Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

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Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

Type of Government

The Middle Eastern nation of Jordan is a constitutional, hereditary monarchy. The figure of the king dominates Jordanian politics, notably through his appointment of the prime minister. Some constitutional restraints on royal power do exist, including the Parliament’s ability to override a royal veto and to dismiss the prime minister and the cabinet through a vote of no confidence. Ultimate authority, however, rests squarely with the king.


Jordan shares borders with Israel and the West Bank to the west; Syria and the disputed Israeli-occupied territory of the Golan Heights to the north; Iraq to the northeast; and Saudi Arabia to the south and east. Access to maritime shipping is available via port facilities and a few miles of coastline on the Gulf of Aqaba, in the extreme southwest. Roughly the size of Maine, Jordan has a rapidly growing population that was estimated in 2007 at just over six million. Most of the land is infertile desert, and petroleum resources are meager.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, as the nation is officially known, achieved independence from the British in 1946. Britain’s administration of the region had begun after World War I, when the League of Nations, forerunner of today’s United Nations, granted Britain a mandate over the defeated Ottoman Empire’s Middle Eastern possessions. The British soon separated Palestine from the region then called Transjordan, granting limited autonomy over the latter to King Abdullah I (1882–1951), who ruled the region from 1921 to 1951. Abdullah II (1962–) was crowned in 1999 and is the great grandson of the first. The royal family is known as the Hashemites. Like several other Middle Eastern dynasties, the Hashemites trace their ancestry to the Prophet Mohammed.

Government Structure

Jordan’s first constitution was drafted in 1947, shortly after the nation gained independence. A new constitution replaced it in 1952; with extensive revisions, it remained in force as of 2007. In addition to defining the structure and function of government, the current version explicitly guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, and freedom of religion.

Within the executive branch, most of the king’s authority is delegated to a prime minister and a cabinet; the latter is also known as the Council of Ministers. The process of cabinet formation is distinctive. After the king appoints a prime minister, the two meet to choose individuals for the remaining cabinet posts. The entire slate of appointees is then sent to the Chamber of Deputies, as the lower house of the bicameral (two-house) Parliament is known, for approval. If the deputies fail to approve the prime minister, the proposed cabinet is disbanded, and the process begins again. If the prime minister wins approval, however, the deputies then vote on each of the remaining ministers. One or more of these may be voted down without compromising the cabinet as a whole. Once approved, the cabinet has no more than a month to present its agenda to both houses of Parliament for a vote. If the agenda is rejected, the cabinet resigns, and the king chooses a new prime minister.

While the cabinet is responsible for most of the government’s day-to-day operations, the king retains the right to appoint judges, the twelve regional governors, and the mayor of Amman, the nation’s capital (other mayors are elected). His signature is required before bills passed by Parliament become law, and he can veto bills he dislikes. This veto power is not unlimited, however, for a two-thirds majority in both houses is sufficient to override it.

Alongside the Chamber of Deputies in Parliament is the upper house, also known as the Senate or the House of Notables. There are currently 110 seats in the lower house and 55 in the upper. The total number of seats may change, but the proportion of lower- to upper-house seats is fixed at a minimum of two to one. Members of the upper house are appointed directly by the king. The lower house, however, is filled by popular vote, with six seats reserved for women. If no women are elected, a special electoral board appoints them. Small blocs of seats are also reserved for ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and Muslim Circassians. Members of both houses serve four-year terms, though the king can dismiss Parliament at any time. For twenty-two years (1967 to 1989), in fact, there were no parliamentary elections at all, and the country was ruled by martial law and royal decree.

The Jordanian judicial system has three components: civil courts, religious courts, and security courts. The civil system is based upon French legal codes, with certain British influences from the period of the mandate granted by the League of Nations. The civil courts have jurisdiction over most personal and criminal matters; at the top is the Court of Cassation, or Supreme Court. This is usually the court of last appeal, though Jordan’s kings have occasionally exercised their right to issue pardons. The constitution guarantees the right to counsel, and a High Administrative Court is empowered to review the constitutionality of legislation. The religious system includes sharia courts (which adhere to traditional Islamic law) and the tribunals of certain Christian denominations. Most cases heard in the religious courts involve issues of family law, notably divorce. If the parties in a case differ in their religious beliefs, the civil courts assume jurisdiction. Finally, a State Security Court (SSC) hears cases involving alleged threats to domestic and international security, including espionage, terrorism, and drug trafficking. Both military and civilian judges sit on the SSC. The death penalty is occasionally imposed (at least four executions were performed in 2006), and international human rights organizations have expressed concern over the treatment of prisoners, particularly those suspected of involvement in Islamic extremism.

Political Parties and Factions

Though several political parties exist in Jordan, only one has a significant presence in Parliament. This is the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, an international fundamentalist group. Though members of the Brotherhood have been implicated in acts of terrorism elsewhere, notably the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar as-Sadat (1918–1981), in Jordan the organization seems to be working through purely political channels. In the 2003 elections to the Chamber of Deputies, the IAF won sixteen seats. Many analysts believe, however, that it would have won many more seats if Jordan’s Palestinian citizens had gone to the polls in greater numbers. Voter turnout as a whole was relatively low at 58 percent; in Palestinian areas, however, the percentage was much lower.

The disparity in voting numbers points to a deep rift between the Palestinians, many of whom have lived in Jordan for decades, and other Jordanians. Many Palestinians are unhappy with the Hashemite dynasty’s continued reliance on the tribal leaders who have traditionally constituted its primary support. As a result, the Palestinians have had difficulty obtaining political power to match their economic prominence. Another source of conflict is the government’s moderate stance toward Israel, expressed in the Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace signed in 1994.

Growing economic differences also threaten domestic stability. The nation’s lack of natural resources continues to hinder economic development, and unofficial unemployment rates hover around 30 percent. Three out of ten Jordanians live below the poverty line, while the wealthiest 10 percent receive nearly 30 percent of the nation’s income. These inequalities are likely to widen as Jordan’s population continues to grow at one of the fastest rates in the world. Increasingly visible crowds of unemployed, disillusioned young men, who are often susceptible to the rhetoric of antigovernment extremists, are especially worrisome. In January 2002 serious riots erupted in the town of Maʿān. The immediate cause of the riot was the death of a teenager in police custody, but larger social and economic frustrations undoubtedly played a role as well.

Major Events

The first fifty years of Jordanian independence were dominated by the towering figure of King Hussein (1935–1999), who ruled from 1952 to 1999 and is father of the present leader, King Abdullah II. Hussein earned praise around the world for his moderate, centrist policies. At the same time, however, he did not hesitate to move decisively, even ruthlessly, against domestic enemies. In September 1970, for example, he used air strikes and infantry assaults to expel hundreds of Palestinian guerillas who had been using Jordan as a base for attacking Israel. Among Palestinians, these events quickly became known as “Black September.”

King Abdullah II has generally followed his father’s moderate, pro-Western policies, a stance that has earned him enemies in some segments of the Arab world. A violent expression of this disdain occurred in November 2005, when suicide bombers attacked three prominent international hotels in Amman, killing about sixty and injuring hundreds more. As the Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (1966–2006) made clear in his claim of responsibility, the decision to strike Jordanian targets was intended in part as a pointed rebuke of the king for his support of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Ironically, however, the attacks solidified the king’s domestic support, at least temporarily, and tens of thousands took to the streets of Amman to protest the bloodshed.

Twenty-First Century

The war in Iraq has presented special problems for Jordan. Iraqis who have fled the fighting and come to Jordan, many in need of extensive social services, have strained an already overburdened infrastructure. An influx of financial aid from the United States has helped to stabilize the situation. Continued U.S. assistance at the same level, however, is far from assured, and there is a significant risk that the country may become overly dependent on foreign aid. Economic development and family planning projects are urgently needed. The greatest danger, however, may be the feeling of estrangement that some observers have begun to notice between the people and their king. Abdullah II has been energetic and creative in his efforts to strengthen his ties to the people, reportedly visiting hospitals and other public facilities in disguise to monitor performance. But the war in Iraq is a major obstacle. If instability there continues, and particularly if the Shiite majority continues to dominate the Sunni minority in the U.S.-backed government, the appeal of anti-Western extremist groups may grow among the Jordanian people, 92 percent of whom are Sunnis. King Hussein was astute in his management of domestic unrest; it remains to be seen whether his son has the same ability.

Eilon, Joab B. The Making of Jordan: Tribes, Colonialism and the Modern State. London: I. B. Tauris, 2007.

“The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.” (accessed May 29, 2007).

Schwedler, Jillian. Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.