Jordan

GEOGRAPHY

Jordan (Arabic pronunciation: Al-Urdun) is a mostly landlocked country sharing borders with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria. It has an area of 89,342 square kilometers, including the Dead Sea, which is an area just smaller than the state of Indiana. Most of the country is arid desert, but the western border has a rainy season from November to April. The Great Rift Valley separates the eastern and western parts of Jordan.

Jordan has more geographic concerns than most Middle Eastern countries. It only has 2.5% arable land. Potash, phosphate and shale oil are the only natural resources and the supply is limited. There is limited access to potable, fresh water. Desertification, soil erosion, overgrazing and deforestation have had severe effects on the environment. Jordan has made progress to stop some of these negative trends and protect its natural resources.

One of the efforts towards environmental remediation and increased access to drinking water is the Red-Dead Sea Conveyance project. The project, which would involve constructing a pipeline that would divert water from the Red Sea and transport it to the Dead Sea, aims to increase potable water, while curtailing decreasing water levels and improving the ecosystem in the Dead Sea. Although the pipeline plan has been met with praise and widespread approval in Israel, Palestine and Jordan, environmentalists have raised concerns over how effective the plan would be. Concerns include disruption of the Dead Sea’s salinity levels–which would diminish its uniquely “buoyant” effect, the high cost of financing the project, and environmental degradation resulting from the project construction. Construction of the pipeline is currently slated to begin in 2018.

Geography Resources

HISTORY & GOVERNMENT

king abdullah jordan

For centuries, Jordan has been a connecting point of three different continents:  Europe, Asia and Africa, particularly in matters of trade. Parts and all of the land in Jordan have been conquered at different points in time by various empires throughout history.

The area now known as Jordan was one of the more advanced regions in ancient times, trading pottery and metal works with Egypt and Mesopotamia. Over the course of the following centuries, Jordan was ruled by several different empires. Each dynastye expanded Jordan’s trade industry, and had lasting influence on the development of Jordan’s culture as we know it today. During the Iron Age, the kingdoms of Edom, Moab and Ammon emerged in different regions of present-day Jordan; Ammon later became the namesake for the modern capital, Amman.

The area fell under the control of the Aramaeans, Assyrians and then the Persians throughout later antiquity. The Nabataean people, who came to inhabit part of Jordan during the Greco-Roman period, had a lasting impact on the area, most commonly recognized by their architectural accomplishments in the famous city of Petra, as well as their influence on the development of the Arabic alphabet. Under Alexander the Great, Jordan came under Macedonian rule, which was transferred to  the Roman Empire at the Macedonians’ collapse shortly after Alexander’s death. Under the Roman Empire, various city-states were established, including Philadelphia (modern Amman) and Gerasa (modern Jerash).

The area of modern Jordan later became a part of the Byzantine Empire under Emperor Constantine. Between 634 and 638 CE, Arab Muslim armies conquered the area known as the Levant or Greater Syria. Over the next 600 years, Jordan was ruled by the Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatimids, Ayyubids and Mamluks. Soon after the Ottoman Empire came into power in 1517 and began to conquer the Levant, Jordan fell under Ottoman rule as well. After nearly 400 years of Ottoman Rule, the Great Arab Revolt – led by Sharif Hussein of Mecca and the Hashemite Army – began in 1916, and officially ended Ottoman control of what became known as Transjordan.

During World War I, the people of Jordan called for the establishment of an independent Arab state, but were ignored. Instead, as a result of secret negotiations among European powers, the area came under British colonial control. The area officially became the Emirate of Transjordan. Abdullah I bin al-Hussein was assigned as the emir Transjordan during the British Mandate from 1921 to 1946.

In 1946, Transjordan gained its independence and was renamed the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.  Abdullah I bin al-Hussein became Jordan’s king and ended relations with Great Britain; his reign ended when he was assassinated in 1951. The country became more powerful and economically stable, though the huge waves of Palestinian refugees crossing into its borders, beginning in 1948 as a result of the creation of the state of Israel, threatened, and continues to threaten stability to this day.

King Hussein, who ruled the country from 1953 until his death in 1999, and his son, King Abdullah II, who has ruled since, have ensured that Jordan has become one of the more progressive states in the Middle East. Jordan is one of few Arab states to have cooperative relations with Israel, achieved while negotiating intense external and internal pressures. In 1989, King Hussein instituted a program of political liberalization. In 2000, King Abdullah ushered in a period of economic reform. Municipal elections were held in July 2007 under a system in which 20% of seats in all municipal councils were reserved by quota for women. Parliamentary elections held in November of 2007 heavily favored independent, pro-government candidates.

King Abdullah II has continued his father’s legacy of political liberalization, albeit more in idea than practice. Although he has enacted progressive policies, like eliminating the inclusion of religious affiliation on national identification cards, the Jordanian senate is still appointed by the king, and openly criticizing the monarchy remains unlawful. The Jordanian monarchy was largely unaffected by the Arab Spring revolts that began in 2011 and remains fairly strong, despite allegations of corruption and calls for reform.

History & Government Resources

INTERNATIONAL & REGIONAL ISSUES

Jordan has remained secure in the face of heightening regional tension and in spite of its proximity to the Syrian civil war and Arab-Israeli conflict. Regionally, it maintains amicable relations with Israel, and corresponds regularly with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Internationally, it is one of America’s closest allies and strongest relations in the Middle East.

What plagues Jordan, primarily, is its high volume of Palestinian, and now Syrian refugees. Over half of the population Jordan is of Palestinian descent. Conflict between the Jordanian government and Palestinian nationalists taking refuge in the neighboring country led to a civil war in 1970 but relations today are normalized with Jordanians in strong support of the Palestinian cause. The influx of refugees–Jordan has reportedly taken in 2.7 million of the world’s refugee population in total–has exacerbated and elevated existing economic and environmental issues the country faces. Jordan continually calls upon other countries in the region to help take in refugees but many states remain unresponsive and Jordan has faced tremendous challenges in trying to absorb such large numbers.

Jordan’s border with Syria remains closed due to security concerns related to the civil war but the border with Iraq was recently reopened (2017). The Allenby Bridge border crossing into the West Bank is jointly managed by Jordan and Israel while the Durra crossing into Saudi Arabia is only accessible to Jordanian and Saudi citizens. Jordan closed its border with Syria in June 2016 after a car bomb attack by the Islamic State group staged from near Rukban killed seven Jordanian border guards. Approximately 50,000 refugees remain stranded along this inaccessible border that is off-limits to aid groups. Instead, UN agencies agreed late last year to an aid system that critics say handed much of the control over aid distribution to Jordan’s military and a Jordanian contractor and also involved armed men on the Syrian side.

International & Regional Issues Resources

ECONOMY

Until 2003, Jordan relied on Iraq for most of its oil. Today, it purchases its supplies from other Middle Eastern nations. Since King Abdullah instituted economic reforms, Jordan has made substantial headway towards economic stability. In 2008, Jordan reduced government subsidies on petroleum and consumer goods in an effort to control the budget. The main economic challenge facing Jordan is reducing dependence on foreign grants, followed by  reducing the budget deficit, attracting investments, and creating jobs.

With few natural resources–and especially, no oil–the Jordanian economy is heavily supported by tourism, which could potentially be harmed by the December 2016 travel warning issued by the United States that, as of June 2017, still remains in place.

Because 55% of the population is under 25 and due to the high numbers of refugees, unemployment remains a major problem in Jordan. Jordan is ranked as 86th in the world on the Human Development Index.

SOCIETY

As of July 2016, the population of Jordan is estimated to be 8,185,384. The majority of the population is of Arab descent, but there are small numbers of Circassian (Northwest Caucasian ethnic group native to Circassia), Armenian, Druze, Chechen and Kurdish peoples. There are also Egyptian, Greek, Iranian and European people who have immigrated into Jordan. Most of the population lives in urban centers, but there are also groups of nomadic and semi-nomadic people. Approximately 2.7 million refugees live in Jordan; some estimates suggest that up to two-thirds of Jordan’s population consists of Palestinian refugees and the subsequent generations who live throughout the country both within and outside of formal refugee camps.

The long-standing Palestinian presence in Jordan has altered and complicated the creation of a cohesive national identity, a project which Jordan has struggled with since its independence. Although most Palestinian descendants are now citizens of Jordan, they still heavily identify with their origins. The distinction between “Jordanian” Jordanian and Palestinian-Jordanians is most visibly marked by limitations on occupation: Jordanians who have tribal origins are permitted to work in the public sector, whereas Palestinian-Jordanians are forbidden from entering the public sector and must work in the private. This has led to socioeconomic differences between both groups, and has, at times, contributed to tension. Black September, a lesser known event that occurred in 1970, was fought to determine whether the Jordanian Hashemites or Palestinian Liberation Organization would rule Jordan. The Hashemites won, continuing King Hussein’s rule and resulting in the deaths of thousands of Palestinians. Black September, considered a massacre by Palestinian-Jordanians, is a source of national embarrassment for Jordan, and thus is not widely publicized as a part of its national history.

The previous king, Hussein, and his wife Queen Noor made education a greater priority in Jordan society. The current king, Abdullah II, and his wife, Queen Rania, have maintained and further developed these efforts. Their dedication has created one of the top education systems in the Arab world and throughout the developing world. 96% of the population is literate though a higher percentage of males are literate. These percentages are expected to rise as enrollment increases and the effect of the new, more advanced curriculum is seen. Most Jordanian children are in school for 14 years. School is mandatory for children 10-15 years old. Books are provided by the Ministry of Education, and there are both private and public schools. Funding for schools is particularly focused on the lower-income areas of Jordan, with the United Nations Relief Works Agency providing school facilities and educational opportunities for Palestinian refugee children. In Jordan, students graduating from high school must also take an exam called the Tawjihi, the General Secondary Certificate Examination, which determines students’ future course of academic, professional, or technical study.

Jordan offers a higher education much like the United States or Europe. Students can earn Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctorate degrees. There are over 50 universities in Jordan, mostly in Amman and Aqaba. Other major cities have at least one university. Jordan, like its neighbors, is experiencing a “youth bulge”; 55% of the population is under 25. Despite Jordan’s advanced education system, youth unemployment (ages 15-24), at 34%, reflects this disproportionately young population.

Jordan has an advanced healthcare system; however it is mostly concentrated in Amman. It is slowly expanding beyond the capital city to include clinics in rural regions. According to the 2015 population census, sixty-eight per cent of Jordanians and 55 per cent of the Kingdom’s overall population, including children under six years old, are covered by various types of health insurance. Jordan has the only specialized cancer treatment center in the Middle East, named the King Hussein Cancer Center, in honor of the its former monarch.

Society Resources

RELIGION

Jordan is an Islamic state. Over 90% of the population is Sunni Muslim. There is also a small Shi’a and Sufi population that constitute less than 2% of the population. Only about 2% of the population is Christian or Catholic. Most of this group is Greek Orthodox, but there a few Protestant denominations represented. A tiny, almost negligible amount of the population is Baha’i. Freedom of religion is guaranteed in Jordan, something that is not common in the Middle East.

CULTURE

Food

Manousheh is pita bread baked with olive oil and the spice mix zataar. Credit: Nsaum75 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Jordanians enjoy common Levantine Middle Eastern foods in their everyday lives like falafel, shawarma, hummus, foul (bean dip), baba ghanoush (eggplant dip), olives, pickled vegetables, labneh (yogurt), and haloumi (cheese, often grilled). Zaatar – a spice mixture consisting primarily of thyme – is a staple of Jordanian breakfast and is enjoyed often with olive oil and khubz (pita bread).

Mansaf, a traditional dish of lamb cooked in fermented dried yogurt and rice, is often enjoyed on special occasions or weekends. Maqluba, which literally means “upside down” in Arabic, is also a traditional meal; it is a meat, rice, and vegetable dish achieved by layering each ingredient in a large pot and flipping it over to reveal a cylindrical tower of food served family-style.

Clothing

Due in large part to Wahhabi influence carrying into Jordan through Gulf immigration in the 1990s, many Muslim women in Jordan choose to wear the hijab but it is not compulsory, making veiling a more social practice. People in general, and particularly women, regardless of religious identity, opt to dress conservatively. Wealthier neighborhoods, like Abdoun in Amman, are considerably more western, and tend to have a more relaxed, fashion-forward dress code that tests traditional social boundaries for dressing. Though traditional clothing, like the Jordanian kaftan, is widely available, especially in the downtown area of Amman and in other well-known tourist destinations in the country, most Jordanian women will not wear traditional clothes on a daily basis. Men, though most dress in western clothing, especially in the major cities, will often wear the traditional keffiyeh, a red and white checkered scarf. Bedouins in Jordan will typically wear traditional thobes and shemagh, a variation of the keffiyeh.

In recent years, up and coming Jordanian and Levant fashion and jewelry designers have begun showcasing their work at pop-up shops around Amman. Visiting malls has become a national pastime in recent years, serving as weekend destinations for teenagers and families alike.

Art

Sculpture, pottery and mosaics were common in ancient Jordanian art. The capital, Amman, is well-known for its art galleries and exhibits. The magnificent architecture of the ruins scattered around Jordan provide ample evidence of the area’s compelling history.

Jordan’s modern art is equally as impressive. Jordan’s modern art gallery in the Jordan National Gallery of Arts houses one of the largest, most diverse collections in the area. Paintings are often colorful and geometric. Modern art is very popular among Jordanians.

Culture Resources

Sites

Jordan can claim numerous national treasures, both natural and man-made. In Amman, Roman ruins have been carefully restored; both a citadel and an ancient theater can be found in the center of the city. The city of Jerash is an expansive collection of ruins, and is considered to have the best preserved Roman ruins outside of Rome itself.

Some of the most famous ruins in Jordan are the Nabataean dwellings at Petra. The magnificent palaces are carved into the mountains and much of the intricate detail can still be seen today.

Deserts, wadis, biospheres, the Dead Sea, the Gulf of Aqaba, and numerous nature reserves are a testament to the geographical diversity in this calm country. The government has worked to protect these places because of the historical or environmental prominence they hold; Wild Jordan is one of the largest wildlife conservation organizations in the country. The country’s relative safety and varied landscape provide a major source of tourism income and are vital to a stable economy.

Sites Resources

Sports

Sports are popular in Jordan, whether from a participant or spectator point of view. Soccer and basketball are the favorites. Soccer is often played in the streets and its following has grown as Jordan’s national team improves. The Jordanian national basketball team has begun entering competitions in the Middle East and Asia. Smaller local leagues are beginning to sprout up. Diving is popular in Aqaba, especially among tourists. The Gulf of Aqaba and Red Sea are popular diving destinations.

LATEST NEWS & COMMENTARY ON JORDAN

Middle East Policy Council

Scholarly essays, commentary and forums on the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

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The New York Times

News about Jordan, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times.

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JORDANIAN NEWS OUTLETS

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

This is the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Global Think Tank blog focusing on Jordan. Current and relevant news articles and commentary are included.

Jordan Jubilee: The County and People of Jordan

This website provides information on a variety of topics including Jordanian history and natural resources.

Jordan River Foundation

The Jordan River Foundation is a non-profit organization founded by Queen Nour, the wife of deceased King Hussein, in the 1990s. Its purpose is to empower society, especially women and children, and in turn, improve the quality of life to secure a better future for all Jordanians. The foundation is currently chaired by Queen Rania Al-Abdullah.