For most of Jordan’s modern history, Jordanians knew only one king as architect of the kingdom’s domestic development and of its foreign policy. King Hussein consolidated the Hashemite regime in Jordan and defended it against internal and external challenges, neither of which were in short supply. From the foundation of the Hashemite state onward, Jordan maintained close strategic ties to Britain and later the United States. After World War II, and with the onset of the cold war, Jordan also established stronger links with the United States. Western powers came to view Jordan as a conservative bulwark against communism and radical forms of Pan-Arabism, and as a moderating element in the Arab-Israeli conflict. From the beginning, then, Jordan had close ties to powerful Western states and depended heavily on foreign aid from these countries to keep the kingdom afloat.
Jordan’s centrality in Middle East politics and geography also carried with it a strategic vulnerability. In the 1950s, when the kingdom was still young and viewed by many Pan-Arab nationalists as an artificial “paper tiger,” some Jordanian officials feared that another regional conflict might eliminate the Hashemite state entirely. In 1957 Hussein headed off an attempted coup d’état by pro-Nasserist military officers and used the opportunity to solidify Hashemite royal control.
By the late 1960s the regime was forced to focus outward once again as regional tensions escalated especially between Israel and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime in Egypt. In the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israeli forces launched what they viewed as a preemptive strike on Arab forces in Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, inflicting a devastating defeat on all three countries. The complete failure of the Arab war effort led to Israeli occupation of the Sinai from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan. In less than six days, Jordan lost some of its most prized territory, including the agriculturally rich West
Bank and the more religiously significant East Jerusalem. Tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees poured across the border into Jordan in June 1967, changing the demographics and ultimately the domestic stability of the kingdom. That uneasy situation collapsed in September 1970, when guerrilla forces of the Palestine Liberation Organization fought the royalist forces of the Hashemite government. This Jordanian civil war resulted in a bloody Hashemite victory and the expulsion of PLO guerrilla forces from Jordan.
More than half the population of Jordan today is of Palestinian origin. Although this West Bank/East Bank ethnic divide is sometimes overstated, it remains a significant feature of Jordan’s society, its political economy, and of the Jordanian state itself. Much of the Jordanian government, public sector, and military is dominated by East Bank Jordanians, while much of the private sector is dominated by Palestinians.
Following the disastrous 1967 war, the Hashemite regime maintained its claim to the West Bank and East Jerusalem for two decades. But in 1988 in the midst of the first Intifada, it renounced these claims and turned instead toward consolidating its rule east of the Jordan River. Indeed, Jordan remained under martial law from the 1967 war until it was lifted in 1992 as part of the overall political liberalization process.
The regime’s concerns for stability were underscored dramatically in 1989 by domestic unrest triggered by an economic austerity program initiated under the aegis of the International Monetary Fund. With the intifada raging west of the Jordan River, and domestic unrest erupting in Jordan itself, King Hussein initiated measures to address public demands and to reestablish the stability of the regime. That opening helped reestablish the regime’s base of domestic support, thereby shoring up its stability and allowing it to sign a controversial peace treaty with the State of Israel in 1994.
In 1999 King Hussein died after a long battle with cancer. In a surprise move, the king had abruptly changed the line of succession merely weeks before his death, dismissing his brother Hasan as crown prince and appointing instead his eldest son, Abdullah. With Hussein’s death, King Abdullah II ascended the Hashemite throne. His reign was marked by strong efforts to continue the economic liberalization process, emphasizing a neoliberal model of development and shoring up Jordan’s relations with key Western powers and international economic institutions. But this emphasis on economic development and stable foreign relations also forced political liberalization to a lower priority level. Under Abdullah, the kingdom survived still more regional unrest and even began battling terrorism within Jordan itself. These internal and external security concerns did not dissuade the monarchy from its emphasis on economic development, but they often provided the pretext for lack of progress in reviving Jordan’s seemingly stalled program of political liberalization.