Jordan is bordered by Syria to the north, Iraq to the northeast, Saudi Arabia to the east and south and both Israel and the West Bank (Palestine) to the west. All these border lines add up to 1,619 kilometres. The Gulf of Aqaba and the Dead Sea also touch the country, giving Jordan a coastline of 26 kilometres. Jordan has few natural resources, and no oil.
The Kingdom of Jordan was established in two phases. Britain awarded Transjordan (the area east of Palestine and the Jordan river) to the Hashemite Amir Abdullah in April 1921. Transjordan had a small settled population in the north-western part but was otherwise largely desert and marginal land inhabited by Bedouin tribes. The Amir co-opted the tribes into his paternalist form of rule, and recruited a small armed force largely from the southern tribes. It became an independent state in 1946. On the creation of Transjordan, Circassians numbered about 7,000 and formed an elite and loyal core retinue for Amir Abdullah, well represented in the armed forces and administration.
In 1948 Transjordan fought Israel to retain the West Bank, part of the putative Palestinian Arab state (see Palestine), formally annexing it to create the Kingdom of Jordan in 1950. During the 1948 war the population tripled from about 430,000 to over 1.2 million with the addition of refugees and West Bank inhabitants. Jordan joined Egypt, Iraq and Syria in fighting Israel in 1967, and following this alliance’s defeat, Israel occupied the West Bank. Jordan accepted its loss of the West Bank in 1988, and in 1994 formally ended hostilities through a peace treaty with Israel. With the September 2000 eruption of the intifada uprising against Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, mass protests in Jordan demanded an end to the 1994 agreement. This and other periods of regional instability have resulted in spikes of domestic discontent with the Jordanian government’s pro-western alignment. A wave of Iraqi refugees, thought in 2007 to constitute between 7.5 and 17 per cent of the Jordanian population, has placed an immense burden on the small country.
Main languages: Arabic (official), English, Circassian, Armenian
Main religions: Sunni Islam (92%), Christianity (6%), Druze faith and Shi’a Islam (together around 2%)
Main minority and indigenous groups: Palestinians 3 million (50%), Bedouins of Jordanian origin (est. 33%), Iraqi refugees 450,000 – 1 million (7.5-17%), Christians 360,000 (6%), Chechens and Circassians 60,000 (1%), Armenians 60,000 (1%),, Druze 12,000-14,000 (0.2%), Baha’i 1,000 (.02%), Kurds, Shia Muslims, Assyrians, (no figures available)
[Note: statistics above taken from the CIA World Factbook, 2007, with exception of percentages for Bedouins, Palestinians and Druze. There is no official source for the total number of Palestinians – the figure of half or slightly more than half of the population comes from numerous media reports. The number of registered Palestinian refugees (1.8 million) comes from UNRWA, Dec 06, and amounts to 30% of a population of 6 million government estimates that Bedouins make up over half the population in total, but various other sources place the figure closer to one-third. The numbers for Druze and Baha’i is taken from the 2007 US CIRF report.
Demographic data for Jordan are inexact. Its population is estimated to be 6 million. Most Jordanians, including a portion of the large Palestinian refugee population, descend from Bedouin or tribal origins.
Perhaps 50 per cent of Jordan’s population are Palestinians, most of them refugees who fled the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967. Palestinians are located overwhelmingly in the north-western part of the country, principally in the environs of Amman, Zarqa and Irbid. In the East Bank people of Palestinian origin probably outnumber East Bankers.
Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Jordan has absorbed a new wave of refugees. The government estimates the Iraqi refugee population ranging between 750,000-1 million, or up to 17 per cent of Jordan’s population. However a November 2007 study conducted by a Norwegian researcher in conjunction with the government, found the numbers to range from 450,000-500,000.
Small proportions of the population come from different ethnic minorities, including Syrians, Chechens, Circassians, Assyrians, Armenians, and Kurds, many of whom have adapted to Arab culture. The Ottomans deliberately settled Circassians (and a few Shia Chechens) on the almost completely deserted East Bank between 1878 and 1909 to form a bulwark against predatory Bedouin and also to develop the region agriculturally. They created the first proper settlements at Amman, Zarqa and Jarash. There are about 60,000 Circassians and Chechens who have retained their identity, located in Amman and six villages in northern Jordan. Circassians are highly integrated into Arabic-speaking Jordanian society, while retaining community consciousness. Chechens are more likely to speak their mother tongue.
There is a small community of around 12,000-14,000 Druze living from the Syrian border area around Umm al-Jamal running south to the oasis of Azraq. These are separated from the rest of Jabal Druze by the Syria-Transjordan border, which was formalized in 1931 (see Syria). Although the government does not recognize the Druze faith, considering all adherents to be Muslims, in practice it does nothing to impede Druze worship or customs.
Christians form approximately 6% of the population. Many are Palestinian, but some are also from long-established East Bank families in the north-west of the country. Many Christians in Jordan belong to the Greek Orthodox Church, whilst the rest are Latin-rite Roman Catholics, Eastern Catholics, and various Protestant communities, including Baptists.
Jordan’s official language is Arabic, although English is widely spoken and also taught in school, as is French to a lesser degree.
Jordan is formally a constitutional monarchy, but in reality the other branches of government serve at the pleasure of the king, who throughout Jordan’s history has overridden their authority at will.
A Circassian became Jordan’s first Prime Minister in 1950, an indication of the influential position a number of Circassians achieved under Amir Abdullah, Jordan’s first king. A Palestinian concerned about Jordan’s peace overtures to Israel assassinated Amir Abdullah in 1951. Power briefly transferred to his son, Talal, who the following year was deemed unfit to rule due to mental illness and was replaced by his 18-year-old son, Hussein in 1953.
It was under King Talal that Jordan’s 1952 constitution was promulgated. It established an executive branch led by the king, who among many other powers, appoints the heads of Jordan’s 12 governates and can dismiss judges by decree. The constitution also established a directly-elected Chamber of Deputies alongside a Senate that is appointed by the king. Women and some minority groups are represented in Jordan’s government through a quota system. In the 110-seat Chamber of Deputies, six seats are reserved for women. Nine seats, or eight percent of the Chamber, are reserved for Christians, who make up around six per cent of the population. Three seats are reserved for Chechens and Circassians, also providing them with disproportionately high representation.
Under the constitution, the parliament has the theoretical capability to override the king’s veto with a two-thirds majority in both houses. However, King Hussein banned political parties in 1956, and for most of his rule until 1999 kept parliamentary powers in check, sometimes through the body’s outright suspension. Hussein shunned the brutal repression of opponents practiced by other leaders in the Arab world, instead adeptly co-opting them, at times by letting constitutional mechanisms function as designed. In 1992 he legalized political parties but amended the election law to boost Hashemite strongholds and prevent a strong showing by Islamists and Palestinians ahead of 1993 elections.
Upon Hussein’s death in 1999, his son, Abdullah, assumed the throne. Abdullah has followed his father’s practice of mixing tolerance for dissent with authoritarian measures when that dissent threatens to turn into a concerted movement against the monarchy. The Palestinian intifada in the Israeli-occupied territories in 2000 led to Palestinian demonstrations in Jordan and plummeting popularity for the king, especially after his strong support for the United States following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Abdullah suspended parliament for over two years, reverting to rule by decree. He also appointed local governments to replace those that had been elected.
Relatively free and fair elections went forward in 2003, but following November 2005 terrorist bombings in Amman, carried out by “Al Qaeda in Iraq”, Abdullah again restricted democratic procedures and refocused on security issues. A new counter-terrorism law came into effect in November 2006, allowing detention of suspects for up to a week without charge. Jordanian security services routinely use torture against detainees, who are frequently detained for even longer periods without charge.
Beyond regional and domestic Palestinian issues, Jordan’s domestic security has been linked to its economic fortunes. Jordan has experienced high rates of population growth, and the mixture of youth and economic struggle has often been volatile. Without significant natural resources of its own, Jordan relies heavily on foreign aid, much of it from Arab oil states. When lower oil prices led to cuts in aid during the 1980s, there were large demonstrations and rioting. Aid has also been used to soothe tensions caused by political disquiet. For example, following the deeply unpopular invasion of Iraq in March 2003, starkly boosted aid from Gulf States and the United States led to strong economic growth and an informal agreement by Islamists to curb their criticism of Jordanian pro-western policies so long as the economy continued to improve.
While the Iraq war indirectly resulted in an economic boon for Jordan, the resulting refugee flows have turned onerous. Jordan has admitted more refugees fleeing the war in Iraq per capita than any other country, with estimates ranging from 750,000 to one million. The influx has placed a heavy burden on the government, while driving up housing prices and the cost of basic goods. Fearing the import of sectarian violence from Iraq, since 2005 Amman bombings, Jordan has routinely turned away male Iraqi refugees between the ages of 18 and 45 and attempted to prevent Shia refugees from entering.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Al-Urdun al-Jadid Research Center
Tel: 962 6 657 143
Arab Organisation for Human Rights (Jordan chapter)
National Center for Human Rights (a quasi-governmental body)
Jordan Badia Bedouin Development Organisation
The Palestinian Return Centre (PRC) (London)
Tel: 00 44 20 8453 0919
Sources and further reading
Abu Jaber, K., The Jordanians and the People of Jordan, Amman, Jordan University Press, 1980.
Amnesty International, “Your Confessions are Ready for You to Sign”, 24 July 2006.
Fathi, S., Jordan – An Invented Nation?, Hamburg, Deutsches Orient-Institut, 1994.
Rogan, E. and Tell, T., Village, Steppe and State: The Social Origins of Modern Jordan, London, British Academic Press, 1994.
Shami, S., Ethnicity and Leadership: The Circassians in Jordan, Berkeley, USA, University of California, 1984.
The Arab Regional Resource Center on Violence, Amman: http://www.amanjordan.org
Center for Strategic Studies, University of Jordan: http://www.css-jordan.org
Islamic Human Rights Commission: http://www.ihrc.org.uk
Riad M. Nasser, Palestinian Identity in Jordan and Israel: the necessary ‘other’ in the making of a nation, London: Routledge, 2005.
Mohanna Yousuf Haddad, Christians in Jordan: a split identity. Jerusalem: Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, c2001
A Serial Guide to the Circassians and Their Culture, Volume 1, Number 1, 1998, The Circassians in Jordan, (A Brief Introduction) by Amjad Jaimoukha, The Folklore Committee, al-Ahli Club.