AMMAN, Jan 29 (AFP) - King Abdullah II, who celebrates his 39th birthday Tuesday, has focused his two-year reign on transforming Jordan into a modern economy with cyberspace tools despite resistance from the kingdom's tribal society.
Thrust on the throne upon the death of his father King Hussein in February 1999, Abdullah was chosen over his more experienced uncle to replace the late monarch only a month before his death.
His accession won the hearts of the Jordanian people and the peaceful transition set a encouraging precedent in the troubled Arab world where other young leaders followed in Bahrain, Morocco and Syria.
"His eyes are turned towards the 21st century and in no time the king began investing in the future, without losing touch with the present," Information Minister Taleb Rifai told AFP.
Abdullah's economic adviser Bassem Awadallah voiced similar enthusiasm.
"Economic liberalisation has taken on a new vigor since the accession of his majesty. He has encouraged the adoption of educational, administrative, legal and judicial reforms and they are gradually being implemented to create a centre of excellence out of this country," Awadallah told AFP.
Rifai and Awadallah are part of a young group of Western-educated advisers hand-picked by the king to help him mould the country into a modern nation geared towards an era of information technology.
The task meets, however, with resistance in a country where tribal traditions are the norm and where power remains in the hands of the so-called big families.
Thus royal initiatives to impose the teaching of the English language in primary schools and equip classrooms with computers have met with tough criticism from members of the old guard.
"The priority should have been to install proper heating in some of the kingdom's dilapidated schools or to ensure a free glass of milk for the children," one of them told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Rifai dismissed this criticism.
"Teaching English in the elementary school and setting up computers in the classrooms help prepare the new generation to the challenges of modern times," Rifai said.
On the international level, Abdullah's Jordan has joined the World Trade Organisation, signed a partnership agreement with the European Union and secured a rare free trade agreement with the United States.
These dynamics "reinvigorated the economy and drew the largest sum of investment ever obtained by Jordan," a senior Western diplomat told AFP in reference to the more than one billion dollars in investments secured last year.
But Jordan has so far been unable to transform the economic benefits into everyday gains for the country's cash-strapped population, the diplomat said.
"The king now faces the challenge of creating a balance between both," he said.
Rifai countered that "social problems are being tackled without making the country hostage to these problems."
Officials and financial experts agree that 2001 will carry its load of economic hardships for Jordan because of the political turmoil facing the Middle East, despite initially good forecasts.
Politically Abdullah also succeeded over the past two years in keeping his tiny desert kingdom at the forefront of regional affairs despite criticism at home from deputies who see Jordan's role in the elusive search for Palestinian-Israeli peace being "marginalised."
Jordan, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, "continues to play a very positive role in the search for a settlement in the Middle East," a Western diplomat said.
A senior official who declined to be named said: "The king had a vital role in defusing a potential regional explosion. Our style now is talk less and do more."