Middle East
Ex-PM Fayez pushed for casino deal in 2003
Current speaker of parliament, who oversaw investigation into PM Marouf Bakhit, made his own casino bid years before.
Last Modified: 13 Sep 2011 09:05

Amman, Jordan — Jordan's legislature has spent the last few months investigating the "Casinogate" scandal under the leadership of Faisal al-Fayez, the speaker of parliament.

Fayez has made few public statements about the casino deal. But under his leadership, the parliament's anti-corruption committee carried out a months-long investigation; it interviewed dozens of witnesses and released a lengthy report earlier this year.

Then, earlier this month, parliament debated the issue during a controversial session chaired by Fayez. The speaker allowed prime minister Marouf al-Bakhit to speak in his own defense, but barred tourism minister Osama Dabbas from delivering testimony. Several MPs walked out of the session and submitted their resignations in protest.

The Al Jazeera Transparency Unit has learned that the Jordanian government issued two casino licenses in December 2003, while Fayez was prime minister. The licenses have not been previously reported.

Negotiations began earlier in the year, when the government gave tourism minister Nader Dahabi the authority to negotiate a casino deal. A May 22 letter from then-prime minister Ali Abu al-Ragheb said the casino project had been approved by the council of ministers. (Ragheb's term ran until October, at which point Fayez took over as prime minister.)

Two casinos would be built, one in Aqaba, the other near the Sheikh Hussein Bridge, the border crossing between Jordan and northern Israel.

One of the two licenses was issued to Ayla Corporation, a company owned by Khaled al-Masri, the well-connected businessman who was also involved with the 2007 bid.

Though the casino has never been built, Ayla stil owns that license, which was granted for a period of 50 years, according to the terms of the contract obtained by Al Jazeera.

'Nobody knows, but everybody knows'

The idea of a casino in Jordan is a persistent one, in other words, something that has been pursued under at least three prime ministers. That leads some Jordanians to wonder who else in the government supports building a casino.

Jordanians cannot ask that question freely, not in a country where critcising the royal court is a criminal offense punishable by three years in prison. But more and more Jordanians are tiptoeing up to that line, criticising the king - often obliquely - not just over the stalled casino deal, but over the slow pace of reforms in general.

Oraib al-Rantawi, the head of the Al-Quds Center for Political Studies, said a casino bid would have been a "difficult question."

"It is a big decision to make in a country like Jordan, where the ruling family is Hashemite, descendants of Muhammad," he said. Jordan's royal family traces its ancestry back to the Islamic prophet.

Azzam al-Huneidi, a member of parliament from the Islamic Action Front, suggested that Bakhit wasn't the only Jordanian official to approve the 2007 casino project. Asked who the other officials were, he gave a cagey answer: "Nobody knows," he said with a smile. "But everybody knows."

On the streets of Amman, few Jordanians think the casino deals were signed without higher approval. Asked who had to okay the contract, one man rolled his eyes. "You know the answer," he said. In a cafe in the upscale Jabal Amman neighbourhood, another man simply laughed and pointed upwards.

Protesters in Amman and elsewhere have been increasingly critical of the king, in spite of Jordan's lese majeste laws. The government's unwillingness to confront rampant corruption is a major reason for their frustrations: Many Jordanians say they're losing confidence that the government is serious about reform.

Abdullah reshuffled his cabinet earlier this year in a bid to appease protesters, but his choice for prime minister - Marouf al-Bakhit - was already widely viewed as corrupt.

A Jordanian web site revealed earlier this month that 45 members of parliament - one-third of the legislature - had not filed financial disclosures as required by law. The government's response was to raid the offices of the web site.

And parliament is now considering a law which would effectively make it illegal to accuse public figures of corruption: any whistleblower who makes such an allegation without "sufficient evidence" could face jail time.

"If we want to investigate ministers, MPs, it has to come from parliament. So they are investigating themselves," said al-Rantawi. "And now with this new law, they are protecting the corrupted people."

Read more about Jordan's "Casinogate" scandal at the Al Jazeera Transparency Unit's website.

Al Jazeera
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