on countering extremism, stemming the flood of refugees, and securing economic interests, blinds major powers from recognizing tectonic social and political shifts that are likely to reshape a region embroiled in volatile, often violent transition.

Without saying so explicitly, Mr. Sabadell harks back more than a decade to the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when Western leaders, including then US President George. W. Bush recognized that Western support for Middle Eastern autocracy that failed to address widespread popular grievances and perceptions of Western policy had created the feeding ground for jihadist groups focused on striking at Western targets.

That recognition produced an expectation that the Arab street would assert itself, neutralize breeding grounds of extremism, and counter radicalism by pushing for political and economic change.

When the Arab street did not immediately revolt, government officials, analysts and journalists wrote it off. The widespread discontent continued to simmer at the surface. It was palpable if one put one’s ear to the ground and finally exploded a decade later in 2011.

That pattern hasn’t changed despite a brutal counterrevolution that reversed the achievements of the revolt in Egypt and produced civil and covert wars and/or overt military interventions in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Just how little has changed is evident in the continued validity of Egyptian-born political scientist Nazih Ayubi’s assertion 22 years ago that the Arab world is populated by hard rather than strong states whose power is rooted in bureaucracies, militaries and security forces.

Mr. Ayubi noted that these states were “lamentably feeble when it comes to collecting taxes, winning wars or forging a really ‘hegemonic’ power bloc or an ideology that can carry the state beyond the coercive and ‘corporate’ level and into the moral and intellectual sphere.”

Recent protests, often innovative in their manifestations, in Morocco, Egypt and Iran prove the point.

“The Arab world is in the middle of a process of deep social and political change… The emergence of Arab peoples as key political actors, in combination with widespread, profound and mounting popular frustration, is a game changer. What Arab populations think and crucially how they feel, will determine the future evolution of their countries,” Mr. Sabadell predicted.

Historical record backs up his assertion that fundamental change is a process rather than an event. The era of the 2011 revolts and their counterrevolutionary aftermath may be reminiscent of the 1789 French revolutionary wave that was countered by powerful conservative forces that ultimately failed to avert the 1848 revolution.

A renewed failure to recognize the social psychological, emotional, social, economic and political underpinnings of simmering discontent suggests that the international community’s focus on migration and extremism could boomerang by further antagonizing significant sectors of societies in a swath of land that stretches from Africa to China.

It is likely to impact stability in a region that borders on Europe, constitutes Russia’s backyard and soft underbelly and stretches into China’s strategic north-western province of Xinjiang. It also risks fuelling rather than countering extremism that feeds on its understanding and exploitation of the emotions, social psychology and identity politics of deep-seated grievances.

“We are at a crossroads… Vital interests are at stake…. These developments will define…interaction with 400 million people living in Europe’s immediate neighbourhood, and shape relations with the wider Middle East and North Africa region… This can have profound geopolitical implications, influence the global scenario for the foreseeable future and maybe change the nature of international politics,” Mr. Sabadell said.

Demonization of Islam in the West and major Asian nations as well as political Islam that is encouraged by autocrats in countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates despite the fact that religion is often the only permissible language in public discourse, and Islamophobia, magnify the risk and exacerbate the problem.

The centrality of Islam in Middle Eastern identity coupled with widespread anti-Western sentiment that is reinforced by the Trump administration’s immigration policy and anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe strengthens a belief that the West, and eventually China with its repressive policy in Xinjiang, is hostile to Islam. It’s a belief that hands opportunity to extremists on a silver platter.

It is also a belief that intrinsically links social and economic grievances with perceived threats to collective national, regional and religious identities, a pillar of populism on both sides of the Atlantic as well as the Mediterranean in what Indian essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra dubbed “the flourishing international economy of disaffection.”

The key popular demand for dignity that characterized the 2011 revolts as well subsequent protests related as much to calls for clean, non-corrupt governance and efficient delivery of public goods and services as it did for acknowledgement of a proper place for Arab and Muslim states in the international system.

A key issue that world powers turn a blind eye to is the fact that even if religion constitutes the bedrock of autocratic legitimacy and frames public discourse, religiosity is in flux with youth increasingly embracing the notion that faith is a private affair rather than a ritualistic adherence to laws and a set of ironclad beliefs.

Closely related is the failure to realize that the gap between the Middle East and the West and potentially with China and Russia is not one that is rooted in values but in policies.

As a result, anti-immigrant sentiment coupled with Islamophobia, reducing the Middle East to concerns of migration and extremism, support for autocratic regimes, indifference towards the worsening plights of huge population groups, and the lack of even-handed policies towards key conflicts like Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute threatens to turn the fictional value gap into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is a prophecy that is exploited by extremists who unlike world powers understand the power of and beneficial focus on emotions.

The self-fulfilling prophecy is underwritten by decades of failed policy in which military interventions, debilitating attempts at regime change, misconceived notions of nation building and misconstrued calls for reform of Islam have fuelled mayhem and crisis.

“What the Arab world may need is not a religious leader but rather a social leader; not someone who wants to reform religion, but who wants to reform society…one who uses the popular legitimacy and the authority of religion to promote social and political change. Islam may need a Martin Luther King Jr. more than a Martin Luther,” Mr. Sabadell said.

Stopping failed policies from cementing false perceptions in a self-fulfilling prophecy will take more than counter narratives, political messaging and promotion of ‘moderate’ Islam. It will require fundamentally revisiting the notion that support for self-serving autocrats whose policies contribute to the threat of the prophecy is part of the solution.

The crisis in the Middle East offers the West a historic opportunity in the far larger struggle with China and Russia for a future international order. It is where the West has a strategic advantage that it can exploit if it is capable of dropping its horse claps that allow it to see primarily only the threats of migration and extremism.

Said Mr. Sabadell: “The way the West handles its relations with the region can and should make a significant difference. What it does and says will be the key; what it does not do and does not say will be equally important. How it acts, or not, and speaks up or remains silent will define its position and determine its effectiveness.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

China-Arab Relations: From Silk to Friendship

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China and the Arabs have a long and rich economic and cultural history, and this distinguished relationship still exists today, with a promising future. This bilateral relationship between the two nations is based on the principles of respect and non-interference in internal affairs or foreign policies. Therefore, China’s relationship with the Arabs as well as with other nations is unique and a model to be followed. If you meet a Chinese person, the first phrase will be “Alabo” or an Arab in Mandarin, and he/she will welcome you. The Chinese state’s dealings with its counterparts can be measured based on the model of this Chinese citizen. China deals with the Arabs on the basis of friendship and historical ties.

The history of Sino-Arab relations goes back to the Tang Dynasty, and these relations developed with the flourishing of trade between the two nations. Since China was famous for its high quality silk, this trade route was called the “Silk Road”. Baron Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen, better known in English as Baron von Richthofen, was a German traveller, geographer, and scientist. He is noted for coining the terms “Seidenstraße” and “Seidenstraßen” = “Silk Road” or “Silk Route” in 1877.

Chinese-Arab relations have developed in contemporary history. In 1930, China established official relations with the Arab Republic of Egypt and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A library in China was named the “Fouad Islamic Library”, after the late Egyptian king, “Fuad the First”. In 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser cut ties with China and established relations with the Communist People’s Republic of China and inaugurated an embassy in Egypt. In the same year, the Arab League established relations with the People’s Republic of China. By the year 1990, all Arab countries cut their relations with the Republic of China and established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.

In 2004, the China-Arab Cooperation Forum was established, and today it is considered a milestone for the Sino-Arab relationship. At its inauguration, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing delivered a speech stating:“The Arab world is an important force on the international scene, and that China and the Arab countries have enjoyed a long friendship. Our similar history, our common goals and our broad interests have been credited with enhancing cooperation between the two sides; no matter how the international situation changes, China has always been the sincere friend of the Arab world”. The China-Arab Cooperation Forum was officially established during the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to the headquarters of the League of Arab States in January of 2004.

Hu Jintao indicated at that time that the formation of the forum is a continuation of the traditional friendship between China and the Arab world. The Chinese president said at the time, “The establishment of the forum is conducive to expanding mutual cooperation in a variety of fields. He added that China had made four proposals; First, maintaining mutual respect, fair treatment and sincere cooperation at the political level. Second, strengthening economic and trade relations through cooperation in the fields of investment and trade, contracted projects, labor services, energy, transportation, communications, agriculture, environmental protection and information. Third, expand cultural exchanges. Finally, conducting training for the employees.”

During the second session of the forum in Beijing in 2006, China showed its sympathy for the issues of the Arab world and its interest in the peace process between Palestine and Israel, since China is a peace-loving country; it presented the idea of “a nuclear-free Middle East”. China is the best friend of the Arab countries today. Although some Arab countries have strong relations with the West whose policy does not match the Chinese policy, but all Arab countries agree on friendly and good relations with the People’s Republic of China.

The Arab citizen is not interested today in the foreign policy of the US, the deadly weapons of the US and Russia, or European culture, but rather the livelihood and economy, and this is what China provides through its wise economic policy. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative, or New Silk Road, which will restore glow to China-Arab relations; as the Arab world is in a strategic location on the initiative map. Thus, the Arab countries are an important partner for China in the initiative. Although the volume of trade exchanges between China and the Arab countries exceeded 200 billion US dollars, which increased 10 times over the past decade, there was no commercial and institutional arrangement to facilitate trade between the two sides.

China, as a peaceful and non-invasive country, aims to promote economic cooperation with Arab region on an equal basis because it considers the Arab world a historic partner. The historical experience of the Arabs with the Chinese through the Silk Road has confirmed that China differs from the nations of colonialism and imperialism, which consider the Arab region a place rich in natural resources only. In his historic speech at the Arab League, Chinese President Xi stressed that China will not seek to extend influence and search for proxies in the Middle East. The Chinese initiatives will contribute to establishing security and stability through economic development and improving the people’s livelihood, in line with the post-2015 development agenda and the aspirations of the Arab people for a better life, as the Chinese experience proves that development is the key to digging out the roots of conflicts and extremism in all its forms.

China is a neutral country and does not favor the use of violence. During the Syrian crisis, for example, the Chinese envoy to the Security Council raised his hand three times, meaning that China, with its wise diplomacy, supported the Syrian regime without entering the military war. During the recent Chinese military parade, Chinese President Xi Jinping revealed some Chinese military capabilities and thus sent a message to the enemies that China will always be ready if a war is imposed on it, and a message of support to China’s allies. The Arab region today needs a real partner who possesses economic and military power and international political influence, such as China; to ensure the success of the Belt and Road Initiative, and to consolidate the China-Arab relations and raise it to the level of a strategic alliance.

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The analysis of developments in relations between Turkey and Israel

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The fear of Biden’s Administration, the concern over the Abraham Accords (see below), the positioning of the geopolitical status in the Middle East, and the safeguarding of interests in Israel are the main factors through which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seeks to improve relations with Israel which, however, he connects to the Palestinians.

The statements made by Turkish President Erdoğan’s on developments in relations with Israel have confirmed media reports of his repeated attempts to reach an understanding on several controversial issues, as well as paving the way for the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. The statements made by President Erdoğan, as well as other Turkish officials, have stressed the connection between the change in Turkish-Israeli relations and Israel’s policy towards the Palestinian issue.

The “linking principle” connecting the two issues has been a key factor in Turkish foreign policy since the 1950s, and it operates in the range between words and deeds, which at times have also led to severe crises in the relations between the two countries.

At the time Turkey opposed the partition plan, but recognised Israel and maintained diplomatic relations with it. Relations were suspended after the second Arab-Israeli war in 1956, when Turkey recalled its diplomatic representative from Tel Aviv, announcing he would not return there “until a just solution to the Palestinian issue was found in accordance with UN Resolutions”.

After rising to power, President Erdoğan has developed the aforementioned “linking principle”. Against the backdrop of Israel’s actions with the Palestinians, Turkey has increased its political and economic support for its Muslim brethren and caused crises.

President Erdoğan’s recent statements have been made against the backdrop of this policy: on the one hand, the Turkish President has expressed his country’s desire to improve relations with Israel and continue intelligence cooperation; on the other hand, he has maintained that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is “unacceptable”.

It is important to note that Turkey will not relinquish the “linking principle”, which differs from the principle of the new Arab normalisation, based on the separation between the Palestinian issue and relations with Israel. The so-called Abraham Accords, such as the recognition of the State of Israel by the United Arab Emirates in September last year: the third Arab country to formally recognise Israel, after Egypt and Jordan; the fourth one if we considers Mauritania’s “frozen” recognition.

The policy implemented by President Erdoğan is not only shaped by foreign relations, but is also a Turkish internal issue in which public opinion plays a key role. It seems that until elections are held in Turkey (scheduled for June 25, 2023), there will be no complete normalisation with Israel. The majority of the Turkish population supports the Palestinians and their rights, feels full solidarity for them and opposes the Israeli presence.

Moreover, President Erdoğan regards the Palestinian issue as an important factor in building a renewed Turkish Muslim national identity. These stances increase his popularity and strengthen people’s support for him and his party, as well as his authority and prestige in the Muslim world.

At the same time, however, this policy also has pragmatic implications: President Erdoğan is not severing ties with Israel, but merely creating actions that lead to symptoms of “diplomatic” crises.

Despite this wait-and-see attitude, economic ties between Turkey and Israel are flourishing. According to official data, in 2018 exports from Turkey to Israel were worth 6.5 billion dollars and imports 1.9 billion dollars (excluding diamond trade and tourism).

Following the crisis in relations and the expulsion of the Israeli Ambassador from Turkey (May 2018), exports had fallen to 4 billion dollars in 2019 and imports to 1.7 billion dollars. Although declining, there are still deep economic ties.

Trade relations, however, are not the decisive factor in determining the nature of Turkey-Israel relations. There are four issues that are believed to have led Turkey to review its relations with Israel:

1. Turkey has welcome the new U.S. President, Joe Biden, with caution and fear that he will oppose Turkish activities in the region. The U.S. leader may also be very tough on security, armaments and minority rights in Turkey. Some believe that improved relations with Israel will calm down the situation with President Biden, and the U.S. Congress and the Zionist lobby will be able to contribute to this result. It is not known, however, whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be as good a mediator with Biden as he was with Donald Trump.

2. Turkey is seeking to remove the isolation imposed on it due to the distribution of marine economic zones in the Eastern Mediterranean area, and is trying to bring Israel on its side to develop a joint stance and oppose such subdivisions. According to Israeli sources, Turkey has made Israel a generous offer to expand its area of control over the marine economic zones, in exchange for Turkey’ siding with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt. Israel has reacted cautiously, both because it much weighs President Erdoğan’s intentions and because it is actually interested in strengthening its relations with the above stated countries.

3. Turkey is worried about the Abraham Accords for normalisation with Israel, particularly the aforementioned one with the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey aims at limiting their influence and status as a further “undertaking” of Arab rivals. Turkey endeavours to dismantle a rising alliance between the Arab countries and Israel. After all, we wonder why Turkey is not instead trying to improve its ties with Arab countries to achieve the same goal. Could it still be because of history and traditional mutual dislike?

4. Turkey is trying to relieve the pressure on its activities in Israel and Palestine as a result of the possible improvement in relations with Israel. Turkey funds important projects in Jerusalem and Israel is trying to contain and restrain it. Conversely, an improvement in Israeli-Turkish relations could release the Israeli brake.

To date, no official Israeli response has been provided to Turkish statements. Israel’s media speak of suspicion and coldness in response to the Turkish rapprochement, with fears that President Erdoğan is preparing a ploy, a trick aimed not at improving his relations with Israel, but at sabotaging Israel’s relations and contacts with other countries.

However, leaks from senior Israeli officials indicate that their country has set conditions for restoring relations, which include ending Turkey’s ties with Hamas and transferring Turkish projects to Jerusalem through Israeli channels, as well as abstaining from voting against Israel in international organisations and adopting a balanced position between Israel and the Palestinians.

It is not yet clear what the fate of Turkey-Israel relations will be in the coming months, with President Biden in the White House and after the Israeli elections held on March 23, 2021. It is important to note, however, that Turkey will not give up the “linking principle”, which differs from the new principle of Arab normalisation, based on the separation between the Palestinian issue and relations with Israel.

The Turkish “linking principle” is a real need for Turkey- hence the Palestinian leadership must work with Turkey to maximise common goals, especially with regard to Jerusalem, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Gaza.

Not easy steps to make, but not impossible either.

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The Exceptionality of the Hashemite Rule in Jordan

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In the tumultuous politics of the Middle East, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has traditionally steered a cautious and successful course in international relations. This course largely relies on a multidimensional foreign policy and the cementing of relations with regional and western countries. Jordan is a valuable strategic partner of the United States and the European Union in the heart of the Middle East. Amman’s strategic role is reflected in the military cooperation and joint global counterterrorism operations including as a member of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS and in meeting the overwhelming humanitarian needs of more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees.

Jordan is also a pragmatic neighbor of Israel. The 1994 Jordan-Israel peace treaty has enabled water sharing arrangements between the two countries, security cooperation, Jordanian overflight of Israeli territory, and the conduct of joint Israel-Jordan exercises to respond to natural disasters. A representative case was the 2004 joint exercise to counter environmental effects of pollution in the Red Sea. The peace treaty has notably provided the context for enhanced economic, trade and tourism ties.

The kingdom has also served as honest broker in Palestinian-Israeli peace efforts in support of the two-state solution, always abiding with the late King Hussein’s principle that “Jordan should not be, cannot be, will not be a substitute for the Palestinians themselves as the major aggrieved party on the Arab side in a process that leads to peace”. Amman has served as credible intermediary for Israel and the Palestinians to suspend tensions at multiple occasions like for example in the old city of Jerusalem, particularly at the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif where the kingdom pursues a successful administration of religious funded schools favoring moderate religious education and religious tourism. Jordanian moderation guarantees co-existence of the three monotheistic religions in Jerusalem at a time when on the contrary, counties like Turkey funnel millions of dollars in charity projects in Jerusalem promoting extreme Islamic ideologies.

Reform Programs and Initiatives

Jordan’s moderation stems from the Hashemite rule that has confronted internal and external challenges maintaining stability that is conducive to national, and western interests for the region. The exceptionality and uniqueness of the Hashemite rule derives from its historical legacy, modernity, direct descendant of Prophet Mohammed and its posture as vanguard of reforms. Among significant reform initiatives was the “Jordan First-Al Urdun Awlan” campaign of 2002-2003, that articulated a comprehensive vision of economic and political reforms. The initiative provided the formation of a national committee to deal with different economic and political issues that ultimately led to the introduction of a parliamentary quota for women and the enactment of anti-corruption measures.

A blueprint for political, economic, and social reforms was provided by the 2005 Jordanian National Agenda that approached the reform process in a holistic, rather than a piecemeal, way. Its findings produced the “We Are All Jordan-Kulna al Urdun” document. The document was a clear attempt at political reform and selected a list of fifteen priorities that paved the way for significant legislative initiatives. A prominent initiative was the enactment of an anti-corruption law that established an anti-corruption committee with broad powers and included in its definition of corruption actions related to nepotism (wasta).

An additional reform program is the Jordan 2025 National Vision and Strategy” launched in 2014that provides for economic reforms through policies and measures that aim at sustainable economic growth, support of small and medium-sized businesses, women’s participation in the labour market, financing mechanisms for public projects (PPP partnerships) and public investments on health, education and food security, digital economy, and green infrastructure. The coronavirus pandemic however has hit hard the kingdom’s economy to such an extent that economic reform initiatives are expected to bear fruits at a later stage taking into consideration the current global economic downturn considered to be the worst since the Great Depression. Jordan’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) contracted in 2020 by 2.3 percent after growing 2 percent in 2019 due to losses in state revenues because of fewer remittances and a weakened tourism market.

To cope with the direct negative effects of the pandemic on its state budget, Jordan received $396 million from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in May 2020 in the form ofemergency assistance. The amount of finance was specifically funneled to address the kingdom’s balance of payments needs and allow for higher spending on healthcare, and assistance to households and companies most affected by the pandemic. Despite that the IMF provided in March 2020 another multi-year $1.3 billion loan package to Jordan, the pandemic has caused at least a $1.5 billion shortfall in its balance of payments.

Modernization and Democratization

The Hashemite exceptionality legitimizes and ensures viability of rule over Jordan that constitutes a model of a modern Arab democratic country.The Jordanian leadership has taken over the last decade practical steps to unleash a deep political reform process to reflect Jordan’s vision of comprehensive reform, modernization, and development. Chief among reform measures was the introduction of a new constitution that came into force in 2011 and included amendments to 42 constitutional articles. Most prominent was the establishment of a constitutional court and an independent elections oversight commission, and the provision that the dissolution of the parliament entails the dissolution of the government. A major concession was also the curtailing of some of the King’s powers with most representative, the revoke of his power to cancel parliamentary elections. It is also noteworthy that the Jordanian leadership initiated in 2013 the Democratic Empowerment Programme called “Demoqrati” under the umbrella of the King Abdullah II Fund for Development, with the aim to instil the principles of active citizenship and empower individuals and democratic institutions.

In practical terms, the kingdom has demonstrated effectiveness and respect of democratic processes when, despite the pandemic, Amman proceeded with holding parliamentary elections in 2020. A recent poll conducted by the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University for Jordan in mid-March 2021 showed that 36% of Jordanians trust the current parliament, and 38% trust their electoral district parliament representatives, which constitutes the highest percentage of trust given to the parliament since 2014. The election of 100 new parliament members in the current House of Representatives guarantees renewal of political representation that is one of the main pillars of democracy. Elections were held in Jordan in a timely manner enhancing democratic governance and institutions. Jordanian elections were held in accordance with constitutional provisions when on the contrary at least 41 countries and territories around the world postponed national elections and referendums using the pandemic as a pretext according to data released by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

Overall, Jordan’s Hashemite leadership has unleashed a multidimensional reform process throughout the years that reflects the kingdom’s vision of comprehensive modernization and development in a way that can be translated into realities on the ground and provide a blueprint for a better future, not only for Jordanians, but for the people of the region.

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