North Africa, West Asia

Nationalism in Jordan: king, tribe, or country? Part two

Part two of this two-part series reveals the fragmented nature of nationhood in Jordan with the East/West Bank divide and tribalism.

Nicolai Due-Gundersen
16 January 2017
Rainer Jensen DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

The King of Jordan Abdullah II. bin al-Hussein. Rainer Jensen DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Under the rule of King Hussein (August 1952 - February 1999), the tribal aspect of Jordanian nationalism was firmly entrenched, while nationalism faced another challenge.

The mass exodus of Palestinians into Jordan after the 1967 war with Israel was dividing the nation into pure Jordanian ‘East Bankers’ (hailing east of the Jordan river) and Palestinian / Jordanian ‘West Bankers’ (with roots west of the Jordan river). Tribalism served to make this ethnic division all the more apparent.

Eastern or ‘pure’ Jordanians had embraced tribalism not simply as a relation between king and citizen but as a socio-economic safety net. Family, clan and tribal connections allowed and continue to allow easterners to successfully navigate government, economic and social spheres, naturally including employment but also political and social standing.

Because of this social advantage for ‘pure’ Jordanians, tribalism became even more integrated in the Jordanian concept of nationalism.

As explained by Curtis Ryan, Associate Professor at North Carolina’s Appalachian State University, the concept of tribalism is one not fully understood by westerners. “While many westerners use the term ‘tribe’ pejoratively, to signify such ills as insularity, nepotism and frontier justice, many Jordanians see the enduring tribal structure as the most purely Jordanian aspect of Jordanian society. They argue that tribes boast significant levels of internal democracy and a kind of social safety net for their members. Indeed, the king himself has emphasized that the tribe is ‘a basic pillar of this society’ that ‘complements and supports public and security institutions in preserving security and stability.[1]’"

On the other hand, eastern tribalism is quite separate from the western identity of Palestinian / Jordanians. Such Jordanians may consider themselves as Jordanian with roots in Palestine. Their heritage is enough to bar them from access to the politicized tribal network enjoyed by their eastern counterparts.

Instead many West Bankers can rely only on immediate family and their own efforts. Perhaps it is for this reason that East Bankers are common in the public sector, while many West Bankers dominate the sector of private business.

In any event, the East/West Bank divide has fractured nationalism even further. With ethnic origin accentuating the tribal nature of Jordan’s historical concept of nationhood, national identity began to split post-1967 into one of true inclusive belonging as an easterner or one of exclusion from tribe (but greater emphasis on family) as a westerner.

One familiar theme accentuating King Hussein’s rule and nationalism was that of security (and hence of resistance to a hostile ‘other’). With the collapse of the Ottoman force long ago, a new enemy became the focal point: Israel.

As a proximate neighbour regarded as a military and moral threat by many Arab states, Israel could not be ignored by the Hashemite Kingdom. Indeed, regional stability and security marked much of King Hussein’s efforts to secure a resolution or at least dialogue between Israel and her neighbours.

To that end, the first of 45 secret meetings between Hussein and Israeli representatives was held at the London home of Hussein’s doctor in September 1963. A further meeting in 1964 between Hussein and Israeli Foreign Ministry Deputy Director Yaacov Herzog deepened the Hashemite-Israeli understanding of a tacit truce.

Israel would leverage its US relations to increase financial aid to Jordan, while Hussein promised to bar foreign troops from Jordanian soil or allow the presence of American might on the West Bank. 

By 1966, however, this trust had been broken by an Israeli military offensive on a Jordanian village. This move preceded the 1967 War and Hussein’s loss of the West Bank (which provoked the East/West Bank divide). The outbreak of hostilities allowed Hussein a chance to pre-empt this divide and to return to his grandfather’s context of nationalism; resisting the hostile ‘other’.

From 1957 onward, Hussein’s Hashemite nationalism had already become symbolically militarized, emphasizing the security aspects of a nationalism that placed king at the centre of country. Israeli hostilities allowed Hussein to deepen the image of such nationalism.

Jordanian nationhood was pinned to its armed forces, while “[t]he king’s popular nationalism stressed the Jordanian army as the defender of the holy shrines in Jerusalem, with Jordan holding the longest line of confrontation with Israel.[2]

Nationalism prior to the East/West Bank divide therefore tried to re-introduce opposition to a hostile ‘other’ (i.e. Israel) as a unifying force of political cohesion. Such cohesion would bolster a form of nationalism that was already defensive in its military image, if not belligerent.

Further, Hussein constructed nationalism through religion, a strong platform of legitimacy in Arab politics and one consistently used by the Hashemite family through their claims of ancestral heritage from the Prophet Mohammed.

Echoing the ambitions of Jordan’s first ruler, Hussein also promoted a belief in the eventual reunification of East and West Bank “[...] as a good example for future thoughts of Arab unity.[3]

The reintroduction of pan-Arab unity again illustrates how nationalism in Jordan was a broad definition with regional implications. It is even possible that Hussein pre-empted the influx of West Bank Palestinians into Jordan as a result of his kingdom’s military confrontation with Israel, with Oudat and Alshboul arguing that Arab unity became “[...] the foundation of [Jordan’s] nationalism that brought together [Jordanians] and Palestinians.[4]

Despite the possibility of Hussein attempting to ease Palestinian/Jordanian tensions, the East/West Bank divide left a lasting impact on questions of nationhood.

While Hussein may have attempted to return nationalism to resistance against an external other (at least until the 1994 peace treaty with Israel), perennial tensions between East and West Bankers illustrate how nationalism was becoming politically fragmented in the domestic sphere, emphasizing ethnic origin and tribal connections as a sign of ‘pure’ Jordanian heritage. 

Jordan today: a tale of two cities

Amman and Salt are both Jordanian cities, but only one has undergone modernization and cosmopolitanism as Jordan’s capital. Amman’s selection as Jordan’s political city accelerated its development, while Salt remains almost frozen in time.

A journey to both current and former capitals reveals much about national identity. Cruise through Amman and you will hear its local dialect, spoken comfortably alongside dialects from Iraq, Syria and Egypt. Hike through Salt, and its Ottoman architecture (and graveyard) will remind you of a broader, yet less diverse and more insular identity. 

Salt’s local dialect is almost unintelligible to students of modern standard Arabic. The Jordanian Dinar is referred to as the Lire by Salt’s locals, a reminder of the Turkish currency and Ottoman dominion.

It would appear that nationalism in Salt continues through a very local identity that keeps Emir Abdullah’s Turkish opposition alive. Salt’s people are proud of their heritage, and proud to be from Salt before any pride in Jordanian nationhood.

Amman and Salt illustrate the fragmented nature of Jordan’s nationalism through past and present. Many towns across Jordan, like Salt, remain isolated from not only the wider world but from their capital. There is a lacking sense of national unity and a stronger sense of communalism.

To be Jordanian is to have a Jordanian passport. To be from Salt, Irbid or Aqaba is to have a bonding identity. Hence, nationalism is fragmented further not only by tribalism but by localism or a sense of communal belonging.

This fragmentation of nationalism into local identities is exemplified by the dialects of Jordan, which provide a social and local identity that is carried by each Jordanian, maintaining their local heritage even if they migrate to the cosmopolitan capital.

Nonetheless, there may be signs that Amman does act as a unifying symbol of Jordanian nationalism. Many students at Amman’s University of Jordan choose to switch from their local dialect to Amman’s urban dialect when in their capital, encouraged to feel Jordanian in an open atmosphere such as the university. However, the same students will retain their local dialects when at home, indicating that local identity, at the very least, is not inferior to a national identity. 

With disparate elements such as dialect, ethnicity, communalism and tribalism melding together under nationalism, it is no surprise that the current ruler Abdullah II has seen a need to redefine nationalism in a new framework.

In 2002, the new monarch launched what became known as the Jordan First campaign. A highly politicized interpretation of nationalism, Jordan First sets aside nationalism through resistance and tribalism. Instead a Jordanian patriot should adhere to an abstract but inclusive framework, “[…] propagating the principles of equality, rule of law, transparency, accountability, human rights, pluralism and democracy”[5].

Such a definition of nationhood ostensibly dismisses notions of purity and instead embraces diversity under the Jordanian flag (and passport). At the same time, the Jordan First campaign bolsters Abdullah II’s official end to his ancestors’ pan-Arab visions. In one of his first public communiqués as king, Abdullah II insisted that he stood as “[…] only the king of Jordan, and not the king of all Arabs.[6]” 

However, Jordan analysts Mohammed Oudat and Ayman Alshboul have examined the Jordan First campaign with caution. Regime security remains paramount and the baseline of any approach to nationalism. It was security that incited Emir Abdullah’s efforts to co-opt disparate tribes for his political support system.

The modern equivalent of such a system has now become the Jordan First campaign, “[…] a patriot act to justify [Hashemite] decisions. No Jordanian could oppose this campaign without appearing unpatriotic. Hence, some critics argue, Jordan First is a new political system intended to organize the state’s citizens under an umbrella of Jordanian loyalty to Hashemite rule, thus allowing stronger polarization of “anyone who dares to oppose the regime’s policy.[7]

Such criticism must be placed within a broader context. Much has changed for the Hashemites since the time of Hussein’s East/West Bank divide. Abdullah II rules alongside a queen of Palestinian origin. Hence, the political reality of a Jordanian-Palestinian Crown Prince (and future king) Hussein provides a chance to mitigate East/West Bank animosities and a personal reason for Abdullah II to push Jordan First as a genuine nationalist initiative.

At the same time, he must carefully balance popular demand for political inclusion with his traditional power base. As the 'Arab Spring' rose across the MENA region in 2011, up to 36 Jordanian tribal leaders publicly attacked Queen Rania’s Palestinian origins and political involvement in the Hashemite Kingdom.

In a published statement, Bedouin chiefs went so far as to accuse Queen Rania of “[…] building power centres for her interest that go against what Jordanians and Hashemites have agreed on in governing”, arguing further that such centres may become “[...] a danger to the nation and the structure [of] the state [...] and the institution of the throne”. Disregarding such a statement, the tribes warned, may “[...] throw us into what happened in Tunis and Egypt and what will happen in other Arab countries”.  

An overview of Jordan’s history reveals the fragmented nature of nationhood. The image of nationalism had its official roots in resistance. Resistance to Ottoman rule marked the creation of a broad and regional Arab identity.

Under Emir Abdullah I, this pan-Arab dream became a rhetoric that birthed the fractured reality of tribal politics and loyalty to king (not country). Resistance to an external ‘other’ remained an image of nationalism utilized by King Hussein. However, by the time of his rule only three decades after his grandfather’s, tribalism was cemented as both a political security requirement of the Hashemites and an indicator of Jordanian purity.

The East/West Bank divide would forever split nationalism, further complicating an already complex backdrop of socio-economic divisions and communalism. Abdullah II’s inheritance of this national mosaic may have prompted the launch of the Jordan First campaign. Domestic reaction to this campaign has been mixed, however.

While King Abdullah II may have genuine personal reasons for uniting Jordan, regardless of, inter alia, ethnic origin, tribal criticism of recent family politics acts as a sobering reminder of the historically important tribal structure inherent in Jordanian nationhood, implying that at the heart of Jordan’s nationalism remains Hashemite security.   


[1] Ryan, Curtis. 2010. ““We Are All Jordan”...But Who Is We?” Middle East Research and Information Project. Available online at: http://www.merip.org/mero/mero071310 (last accessed January 11th, 2017).

[2] Alshboul, Ayman, Oudat, Mohammed Ali Al. “Jordan First”: Tribalism, Nationalism and Legitimacy of Power in Jordan, in Intellectual Discourse, 18 (1): 65-96, p. 74.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Jordan First”, p. 81.

[6] Ibid, p. 83.

[7] Ibid, p. 85. 

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