Analysis: Jordan rocked by royal family feuding

King Abdullah II of Jordan. European Parliament, CC BY-4.0.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan experienced an uncharacteristic episode of instability over the weekend, as a public rift between King Abdullah II and his younger half-brother, Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, became public.

What happened

  • In videos passed to the BBC on Saturday, Prince Hamzah claimed to have been placed “under house arrest” as part of a wider crackdown on critics.
  • Up to 18 individuals were arrested as part of the apparent crackdown, including Bassem Awadallah, a former minister of finance, and Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, a minor member of the royal family.
  • In the video, Hamzah accused Jordan’s leaders of causing “the breakdown in governance, the corruption and […] the incompetence that has been prevalent in our governing structure for the last 15 to 20 years and has been getting worse”.
  • Referring to “the lack of faith people have in their institutions”, Hamzah’s comments came as public dissatisfaction in Jordan has increased due to a poor economic outlook.
  • The crackdown on critics appears to have followed a visit by Hamzah to tribal leaders, where he is said to have garnered some support. Tribal structures play an important role within Jordanian institutions, and King Abdullah derives legitimacy from tribal support.
  • On Monday, following mediation from the Abdullah’s uncle, Prince Hassan, Hamzah pledged allegiance to the king and committed to the constitution.
  • Throughout the weekend, opaque charges were made regarding the alleged role of foreign powers – including hints from the Jordanian government that Hamzah was involved in an attempted conspiracy to undermine state security, aided by foreigners.

(Un-)reliable neighbour

Jordan is usually considered to be a model of stability in the Middle East, especially compared to neighbouring Syria and Iraq. The Hashemite dynasty, which has ruled Jordan since 1921, has historically managed to shield internal disagreements from public view – contributing to the country’s reputation as a reliable bulwark. Such stability comes at a price: Freedom House recently downgraded its assessment of Jordanian democracy from “partly free” to “not free”. Indeed, on Tuesday, Jordan banned reporting and social media commentary on the fallout from the weekend’s event, describing it as too sensitive to be reported.

Stability in Jordan is of particular importance to Israel. Israel shares a peaceful 300km border with Jordan, considerably reducing threats against the Jewish state and forming a buffer against less friendly neighbours. Jordan became only the second Arab country to recognise the Jewish state in 1994. The kingdom is an important partner in military efforts to curb Islamist extremism, including against IS. It is also home to more than two million Palestinians, and is the formal custodian of the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Given this regional significance, the apparent instability in one of the Middle East’s least troubled countries is striking.

He said, she said

The exact allegations made both by Hamzah and the Jordanian government are vague and contradictory.

  • In his videos, Hamzah denounced the government’s authoritarianism: “Even to criticise a small aspect of a policy leads to arrest and abuse by the security services, and it’s reached the point where no one is able to speak or express an opinion on anything without being bullied, arrested, harassed and threatened.”
  • He went on: “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.”
  • In a speech on Sunday, Jordanian foreign minister Ayman Safadi accused Hamzah of attempting to undermine “the security and stability of the nation” via “incitement and efforts to mobilise citizens against the state in a manger that threatens national security”.
  • Hamzah’s American-born mother, Queen Noor, took to Twitter to defend her son, tweeting: “Praying that truth and justice will prevail for all the innocent victims of this wicked slander. God bless and keep them safe.”
  • By contrast, in a now-deleted tweet, Princess Firyal – an aunt by marriage of both Abdullah and Hamzah – criticised the “seemingly blind ambition” of “Queen Noor & her sons” as “delusional, futile, unmerited”.
  • In the statement released on Monday, in which Hamzah pledged loyalty to the king and constitution, he said: “The interest of the nation comes above all else and we all should stand behind His Majesty in his efforts to protect Jordan and its interests of the nation.”

Family feuds

Disputes between Abdullah and Hamzah are not without precedent. King Abdullah and Prince Hamzah are half-brothers, both sons of Abdullah’s predecessor, King Hussein, who died in 1999. They initially had a good working relationship, with Hamzah quickly being appointed as Abdullah’s crown prince – essentially his heir. In 2004, however, Abdullah stripped Hamzah of this title, awarding it instead to his young son, Hussein. Despite this, Hamzah remains popular, especially among tribal and East Bank Jordanians, not least due to his uncanny physical resemblance to his beloved late father. In recent years, Prince Hamzah’s public interventions have become more vocal, criticising Jordan’s government and making allegations of widespread corruption. Hamzah has also frequently met with tribal leaders – a source of legitimacy and important to the structure of Jordanian institutions – and in recent weeks was perceived to have upstaged the king by visiting the families of seven coronavirus patients killed in an oxygen outage at a hospital west of Amman in March.

Clues of coups?

Although little evidence has been provided, allegations against Hamzah have included insinuations of an apparent conspiracy against the Jordanian state.

  • Jordan’s foreign minister claimed that a longstanding plot existed involving “communications with foreign parties over the right timing to destabilise Jordan”. The allegations seemingly suggest that Hamzah was seeking to use his ties to tribal leaders within Jordan to mobilise them “against the government”, potentially with Saudi backing.
  • Bassem Awadalleh, the former finance minister who was also arrested over the weekend, was the king’s envoy to Riyadh, where he became an adviser to the controversial crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
  • A high-ranking Saudi delegation made an unexpected visit to Jordan on Monday, during which they requested the release of Awadalleh. The Washington Post was told that “the Saudis were saying that they won’t leave the country without [Awadalleh] […] It would appear that they are worried about what he would say”.
  • There are suspicions in Jordan that the House of Saud is angling to demand custodianship of Jerusalem’s Islamic sites from the Hashemites as the price for Saudi détente with Israel.

Israeli reactions

Given the kingdom’s geopolitical significance, Israel has followed events in Jordan closely. On Saturday night, senior Jordanian officials spoke to Israeli counterparts, asserting that the situation was under control and that stability had been restored. The office of the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, initially declined to comment on events in Jordan, though on Sunday Israeli defence minister Benny Gantz said the incident was an “internal Jordanian issue” and committed Israel to provide any necessary assistance. These warm words come in the wake of strained Israeli-Jordanian relations: after Israel refused crown prince Hussein access to the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem last month, Jordan initially barred Netanyahu from a planned flight through its airspace to visit the UAE for the first time.

The world reacts

The international community, both in the Middle East and further afield, has reacted to events in Jordan with some surprise, though support for the Jordanian authorities is widespread.

  • Regional neighbours including Egypt and Saudi Arabia expressed their support for King Abdullah, particularly in response to reports of an attempted coup.
  • The US, for which Jordan is a longstanding regional ally and partner, likewise offered its full backing for the king.
  • Russia similarly expressed support for Jordan’s authorities.

What happens next

It remains to be seen whether further details will emerge about the truth of what happened in Jordan over the weekend. Whether this was simply a royal spat or an attempted coup, it is clear that all is not well in the Hashemite kingdom.