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Last Updated: Sunday, 4 April, 2004, 07:29 GMT 08:29 UK
Jordan's king puts faith in hi-tech
King Abdullah of Jordan on his assertion
The king has been in power for five years
King Abdullah of Jordan has told the BBC how he hopes to turn the country into the hi-tech capital of the Middle East.

The king has instituted a programme with a number of private sector companies to put computers into the country's schools. Software has also been designed to run alongside the school curriculum.

The king, who has termed the programme "big ideas for a little country," told BBC World Service's Assignment programme that he hoped it would provide a model for the entire region.

"We are embarking on a pretty adventurous set of reforms, political, social and economic," said King Abdullah.

"If we fail, then for all the traditionalists, all the old guard in the Middle East who do want to reform, will use the failure of Jordan as an excuse not to move forward.

"This is why it is so important for us to succeed in everything we do, on human rights, on political parties, on education, on health."

Ideas too big?

The king is hoping that the investment in technology and education will be successful so that younger generations in the region would recognise Jordan had been successful, and themselves take risks.

It has been backed by both US technology giants and Jordanian entrepreneurs.

The king is hoping to turn young Jordanians into highly-skilled computer-literate people as the basis for the future economy.

Jordan is in a highly volatile region
However, Jordan is a poor state and reform is difficult as the country is steeped in conservative tribal values.

Some have argued his plans for schools have been implemented too quickly, before teachers have been fully trained.

And some MPs initially protested that the plans were too Western.

The king explained that private sector companies had approached him asking for help, and that he had supported them. They had then been included into the government education programme.

He said he had very high hopes for its success, not just in Jordan but worldwide.

"This company is going to be one of the major companies that's going to explode onto the education world when it comes to technology," he said.

"We've got the talent, we know we can do it. It's just they need to be given the right opportunities to succeed."

But critics point out that in many respects there is not the same energy outside of the schools, and that long-term plans will not solve the problems the country has right now.

Jordan has few natural resources and relies on Western aid - last year it received $1bn from the United States. It has tried to open up its economy, but few tourists and investors are willing to risk such an area.

Jordan has an official unemployment rate of around 13%, but the real figure is believed to be higher.

'Impatient' king

Further, the prices of some goods recently increased by over 20%. Petrol prices are also set to rise as Jordan used to rely on oil that came free from Iraq when Saddam Hussein was in power.

King Abdullah of Jordan
what makes the difference between someone who's poor and who's rich, for their children, is education
King Abdullah of Jordan
As a result, some see King Abdullah's hi-tech policies as wrong in a country where most people are struggling to have enough to eat.

"What you're getting is a polarisation," said prominent Jordanian journalist Rami Khouri, the editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon's capital Beirut.

"You're getting more and more people who used to be comfortable middle class are now lower middle income. The stress is tougher.

"They're more worried about getting a job for their children; they're more worried about being able to deal with major medical emergencies.

"These are legitimate complaints."

Some also fear this economic discomfort could translate into political tension.

Jordan is surrounded by some of the world's most volatile countries, squeezed between Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian West Bank. Sometimes the conflict in these areas spills over its borders.

The king admitted that he was "impatient," and he was frustrated the impact of the reforms was not yet been felt.

Eroding political capital

But he insisted that technology and education investment would pay off in the long run.

"When I looked at education, and I said I wanted to put computers in schools so that every student has a chance at education, there was a traditional reaction - 'we need food on the table and not computers'," he said.

Palestinian refugees
Conflicts on Jordan's borders often spill over into the country
"But I know, from having served 20 years in the army [where] the soldiers represent the lower middle class - and they're very capable and very bright - but what makes the difference between someone who's poor and who's rich, for their children, is education."

Mustapha Hamarneh, the director of Jordan's Centre for Strategic Studies, the country's leading think-tank, said he believed that the King currently had a lot of "political capital" which was why his reforms were not more vigorously opposed.

But he warned this would decrease if change does not come about soon.

"Failures are attributed to governments, to individuals, to ministers, to prime ministers," he said.

"Over time, this will have a cumulative effect, because it's very clear new jobs are not being created fast enough, political reform is not moving at the pace that it ought to be moving at.

"Therefore there will be gradual erosion of the king's own political standing in the country if the situation continues."

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