What’s Behind Jordan’s Palace Intrigue?


Somalilandsun: “I am not the person responsible for the breakdown in governance, the corruption and for the incompetence that has been prevalent in our governing structure for the last 15 to 20 years and has been getting worse.” So said Jordan’s Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, apparently from house (or rather palace) arrest, in a video message shared by the BBC on April 4.

Was the 41-year-old son of the late King Hussein planning a coup against his 59-year-old half-brother, King Abdullah? If so, that would be a rude awakening for outsiders who saluted Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty with Israel, and who have since assumed the Hashemite Kingdom to be an oasis of stability in a turbulent region.

That assumption seemed sound. Jordan was barely scarred by the upheavals of the Arab Spring a decade ago. But if that stability turns out to be illusory, one must worry about Jordan following Syria and Iraq into a state of turmoil that could also drag in Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as providing new terrain for extremist groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Given the stakes, the United States and Jordan’s other Western allies might yet find themselves involved in another Middle East conflict.

Of course, this scenario is not inevitable. Hamzah denies any role in machinations against the governing order, declaring in a signed statement on April 5: “In light of the developments of the past two days, I put myself at the disposal of His Majesty the King.” Since King Abdullah had dismissed Hamzah as crown prince in 2004, replacing him with his own son, that declaration of loyalty (grudging or not) is valuable.

But there is surely more to all of this than palace intrigue. Ayman Safadi, Jordan’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, said that Jordanian security agencies “have been following activities and movements by His Royal Highness Prince Hamzah bin Al Hussein, Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, Bassem Ibrahim Awadallah and others, targeting the security and stability of the nation.” Awadallah, a former finance minister, and bin Zaid, a minor royal who formerly served as King Abdullah’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, were also detained. The investigations, Safadi added, “have detected interferences and communications, including some with foreign entities, on the ideal timing for taking steps towards destabilizing Jordan’s security.”

Those “foreign entities” have not been officially identified, but the traditional (and always convenient) suspect is Israel. But while relations between King Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are strained, a more intriguing suspect is Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

On the face of it, MBS might seem an unlikely culprit, given that most of the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, immediately pledged its support for King Abdullah. But as custodians of Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, the Hashemite dynasty stands in the way of MBS’s grand ambitions for the House of Saud. It was MBS’s own grandfather, after all, who wrested control of Mecca and Medina from the Hashemites back in 1924-25.

This theory may sound far-fetched, but it is not implausible. Last November, following a secret meeting in Saudi Arabia between MBS and Netanyahu, Jordan was at pains to reaffirm its custodial role: “The kingdom will continue its efforts to protect and care for the mosque, and preserve the rights of all Muslims to it in compliance with the Hashemite custodianship of Jerusalem’s Muslim and Christian holy sites.”

The theory probably will never be conclusively proved or disproved. But there is no doubt about MBS’s ambition, and it is worth noting, too, that Awadallah, once King Abdullah’s special envoy to the Saudi court, became an adviser to MBS and now has a Saudi passport.

Notwithstanding the supposed solidarity among Arab monarchies, MBS might see normalization of Saudi relations with Israel as a way to gain unchallenged control of al-Aqsa. This could be presented as the natural next step following the Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco.

In this scenario, sidelining the Hashemites would be a small price to pay. In weighing the risks, MBS knows that the Jordanian monarchy is utterly dependent on largesse – much of it from the Arab petrostates, the US, and agencies such as the International Monetary Fund.

As such, a Jordanian monarch’s political survival ultimately depends on his political skill, efficient security agencies, and luck. Since ascending to the throne in 1999 following the death of his father, King Abdullah has benefited from all three. He was lucky that his uncle, Prince Hassan bin Talal – who was stripped of the crown prince title just before King Hussein’s death – accepted the demotion with grace. Hamzah may have reacted differently. It is certainly clear that his mother, Queen Noor, King Hussein’s last wife, resents her son’s demotion.

Moreover, luck can run out, even for a dynasty that traces its lineage back to the Prophet Muhammad. Roughly half of Jordan’s ten million people are Palestinian. Many remember the bloody “Black September” of 1970, when Yasser Arafat’s guerrilla forces were routed from the Kingdom. And while Jordanian tribes’ loyalty has traditionally been beyond question, Hamzah’s popularity with them may have spurred suspicions of a coup.

Most worrisome for King Abdullah is Hamzah’s accusation of deepening corruption and incompetence. COVID-19 has been a disaster for the country’s all-important tourism sector, and has added to the strain on public services that already must cope with at least 660,000 refugees from the civil war in Syria and perhaps another 70,000 who fled the war in Iraq.

Will these pressures end Hashemite rule? In the World War I era, Britain installed Hashemite kings in Jordan and Iraq as a reward for their role in the Arab revolt against Ottoman rule (an episode made famous in the West by Lawrence of Arabia). In Iraq, Hashemite rule delivered the most stable period in Iraqi history, until King Faisal II was executed in an army coup in 1958.

By contrast, Hashemite rule in Jordan has survived wars with Israel, waves of Arab nationalism, conflict with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the lure of Islamist extremism. More challenges are bound to come, and, as King Abdullah well knows, survival is not guaranteed. “Sedition came from within and without our one house,” the king said on April 7, “and nothing compares to my shock, pain, and anger as a brother and as the head of the Hashemite family, and as a leader of this proud people.”

John Andrews

The author John Andrews, a former editor and foreign correspondent for The Economist, is the author of The World in Conflict: Understanding the World’s Troublespots.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.