Jordan's Future Challenges / Juan.J.E.Stemmann

For years, King Abdallah has successfully steered Jordan's ship through the turbulent waters of a tempestuous regional context and a complex economic and social situation within the country. However, the country has not been immune to the wave of unrest sweeping the region following the revolts that toppled President Ben Ali in Tunisia and President Mubarak in Egypt, and the king will have to institute greater and more fundamental reforms in order to maintain the basic pact between the monarchy and the people and to prevent Jordanians from beginning to question the legitimacy of his rule.

Since his accession to the throne in 1999, King Abdallah has successfully steered Jordan’s ship through the turbulent waters of a tempestuous regional context and a complex economic and social situation within the country. The expansion of the economic reforms process agreed upon with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has enabled Jordan to modernize its economic structure, post significant growth rates, and weather the storm of the international economic crisis. Nevertheless, the improvement of the macroeconomic situation has not prevented a series of protests denouncing rising commodity prices and rampant unemployment.

The road to greater political openness has been conditioned by a wide range of external factors. The second intifada, the U.S. military intervention in Iraq, and Hamas’ rise to power in Gaza have all influenced decisionmaking and provided arguments to those within the regime who feel that further democratization could jeopardize the country’s stability. However, Jordan has not been immune to the wave of unrest sweeping the region following the revolts that toppled President Ben Ali in Tunisia and President Mubarak in Egypt; the regime will likely need to start considering real reforms in order to curtail future opposition. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a sword of Damocles for the regime in Jordan, where almost half of the population is of Palestinian origin and not all are well integrated. Any development in the conflict has immediate repercussions in Jordan. The Hamas coup in Gaza and the presence of militants close to Hamas within the Jordanian Islamist movement’s leadership has led the regime to change its attitude toward the Islamists, whom it accuses of radicalizing their anti-state discourse. Moreover, since 2002, Jordan has been targeted by al-Qaida in several terrorist attacks. Although the threat is still latent, effective action by the Jordanian security forces, the death of the al-Qa’ida leader in Iraq, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, and the steps taken to combat Salafi rhetoric have curtailed the capacity of Salafi networks to strike on Jordanian soil.


The early years of King Abdallah’s rule have been characterized by the development of policies focused on economic reform and Jordan’s integration in the global market. The major economic crisis in 1989 forced Jordan to sign an agreement for a structural adjustment program with the IMF in order to cut its debt and public deficit, control inflation, and set in motion a package of reforms aimed at modernizing the country’s economic structure. The removal of subsidies, the privatization process, and the trimming of the public sector have also affected the social support bases on which the regime relies, giving rise to new forces of power and influence.

Jordan’s economic problems were compounded as a result of the First Gulf War in 1991. King Hussein’s support for Iraq led to a rift with the Gulf nations, which until then had been Jordan’s biggest financial backers, and also to the return of 300,000 Jordanian workers (mostly Palestinians), a situation that triggered increased unemployment and higher inflation. Until the outbreak of the Second Gulf War in 2003, Iraq had financed virtually all of Jordan’s energy needs. The Jordanian economy was thus dealt a serious blow by the conflict in Iraq, which also affected vital sectors including transport and tourism as well as worker remittances. However, the mass return of workers also led to a significant increase (estimated at 1 billion USD) in investment in small and medium-sized businesses, which injected new life into Amman’s economy.[1]

At the time of King Abdallah’s accession to the throne in 1999, the economy was still in deep crisis, and Jordan had to contend with a particularly difficult regional context. Between 2000 and 2003, the country was affected by the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada, the U.S. war on terrorism, and the military intervention in Iraq. Aware of the need to expand the economic reforms agreed upon with the IMF, the king appointed Ali Abu Raghib as prime minister in June 2000. Raghib led the reform process until 2003. He passed a series of laws to help open up the country’s economy to trade, to integrate Jordan into the World Trade Organization (WTO), and to create Qualified Industrial Zones to attract foreign investment and to set up joint ventures with Israel to access the U.S. market. The suspension of the elections scheduled for November 2001 facilitated matters for the government, which was able to implement its policy without the parliament.

Despite initial fears regarding its consequences for the Jordanian economy, the U.S. military intervention in Iraq brought some advantages for the country. Jordan recuperated the trust of the Gulf monarchies, which now finance the country’s energy needs[2] and are the main destination for Jordanian labor, goods, and services. Trade with Iraq was renewed and direct U.S. aid has grown considerably. Since 2003, Jordan has received an average of $750 million, nearly half of it military aid.[3] As of 2010, some 700,000 Iraqis were living in Jordan as a result of the war in Iraq. A large proportion of Iraq’s bourgeoisie have moved to Amman until the security situation in Iraq improves. Their presence has helped boost the real estate and retail sectors. The high numbers of Iraqi entrepreneurs in Amman and Iraq’s relative normalization have also provided new opportunities for Jordanian firms. The banking sector and the transport, aluminum, cement, and phosphate industries have all benefited from the stabilization of the situation in Iraq.[4]

Since 2006, Jordan has further facilitated investment in the country and has continued its privatization program. The investment promotion law passed in 2006 encouraged the arrival of new investors and helped the economy grow at an average of seven percent GDP between 2005 and 2008. Exports have also grown, with Saudi Arabia and the European Union being the main destinations. Moreover, the Jordanian authorities have used the revenue generated by assets sales during the privatizations to cut public debt. In 2008, the government ended petrol and gas subsidies in order to control the fiscal deficit.[5]

Jordan’s economy continued to post growth of 2.9 percent in 2009 despite the global recession. In order to tackle the crisis, the country has launched a series of infrastructure projects financed by public-private partnerships (PPPs). These include the construction of a nuclear power plant and two mega projects to supply the country with water. The Disi Water Project[6] is designed to pipe water to Amman, home to half the country’s population, from an aquifer close to the Saudi border, while the Red to Dead Project will pump water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.[7]

The economic forecast for 2010 was optimistic, with the economy expected to grow 4.1 percent, due to the resumption of worker remittances and the tourism industry. Yet the sudden rise in world commodity prices in December 2010 showed the failure of the economic model to convert the public sector-dominated economy into an investment-friendly haven for technology and services. Middle and lower income households have struggled due to the increasing cost of living and inflation, which reached more than 6 percent in 2010.


Notwithstanding the unquestionable successes achieved by the reform process, the country continues to face numerous economic and social challenges. The high fiscal deficit (almost 9 percent in 2010) and public debt (over 70 percent of GDP in 2010) threaten to slow growth. External aid remains vital and economic growth barely absorbs the workforce joining the labor market every year. Unemployment remains high in the country, particularly among young people. The official unemployment rate is around 15 percent. Over two-thirds of the unemployed are under age 30, and 24 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Informal networks allow Jordanians to cope with price increases and lessen the impact of poverty and unemployment. Similarly, the substantial remittances sent back by Jordanians living abroad (over 20 percent of GDP) have enabled Jordan to finance levels of consumption and investment far in excess of what is sustainable by domestic income. These realities have eased economic and political pressures on the state and have allowed it to avoid more drastic measures. Nonetheless, there are still concerns as to the future ramifications of the real estate boom and high population density in Jordan’s major cities.[8]

The structural adjustment process the Jordanian economy has undergone has also affected the regime’s traditional social support networks. Jordan has a population of approximately 6 million, distributed among two major population groups, which are similar in size:[9] the Transjordanians, who have been the traditional pillar of support for the monarchy since its earliest days, and the population of Palestinian origin, the product of the successive waves of refugees arriving in 1948, 1967, and 1991. These national origin categories overlap with demographic and labor market divisions. The Transjordanians live in the rural northern and southern regions and work in administration or in the army. The Palestinians live in central and urban areas, where most industry and employment are concentrated. As a result of the integration process adopted with the refugees, Palestinians and Jordanians occupy different labor markets. Displaced Palestinian farmers have found informal work in the cities in the services sector, for the most part in construction, health care, and retail. Jordanians, on the other hand, have occupied the bulk of administrative and army jobs. Following the clashes between the PLO and Jordanian army in the Black September of 1970, the regime began to remove Palestinians from sensitive posts in the army and administration. In addition, the mass exodus of Palestinians during the oil boom enabled Jordan to resolve its integration problems by exporting Palestinian labor to the Gulf countries.[10]

Anne Marie Baylouny has emphasized the radical change in the regime’s support base as a result of economic liberalization. The considerably diminished role of the state in the economy has left many sectors of the Transjordanian population in a precarious situation, due to the loss of subsidies, employment, and other perks granted by the government. The periodical outbreaks of violence in Ma’an, Karak, and other towns since the late 1980s/early 1990s are evidence of this change.[11] While Baylouny is correct, it is still too early to speak of radical change. The Transjordanian element is still an essential cog in the make-up of the army and continues to play a very important role in the government, where Transjordanians are still an overwhelming majority, though their numbers are lower than in the past. In fact, the government has faced major problems in its attempts to implement fundamental changes in the administrative structure. The state continues to employ 43 percent of the population, and their salaries account for 58 percent of all public spending. Public sector appointment remains a major pillar of the patron-client networks that help sustain the state.[12]

There has, however, been a gradual decline in the influence of an important element of the Transjordanian elite to the benefit of new actors, mainly of Palestinian origin and with ties to the Jordanian economy. A new, young generation--educated at U.S. universities (funded by the Royal Palace) and following in the footsteps of former Chief of the Royal Court Basem Awadalah--has also played a key role in the implementation of the economic reforms. The new technocrats and the new generation of entrepreneurs that has emerged from the reforms now form the core of a new elite committed to modernizing the economy and ensuring the definitive integration of Jordan’s Palestinian populace. The Economic Consultative Council and the al-Ikha parliamentary bloc created by 20 members of parliament in the National Assembly are both examples of the presence of this group in Jordanian political life.[13]

Tensions between the two camps have been a hallmark of political life since 2003. King Abdallah has endeavored to strike a delicate and difficult balance between promoting the young reformists’ agenda and retaining the backing of leading representatives of the Transjordanian population, including senior army commanders.[14]


Although a strong advocate of democratic politics, King Abdallah has come down clearly on the side of regime stability. Economic progress and global market integration have merited vastly greater attention than political reform. Immediately upon his accession to the throne, the outbreak of the second intifada, the country’s difficult economic position, and the repercussions of the September 11 attacks all prompted the king to suspend the elections scheduled for 2001 for a period of two years.

The 2003 parliamentary elections centered around the debate between those within the Jordanian elite who viewed further democratization as a potential threat to stability, given the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Jordan, and those who considered it as the sole means to secure the country’s future. The former, whose views eventually prevailed, believe that the process of political openness should ensure that no one political force dominate the parliament and that certain political rights must be limited. The reformists, currently a clear minority in the elite but who enjoy backing from civil society, believe in the opening of political arena, including increased parliamentary representation of the urban centers and the Palestinian populace.[15]

To this end, the 1993 Election Law established the one-man, one-vote system that aimed to prevent the formation of parliamentary alliances and prioritize tribal representation in parliament. The regime learned its lesson from the first democratic elections held in 1989, when the proportional representation system gave the Islamic Action Front (IAF) 25 percent of seats in the National Assembly. Since then, the one-man, one-vote principle has been applied in the country’s elections, including in the three parliamentary elections held under King Abdallah’s reign (2003, 2007, and 2010). The system benefits tribal candidates before political parties and affords greater representation to rural areas than to urban centers.

The system produced the same outcome in the 2003 and 2007 elections: limited Islamist representation, an atomized parliament, a paucity of legislative activity, and regular clashes with the government for approval of the laws required for the reform process.

The parliament elected in the 2007 elections was short-lived.[16] Due to the challenges it posed to the government’s laws, it was dissolved in November 2009. From that time on, the king ruled directly without parliament, as he did prior to 2003. Economic reform once again took precedence over parliamentary activity. The appointment of Samir Rifai as prime minister in December 2009, marked the beginning of a new period characterized by the adoption (via interim laws) of new measures to modernize the economy.[17]

Conscious of the importance of the parliament and its role in Jordanian politics, King Abdallah promptly called for new elections. The elections took place in November 2010 and rekindled the electoral law debate. Supported by a large proportion of political parties and civil society, the National Center for Human Rights (NCHR)--with advice from the National Democratic Institute in the United States--launched an initiative in April 2010 to reform the electoral law and establish a mixed procedure to end the one-man, one-vote system. Under the proposed method, Jordanians would have two votes: one for candidates at district level, as under the existing law, and another vote for a national list of parties, to which a parliamentary representation system would apply. The proposal was similar to that supported by the reformists during the debate that preceded the 2003 elections.[18]

In order to address some of the initiatives launched by the NCHR, the government approved a series of modifications to the electoral law, but did not change the one-man, one-vote system. The new law increased the number of MPs from 110 to 120 and doubled the number of seats reserved for women, making it 12. It created electoral zones bearing close resemblance to the districts established by the 1993 law, thus favoring the rural zones once again. In a move interpreted as a minor concession to opposition demands for increased representation of urban areas, Amman, Zarqa, and Irbid were allocated four additional seats.[19]

The results of the elections in November 2010, boycotted by the Islamists, reinforced the predominance of conservative candidates, including tribal elders, wealthy businessmen, and service deputies, and catalyzed the opposition upsurge. Following President Ben Ali’s demise in Tunis, what had begun on January 16, 2011 as a small protest against rising commodity prices in the town of Dhiban, south of Amman, soon turned into weekend protests in the streets of Amman, Salt, Karak, and Irbid; thousands of demonstrators there applauded the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts while demanding the dismissal of Samir Rifai’s government. After three days of larger protests in Amman focused mainly on economics, unemployment, and corruption, on February 1, 2011, the king dismissed Rifai and appointed Marouf al-Bakhit as the new prime minister.

Although Bakhit--a retired general who held the post as prime minster after the 2005 al-Qa’ida attacks on hotels in Amman and served as head of military intelligence and ambassador to Israel and Turkey--hails from the prominent Abbadi tribe in central Jordan and is a palace loyalist with little record of promoting political reform or democratic change, his appointment appears to have cooled tensions. Following consultations with different political forces, Islamists included, Bakhit has come to lead a 27-member cabinet, which includes a rainbow coalition of leftist unionists, one former Muslim Brotherhood member, and a renowned female activist. Five ministers from Rifai’s outgoing cabinet have remained in their posts. The new government’s main objectives will be to fight corruption and to liberalize the political system. To this end, it is expected to appoint a committee to study changes to the country’s electoral law.[20] Most political parties and different members of the civil society also wish to go back to the original text of the constitution of 1952, which granted greater power and control to the parliament.


The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to affect Jordan directly. The war in Gaza (2008-2009) and the deep rifts in the Palestinian camp have sparked major tensions in the country and reopened the debate on the future of the Palestinian refugees. Jordan accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees in 1949 and 1967, granting most of them citizenship. Following the annexation of the West Bank, Jordan conferred its nationality on all Palestinians residing in the territories. However, when Jordan announced its decision to sever all administrative and legal ties with the West Bank in 1988, the Palestinian residents lost their Jordanian nationality. Still, King Hussein confirmed the nationalities of Palestinians who remained in Jordan as well as those who held Jordanian passports but lived abroad. In 1991, over 200,000 Palestinian refugees expelled by the Gulf countries returned to Jordan, making the Palestinian minority nearly the size of the Transjordanians.

The Palestinian elite has fully integrated in Jordan and has secured a substantial share of power and influence--as a result of its economic clout and its presence in the Royal Court. In addition, the Palestinian middle class in Jordan has driven the economic boom in the country since King Abdallah’s accession. However, the economic and social hardships many Palestinian refugees in Jordan have faced[21] have tilted the refugees’ center of political gravity toward the Islamists. Hamas and the IAF share the common goal of halting the process of normalization with Israel. The political clout of the refugees within the Palestinian population has gradually made the IAF the main political force among Jordan’s Palestinian citizens. Its total backing for Hamas and ambivalent discourse concerning the future of Jordan’s Palestinian population have triggered a reaction among traditional Transjordanian sectors, led by the army, which denounce the existence of a plot to resolve the Palestinian problem at Jordan’s expense.

In 2010, the monarchy’s traditional support bases expressed their discontent through the National Veterans Committee, an organization representing tens of thousands of former soldiers. In June, it issued a communiqué directly attacking the monarchy and the Palestinian population, lamenting the neo-liberal policies implemented by the king, and openly criticizing the appointment of Palestinians to key government posts. The veterans urged the government to include the decision to sever ties with the West Bank in July 1988 as part of the constitution, and to disenfranchise all Palestinian refugees immediately or subject to the implementation of United Nations Resolution 194, which calls for the return of the refugees to their homeland. The veterans also demanded that the army be strengthened to enable it to stand up to Israel and that genuine political reforms be implemented to elect a representative parliament and government. Most of these demands are well-known claims of the Transjordanian national movement.

This was the first time an organization linked to the army had publicly issued a political statement on such a sensitive issue. The communiqué marked the culmination of a gradual process of army intervention in political life and in the national identity debate. Among the signatories of the document was Khalid al-Sarayreh, former army chief of staff and senator. The regime responded anxiously by enlisting senior representatives of the Transjordanian tribes to put forward an alternative approach. Ahmad Obeidat, the former prime minister, former head of the Intelligence Services, and representative of the Transjordanian elite, entered the debate triggered by the veterans and produced a counter-petition backed by the signatures of thousands of Transjordanian and Palestinian Jordanians, as well as a considerable number of the governing elite. The counter-petition called for a tougher line on Israel and a more moderate stance on the Palestinian issue. It called for the safeguarding of national unity, a single vision capable of uniting Transjordanians and the Palestinian elite, the cancellation of the peace treaty with Israel, and support for the struggle against occupation. The veterans’ uprising has placed the Jordan state in a difficult predicament.[22]

The war in Gaza and the deep divides within the Palestinian camp have not only affected the various fault lines that run through Jordan’s social and political fabric; they have also caused a breakdown of the consensus that existed among the regime elites with respect to the direction of the country’s foreign policy. Faced with calls by senior administration figures such as Muhammad Dhahabi, former intelligence chief, to support the countries that met in Doha in April 2000 in establishing a united front against Israel, King Abdallah has had to strike a delicate balance in order to avoid provoking the wrath of a public opinion angered by the war in Gaza. Although opting to keep Jordan in the moderate camp and to reject the line advocated by the Doha countries--clearly aligned with Hamas--he allowed civil society to voice its discontent in the form of repeated calls for a ceasefire and for the sending of aid. King Abdallah has made clear that the fundamental goals of Jordan’s foreign policy remain unchanged. He continues to believe that it is essential to foster reconciliation between Palestinians, that Jordan should strive to create bridges to end Arab divisions, and that it should align itself with states tilting toward Iran and Syria such as Turkey or Qatar in a bid to secure a consensus.

Calls by the United States and Israel for Jordan to take on a political or security role in the West Bank have been interpreted by many as the first step toward turning Jordan into the Palestinian state. Consequently, the split among the Palestinians is of particular concern. The Jordanian government has always sought to isolate the kingdom from such battles. The modus vivendi enjoyed with the PLO following Jordan dropping its claim to the West Bank in 1988 and the relations maintained with Hamas in recent years via the IAF have been used to keep the situation under control in Jordan. The country has also played a mediating role in the conflict between Hamas and Fatah. However, Hamas’ intransigency has soured its relations with the regime and, by extension, with the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. Following brief overtures to the Islamists during the months preceding the outbreak of the war in Gaza, the regime has hardened its stance on Hamas, blaming it for the failure of inter-Palestinian dialogue.[23]


Manifestations of Islamist activism are abundant in Jordan, where the Islamist movement has played a key role in political life almost since independence. Formerly traditional allies of the monarchy, the Muslim Brotherhood has participated in the political area when the regime’s political system enabled this. In 1989, it created the IAF, which secured 22 of 80 seats in the elections for the National Assembly. That year, the Brotherhood joined the government of Mudar Badran, securing five ministries. This was the golden age of relations between the Jordanian regime and the Islamists, who left a significant imprint on the education system. The passing of a new electoral law in 1993 sparked a period of confrontations, which continue to this day. The new law reduced the presence of the Islamists in the National Assembly, where they obtained only 16 seats in the 1993 elections. Peace with Israel and the government’s refusal to amend the electoral law led the Islamists to boycott the 1997 elections, a move backed by nationalist and left-wing parties.[24]

After King Abdallah’s accession to the throne, the Muslim Brothers reviewed their strategy vis-à-vis the government, conscious that their absence from parliament had undermined their influence--even though they were the largest and most organized political force. They won 17 of the 110 seats in the 2003 parliamentary elections. The Islamists’ return to parliament, however, did not prevent the continued deterioration of relations with the regime. In addition to the strained relations following the normalization process with Israel, the Iraqi crisis injected a new element of tension.[25] A series of developments in 2006 radically altered the Jordanian government’s stance toward the Islamists. Hamas won the Palestinian elections in January, sparking widespread fears in the majority of Middle Eastern countries, which began to reverse the processes of political openness underway in the region. In May, the Muslim Brotherhood appointed Zaki Bani Irshad, a Palestinian Jordanian, as the new IAF Secretary General. The move was interpreted by the regime as further evidence of Hamas’s successful penetration of the organization. In June, two prominent IAF figures (Ahmad Sukakar and Muhammad Abu Fares, both MPs) conveyed their condolences to the family of the deceased al-Qa’ida leader in Iraq, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. The Jordanian authorities considered this a point of no return in the Muslim Brotherhood’s radicalization process.

The regime’s response was not long in coming. That same year, the authorities closed down the Islamic Center Charity Society, took over the Society for the Protection of the Koran, and adopted a series of measures to control participation by Islamist students in state-run universities and to expel Islamist lecturers. These blows to Brotherhood support structures were designed to reduce the influence of the Jordanian Islamists and to limit their scope for community action. The government also forced the moderate wing of the Brotherhood to exclude members of the Palestinian sector from its candidate list for the November 2007 parliamentary elections. Sidelining the leaders of the IAF, the Shura Council agreed to field a limited list of “acceptable candidates” for the elections held on November 20. The decision compounded the debacle of Jordan’s main Islamist party, which won just six seats (compared to 17 in 2003). Official Islamism was thus plunged into an identity and leadership crisis from which it has still not emerged.[26]

The Muslim Brotherhood has undergone major transformations in recent years. The Jordanian Islamists of Palestinian origin, clustered together in the so-called reformist sector, have gradually taken over a substantial part of the movement’s power base--to the detriment of the Transjordanian sector, which led the organization until the 1990s, and the more moderate centrist sector, which favors prioritizing the Jordanian agenda and preventing Hamas from dictating the Brotherhood’s political activities. The reformist sector has benefited from Hamas’s popularity and the failure of the centrists’ policy of rapprochement with the regime. Today it controls many of the professional associations, along with the main Islamist newspaper, al-Sabil. After taking control of the IAF in 2006--due to the election of Bani Irshad as secretary general--in 2008, they succeeded in having Hammam Said elected as General Guide of the Brotherhood, defeating the moderates’ leader Salah Fatah by a single vote. The narrow election victory by Said triggered a period of internal disputes, which persist today--as evidenced by the June 2010 election of a moderate, Hamza al-Mansur, as the new IAF head.[27]

Two conflicting agendas exist within the organization today: one focused on Jordan’s national and domestic issues and the other willing to engage more extensively with Palestinian matters and to pursue alignment with Hamas policy. The latter agenda is of concern to the Jordanian regime. In geostrategic terms, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood’s interests in the Middle East are currently bound up with those of Hamas, causing the Brothers to align themselves with Iran, Syria, and Hizballah while distancing themselves from their counterparts in countries such as Iraq or Lebanon.[28] In the eyes of the Jordanian government, the Islamists have changed. No longer content to play their traditional political role in Jordan, they have set their sights on becoming influential actors in the decisionmaking process. Moreover, they hope to increase their power and influence by accepting external support from countries with which Jordan is not on good terms. The government’s perspective is that once the Islamists stop working for the general interests of the country, they should lose the advantages they enjoyed with respect to other political groups.[29]The regime’s actions against the Muslim Brotherhood and the crisis within the organization have left the Brotherhood with few options. The election of Hamza al-Mansur as the new IAF secretary general could have signaled a change in attitude on the part of the Islamists and a change in the regime’s response. However, the IAF’s decision not to participate in the November 2010 elections did not facilitate a rapprochement with the government and opened up a new front within the organization. The decision of seven IAF members to participate in the elections as independents led to a new split in the party and to the expulsion of the militants who did not obey the call to boycott the elections.

Although, as in Egypt and Tunisia, Jordan's recent protests have not been driven by Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood has been looking to capitalize on the demonstrations, aware that any political reform process would be to their benefit. Indeed, most of their public protests have been very moderate. They want policy changes, not regime change. Just days before the dismissal of Samir Rifai, IAF secretary-general Hamza Mansur even announced that the Islamists "recognize and acknowledge the legitimacy of the Hashemites."[30] As a result, they were able to meet with the Jordanian monarch for the first time in nine years. IAF members have also been invited to join Bakhit’s cabinet, though they have refused to do so. Still, they have declared that they want to give the new prime minister a chance to enact reforms and that they expect results within six months to a year. They did, however, express satisfaction from one concession, the outcome of the meeting with King Abdallah, that public meetings will no longer need to be approved in advance by the authorities. The Muslim Brotherhood will undoubtedly take advantage of the protests to regain its strength.


Salafism is a movement very close to Wahhabism, whose philosophy has spread throughout the Arab world due to Saudi support. Two major branches dominate the Salafi scene. The first is academic Salafism (salafiyya ilmiyya), which is the apolitical and pietistic version. The second is fighting Salafism (salafiyya jihadiyya), which emerged during the 1990s, driven by opposition to the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.[31]

Academic Salafism reached Jordan in the 1980s following the arrival to the country of Nasir al-Din al-Albani (d. 1999), a Syrian who fled his country’s repression of Islamists in 1979. Through the establishment of a school of thought that has become an important reference point for thousands of Jordanians and has spread throughout the Middle East, al-Albani has turned Jordan into one of the most important centers of intellectual production. His Jordanian disciples Ali al-Halabi and Muhammad Abu Shakra have become the ideological leaders of academic Salafism in the Middle East. Academic Salafism relies on Saudi financial support. From the social perspective, its discourse is highly conservative; it is also apolitical and extremely critical of traditional Islamist movements, which it accuses of placing political considerations ahead of religious ones.[32]

Fighting (also known as “jihadi”) Salafism emerged in Jordan in the 1990s, spurred by the return to the country of the first “Afghan Arabs” who fought the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Its key figure in terms of intellectual development is Isam al-Barqawi, a Jordanian better known as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. Several of his writings were discovered in the luggage of Muhammad Atta, coordinator of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.[33] Following his time in Afghanistan, he returned to Jordan in 1992 and headed the Bayat al-Islam terrorist organization until he was arrested by the Jordanian authorities in 1996. He was charged with planning various attacks against Israeli interests in the country. Maqdisi, the intellectual father of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, is still in prison, though he was free for a short time after he was granted amnesty by King Abdallah upon his accession to the throne in 1999. Maqdisi has publicly renounced his earlier writings.[34]

The U.S. military intervention in Iraq intensified the radicalization of the Salafi discourse, which looked increasingly to al-Qa’ida for inspiration. The jihadi Salafist ideology spread rapidly as the result of Jordanian citizen al-Zarqawi’s personality and his successes in his private jihad against the United States in Iraq. A large number of young Jordanians were drawn to the ideas of fighting Salafism, and several hundred even travelled to Iraq to fight the American troops.[35] Zarqawi’s obsession with transferring the jihad battleground to Jordan brought untold complications for the country’s security forces. He prepared and coordinated the assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in November 2002, and in April 2004 tried to blow up the headquarters of the Mukhabarat (Jordan’s intelligence bureau). In August 2005, he coordinated an attack on American Navy ships in the port of Aqaba, and in November of the same year claimed responsibility for the bombings of three Amman hotels in which over 60 people died.

Zarqawi’s death in June 2006 brought some respite for the authorities in Jordan. Due to his influence in the organization, al-Qa’ida in Iraq had made Jordan a priority target. Zarqawi’s death opened the way for a new leadership, which was more interested in consolidating the Iraqi front. Furthermore, in addition to the tight control exerted over the most radical groups, which succeeded in stemming the flow of fighters to Iraq, the Jordanian government has taken a series of initiatives to curb the expansion of the ideas of jihadi Salafism. The most important of these is the Amman Message, a denunciation by scholars and religious leaders throughout the Muslim world that the message of tolerance revealed by the Muhammad is being distorted by extremists. The government has also put in place a new school curriculum promoting a more tolerant vision of Islam and has removed from mosques any clerics unwilling to renounce the use of violence.

Although Jordan has not suffered additional al-Qa’ida attacks, jihadi Salafism remains a latent threat. Iraq’s relative stabilization has reduced the likelihood of Iraqi jihadi insurgency spreading its scope of operations to Jordan. However, a new front has opened up in the south. Jihadi groups in the Egyptian Sinai have carried out several attacks against tourist areas there, and there is a fear such attacks might spread to Jordan. In June 2010, a rocket fired from the region, most likely intended for the Israeli city of Eilat, landed in Aqaba, killing one person and injuring five.[36] Given its prominent role in the fight against al-Qa’ida, Jordan remains a major target for the organization.


During this first decade of the twenty-first century, Jordan has weathered the storms that have shaken the region. Despite difficulties, it has managed to expand the economic reform process and to grow at rates that have not been seen for some time. The manner in which it has coped with the impacts of the international crisis has demonstrated the effectiveness of its new economic model, although its capacity for job creation remains to be seen. In fact, the current wave of unrest has an important socioeconomic component. The situation for young Jordanians has become unbearable, and the protests have channeled their frustrations about the lack of economic opportunities.

The country’s efforts to promote greater political openness have rather been more limited. The demographic divide, the belief that economic liberalization must precede political openness, the weakness of Jordan’s political parties, the expanded role of the security apparatus, and the influence of tribalism in national politics are all factors that have impeded the development of a more representative system. Due to the scope and implications of the protest, however, King Abdallah will have to institute greater and more fundamental reforms in order to maintain the basic pact between the monarchy and the people and to prevent Jordanians from beginning to question the legitimacy of his rule.

Jordan today would be inconceivable without its Palestinian population, the bulk of which considers itself to be Jordanian and plays a vital role in the country’s economy. Jordan’s main challenge for the future is to integrate this population once and for all. However, a majority in the regime feel that until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved, Jordan cannot adopt the reformist agenda advocated by political parties and civil society. On the other hand, the communiqué issued by the army veterans and the counter-proposal presented by Ahmad Obeidat are clear signs of the increasing mobilization of the Transjordanian sector, which has modified its traditional stance with respect to Israel. The lack of results from the peace process and fears that the conflict could be resolved to Jordan’s detriment have led this sector to take a harder line and have brought about a shift toward the views defended by the Islamists, who favor ending the process of normalization with Israel. King Abdallah may in the future have few allies to enable him to maintain his policy with regard to Israel.

*Juan José Escobar Stemmann is a Spanish diplomat. He is a lecturer on Islamist movements at the Instituto Gutierrez Mellado for Defence Studies and the Spanish Diplomatic School in Madrid. His publications include “Muslims and Islamists in Spain” in Barry Rubin (ed.), Guide to Islamist Movements (M.E. Sharpe, 2009) and “The Crossroads of the Muslim Brothers in Jordan,” in Barry Rubin (ed.), The Muslim Brotherhood: The Organization and Policies of a Global Islamist Movement (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).



[1] Anne Marie Baylouny, “Militarizing Welfare: Neoliberalism and Jordanian Policy,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 2. No. 2 (Spring 2008), p. 293.

[2] In 2003, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates helped save Jordan’s economy in the aftermath of the military intervention in Iraq and the end of Iraqi oil exports to the country. During the first year, free oil sent totaled 120,000 barrels per day, when Jordan’s daily consumption was approximately 90,000 barrels.

[3] U.S. aid stands in marked contrast to that received from the European Union. The European Neighbourhood Partnership Instrument has earmarked 265 million euros for 2011-2013.

[4] The arrival of Iraqis has also brought some negative consequences. It has increased pressure on public services and infrastructure, particularly water and electricity, and has triggered a steep increase in property prices and the cost of living, especially in Amman. See Sufyan Alissa, “Rethinking Economic Reform in Jordan,” Carnegie Papers, No. 4 (July 2007), p. 16.

[5] Lahcen Achy, “Addressing Deficits in MENA: The Need for Fuel Subsidy Reforms,” International Economic Bulletin, June 29, 2010.

[6] The European Investment Bank has granted Jordan a loan of 166 million euros for the project.

[7] Andrew Roscoe, “Syria Must Follow Jordan Economic Example,” Middle East Business Intelligence, September 15, 2010.

[8] Alissa, “Rethinking Economic Reform in Jordan,” p. 7.

[9] There are no official statistics in Jordan on the number of Transjordanians and Palestinians. The most recent census of the “Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics” recorded a total of 9,650,000 Palestinians, of whom 29 percent live in Jordan. If these figures are accurate, around 50 percent of the Jordanian population would be of Palestinian origin. There are also minority groups of Circassians, Chechens, and Armenians.

[10] Prior to the structural reforms imposed by the IMF in 1989, the state employed 47 percent of the population. An estimated 70 percent of the Transjordanian population worked for the state. In rural regions, Ma’an, Tafilah, and Kayak, the figure was over 90 percent. Baylouny, “Militarizing Welfare,” p. 285.

[11] International Crisis Group, “Red Alert in Jordan: Recurrent Unrest in Jordan,” Middle East Briefing, No. 15, February 19, 2003,

[12] Baylouny, “Militarizing Welfare,” p. 285.

[13] Andrew Barwig, “Significance of Jordan’s al Ikha Parliamentary Bloc,” Arab Reform Bulletin, October 6, 2009.

[14] Alissa, “Rethinking Economic Reform in Jordan,” p. 14. Examples of the tension include the confrontations during 2007 and 2008 involving Prime Minister Marut Bakhit, the head of the Mukhabarat, Muhammad al-Dhahabi, and the head of the Royal Court Bassem Awadalah; Bakhit was replaced in November 2007, Awadalah resigned in September 2008, and two months later, Muhammad al-Dhahabi was fired from his position as intelligence chief following the failure of his rapprochement policy with Hamas.

[15] International Crisis Group, “The Challenge of Political Reform: Jordanian Democratisation and Regional Instability,” Middle East Briefing, October 8, 2003, p. 14.

[16] Ibrahim Gharaibeh, “Implications of the Jordanian Parliament’s Dissolution,” Arab Reform Bulletin, January 13, 2010.

[17] Marc Lynch, “What Will Jordan Do without Its Lousy Parliament?” Foreign Policy, November 24, 2009,

[18] Oraib al-Rantawi, “Coalition Presses for Electoral Reform in Jordan,” Arab Reform Bulletin, April 14, 2010.

[19] Dima Toukan Tabbas, “Jordan New Electoral Law Disappoints Reformers,” Arab Reform Bulletin, June 22, 2010.

[20] Joel Millman and Hassan Hafidh, “Jordan's Islamists Say They'll Wait for Reforms,” Wall Street Journal, February 9, 2011,

[21] UNRWA recognizes ten official Palestinian refugee camps and three unofficial ones. An estimated 13 percent of all refugees, around 275,000 people, live in the camps. Baylouny, “Militarizing Welfare,” p. 283.

[22] Assaf David, “The Revolt of Jordan’s Military Veterans,” Foreign Policy, June 16, 2010,

[23] Marc Lynch, “Gaza Rocks Jordan,” Foreign Policy, February 2, 2009,

[24] Ziad Abu-Amr, “La monarchie jordanienne et les Frères musulmans ou les modalités d’endiguement d’une opposition loyaliste,” Les états Arabes face à la contestation Islamiste (IFRI, 1996), pp. 125–144.

[25] In October 2004 several Brotherhood imams were arrested for failing to heed to the instructions on the Iraqi conflict issued by the Council for Preaching and Guidance. Mosque pulpits were being used for incitement to jihad against U.S. troops in Iraq. Those arrested included the former prime minister and President of the Shura Council, Ibrahim Zaid Kilani. Curtis C. Ryan, “Islamist Political Activism in Jordan: Moderation, Militancy, and Democracy,” Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA), Vol. 12, No. 2 (June 2008), p. 7,

[26] Mohamed Abu Rumman, Islamic Politics in Jordan (Amman: Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung, 2007), p. 77.

[27] Ibrahim Garaibeh, “Rifts in the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood,” Arab Reform Bulletin, June 11, 2008.

[28] In Iraq, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood is in open conflict with the Islamic Party of Iraq, which participates actively in the democratic political process. The Jordanian Islamists opposed occupation and support resistance. Consequently, they have positioned themselves closer to the Association of Muslim Scholars, led by Harith al-Dari, which defended the armed struggle against the U.S. occupation. Their position also contrasts with that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Lebanon, which sides with the March 14 forces opposed to Hizballah, and that of the Syrian Brotherhood, which is part of the Salvation Front opposition movement.

[29] Juan José Escobar Stemmann, “The Crossroads of Muslim Brothers in Jordan,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 14, No. 1 (March 2010),

[30] David Schenker and David Pollock, “Jordan: Heightened Instability, But Not Yet a Mayor Crisis,” PolicyWatch #1748, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, February 1, 2011,

[31] Juan José Escobar Stemmann, “Middle East Salafism’s Influence and Radicalization of Muslim Communities in Europe,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 10, No. 3 (September 2006),

[32] International Crisis Group, “Saudi Arabia Backgrounder: Who Are the Islamists?” Middle East Briefing, No. 31, September 21, 2004.

[33] His many works include The Creed of Abraham and Clear Evidence of the Infidel Nature of the Saudi State, in which he sets out a jihad doctrine based on the Wahhabi tradition.

[34] International Crisis Group, “Jordan 9/11: Dealing with Jihadi Islam,” Middle East Briefing, No. 47, November 23, 2005.

[35] Well-known cases include Baha’a Yahya, Jordan’s kick-boxing champion and Muhammad al-Banna, a young lawyer from a wealthy family who blew himself up in 2004 in Hilla, killing more than 100 people and triggering a major diplomatic crisis between Jordan and Iraq.

[36] Stephen Farrel, “Rocket Hits Resort on Border of Jordan and Israel,” New York Times, August 2, 2010.


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