Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Arabic (official), English, Circassian, Armenian
Main religions: Islam (predominantly Sunni), Christianity (2.2 per cent, though some estimates are as high as 6 per cent), others
Main minority and indigenous groups: Palestinians 2.2 million (according to UNRWA registration figures, though numerous reports estimate the total number of Palestinians in the country to be much higher), Bedouins of Jordanian origin, Circassians (1 per cent), Armenians (1 per cent), Bani Murra (Dom) 70,000. Of more than 745,100 refugees estimated to be residing in Jordan as of October 2019, the majority were Syrian (654,570), with smaller numbers of Iraqis (67,270), Yemenis (14,730), Sudanese (6,120), Somalis and others (UNHCR, October 2019).
Islam is the official state religion with Muslims, predominantly Sunni, making up the large majority of the Jordanian population. Christians are estimated at 2.2 per cent, though some figures are as high as 6 per cent, with other smaller groups including Buddhists and Hindus (both making less than 1 per cent of the population), Druze up to 15,000, Baha’i up to 1,000 (UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, 2014). These estimates do not include refugees from Syria and Iraq (mostly Sunni Muslim, though with significant numbers of Christians too), nor migrant workers from Egypt (mostly Sunni Muslim) or Africa and Asia, the majority of whom are Christian or Hindu.
Demographic data for Jordan is inexact. Its population is estimated to be around 10 million. Most Jordanians, including a portion of the large Palestinian refugee population, descend from Bedouin or tribal origins. The government estimates that Bedouins make up over half the population in total, but various other sources place the figure closer to one-third.
Most of the Palestinians in Jordan are refugees (and their descendants) 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.
Small proportions of the population come from different ethnic minorities, including Chechens, Circassians, Assyrians, Armenians, and Kurds, many of whom have adapted to Arab culture. The Ottomans deliberately settled Circassians (and a few Shi’a Chechens) on the almost completely deserted East Bank between 1878 and 1909 to form a defense against Bedouins 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 up to 15,000 Druze living from the Syrian border area around Umm al-Jamal running south to the oasis of Azraq. These were 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.
The Bani Murra (also known as Dom) are an Indo-Aryan, formerly nomadic people who number around 70,000 in Jordan. In addition, there are several hundred Syrian Dom living in the country as refugees, spread between pockets in northern Jordan and the Azraq refugee camp. Like Europe’s Roma, Dom are a persecuted minority who face widespread prejudice and hostility across the region. Due to popular stereotypes associating them with witchcraft, fortune-telling and criminality, they are often referred to as ‘nawar’ or ‘tramps’ – a slur that Bani Murra have also adopted themselves. Historically, Dom communities have always been marginalized from wider society, with limited access to education and higher levels of unemployment. Jobs that Bani Murra migrant workers used to take before the war and that guaranteed a decent living back in Syria, like picking vegetables and fruit in the Jordan Valley, are now of little help.
Estimates for the number of Christians in Jordan range from 2.2 to 6 per cent 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, or belong to various Protestant communities, including Baptists. There are also substantial numbers of Christian refugees from Iraq and Syria.
Jordan’s official language is Arabic, although English is widely spoken and also taught in school, as is French to a lesser degree.
Updated June 2020
Jordan is now the country with the second highest number of refugees per capita in the world, which has placed enormous strain on the country’s resources. Many Syrian refugee children are still not enrolled in formal education, while the country’s water and health sectors have struggled to accommodate the massive population surge. However, Jordan’s status as a receiving country for refugees has also meant that it is a key player in the region’s stability, while requiring high levels of international aid.
Jordan is home to a large population of Palestinian refugees, estimated by UNRWA at just under 2.2 million, though other sources suggest the true numbers could be even higher. Until the late 1980s, the majority of Palestinians were automatically granted Jordanian citizenship, though since then thousands of Palestinians have been rendered stateless. Although close to half of Jordanian nationals are thought to be of Palestinian origin, Palestinians remain vastly under-represented in government. Discrimination against Palestinians in various areas of life remains widespread.
Despite Jordan’s generally accommodating stance towards refugees, the government has also come under criticism for engaging in involuntary returns, in contravention of international law. According to Human Rights Watch, Jordan deported an average of 400 Syrian refugees per month in 2017. Involuntary returns of Palestinian refugees from Syria have also taken place, some of whom were stripped of their Jordanian passports before being deported to Syria. In June 2018, Jordan refused to allow entry to tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by a Syrian government offensive in the southern city of Dar’aa, who were stranded at the Jordanian border as a result.
Despite the impact of the Arab Spring protests in 2011, which led the government to embrace the rhetoric of reform and democracy, political power remains centralized in the monarchy. Electoral districts are designed in a way that grants disproportionate representation in parliament to rural Bedouin tribes which are largely loyal to the King. Palestinians, on the other hand, who are thought to make up close to half of Jordan’s population, are underrepresented in government and excluded from many employment sectors. Widespread corruption, including at the highest levels of government, also remains a major concern in Jordan.
Discontent with the inadequate levels of reform, as well as the country’s economic situation, have led to recurring episodes of popular unrest in Jordan. In May and June 2018, mass protests sparked by government-proposed tax hikes and subsidy cuts led to the prime minister’s resignation and the appointment of Omar al-Razzaz, former education minister, to replace him.
Jordan participated in bombing strongholds of Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Iraq between 2014-2017 as part of the US-led coalition. Moreover, it remains part of the US-led military intervention in Syria and the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. In the context of the heightened securitization across the region, the Jordanian government has increasingly used broadly phrased counterterrorism legislation to prosecute activists and journalists, and crack down on dissent. This includes punishing those who criticize Jordan’s foreign military policy, facilitated by a 2014 amendment to the counterterrorism law which widened the legal definition of terrorism to include ‘disturbing [Jordan’s] relations with a foreign state.’
There have been some positive recent advances in the area of women’s rights in Jordan, including the annulment of the section of the penal code that allowed rapists to evade punishment by marrying their victims, and the partial abolishment of mitigated sentences for perpetrators of crimes against women. Nevertheless, women remain discriminated against in several other key aspects of law and policy in Jordan. For example, marriages between Muslim women and non-Muslim men are not officially recognised. In addition, Jordanian women married to non-Jordanians cannot pass on their nationality to either their spouse or children.
Updated June 2020
Jordan is bordered by Syria to the north, Iraq to the north-east, 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.
In January 2011, and in the context of popular uprisings in nearby Egypt and Tunisia, peaceful protests broke out in major Jordanian cities, including Amman, Irbid, Salt, Karak and Maan. Protestors raised placards decrying corruption, unemployment and food inflation in the country, but also voiced several political demands, including calls for the prime minister’s resignation and a transition to a parliamentary system. However, unlike other countries in the region, Jordan’s protestors did not call for the downfall of the regime. Consequently, King Abdullah was able to introduce a package of reforms that ostensibly addressed protestors’ demands while maintaining a steady grip on power. Critics argued that the reforms did not go far enough and that political power remained concentrated in the monarchy.
Jordan’s recent history has also been heavily shaped by conflicts in neighbouring countries. In addition to absorbing huge numbers of Palestinian refugees displaced since the creation of the state of Israel, Jordan has opened its doors to refugees fleeing violence in Iraq and Syria. A large wave of Iraqi refugees came to Jordan in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion; following the outbreak of conflict in Syria in 2011 Jordan became one of the main host countries for Syrian refugees in the region. New waves of Iraqi refugees also made their way to Jordan after the ISIS takeover of Mosul in June 2014 and ensuing armed conflict.
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 governorates 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 gained representation in Jordan’s government through a quota system. Currently, in the 130-seat Chamber of Deputies, 15 seats are reserved for women and 12 others reserved for Christians, Chechens and Circassians.
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. King 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 al Qaeda 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 the November 2005 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 held for even longer periods without charge.
Beyond regional and 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.
In November 2009, Abdullah dissolved a parliament that had only served two of its four-year term. Elections were due to follow swiftly but were postponed for the drafting of a new electoral law, and the country reverted to direct royal rule for a year-long period. Despite protests that the new electoral law further marginalized the country’s Palestinian population by increasing seats in areas populated by Jordanian Bedouin tribes loyal to the monarchy, elections were finally held in November 2010. However, they were boycotted by the country’s main Islamist opposition group.
In January 2011, and in the context of popular uprisings in nearby Egypt and Tunisia, peaceful protests broke out in major Jordanian cities, motivated by both economic grievances and demands for political reform. Abdullah responded in February 2011 by sacking then-Prime Minister Samir Rifai and promising to initiate reforms that would set Jordan on the path towards parliamentary democracy. The King went on to replace the Prime Minister three more times in less than two years, ratified a series of amendments to the Constitution, created a constitutional court and an anti-corruption commission, introduced a new electoral law and established an Independent Electoral Commission, which oversaw parliamentary elections in January 2013. The elections drew a higher turnout than previous years and were considered free and fair by international observers. However, they were boycotted again by the Islamist opposition, who argued the electoral system was still unjustly weighted in favour of loyalist tribes.
In 2016, a new electoral law introduced proportional representation to the Chamber of Deputies, and elections were held under this system the same year. In 2017, local elections were held and greater powers devolved to the governorate and municipal levels. However, political power remains concentrated in the monarchy, and the government continues to use counterterrorism legislation, laws criminalizing criticism of the government and other means to suppress activism and dissent in the country.
Updated June 2020
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Al-Urdun al-Jadid Research Center
Arab Organization for Human Rights (Jordan chapter)
National Center for Human Rights (a quasi-governmental body)
The Palestinian Return Centre (PRC)
Updated June 2020
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.