The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has been known as an oasis of calm and stability in a region ridden with conflicts. But last month, as King Abdullah II placed his half-brother, Prince Hamzah, under house arrest along with 18 others, the kingdom’s many vulnerabilities were exposed.
There have been succession rows before but never have the royals of Jordan fought it out publicly. The latest round of the family feud, however, revealed mounting troubles in the dynasty’s hold over power including the palace’s crumbling relations with the Bedouin tribes and an authoritarian streak of the king hitherto seen as the most westernised in the Arab world.
On April 3, Maj Gen Yousef Huneiti, the Head of the Jordanian Army, met with Prince Hamzah and accused him of “crossing red lines” by attending gatherings where the king was criticised. The general asked him to stop meeting anyone other than family and not even tweet. The palace alleged that the arrests had been made to prevent a coup and accused the prince along with co-conspirators, two of whom were linked to Saudi Arabia, of sedition and trying to foment unrest in the country.
An indignant prince responded with shock at the audacity of the general, a mere employee of the kingdom, whilst indirectly accusing the king of corruption, a common complaint against the governing authorities. “You ask me that I do not go out of my house, nor meet anyone but my family, and also that I do not tweet. Sir, get in your car and get out the door,” Prince Hamzah said to the General in the conversation that the royal later leaked. “I am a free Jordanian, the son of my father. I have the right to interact with anyone in my country and serve my country as I promised him.”
Prince Hamzah bears an uncanny resemblance to his father, King Hussein bin-Talal, a former beloved King of Jordan who had anointed Hamzah as crown prince and reportedly preferred him to be king. But Abdullah II was the eldest son and inherited the crown. Tensions between the brothers came to the fore in 2004 when King Abdullah II replaced Hamzah as the crown prince with his own son. The prince did not get any important responsibilities and felt jilted. Over the last few years, he has used his looks and his charm to mingle with the tribes whose support has been essential for the Hashemites.
“You come now, sir, forgive me, where were you twenty years ago? I was the crown prince of this country by order of my father, may God have mercy on him. I swore that I would serve my country and my people as long as I lived,” said Prince Hamzah to General Huneiti in the leaked recording. “The mismanagement is not because of me and I have nothing to do with it. You come and tell me to comply and stay home?”
Prince Hamzah voiced the concerns of the powerful Jordanian tribes to win them over and his popularity has, indeed, risen since. Jordan’s tribes control the security services and have lately felt disaffected because of King Abdullah II’s neo-liberal economic policies. The king privatised many state-run industries, which in effect cut down jobs and perks that were claimed by the tribal elite. There was corruption too and the tribals linked the privatisation drive with it.
A worsening economic situation in the country has been a source of discontent among all Jordanians for at least over a decade. In addition, a lack of political reform has led people to the streets even though the protests have been short of a full-blown uprising.
Jordan is devoid of resources, has given shelter to millions of Palestinian and Syrian refugees. It relies in a big way on aid from the West as well as the Gulf. It provides a security buffer against attacks on Israel and has traditionally played the role of a mediator between the Israelis and the Palestinians. But since the rise of Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, aid from the Gulf has reduced drastically and Jordan’s role in the Israel-Palestine conflict sidelined.
While 16 of those arrested were subsequently released, two people linked to Saudi Arabia were still in custody. A month after the allegations, the palace has not provided any concrete evidence of Saudi Arabia meddling and has revealed nothing that suggested a coup was in the works. Reports in the American press, quoting unnamed sources in the intelligence community, said that Hamzah was probably colluding with Bassem Awadallah, who is close to the Saudi prince, to plan more protests against the king.
Meanwhile, Prince Hamzah has made at least one public appearance with his elder half-brother and king. He has pledged his allegiance in a show of unity, but only a few buy that the troubles in the dynasty are over. The Biden administration has backed the king without inquiring much about increasing authoritarianism under him. For now, it seems King Abdullah II may have managed to mitigate the damage but the episode has granted Prince Hamzah the very stature he craved. Prince Hamzah is now an option to be king in Jordanian minds.