by Jessica Watkins

This memo was presented part of a workshop organised by the LSE Middle East Centre on 13 June 2018, looking at Tribe and State in the Middle East.  

Amman’s foremost ‘East Banker’ football team, Al-Faisaly SC, sport Jordanian tribal kuffiyehs as they celebrate winning the league. Source Jordan FA

‘Tribes’ in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan have long been treated by citizens and scholars as synonymous with the ‘native’ East Bank Transjordanian population, in distinction to West Bank Palestinians who came to Jordan post-1948. Since the late 1950s, East Bank tribes have commonly been described as ‘the backbone’ of support for the Hashemite regime.

While these assumptions have always been oversimplified, since the 1990s, neoliberal state policies have signalled a gradual but fundamental shift in Jordan’s social contract and the political bargain struck between the monarchy and ‘the tribes’. On the one hand, the monarchy has reduced dependency on and patronage for longstanding East Bank allies, weakening the influence of tribal shaykhs within their communities and the coherence of tribal units. On the other, inadequate reform of the electoral, judicial and welfare sectors has promoted ongoing and indeed new forms of political and social mobilisation along tribal lines amongst both East and West Bankers, challenging long-term regime stability in Jordan.

Under Abdullah I (1921–51) and Hussein (1951–99) the royal family relied on a patronage system whereby Transjordanian tribal leaders received royal favours and positions in local or national government in exchange for securing the loyalty of tribesmen to the state. Both Kings consolidated relations with tribal leaders through regular visits. Inequalities amongst East Bank tribes promoted rivalries, but as tensions between East and West Bankers increased after 1970, the monarchy broadly succeeded in retaining Transjordanian support by providing public sector employment, particularly in the military and police.

The monarchy’s unspoken bargain with East Bankers began to unravel from the latter part of Hussein’s reign, when the state initiated a series of neo-liberal economic policies. Structural adjustment programmes with the IMF and World Bank involving trade liberalisation, debt restructuring and reduced energy and food subsidies began in 1989. Jordanian officials adopted the Washington Consensus economic policy and in 2000 Jordan joined the World Trade Organisation, and established the Executive Privatisation Commission to manage the privatisation of state industries.

Neoliberal reforms marginalised traditional tribal allies who relied on subsidies, public sector employment and welfare payments. Concurrently, the monarchy reduced favours to tribal elders. The government cut public administration costs by slashing municipal councils – a powerful outlet for tribal influence – from 328 to 94 in 2001. But, while the influence of hereditary shaykhs and the overall coherence of East Bank tribal units diminished, new political and socioeconomic conditions have ensured the continued relevance of tribal identity.

In the political sphere, despite successive electoral reforms, elections continue to promote tribal mobilisation. Increasingly, tribal candidates are former members of the military, which retained significant welfare privileges and concessions amidst neoliberal reforms. In the five elections for the parliamentary lower house between 1993 and 2010, a single non-transferable vote system allocated each voter one vote in multi-member constituencies. The commonly assumed objective was to discourage the growth of nationwide ideologically-based opposition parties. Given only one vote, voters tended to prioritise local independents (the majority of whom capitalised on kinship connections) over district level party candidates standing on ideological platforms.

Panoramic view of Amman from one of the hills surrounding the city

Prior to the 2016 parliamentary elections, a new law introduced proportional representation block voting, and required candidates to register on district-level lists. The reduction of electoral districts from 45 to 23 created opportunities for district-wide coalitions to forge ideological agendas. Nonetheless, very little time was provided for this to occur, and independents running on nominal lists won 95 out of 130 seats. Only 36% of registered voters turned out, the lowest percentage of any parliamentary election. According to polling prior to the election by the Phenix Center for Economics and Informatics Studies, of those who intended to vote, 32.6% said their main incentive was to elect a relative or tribe. Of those who did not intend to, 26% cited lack of trust in the electoral process, 23% were unsupportive of available candidates, and 14.4% were disinterested in politics.

The enduring prominence of tribal candidates reflects the reality that the electoral process has little bearing on the country’s government: the Palace appoints the Cabinet with limited regard to the Lower House, which cannot initiate new legislation, only discuss, amend, approve or reject bills put before it. Rather, elections preserve a clientelist system in which, for the majority, the main purpose of voting is to elect kinsfolk or well-connected community figures to conform to social pressure, secure access to services, and/or in exchange for monetary payments.

Besides the official electoral process, other outlets for political tribalism have arisen. Jordan saw a wave of popular protests in 2011 calling for political and economic reform. While most attention went to the protests orchestrated in Amman by the Muslim Brotherhood, over forty groups of a markedly East Bank tribal character also mobilized across the country as part of the Hirak (Movement). Protest groups coalesced around tribal names such as ‘Tajammu Ibna Qabilat Bani Sakhr lil-Islah’ (the Bani Sakhr Tribes Gathering for Reform).

The Hirak called not only for better social services and jobs, but also for changes to an electoral system which on the face of it benefited them as East Bankers but which they held accountable for returning the same entrenched and corrupt elites to office. The vast majority of the Hirak were under 40, frequently organised gatherings through social media, and in some cases ignored calls from their own tribal ‘elders’ to desist from protesting.

In the socio-economic sphere, new forms of tribal mobilisation have quietly expanded in the shape of hundreds of kinship mutual aid associations. In the absence of sufficient state or private sector welfare provisioning, these voluntary unions are established generally by middle class businessmen or skilled professionals and provide members with social insurance ranging from childcare provision, emergency health care, short term loans, and expenses for marriages and funerals. While the myth of shared kinship provides the organising principle of these organisations, they are formed for economic rather than customary purposes, financed mostly by members’ annual fees, and registered with the state as NGOs or cooperatives. Membership numbers range from several dozen to several thousand – larger than extended family units, but smaller than ‘tribes’, and are popular amongst East and West Bankers alike.

In the justice sphere, delays in civil and criminal court proceedings (trials can frequently take over a year before final judgements are obtained) have consolidated the role of customary tribal justice. While tribal laws retained for state designated ‘Bedouin’ tribes were officially abolished in 1974, disputes between families are frequently regulated by tribal atwat (truces) and musalahaat (settlements) to obtain financial compensation for aggrieved parties in place of civil proceedings. These procedures are undertaken with the knowledge of state authorities, and indeed, in cases involving deaths and serious injuries, under their supervision.

Tribal shaykhs (or, where West Bankers are involved, senior family members or ‘borrowed’ East Bank shaykhs) are still normally invoked to mediate brawls and murders. But in the present day, atwat and musalahaat are most commonly conducted by more ‘lowly’ family members to manage traffic accidents incurring deaths or injuries (in 2015 there were 608 deaths in 9,712 traffic accidents).

In the last decade, tribal elders have been unable to quell an increased occurrence of brawls and even shootings in university campuses and East Bank ‘heartlands’ involving youth from different tribes or even subsections of the same nominal tribe. In this context, some Jordanian analysts suggest that contemporary Jordan is characterised less by ‘tribes’, than it is by ‘tribalism’: an unruly form of cliquishness that is stifling civic forms of participation.

Despite the connotations of violence that ‘tribalism’ increasingly evokes, however, in the political, social security and justice spheres, Jordanians of both East and West Bank origins have been using extended kinship networks to navigate the gaps in the state’s public services. And, as the state-vested power enjoyed by some of the big East Bank tribes diminishes, so too does the dichotomy between the East Bank tribes and the Palestinian Jordanians.

Recognising deficits in its judicial system and the inability of private sector social insurance to compensate for state welfare cuts, the state has tolerated and even encouraged reliance on ‘tribal’ substitutes. But instead of dealing with a familiar elite of tribal elders bound to the state by patronage, the state is faced with a generation of tribal players including disgruntled youth and privately employed businessmen who are less vested in preserving Hashemite rule.


Jessica Watkins is Research Officer at the Middle East Centre, currently working on a DFID-funded project looking at regional drivers of conflict in Iraq and Syria. The project ties in with Jessica’s previous research at the RAND Corporation into Iraqi and regional security issues.


Other posts in this Series:

Print Friendly