The Jordanian government has gone to great lengths to hide information about its 2014 multi-billion dollar gas deal with Israel from the public. But the government’s attempt to keep the public in the dark has only energized a popular campaign demanding full disclosure of its terms. Making documents available to the public is their modus operandi.
In early September 2014, Jordan’s official news agency Petra reported that the Jordanian National Electric Power Company—government-owned and thus taxpayer-funded—had signed a letter of intent to import large amounts of natural gas extracted from the Mediterranean seabed. The government provided no details about the terms of the deal. Nor, crucially, did it disclose that the gas would come from Leviathan, Israel’s largest offshore gas field.
The Israeli connection, however, had already been reported in the international press, and a concerned public mobilized against the deal. An activist from the newly formed Jordanian National Campaign Against the Gas Agreement with the Zionist Entity requested a copy of the letter of intent so as to make it public.1 In a short response, found in document 7/3/3/5543 dated July 26, 2015, and signed by Ghalib Mu‘abira, secretary general of the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, the government flatly denied the request:
Please be informed that it is not possible to provide you with a copy of the letter of intent referred to above because the letter is subject to clauses on protection of sensitive information, which prevent the disclosure of any documents or information that has been exchanged between the two parties.
Two years after signing the letter of intent, the government officially concluded an agreement on the gas deal. According to publicized information, an Israeli-led consortium including the US-based Noble Energy and Israel’s Delek Group will supply Jordan with approximately 1.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas from the yet undeveloped Leviathan field, over a period of 15 years, with Israel receiving most of the estimated cost of at least $10 billion.2 The government says this supply will meet approximately 40 percent of Jordan’s gas needs.3
The Jordanian government’s refusal to release what it calls “sensitive information” about the deal is among the most potent weapons it has used to blunt opposition to the gas deal. In addition to withholding important documents, the government has disseminated misinformation about the agreement—and blocked alternative sources of information used by the deal’s opponents.
But the government’s attempt to keep the public in the dark about the deal has only energized the popular campaign demanding full disclosure of its terms. A broad coalition of activists, political parties, professional and trade unions, social groups, parliamentarians and military veterans formed the national campaign against the agreement within months of the 2014 letter of intent, rallying under the slogan, “The enemy’s gas is occupation.”
Opposition to the deal is rooted in popular resistance to normalizing relations with Israel following the 1994 Jordanian treaty with Israel, which many Jordanians regard as a settler-colonial state and a purveyor of state terrorism, hence its refusal to use “Israel” in the name of the National Campaign. But the deal’s opponents are also deeply concerned by the fact that gas is a strategic commodity giving the exporting country tremendous leverage. Moreover, they are angry that the deal deprives a heavily-indebted Jordan of billions of dollars that could be invested to develop the country’s own energy sources—Jordan has natural gas, shale oil reserves and abundant sunshine—or to develop its economy providing thousands of jobs for unemployed Jordanians.4
The Jordanian government’s refusal to provide details about the deal is in keeping with the region’s other authoritarian regimes who treat information about important affairs of the state as private matters best kept from the public—an authoritarian privatization of public information. Nevertheless, public resistance to the gas deal has mobilized a movement that is questioning this authoritarian formula by challenging its monopoly on public information—they are demanding, finding and releasing documents to the public in an unprecedented method of opposition through a campaign of public disclosure. Moreover, the campaign against the deal is raising major questions about the relationship between taxpayers and a regime that is unelected, enjoys no democratic legitimacy and is accountable to no one.
Burying the Deal
In an age when it is widely accepted that information is power, the ability to withhold the truth or disseminate falsehoods is also a form of power. Arab ruling elites have long claimed that their often reckless and arbitrary decisions that go against the public interest are based on information they cannot reveal to the public without harming state security, which they often portray as being on the edge of collapse. These elites view governance as a private matter that concerns no one but themselves—public matters are often dealt with in complete secrecy, far from the uninvited eyes of the public who are the subject of these private affairs. It goes without saying that if governing is a private matter, then it cannot be questioned or called to account. Matters of state—such as executive decision-making and spending—are kept opaque so that they will remain unchallenged.
This mentality has largely dictated the Jordanian government’s handling of the Israel gas deal over the past five years. The letter of intent announcement was buried in the middle of a Petra broadcast that provided only minimal details, including an obscure remark by then-Minister of Energy Mohammed Hamid that the imports would come from “gas discovered in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea.” Then, after the opposition campaign disseminated news of the agreement, the government refused to provide the text to parliament. The legislators were able to discuss only the principle that Jordan might make such an agreement to import gas from Israel. By an overwhelming majority, they rejected the idea in December 2014.5
The actual agreement was signed in 2016 in the same rushed manner, without coverage befitting its importance. Moreover, it was signed in a political vacuum, coming between the dissolution of one parliament and the inaugural meeting of the next. The day after the agreement was signed on September 26, 2016, the palace announced that the opening of the next parliament would be delayed from its normal start in October until November 7, buying more time without formal scrutiny.
Under growing pressure from parliament and public demonstrations, the government finally provided a copy of the agreement to the lower house’s Energy Committee in March 2017. The text was in English, and it disappeared again, this time into the drawers of parliament for two years, on the pretext that it required translation into Arabic. It finally reappeared in January 2019 at a hastily convened Energy Committee meeting.6 Only two copies—one in English and one in Arabic—were made available for brief review, after which the text vanished once more. No MP was able to read the agreement closely. In general session, parliament rejected the agreement in principle for a second time and on March 26, 2019, legislators demanded that the government cancel it.7
Opponents point out that the government is violating Article 33 of the constitution, which stipulates that “[t]reaties and agreements which involve financial commitments by the Treasury or affect the public or private rights of Jordanians shall not be valid unless approved by the National Assembly.” In order to procrastinate, the government announced that it would seek the opinion of the Constitutional Court (whose members are appointed by the king) as to whether the parliament had the right to examine the agreement at all.8
Parallel, and in contrast to the government’s campaign of secrecy and obfuscation, the Jordanian National Campaign Against the Gas Agreement with the Zionist Entity has worked to obtain all the information it can, whether from corporate disclosures or reports in American and Israeli media. The Campaign has focused on disseminating its research through social media platforms, press conferences and national gatherings, including a public tribunal in September 2015 that put the gas deal itself on trial. The Campaign worked with prominent judges and lawyers to conduct the trial, complete with prosecution, defense and jury. The Campaign has sought to publicize its findings widely and engage the public in an open process of discovery.
In response, the government has tried to minimize media coverage of the Campaign’s efforts at disclosing the deal’s terms as well as limit its access to information. The English-language Israeli website Globes has been particularly helpful in providing the Campaign with details about the deal. The government accordingly blocked the website for years, lifting the censorship only after the Campaign had denounced the censorship repeatedly in protests.9
The government has also released a number of misleading statements, sometimes directly and sometimes through loyalist MPs. The government has strictly avoided mentioning Israel in discussing the deal, referring only to “Noble’s gas,” as if the American oil company owns the field in which it is drilling, or “Mediterranean gas,” as if the sea is a country from which goods can be imported.
Moreover, though the government says it signed the agreement with Noble Energy, its partner is in fact a subsidiary company, NBL Jordan Marketing Limited, headquartered in the Cayman Islands.10 According to Nobel Energy and Delek Group press releases, NBL JM Ltd is owned by the partners developing the Leviathan gas fields: Noble, which owns a 39.66 percent stake in the venture; Delek Group, an Israeli company that has the largest share with 45.34 percent; and Ratio Oil Exploration, another Israeli company that has a 15 percent share. But the Cayman’s connection hints at hidden partners who will remain that way because of the secrecy laws in such financial havens. That possibility in turn raises the specter of corruption.
The government’s restrictive approach to information about the gas deal contradicts laws it passed to create the impression that Jordan was becoming more liberal, democratic and transparent, and it has even used ostensibly liberal laws to restrict information.
At the beginning of 2017, for example, a legal researcher requested a copy of the agreement pursuant to Law 47 of 2007, the Freedom of Access to Information Law. He received a response two months later in the form of Document 1794 of February 25, 2017, signed by Minister of Energy Ibrahim Saif, declaring that the requested information was classified in accordance with Article 13 of Law 47. When the researcher filed a complaint through his lawyer with the Information Council—the government agency charged with reviewing cases where the government has withheld information from the public—he received a letter on March 23, 2017 signed by Information Commissioner Mohammed Younis al-Abbadi. The Commissioner rejected the request “based on Paragraph One of Article 13 of the freedom of information law, as the requested information is related to documents classified by the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources as secret in compliance with Article 11 of the law.”
The bitter irony of citing the Freedom of Access to Information Law to justify withholding information is only enhanced when one considers that Jordan received the sixth worst rating in the world in the system used by the World Bank and UNESCO. In 2017, this Right to Information Rating gave Jordan’s information laws a score of 55 points of a possible 150, putting the country at 105 among the 111 countries studied.11 This example demonstrates a fundamental principle of Jordanian politics today: The government uses the rhetoric of democracy while practicing the authoritarian monopolization of power.
The Freedom of Access to Information Law is backed up by a ream of statutes that further limit access to information. One of the most important is the Protection of State Secrets and Documents (Law 50 of 1971), a “temporary law” issued during the period of martial law following the events of September 1970 and which remain in place today. Similar laws include the General Statistics Law, the law of the Anti-Corruption Agency, Regulation 16 of 2009 on the employees of the Civil Aviation Regulatory Authority and the 1952 Law on Declarations.12 There is also Law 9 of 2017, the Law of National Documents, which allows the government to punish citizens who possess or use national documents or fail to notify the government of possession.
In addition, Jordan has no law making official documents public after a certain period of time has passed. Thus, the government’s self-promotional communications are more than just the sole source of information available today: They will also become the official historical record. Scholars of Jordanian history have to rely on the British and Israeli archives to reconstruct events.
At the same time, the government strives to portray itself as transparent and credible through initiatives such as a website titled It’s Your Right to Know. This ostensible concern for sharing information with citizens does not extend to challenging government interests, for the website is fundamentally concerned—in its own words—with refuting rumors that “have gone so far as to question national accomplishments, distort the image of official and private institutions, and engage in character assassination.” Activists have greeted this initiative with the appropriate sarcasm.13
An Unprecedented Fight
Information poses a threat to repressive governments, particularly those that claim to be democratic but in practice monopolize wealth and political power. Hence the ferocity of the counterattack in the United States against people and institutions like Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks. Withholding information, releasing it selectively, or disseminating misinformation have become essential tools for influencing public opinion. Thus, it is crucial to put information in the hands of citizens if politics is to be wrested from politicians and returned to the people.
The government’s attempt to keep the public in the dark is why the National Campaign made making documents available to the public its modus operandi. In a first in the history of Jordanian opposition politics, the National Campaign backs up its statements with lists of sources, such as reports from US think tanks and financial disclosures by American and Israeli firms. They have made it a mission to provide the public with the latest and most thorough information so that people can judge the gas deal’s merits for themselves.
The Campaign has been able to turn the concepts of “secrecy” and “protection” (of information) into a critique shining light on what has been hidden. This focus includes addressing the possibility of corruption, lack of economic feasibility, unfair terms and the Jordanian government’s preference for supporting the Israeli occupation’s economy with Jordanian taxpayer money over developing the Jordanian economy, which is underdeveloped and crippled by loans and unemployment.
Despite the state’s pushback, the campaign has been successful in revealing the scope of the deal and in keeping pressure on the government to come clean about all its terms. In June 2019, activists, party leaders, trade unions activists, lawyers and citizens filed around 220 judicial notices in courts in the cities of Irbid, Madaba, Amman, Zarqa and Karak in an attempt to put an end to Jordan’s purchase of Israeli gas. In the notices, the Campaign is asking the government to halt legal and business dealings related to the deal, cancel all land acquisitions undertaken for the project and hold accountable the officials who made the agreement.
Given the powerful interests—including the United States, Israel and other regional allies—urging Jordan to stay the course with the gas deal, it is unclear if the campaign can muster enough popular pressure for the government to abandon it. But the broader struggle to end state secrecy and the privatizing of public information in Jordan, and perhaps in the wider Arab region, may be gathering strength.
—Translated from Arabic by Vickie Langohr
1 Marissa Newman, “Israel signs $15 billion gas deal with Jordan,” The Times of Israel, September 3, 2014.
2 Mika Minio-Paluello, The Israel-Jordan Natural Gas Deal: Pumping Revenue into Israel’s Coffers ( Platform and The Jordanian Coordination Committee Against Importing Gas from Israel, 2014), https://taharruri.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/israeljordangasdealrevenue-final.pdf
3 Mohammad Ghazal, “NEPCO says gas deal with Israel saves Jordan $600m a year,” The Jordan Times, September 29, 2016.
4 Hisham Bustani, “Importing Israeli gas: Jordan’s self-harming energy choice,” Middle East Eye, September 30, 2016.
5 Raed Omari, “House recommends scrapping tentative gas deal with Israel,” The Jordan Times, December 10, 2014.
6 Mohammed al-Irsan, “The Gas Deal With Israel…Eight Months for Translation in The Jordanian Parliament,” Arabi 21, November 19, 2017. [Arabic]
7 “Lower house rejects gas deal with Israel, calls for terminate it,” Jordan News Agency (Petra), March 26, 2019.
8 Raed Omari, “MPs demand scrapping Israeli gas deal ‘at any cost’,” The Jordan Times, March 27, 2019.
9 Omar Faris, “An Interactive Map: I Am a Website Which Opposes the Government, Therefore I Have Been Blocked,” 7iber.com, August 30, 2017. [Arabic]
10 Avi Bar-Eli, “Revealed: Israel Pledged to Place Jordan’s Natural Gas Needs Before Its Own,” Haaretz, February 15, 2017.
11 Mosa’ab al-Shawabka, “Is the Government Violating the Constitution by Withholding the Gas Deal?” 7iber.com, March 20, 2017. [Arabic]
12 Amal al-Murshidi, “The Crime of Revealing Secrets: In-Depth Research on the Crime of Revealing Secrets and Professional Secrets,” Mohamah.net, July 3, 2016. [Arabic]
13 Hadeel al-Rawibida, “The Platform ‘You Have a Right to Know’: Does It Fight Rumors in Jordan or Spread Them?” al-Jazeera, January 18, 2019. [Arabic]