Hala Zawati, CEO of the Jordan Strategy Forum

Jordan Strategy Forum: Working for Business

Five years since its creation, the Jordan Strategy Forum (JSF) is still advocating hard for Jordan’s business community.

By Dina Al-Wakeel

Established in the wake of the Arab Spring, the Jordan Strategy Forum helps the private sector engage in dialogue with the pubic sector to achieve comprehensive economic development. From startups to established companies and medium-sized firms, the think tank can draw on the experience of a variety of companies, in addition to academics and economic experts.

Hala Zawati, the CEO of the JSF, believes that while real strides have been made to achieve the goals of her organization, a great deal of work remains to be done.

Do you think the government is open for dialogue with the private sector?

I think the government wants the private sector to succeed, as the private sectors’ participation is considered a key driver to economic growth. Also, due to the slow economic recovery the need for a more engaged private sector has never been this paramount. The parliament is also cooperating with us, as they need a think tank and a research arm that is credible and neutral. We provide them with international best practices, solid backgrounds, and the essential facts and figures to build upon within their decision-making.

However, based on our experience in advocacy over the past years, we see that Jordan lacks a “consultation law” with the various stakeholders. If such a law were in place, then valuable input would be garnered by all stakeholders involved that would lead to more mature economic laws and regulations. This will lead to more stability in the regulatory framework of the business environment in Jordan.

How do you see the doing business environment in Jordan?

Unfortunately, the environment is hampering the private sector’s ability to perform. The instability in regulations, bureaucracy, and perception of taxation are discouraging some investors, according to a survey we carried out. In addition to that, many other restraints such as the regional turmoil, closure of boarders, and the brain drain issue all continue to play an important role in negatively affecting the business environment.

All these factors have resulted in a growing budget deficit for Jordan. This has led us to borrow funds from the likes of the World Bank and the IMF. This comes with a price; the government is continuously increasing taxation in order to close the deficit gap. Such an approach needs to be properly studied and an impact assessment needs to take place. As we have seen in the past, there are negative implications from ad hoc tax increases. For example, when taxes were raised on the telecommunication sector, the revenue went down, both for the telecommunication companies as well as the government.

Do you believe that since your establishment you have managed to influence some change?

Definitely. This year marks our fifth year anniversary. During this period we have released numerous studies and have had many dialogue sessions revolved around these studies whereby we invite all the concerned parties to discuss the issue at hand and try to implement the recommendations put forward. This has proved to be fruitful in many occasions. One example is a report that was released suggesting certain measures to be adopted by Jordan to improve the business environment and hence improve our ranking in the Doing Business Report. Since our report has been released we are starting to notice certain regulations are being changed or made easier such as changes to the vocational license processing time, which has been reduced, and the process of renewal is now more convenient.

Furthermore, we have released a paper emphasizing the need for venture capital funds and the need to build the regulatory environment around it that allows and facilitates the work of such companies. This resulted in articles being changed in the Companies Law.

So to answer your question, yes we are influencing change as we are putting issues on the table for the private, public, and regulatory bodies to think of, revise, and take actions accordingly.

Moreover, we feel that we have the responsibility to inform the public and to spread awareness around economic issues; this is not an easy task, as the topics we handle are a bit complex. That is why we tend to reach the public through newspapers and social media, whether in written articles or through simple infographs to convey our messages in the simplest form.

How do you see the forum developing and how influential do you see it becoming?

We have reached 85 member companies from various sectors who fully support us and sustain our existence through their membership. This is the source of our neutrality and credibility. We don’t accept donations from any party. Some of our members are public shareholding companies who make up 70 percent of the capital market listed under the Amman Stock Exchange. This is a large figure. They employ Jordanians, implement gender equality, pay taxes, and implement CSR projects. So our voice is heard whether by the government or the Upper and Lower Houses, the private sector, and most recently the public. With time we hope to reach a bigger segment of the public to raise awareness and correct misconceptions on the private sector.