The events of the Arab Spring, which have dominated national and regional discourse since early 2011, have injected a greater sense of immediacy and urgency into the political reform process in Jordan. Still, the kingdom has avoided the turmoil seen in neighbouring countries, and local protestors have mostly called for a reorganisation and reform of the government as opposed to suggesting it be overthrown.

This is largely the result of King Abdullah II, Jordan’s ruler, who has worked to implement a variety of democratic reforms over the last several years, and who has dismissed two governments over the past year. “The critical circumstances and transformations in the region prompt us to set forth our firm conviction that sticking to the reform path, popular participation, the correction of previous mistakes and the completion of a system of justice and accountability that ensures the separation of powers is the only way for advancement,” the monarch said in a speech in late October 2011.

The king’s response to the demonstrations is in line with Jordan’s longstanding reputation for stability and moderation in a volatile region. Indeed, the country has held parliamentary elections continuously since 1989, and since 1994 it has been one of only two Arab nations (the other being Egypt) to have signed a formal peace treaty with Israel. These achievements were the results of reforms introduced by King Hussein, who ruled Jordan from 1953 until his death in 1999. King Abdullah II, who ascended to the throne when his father, King Hussein, passed away, has continued this tradition. Consequently, the monarch continues to enjoy widespread popularity in the country.

AT THE CENTRE OF IT ALL: Jordan has been an economic and political crossroads in the region for thousands of years. In the first and second millennium BCE the Nabateans controlled much of the Fertile Crescent, including all of modern-day Jordan, parts of Syria and the northern Arabian peninsula. From the eighth century BCE through to the sixth century CE parts of Jordan were controlled by a series of powerful empires, including the classical Greeks, the Romans and the Persian Sassanids. Beginning in the seventh century CE, Jordan was ruled by a succession of Muslim rulers as part of the Islamic Caliphate. From 1516 through the early part of the 20th century, Jordan was included in the Ottoman empire, which included a vast swathe of land in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. From the early 1920s through the mid-1940s, Transjordan – as it was known at the time – was officially a British mandate, while being ruled by the Hashemites.

INDEPENDENCE: In 1946, when the British withdrew from Transjordan, Jordan became an independent nation. The country’s first king was Abdullah I, ruler of Transjordan since 1921. At the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, King Abdullah I, who commanded the Arab Legion during the conflict, was called upon at the Jericho Conference to unify the West Bank and East Jerusalem with Jordan. Three years later, in 1951, King Abdullah I was assassinated by a lone gunman, at which point his son, Talal, ascended to the throne. King Talal abdicated the throne less than a year later, though he did draw up and ratify a constitution in January 1952.

King Hussein ascended to the throne of Jordan in 1953, on his 18th birthday. For the first 14 years of King Hussein’s four-and-a-half decade rule, Jordan was home to one of the most liberal societies in the Middle East, primarily as a result of the numerous rights (including freedom of speech, press, association and religion, among others) guaranteed by the new constitution.

By the early 1960s, however, in an effort to insulate Jordan against steadily increasing regional instability and a variety of threats, both from domestic and international forces, King Hussein implemented martial law. In 1967, with anti-Western sentiment on the rise in the region, Jordan fought alongside Egypt (known then as the United Arab Republic) and Syria against Israel in the Six Day War. When the conflict ended on June 11, Israel had taken control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and 300,000 additional Palestinian refugees came over the border into Jordan, bringing the total number of Palestinian refugees living in the country to around 1m. Jordan’s large Palestinian population – estimated at over 2m in 2011, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees – continues to be a major political issue today. The late 1970s and 1980s were a tumultuous period in Jordan and the region, with King Hussein and the government working to address major shifts in the regional balance of power resulting from the Iranian revolution and the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1979.

THE MODERN ERA: In 1989, after 22 years of regional strife, King Hussein reinstated parliamentary elections in Jordan and lifted martial law, signalling the beginning of a new period of political reform and steadily increasing freedoms. In 1994 the monarch signed the Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace, codifying peace with Jordan’s neighbour to the west. On account of the trust he had established with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, King Hussein played an integral role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in the 1990s. When King Abdullah II ascended to the throne in 1999, he picked up where his father left off, affirming the kingdom’s peace with Israel and continuing to push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, burnishing Jordan’s reputation as a stable, regional moderator (see analysis).

Over the past 10 years Jordan’s economy has expanded rapidly, largely as a result of new policies put in place by King Abdullah II. Since 1999 the kingdom has benefitted from substantial government investment in several special economic zones, including the free trade zone at Aqaba, which has become a major regional economic centre in recent years (see Aqaba chapter).

This has resulted in steadily increasing foreign direct investment from Jordan’s wealthy neighbours in the Gulf and various major economic players internationally. In 2000 King Abdullah II negotiated a free trade agreement (FTA) between Jordan and the US, which has played a major role in boosting trade over the past decade (see Economy chapter).

POLITICAL ORGANISATION: Jordan has a parliamentary system of government and a hereditary monarchy. As described in the extant 1952 constitution, the monarch has final approval on all laws and amendments passed through parliament. Additionally, the king appoints the prime minister, the members of the upper house of parliament (the Senate), judges, the governors of Jordan’s 12 regional governorates and the mayor of Amman, the capital city.

In 2011, King Abdullah II promised to expedite the political reform process in response to the public protests that kicked off in January of that year. Specifically, the monarch has said that the power to choose a prime minister and appoint the cabinet will eventually be handed over to the parliament (see analysis).

The National Assembly is composed of the House of Deputies (a 140-member body elected by universal suffrage every four years) and the Senate, which is limited to half the total number of representatives in the lower house. Since 1993 a fixed number of seats in parliament have been set aside for minority representatives, including 15 seats for female delegates (raised to 15 in June 2012), nine for Christians, nine for Bedouins, and three each for Jordanians of Circassian and Chechen descent. Achieving a representative mix is an ongoing challenge. A rule banning parties based entirely on religion or ethnicity has also been mooted.

The judicial branch comprises civil courts, religious courts and special courts. Civil courts, responsible for civil and criminal proceedings, handle most cases. Religious courts, including sharia courts and other minority religious courts, oversee personal cases, such as those related to marriage and inheritance proceedings. Special courts cover a variety of military and other sensitive issues, and the State Security Court, which is an integral part of the judicial system, deals with drug offences and security matters.

REFORM: As the Arab Spring protests unfolded over the course of 2011 and early 2012, King Abdullah II expanded the process of governmental reform. In late January 2011, soon after the protests began, the government introduced a $550m stimulus package, which included salary increases for civil servants and subsidies for fuel and basic goods.

In February 2011, in an effort to calm demonstrators and accelerate reforms, the king dismissed the prime minister and the cabinet. He repeated this action nine months later, in October 2011, installing Awn Khasawneh as the new prime minister. Khasawneh, who was previously a judge at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, served for around six months before stepping down in late April 2012.

A few days later, the monarch appointed a new cabinet, with Fayez Al Tarawneh in the top spot. Al Tarawneh, who was prime minister in the 1990s, is the fourth prime minister in the past 18 months. Al Tarawneh, who first served as prime minister for nearly a year in 1998-99, has held a variety of top posts in Jordan’s government, including minister of foreign affairs, chief of the Royal Hashemite Court and ambassador to the US. Al Tarawneh also led the peace treaty negotiations between Jordan and Israel in 1994.

While a number of popular politicians retained their posts in the new 30-member cabinet, most ministers were replaced, including the minister of the interior, who had been criticized for his treatment of protestors. A new Ministry for Women’s Affairs was also established, to be headed by Nadia Hashem, a leading journalist. The new cabinet, expected to serve for a brief transitional period, has a mandate to implement a series of major reforms, with the long-term objectives of boosting public participation in politics.

In June 2011 King Abdullah II announced that the cabinet and the prime minister would eventually be elected by parliament and through a consultation process with the lower house, the latter of which would occur after the next elections. Since then, the country’s successive governments have worked to introduce legislation with these (and other) progressive goals in mind. The monarch has told Al Tarawneh to prepare the country for elections before the end of 2012. Other areas that are expected to be affected by upcoming reform-minded legislation include laws that relate to the formation of political parties and corruption practices.

While demonstrators have called for increased representation and for ramping up the fight against corruption, they remain supportive of the monarchy. In general, the protestors in Jordan have focused on economic issues, such as unemployment and inflation. The country faces a variety of major economic challenges in the form of rising energy (and other) costs. With this in mind, the new government plans to introduce an economic reform package before the end of the year, with the goal of reducing public debt and boosting revenues. The plan included a range of austerity measures, including subsidy reductions and a number of tax increases.

FRIENDS: Jordan maintains close political, economic and military relationships with major powers around the world. In the Middle East, the country has a long history of cooperation and trade with the majority of its neighbours, including Egypt, Iraq and Turkey, not to mention Saudi Arabia and the other oil economies of the Gulf. In 2011 Jordan was invited to join the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is expected to result in rising trade and economic cooperation between the kingdom and its oil-rich neighbours in the Gulf (see analysis).

OUTLOOK: Over a decade in the making, the reform process led by King Abdullah II has produced several accomplishments; however, additional measures to deepen and expand political participation are increasingly pressing given regional and domestic pressures.

In the long run, effectively addressing the country’s economic difficulties may prove to be a more challenging task than implementing political reforms, though several initiatives are being developed to strengthen the kingdom’s core domestic industries and foreign investment environment (see Economy chapter). Ultimately, the fact that King Abdullah II has demonstrated a willingness to respond forcefully to the challenges facing the nation bodes well for the kingdom’s future.