The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (Arabic pronunciation: Al-Mamlaka Al-Urdun Al-Hashimiya) is a mostly landlocked country sharing borders with Israel & Palestine to the west, Saudi Arabia to the south, Iraq to the east and Syria to the north. The kingdom 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.
Like many Middle Eastern countries, Jordan has significant geographic concerns as it possesses only 2.5% arable land. The supply of natural resources is scarce with limited growth of potash, phosphate and shale oil. There is also 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 involves constructing a pipeline that will divert water from the Red Sea and transport it to the Dead Sea. This will increase potable water, guarantee justice in water distribution and safeguard water resources 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. The project was planned in collaboration with Israel, but the country later signaled its withdrawal. Israel has already built several desalination plants of its own and therefore does not have the same urgency for the pipeline as water-poor Jordan. The former Jordanian Prime Minister Hani Mulki made a statement in April 2018, saying that if Israel withdrew from the plan, Jordan would continue to pursue the project without Israel.
For centuries, Jordan has been a connecting point of three different continents: Europe, Asia and Africa, particularly in matters of trade. Various portions of land in Jordan have been conquered by different empires throughout history.
The area now known as Jordan was one of the more advanced regions during ancient times, as it specialized in trading pottery and metal works with Egypt and Mesopotamia. Over the course of the following centuries, Jordan was ruled by several empires. Each dynasty expanded Jordan’s trade industry and had a lasting influence on the development of Jordan’s culture. During the Iron Age, the effects of the kingdoms of Edom, Moab and Amman can be seen in different areas of modern day Jordan; for example, Amman later became the namesake for the country’s capital.
Jordan fell under the control of the Aramaeans, Assyrians and then the Persians. The Nabataean people, who came to inhabit part of Jordan during the Greco-Roman period, had a lasting impact, which can be 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 until Alexander’s death and the collapse of the kingdom. Promptly after the dissolution of Macedonian rule, Jordan fell under the hand of the Roman Empire, which established various city-states 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, officially ending 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 that culminated in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the area came under British colonial control with the official name of the Emirate of Transjordan. Abdullah I bin al-Hussein was established as the emir, or ruler, of 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; however, his reign ended when he was assassinated in 1951. Following his death, 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 heavily impacted infrastructure, resources, and general stability, which continues to be a challenge today.
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 becomes one of the more progressive states in the Middle East. For example, in 1989, King Hussein instituted a program of political liberalization which was followed by King Abdullah’s period of economic reform in the year 2000. Additionally, Jordan is one of few Arab states to have cooperative relations with Israel after signing a peace treaty in 1994. The Crown Prince of Jordan, and therefore the individual next in line to be king, is Hussein bin Abdullah, the son of King Abdullah II.
Jordan is a parliamentary monarchy with the king as the head of state who holds both legislative and executive powers as well as the ability to appoint his own cabinet and the prime minister. Jordan’s parliamentary monarchy also has a constitution, which requires the parliament to approve the king’s cabinet. The legislative body follows a bicameral parliamentary system in which members of the lower house, the House of Representatives, are elected by the citizens and contains 130 members, including fifteen seats reserved for women, nine for Christians, and three for Chechens and Circassians. The upper house of the parliament, the Senate, is appointed by the king and is not allowed to exceed one-half of the number of elected representatives. The Senate is accountable to the House of Representatives who have the right to dismiss the senators. Both houses of the parliament are re-elected every four years. Above all, the king has the power and right to suspend, dissolve, or change the term limits of the parliament. Additionally, a veto by the king can only be overridden if parliament has two-thirds of votes against him.
Jordan is divided into twelve governorates and the king appoints a governor to each governorate. In 2016, the government established a ten percent quota for women in the governorate councils. Each city has a mayor elected by the citizens, except for the mayor position in Amman, the country’s capital, which is appointed by the king. In the last municipal vote in 2017, however, only 31 percent of eligible voters participated in elections.
In order to consider its diverse population, Jordan has a multiparty system representing different social groups, tribes, religions and ideologies. However, citizens have expressed concerns about the lack of political representation and mistrust towards the existing political parties.
The judicial branch is independent from other government bodies and consists of three different types of courts; (1) the civil court that handles both civil and criminal cases; (2) religious courts that is divided into the Sharia court, which enforces Islamic laws, and the tribunal courts, which deals with legal matters of other religious communities; and (3) the State Security Court, which is composed of both military and civilian judges tasked with trying offenses against the external and internal security of the state. These cases are subject to appeal before the High Court or the Court of Cassation, which is the Supreme Court of Jordan.
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, openly criticizing the royal family still remains unlawful and taboo even though the constitution guarantees freedom of speech. The Jordanian monarchy was largely unaffected by the Arab Spring revolts that began in 2011, as Jordanians only demanded gradual changes rather than a full-scale revolution. On a sociopolitical level, the country remains fairly strong despite allegations of corruption and calls for reform.
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
Since King Abdullah instituted economic reforms, Jordan has made considerable progress in terms of economic stability. Jordan’s current GDP as of 2018 is $38.65 billion USD. In 2008, Jordan reduced government subsidies on petroleum and consumer goods in an effort to control the budget. As a country with few natural resources, Jordan relies heavily on imports and foreign aid from a variety of countries including but not limited to those in the Middle East. In particular, Jordan has depended on Iraq for most of its oil until 2003, but today it imports most of its oil from other Middle Eastern states, namely Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE. The main economic challenge facing Jordan is reducing dependence on foreign grants, followed by reducing the budget deficit, attracting investments, and creating jobs. This dependence on foreign aid is illustrated by the difficulty in creating economic stability given the lack of the GCC Allies (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait) to renew their $3.6 billion five-year financial assistance program. Currently, the United States is the only committed donor who signed a five-year $6.37 billion aid deal in February of 2018. With a long history of dependence on foreign aid, the government has been able to keep low taxes, but with tens of billions of dollars in external debt and the national debt accounting for 95% of the GDP, the Jordanian government has been forced to make some unpopular decisions in terms of raising taxes and cutting subsidies. In addition, according to the Cost of Living Index, Amman has risen to the seventh most expensive Arab city in which to live. In February 2018, the government increased taxes on staple foods and lifted subsidies on bread, which has typically remained a steadfast feature of Jordan’s economy. This move reduced the $700 million budget deficit but received backlash from its citizens who gathered in protests in front of the parliament in Amman to demand the resignation of several government officials.
In May 2018, thousands of Jordanians participated in strikes and protests against the government’s proposed increased income tax law. Citizens argued that this new tax legislation was implemented to cover up failed economic policies and Jordanians were not convinced the increase in revenues would improve public services. These price and tax hikes have already caused an increase in inflation, and at the same time Jordan’s poverty rate is rising, which has only fueled demonstrations. In response, King Abdullah II has sworn in a new prime minister, Omar al-Razzaz, as a way to appease the public’s discontent. Shortly, after being appointed and consulting with the parliament, the prime minister in June 2018 announced that the government would withdraw the new tax bill. On June 11th, 2018, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates pledged to provide Jordan with a five year agreement worth $2.5 billion in aid, but Jordanian protesters continue to demonstrate since they believe that aid will not be the solution to Jordan’s deficit or overall improvement of the economy, and that the kingdom instead needs to execute a system overhaul.
The under-taxed political model and dependence on foreign aid has also contributed to the widespread corruption present in the Jordanian economy. Protests have demanded the strengthening of transparency and elimination of corruption across the economic and political system in order to create economic stability. Although publicly little information is available as it relates to the issue of corruption, according to the Corruption Perception Index, Jordan is ranked 57th out of 176 countries in ‘public sector corruption’ in 2015. During that same year, King Abdullah II established the National Integrity Commission in an attempt to combat corruption and institute transparency and accountability.
Jordan has a free market economy led primarily by the private sector. The service sector of the economy constitutes 67% of the total GDP, followed by the manufacturing sector that accounts for 19% of the GDP. Jordan’s major exports consist of garments and textiles, pharmaceutical products, jewelry, furniture, mineral and plastic products, which it mainly sells to other Arab countries. Due to limited growth of natural resources and water scarcity, the agricultural sector of Jordan is relatively small, employing fifteen percent of the labor force but accounting for only three percent of the country’s GDP. With that being said, Jordan imports approximately 98 percent of consumable items.
With few natural resources, the Jordanian economy is heavily supported by tourism. However, regional conflicts, the terror attacks in 2016, and the United States’ travel warning on the country have negatively impacted the number of tourists, specifically those from Western countries. This drop in revenues has hurt a variety of many downstream industries. On the other hand, the number of Arab tourists in Jordan has actually increased, and in 2017, Wadi Rum, one of the country’s most popular tourist sites, witnessed a growth rate in visits of 75%. King Abdullah II continues to speak about the safety of Jordan and the hospitability of its people as a way to encourage an increase in the tourism sector. Jordan also has a growing medical sector, which has attracted medical tourism. To capitalize on this, the Cabinet approved the removal of earlier restrictions to improve the industry in March, and Jordan is currently ranked the fifth most popular medical destination in the world.
55% of the population is under 25 years of age. This coupled with the high numbers of refugees majorly from Iraq, Palestine, Syria, and Sudan, has led unemployment to remain a major problem in Jordan. Jordan is ranked as 86th in the world on the Human Development Index.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.