Traditions continue to shape modern-day Jordan

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is widely seen as a pillar of stability in a region that has been disrupted by conflict in recent years. Despite challenging surroundings, Jordan has managed to maintain efficient political workings and positive economic growth. As a country with scarce natural resources but a highly educated population, the kingdom aims to become a regional leader in sectors with significant growth potential, such as renewable energy, ICT, manufacturing and tourism. Jordan 2025, an economic and social framework plan, and the Jordan Economic Growth Plan 2018-22 focus on these key drivers for commercial growth and social development, as the country works to revitalise the national economy and emerge as a powerhouse in the MENA region.

Georgraphy

Jordan’s 89,342-sq-km territory is located in the centre of the Middle East, in a region commonly called the Levant. The country shares 1635 km of land borders with Syria to the north, Saudi Arabia to the south, Iraq to the east, and Israel and Palestine to the west. At its most south-western tip, Jordan has access to the Red Sea through its sole marine outlet, the Port of Aqaba.

The kingdom’s topography is quite distinct and generally reflects three types of land. The Jordan Valley, a section of the Great Rift Valley, stretches from north to south in the western part of the country; the highlands run the length of the territory in central Jordan; and the Badia, also known as the Syrian/Jordanian Steppe, is a desert in the eastern part of the kingdom that reaches the border with Iraq. The country’s highest point is the 1754-metre Mount Ramm, or Jabal Ramm, in the south. The Jordan Valley is home of the 360-km Jordan River, which plays an important role in the religious heritage of Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities. Beginning in the foothills of Mount Harmon on the Syrian-Lebanese border and continuing through Northern Israel and the Sea of Galilee, also known as Lake Tiberius, the river today acts as one part of the border between Jordan and Israel, and provides an important supply of water for both countries. In 1967 the 69-km King Abdullah Canal, previously known as the East Ghor irrigation canal, was built enabling the cultivation of fruit and vegetables on the Jordanian side of the valley.

The Jordan River culminates in the Dead Sea, the lowest body of water on the surface of the earth, lying at around 430 metres below sea level. Bordered by Jordan to the east, Israel to the south-west and the Palestinian West Bank to the north-west, the landlocked lake was prized in ancient times as a valuable reserve of salt. Nowadays the site is a popular attraction for tourists who come to bathe in the dense, highly salinated waters.

The Dead Sea is one of the kingdom’s best-known attractions and has the country’s highest hotel occupancy rates, thanks in part to the area’s limited hospitality offerings. To fully capitalise on the area’s vast potential, the ambitious Dead Sea Development Plan to develop the coast – while protecting its ecological diversity and fragility – was put in place, with an initial focus on domestic tourism.

“The ongoing projects in the Dead Sea development zone have been designed as a multifaceted development area, with opportunities for different sectors such as tourism, industry, real estate and logistics,” Ahmad Halaiqah, general manager at Jordan Free and Development Zones Group, told OBG. “The country’s development zones have two combined objectives: establishing an enabling environment for investment in order to stimulate growth, and enhancing a leverage effect to support local communities by creating jobs,” he added.

Climate

Jordan’s climate ranges from desert to Mediterranean, although it is predominantly arid. A Mediterranean climate prevails in parts of the western side, such as the highlands of the Jordan Valley and in the mountains east of the Dead Sea and the valley Wadi Araba. To the north, the capital city of Amman experiences a semi-arid climate with monthly temperatures averaging between 8°C and 26°C, while Aqaba in the south has an arid desert climate, characterised by monthly temperatures averaging between 16°C and 33°C.

Rainfall is largely seasonal, with 80% occurring between December and March. In general, the country has extremely low rates of precipitation, with 80% of the territory getting less than 100 mm of rainfall each year. The country’s prevailing winds are westerly to south-westerly. During short periods in the early and late summer, dry, sandy winds from the south-east – known as the khamsin – can trigger rapid spikes in temperatures.

Energy Production

With the notable exception of an estimated 70bn tonnes of unexploited oil shale, Jordan is not home to significant amounts of oil or natural gas resources. In the past, this has meant that more than 90% of the country’s energy needs have been met by imported fuel sources. However, the last 10 years have seen the government implement a long-term energy development policy, which aims to reduce energy import dependency to 60% by 2020. The strategy outlines the promotion of public and private investment to raise domestic energy production, including solar, wind and an oil shale power plant (see Energy chapter).

Central to the kingdom’s efforts is the Green Corridor project, which is aimed at reducing dependence on hydrocarbons by increasing Jordan’s ability to absorb the loads generated by new renewable energy capacity stemming from wind and solar. The country’s extremely high annual solar radiation rate makes it ideally suited to solar energy production, with the average number of clear days per month ranging from 20 to 31 and annual average daily solar irradiance measuring between 4 and 7 KWh per sq metre. The country’s wind is also a potential rich energy resource, with average annual wind speeds exceeding seven metres per second in some areas, according to the World Energy Council.

“The market for alternative energy in Jordan is already well established, and we are very confident the sector will take off in the short term and bring new opportunities for investors,” Ehab Younis, CEO of energy firm ABB Jordan, told OBG. “The Green Corridor project will notably act as a catalyst for future expansion in renewable energy generation.”

Water

With minimal rainfall and a high rate of immediate evaporation, water resources in the country are not naturally abundant. A combination of rapid population growth and the depletion of the Jordan River have exacerbated the problem in recent years, with the result that Jordan has some of the world’s lowest per capita water availability rates.

With renewable water supplies accounting for just around half of the country’s total water consumption, the government has been working with the private sector and international development organisations on a number of initiatives to counteract the problem, including raising awareness of water waste among the public, encouraging the use of recycled waste water in the agriculture sector, building desalination plants and launching the Red Sea-Dead Sea water pipeline project.

Population & Demographics

Jordan is a very young country, with the largest age group being children between five and nine years old. The Central Bank of Jordan cited the country’s population as 9.8m at the end of the 2016 – a 32% increase over the 7.4m recorded at the close of 2012. This edging towards the 10m mark is a result of the influx of refugees from neighbouring countries in the last few years, with non-Jordanians accounting for just under one-third of total residents.

A significant portion of the Jordanian population is Palestinian or of Palestinian descent, due to successive waves of refugees fleeing conflicts since the first Arab-Israeli War in 1947. Though no exact figure exists for the number of Jordanians of Palestinian origin, the UN Relief and Works Agency estimate that more than 2m Palestinian refugees live in Jordan. In the years since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, Jordan has received over 1.3m people from its northern neighbour, who now comprise around half of the foreign population.

Principal Cities

The kingdom’s residents are overwhelmingly concentrated in urban centres and surrounding vicinities, with less than 6% of the population living in rural areas. Most people and activity are centred around the capital Amman, Irbid and Zarqa. Situated in the north-west of the country, Amman is the nation’s economic and governmental centre. Over 4m people live within the predominantly urban Amman Governorate, accounting for around 40% of Jordan’s total population. Irbid Governorate, which holds a capital of the same name, is 60 km north of Amman. Home to a major university, the population is nearly 1.7m. Zarqa, the third-largest city in terms of population, lies north-east of Amman. The more than 1.3m people who reside in the governorate are contributing to the city becoming a major industrial centre.

These three areas host approximately 75% of Jordan’s total population, with the remaining quarter spread throughout the other nine governorates. Aqaba, which contains the country’s sole port, is an important infrastructural node in the far south, and acts as a gateway to the Red Sea. While the governorate tallied a relatively small population of 188,160 at the end of 2015, the area has grown by leaps and bounds in the last 10 years in regards to transport, logistics, industry and tourism.

Langauge & Culture

The official language of the kingdom is Arabic and the local dialect is often called Levantine Arabic. The words and phrases heard in Jordan are very similar to the colloquial Arabic spoken throughout the region, and has some overlap with the Egyptian and Saudi dialects as well. While Arabic is used in the education system, media, literature, formal occasions and official communication, English is more commonly used in business. Indeed, English is spoken throughout the country, particularly in urban areas, and the language is taught in most schools throughout Jordan.

The Bedouin, an Arab group descended from nomadic desert tribes, have had a large influence on Jordanian culture, and many traditions and customs are traced back to the Bedouin people. Traditions such as storytelling, poetry and singing, for example, are still important in modern-day Jordan. A welcoming hospitality is another pillar of the kingdom’s society. It is believed to stem from the Bedouin custom of always accepting visitors due to the harsh desert environment. This and other Bedouin values have survived to be influential aspects of society.

Religion

The large majority of Jordanians are Sunni Muslim, at 92%. Christians, who make up 6% of the population, follow the Greek Orthodox church and can freely practise their religion in all areas of the country. Islam is a meaningful part of Jordanian culture and day-to-day life, therefore, the king holds a special place within the Muslim community because of his lineage ties to Prophet Muhammad.

There are also many religiously significant sites throughout the kingdom that followers of Islam and Christianity hold in high regard. These include Umm Qais, King Herod’s palace and Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the location where Jesus is said to have been baptised. This site received global recognition by being added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in July 2015. Mount Nebo is another important location, as it is the site where Moses was given a view of the Promised Land. There are ongoing efforts to boost interest in religious tourism and pilgrimages to these and other locations around the country.

Historical Roots

Humans have inhabited the geographical area that comprises Jordan from prehistory, with archaeological findings indicating human activity in the Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods. Egyptians, Mycenaeans, Cypriots and nomadic tribes were among the groups that occupied the area between 3000 and 1300 BCE, while biblical accounts indicate settlements by Israelites, Amorites, Ammonites and Assyrians, among others.

The Arab Nabataeans enjoyed a period of dominance in the first millennium BCE. The capital of the Kingdom of Nabataea was Raqmu, a caravan city in south-western Jordan that later became known as Petra. Featuring hundreds of dwellings and temples carved out of pink sandstone rock – earning it the nickname of the Rose City – Petra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the country’s most visited tourist sites. Other occupants during the BCE era included the Hellenistic Seleucids and Ptolemies, before the territory enjoyed a period of prosperity under Roman rule between 64 BCE and the 7th century. Roman ruins are still to be found in Jordan today, with the largest of them, the walled settlement of Gerasa, at Jerash to the north of Amman.

The defeat of Byzantine forces at the Battle of Yarmouk River in 636 CE, ushered in a time of Muslim rule, with the Umayyad dynasty reigning for over a century before being replaced by the Abbasids in 750 CE. The legacy of the era can be seen in an area above Amman called the Citadel, where the remnants of Umayyad palace buildings share a site with remnants from Jordan’s Byzantine and Roman periods. The territory’s distance from the Abbasid seat of power in Baghdad led to a period of decline between 750 CE and the 16th century, as nomadic Bedouin ways of life were re-established in many parts of the country. A notable exception to this was the occupation of south-western Jordan by the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Although Jordan was invaded by Ottoman forces in 1516, Bedouin tribes continued to live more or less unhindered, with Ottoman interest in the territory extending primarily to the Makkah pilgrimage route. Among the most notable legacies of the country’s Ottoman period are its Muslims of Circassian and Chechen descent, who relocated to escape persecution in Russia, and the Hejaz Railway, built from Damascus to Medina in 1908.

Jordan’s ruling monarchs belong to the Hashemite dynasty, whose connection with modern-day Jordan goes back to the First World War, when the Hashemite Sharif Hussein bin Ali, with the support of British and French powers, led the 1916 Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule.

While the revolt was successful in taking control of much of the Levant, including the territories of modern-day Jordan, British and French authorities reneged on their agreement to grant Arab autonomy, choosing to recognise the territorial divisions of the Sykes-Picot Agreement instead. After the war, Hussein’s sons continued to fight for Arab self-governance in the region. In 1921 they were made leaders of two new British protectorates, with Faisal I bin Hussein bin Ali Al Hashemi ascending to the crown of the Kingdom of Iraq and Abdullah I bin Al Hussein becoming Emir of Transjordan. The recent passing of the 100th anniversary of the revolt was a celebratory occasion for Jordanians.

Modern-Day Jordan

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan gained sovereign independence in 1946, and King Abdullah I was named the country’s first monarch. In 1951 Talal bin Abdullah, the son of King Abdullah I, succeeded his father. However, after ruling for only a short time and battling health issues, he abdicated the throne in 1952 in favour of his son, Hussein bin Talal. Having become king at the age of 16, King Hussein enjoyed a reign of 47 years before his death in 1999. In those years, Jordan witnessed events that markedly shaped the country and greater region. This transformation came, in part, through King Hussein’s enthusiasm regarding political and economic liberalisation policies. Results from his tenure include the lifting of martial law, the legalisation of political parties and the holding of the country’s first elections in decades.

King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein, the current ruler, ascended the throne before the turn of the century. King Abdullah II is married to Queen Rania Al Abdullah, and the monarchs have four children: Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah, Princess Iman bint Abdullah, Princess Salma bint Abdullah and Prince Hashem bin Hussein. The 18 years of King Abdullah II’s reign have been a committed continuation of his father’s economic and political reform. In 2011 revisions made to over a third of the constitution brought greater pluralism, stability, social inclusion, liberalisation and transparency.

Political Framework

The parliament is bicameral and known as the National Assembly. The body is composed of two chambers: the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The Chamber of Deputies includes 150 popularly elected representatives who serve four-year terms. Each is accountable to a local constituency. The Senate includes 75 seats, each of which is appointed by the king for four-year terms.

Jordan has a multi-party system composing independent politicians with diverse interests informed by their constituencies. This differs from many Western-style democracies in which political parties often dictate policy narratives. The constitution confers executive authority in the king and his Cabinet. The king is in charge of signing, executing and vetoing the country’s legislation.

During the summer of 2012, the system to elect officials to the Chamber of Deputies was altered from a one-vote system to a two-vote system, in which members of Parliament are chosen from both their local constituency and from lists on the national level. A key institution is the Royal Hashemite Court, as it acts as a link between the king and government bodies such as the Parliament, the National Assembly, army and security forces, and plays an important role in communicating the king’s vision and guidance.

In addition to appointing members of the Senate, the king also chooses the prime minister after consulting Parliament. Hani Al Mulki has held the post of Jordan’s prime minister since May 2016, and the current Cabinet is composed of 28 additional ministers. The last Cabinet reshuffle took place in June 2017 and concerned the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, the Ministry of Social Development and the Ministry of Transport.

Government Reform

Government reshuffles have become less common in Jordanian politics, a matter that was previously cited as a limiting factor in the development of long-term ministry strategies. Throughout the nearly two decades of King Abdullah II’s leadership, Jordan has undertaken continuous political reform with an aim of promoting a more active role of citizens in politics and allowing for differing viewpoints to be equally weighted in the decision-making process. In August 2017 local elections were held throughout Jordan to renew the positions of 100 mayors and 355 local councils. Additionally, elections were held for the first time to select representatives to 12 new governorate councils, which were created by the Decentralisation Law that came into effect in December 2016 as part of King Abdullah II’s ongoing political reform processes. These new institutions have no legislative power, but are in charge of proposing and implementing strategic development plans in conjunction with the central government and municipalities (see analysis).

In addition to reinforcing local democratic procedures, the purpose of this reform was to reduce pressure on the National Assembly, since local strategic development plans will be designed by governorate councils. The Parliament will review these proposals when submitted, and put them to a vote.

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