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Freedom of Association: Country Studies - Jordan

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 6 Political Rights, 5 Civil Liberties (Not Free)


Jordan, a country of the Levant or Near East, is bordered by Israel to the west, Syria to the north, and Iraq and Saudi Arabia to the east and south. Jordan ranks 101st in the world in the UN's Human Development Index and 90th in nominal GDP per capita at $2,317. This is well below the oil-rich Arab and Persian countries as well as Israel. Jordan's history in the region is ancient, but its history as a country is recent. It began as the Emirate of Transjordan in 1922 under a British mandate; Great Britain recognized independence in 1946. Transjordan, later named Jordan, is formally a constitutional monarchy under the rule of the Hashemite royal family. Beginning with 400,000 mostly Arab Bedouin inhabitants, today Jordan has 5.5 million people, two-thirds of whom are Palestinian. Jordan led the war against Israel's independence but later became a force for moderation in the Middle East. It is one of two countries in the region to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Jordan's current ruler, King Abdullah II, has pledged to liberalize Jordan, but few political reforms have been enacted and human rights remain highly circumscribed.



The area of Jordan (also known as Transjordan), like neighboring territories of Israel, Iraq, and Syria, has been witness to the breadth of recorded human history. But while armies have crossed its territory for most of its history, Transjordan lacked the water, other resources, or sites to make it strategic geography. It remained mostly a quiet agricultural area for Bedouins and Arabians.

From Biblical Times to the Ottomans

The area of Transjordan was originally ruled by the kingdoms of Edom, Moab, and Ammon, best known for their refusal to allow Jews passage to Israel in the story of Exodus. These kingdoms became dependent on tribute to the Assyrian Empire, until coming under successive administrations of the Persian, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Empires from 600 BC to 638 AD. The Islamic Conquests, beginning in 638 AD, transformed the region. The second caliph, Omar bin Khattab, defeated both Persian and Byzantine armies, and seized the Levant and Jerusalem.

After the period of Islamic rule and the Crusades, Transjordan came under the control of the Egyptian Mameluks (1260–1517) and then the Ottoman Empire (1517–1917). Each established a new bureaucracy and administrative model. Both relied especially on the efficiency of classes of former slave warriors (Mameluks and janissaries, respectively) whose loyalties were not to any local chieftain, but to a military code of honor and a supreme leader.

The Quraiysh Royal Family and the Rise of Arab Nationalism

Since before the Islamic conquests, the Quraiysh royal family, which traces its lineage to the Prophet Ismail ("father of the Arabs"), had continued their local rule of different parts of the region, including Mecca and Medina. These local rulers had been the basis for the Islamic Empire and chafed at the sovereign control of the Mameluk and Ottoman Empires. The Quraiysh's different ruling branches, including the Jordanian Hashemites, thus became the basis for the rise of Arab nationalism in the Middle East. Great Britain's alliance with the Arab nationalists had helped it gain colonial control over Egypt from the Ottomans in the 19th century. During World War I, using Egypt as a base, Great Britain encouraged the Great Arab Revolt of 1916–17, in large part through its emissary, T. E. Lawrence (also known as Lawrence of Arabia). The actual contribution of the Great Arab Revolt to the defeat of the Ottomans in the Middle East is a matter of dispute. But while the larger British army may have been decisive, the smaller Arab contingent, encouraged by Lawrence, seized key cities, including Damascus, giving rise to hopes of independence and a united Arab kingdom spanning the Levant and Arabia.

Coat of Arms of Jordan
The British Mandate

But British and French leaders had already divided the Ottoman territory according to the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. This understanding guided the League of Nations decision, soon after its creation, to establish two mandates, one for Palestine-Transjordan for Great Britain and one for Syria and Lebanon for France. (Great Britain's control included most of Iraq and later Iran.) In 1922, with League of Nations approval, Great Britain divided its mandate into two parts, Palestine and the Emirate of Transjordan, with the Jordan River serving as the border. The Emirate of Transjordan was placed under the rule of Abdullah, head of the Hashemite family.

Abdullah was still committed to a united Arab kingdom and remained opposed to the British mandate and especially to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which pledged Great Britain to the establishment of a national Jewish homeland in Palestine. Nevertheless, Abdullah approved the 1926 Balfour Declaration establishing autonomous territories within the British Empire. In 1928, he signed a treaty to take responsibility for administration of Transjordan, and, unlike a number of fellow Arab leaders, he honored his declared loyalty to the British crown by opposing the Nazis and joining with Great Britain in common military actions during World War II.

The Establishment of Independence and the Campaign Against Israel

In 1946, Great Britain signed a new treaty that acknowledged the independence of Transjordan, later named Jordan, under the rule of the Hashemite kingdom of Abdullah I. He remained totally opposed to a Jewish state, however. As the only surviving leader of the Great Arab Revolt, he was asked to lead the Arab Legion in the war against Israel's independence (1947–49), and he made sure Jordan's military controlled the West Bank and Jerusalem, which it ruled and administered for 20 years. In 1967, both of those territories were lost to Israel when Jordan, now led by the first Abdullah's son, King Hussein, joined in another attempt to defeat it. King Hussein, however, moderated his position, especially following the so-called Black September revolt of Palestinians against the king's rule in 1970. He supported the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, the first Arab country to recognize Israel's existence. In 1994, following the Oslo Agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, King Hussein himself signed a peace agreement with Israel.

Jordan Today: Semiauthoritarian Monarchy

Jordan remains a semiauthoritarian country. While the government has taken steps recently to liberalize its state-dominated economy through privatization, opening up trade, and banking reforms, its political sector remains largely unreformed. The constitutional monarchy rests most powers in the king, who must approve all legislation. The king appoints all members of a 55-member Senate, which also must approve all legislation. A 110-member lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, is elected by region (not by population) and thus is unrepresentative of urban areas. Parliamentary approval of the government, appointed by the king, is mainly a pro forma function. The king thus retains full control over all areas of government, including the security apparatus, which reports directly to him. King Abdullah has responded to political pressure to change the prime minister and take other actions, but there is little other indication of any real change. The media are fully controlled. Press and speech laws make it illegal to slander the king or criticize Jordan's government. Other liberties are restricted.

Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin at the Camp David Accords

Freedom of Association

In Jordan, the law provides for freedom of association, the right to organize unions, and collective bargaining. Jordan is also a member of the International Labour Organization and has ratified all but one of the ILO's eight core conventions (see above), the significant exception being Convention No. 87 on the right to organize. Many of Jordan's workers are organized in 17 national unions belonging to the General Federation of Jordanian Trade Unions, established in 1954. It is estimated that 30 percent of the workforce of 1.5 million belong to trade unions.

However, there are serious restrictions on internationally recognized trade union rights. Workers are not allowed to strike or demonstrate without government permission, effectively negating this right. There are forced, and not voluntary, procedures for government mediation of disputes. By law, the General Federation is the only allowed national federation of unions, and its ability to affect public policy is limited, even in the face of soaring unemployment and poor working conditions. Thus, the minimum wage is only $112 per month, and the general workweek is 48 hours (54 hours in hotel, cinema, and other service sectors).

The government attempts to control violations of child labor, illegal trafficking, and abusive labor standards; however, according to the United Steelworkers of America and the National Labor Committee, instances of these violations have greatly increased since the signing of the U.S.-Jordan Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 2000. The FTA has boosted Jordanian production and exports of goods, especially textiles, to the United States from $52 million to $1.2 billion. But this has come with a serious increase in labor rights violations, sweatshop conditions, and illegal trafficking in foreign workers. Refugees from Iraq (more than one million) have increased the possibilities for labor exploitation. While the Jordanian government has agreed to work with the National Labor Committee to curb these abuses, a recent report indicates they have continued unabated. Other rights of association are generally recognized and allowed, with more than 30 political parties registered. But these rights are restricted especially for students, groups, and parties advocating Islamism.