Opinion |

Fake Coups, Saudi Sedition and Spin: The Real Dissent Behind Jordan’s Royal Crisis

Rumors about destabilizing conspiracies, Saudi-backed sedition and family feuds still swirl around Prince Hamzah's house arrest and his reconciliation with King Abdullah II, intensified by a local media blackout. What really happened? And can the king really crush newly-emboldened critics channeling dissent that's simmered for decades?

Marwan A. Kardoosh
Marwan A. Kardoosh
King Abdullah II and his son Crown Prince Hussein at the Martyrs' Memorial in the capital Amman during an official ceremony marking Jordan's centennial
King Abdullah II and his son Crown Prince Hussein at the Martyrs' Memorial in the capital Amman during an official ceremony marking Jordan's centennialCredit: - - AFP
Marwan A. Kardoosh
Marwan A. Kardoosh

While the West was preparing for the long Easter holiday break, a royal family feud erupted in Jordan. King Abdullah II put his half-brother, Prince Hamzah bin Hussein – eldest son of the late King Hussein and his third wife, Queen Noor, and Crown Prince from 1999 to 2004 – under house arrest for his role in an alleged conspiracy to "undermine the country’s stability."

Videos posted on social media showed Jordanian security forces in the affluent neighborhood of Dabouq in West Amman, where several royal palaces, counting Hamzah’s own, are located. Hamzah published two videos accusing the ruling elite of corruption, nepotism, and incompetence, constituting a "breakdown in governance."

The Jordanian chief of staff warned him in person to stop amplifying criticism of the government; 16 people, including a high-profile former head of the Royal Court and members of the large and influential Majali tribe, were arrested or detained. The court darkly accused the plotters of "foreign ties."

Days later, with wall-to-wall backing from the U.S. and Arab world ringing in his ears, the king declared victory over the "seditionists."

So, what is going on really in Jordan?

The short answer is: nobody really knows. As Jordan expert Professor Sean L. Yom explained to me in an email interview, commentary on the nebulous coup is layered with rumor and innuendo. "The signal-to-noise ratio is terrible on understanding Prince Hamzah's circumstances; we might get the full story in a decade or two in some memoir."

A coup plot raises fears of violence in a nine million-strong kingdom that has emerged over the years as an oasis of stability in an otherwise-turbulent region, and where the autocratic Hashemite court portrays itself as a moderate and unified regime.

Abdullah II has dealt with discontent, which has been simmering for decades, with a hard hand, but he benefits from one winning card that many Jordanians, frustrated and angered by their declining economic circumstances and prospects, acknowledge. The king is not popular nowadays, but many still view his continued reign as preferable to more extreme alternatives.

Those unpalatable alternatives include an Islamist rule, civil war, or worst still, especially for beneficiaries of the status quo, a terminal loss of power for Jordanians of East Bank descent in favor of Jordanians of Palestinian origin.

Jordan's Prince Hamza left, with his mother Queen Noor, Jordan 2004.Credit: Hussein Malla

Whether the alleged coup plot was real, or the Jordanian state "invented" it to silence growing dissent, it is particularly significant that members of the royal Hashemite family moved so publicly against each another. It’s hardly news that Abdullah II and his close allies are not on the best of terms with Queen Noor, her kids and that side of the family altogether.

But what is captivating in the controversy is the arrest of Dr. Bassem Awadallah, the former head of the Royal Court, ex-minister and longtime confidante of Abdullah II. Even if their bromance had petered out, being named as a participant in this "conspirators’ coup" is shocking, to say the least.

Dissent on the Rise

For over a decade now, criticism of the royal regime, constricted but biting, has broken the taboo against openly voicing discontent with Jordan’s ruling family.

For years, Hamzah has raised the ire of the state by openly criticizing corruption, which remains rampant in Jordan despite lip service to the contrary.

Other prominent voices, including some from the Eastern side of the river – traditionally a key support bloc for the regime – have also condemned the regime and its policies. In 2010, a group of retired military officers issued a statement that accused the king and queen of corruption, and attacked them for their neoliberal economic policies and handling of the Palestinian issue.

Jordan's King Abdullah II in happier times with his half-brother and onetime Crown Prince HamzahCredit: YOUSEF ALLAN/AP

That was the first such public airing of dissatisfaction with the King from within loyalist circles. But an increasing number of people have been criticizing King Abdullah in recent years, although doing so breaks several domestic laws.

Successive governments have tried to silence this growing dissent, including on social media, through harassment and draconian changes to the kingdom’s anti-terrorism and cybercrimes laws, and Jordanian intelligence officers seek any justification to stamp on free speech, arresting and detaining citizens for trivial acts framed as provocation. More recently, pandemic restrictions on public gatherings have provided another pretext for further arrests.

Why Now?

Jordanians have taken to the streets in large numbers on several occasions since the major anti-austerity protests of May 2018. This is because the effects of the crisis, triggered by tax rises, price increases for essential products, the economic pressure of hosting a million Syrian refugees and a drastic reduction in Saudi aid, have not receded.

Jordanian protesters shout "bread" in front of the Labour Union offices in Amman, Jordan, June 6, 2018. "Corruption equals hunger," is written in Arabic on loaves of bread. Credit: Raad Adayleh/AP

Since those protests, which forced the resignation of the prime minister and which rocked the kingdom, taxes have actually risen, unemployment has spiked even higher, and state subsidies have been slashed, thanks to repeated, albeit much-needed, IMF-dictated cuts. The crisis has been sharpened by COVID, and the associated disintegration of the country's tourism industry.

Police officers secure the office of Jordan's prime minister office during a 2018 protest in Amman, JordanCredit: MUHAMMAD HAMED/ REUTERS

All of this hardship, and bubbling anger, is the backdrop to why, when at least seven COVID patients died in March when a multi-million dollar hospital in the city of Salt ran out of oxygen, there was such an explosive public reaction.

Among the East Bank-dominated security apparatus, small divides have emerged in recent years in the form of quiet criticism of the king. In East Bank circles more broadly, some have suggested that Abdullah may be the country’s last monarch, and a few even have more explicitly called for an immediate end to the monarchy.

Hamzah’s name occasionally comes up in those discussions as a possible alternative to Abdullah. After the deaths in Salt, there were reports that protestors took to the streets chanting, "Oh Hamzah, son of Hussein, the country is lost, where are you?"

However, while Hamzah has been a vocal critic of state corruption in the country, Bassem Awadallah, Jordan’s chief economic architect in the early and mid-2000s, was not. On the contrary, protesters have widely and repeatedly criticized Awadallah of corruption in overseeing the country’s privatization of state-owned enterprises. But he too was arrested.

Bassem Awadallah, former chief of the Jordanian royal court 2007-2008, who was arrested in the wake of the alleged coup, holds both Jordanian and Saudi citienshipCredit: JOSEPH BARRAK - AFP

Looming behind this, as well as interacting with it, are what are generally seen as broken government promises. Take the example of protests by Jordanian teachers that started in 2019. The government had promised teachers a 50 percent pay rise back in 2014.

That pledge was later adjusted downwards before stalling entirely, when all public-sector pay increases were frozen in 2020 in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. By the middle of last year, the Jordanian government had arrested dozens of leading members of the Islamist-influenced Teachers' Union, and banned the organization altogether.

Adding to the frustration is the paucity of "legitimate" avenues for public policy debate. Jordan has a bare minimum of democracy and reforms often come from the top down. The king appoints and dismisses the prime minister and the Cabinet, as well as members of the upper house of parliament, at will. Even though members of the lower house are elected every four years, they tend to have comparatively little sway, and, in any case, elections are a sad joke.

But, recently, parliamentarians and other opposition figures are testing the limits. They have openly criticized Amman’s agreement with Washington, inked without the National Assembly’s approval. The agreement gives American military forces, their weaponry and equipment the formal right to enter, pass through and operate on Jordanian territory, and allows U.S. ships, aircraft and military personnel visa-free entry.

Jordanians follow the latest but highly censored political developments in their country on a television set at a cafe in the capital Amman this monthCredit: KHALIL MAZRAAWI - AFP

Without any meaningful independent media in Amman, and a media clampdown announced on the crisis, banning the "publication of anything related to (the case)," Jordanians are speculating on social media. The gag order means we are dealing with 500 theories by Jordanians on social media, and the Biden administration is keeping its cards close to its chest.

According to a Washington Post editorial, Amman charged foreign elements with encouraging "sedition," with many pointing the finger at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). It is noteworthy that Awadallah was formerly a special envoy to Saudi Arabia before becoming MBS’ personal adviser.

Others suggest that perhaps the Jordanian regime’s goal was to use the supposed foreign conspiracy to silence Hamzah, while also taking the opportunity to arrest the highly unpopular Awadallah, who is of Palestinian origin.

My own speculation would be that Awadallah being lumped into the Hamzah camp is pure political opportunism. Clearly, he had a falling out with the King, but again nobody knows what that falling out was about.

Speculation about Awadallah working closely with MBS and his Israeli contacts is probably true, but that is hardly exceptional. MBS and Israeli third parties have their hands in many pies, everywhere, and he is not the only Jordanian they have ever called up and asked about what Jordan might be like post-Abdullah.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman talking to Jordan's King Abdullah II in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 23, 2018Credit: AFP

My guess is that the Jordan Armed Forces intel or the Mukhabarat probably got hard evidence of their chatter, and the king wanted leverage in case he needed to embarrass Israel or Riyadh in the future.

That seems to be the reason the Saudis are so desperately trying to get him back, with a "solidarity" delegation led by the Saudi foreign minister, reportedly accompanied by the director of Saudi intelligence director and MBS’s chief of staff, visiting Amman. The trip's implicit aim was to win Awadallah's release.

As for the letter Hamzah supposedly signed pledging loyalty to Abdullah, it is not clear why or how Abdullah’s uncle, Prince Hassan bin Talal, was able to extract that from him. Perhaps it was thanks to blackmail; perhaps it was a strategic decision between Hamzah and Queen Noor, who decided that now was not the time for a full confrontation with Abdullah, at least not with the U.S. being so pro the incumbent King. Or it was a combination of the two.

Of course, Biden's support for Abdullah is conventional U.S. foreign policy, period. Every president since Bill Clinton has backed the current Jordanian king. Even Donald Trump, despite sidelining Abdullah on the Israeli-Palestinian front, never publicly attacked him in the way that he decried other world leaders.

Jordan's King Abdullah (R) and then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden listen to Jordanian Chief of Staff General Zaben during a 2016 visit to a joint Jordanian-American training center in Zarqa, JordanCredit: Muhammad Hamed/ REUTERS

The U.S. feels very tight with Jordan, but only through Abdullah and the military. They do not trust other family members, unless it is his son or wife, and that’s typical of U.S. behavior with client states, exemplified by its relations with the Shah of Iran.

The overall situation is not exceptional to Jordan as a dynastic autocracy. In these regimes, rulers often sacrifice their kin for political expediency. More than half the Arab royal families have sanctioned, over the past decade, assaults – physical, financial, or legal – on male royal relatives whose political beliefs are deemed threats to autocratic order; and this also goes for business partners and close friends of the throne. No bromance lasts forever. These systems eat their own.

Equally, when an American "client" state wins a strong signal of support from its patron, it’s emboldened to undertake drastic repression. And Jordan’s recent defense agreement with the U.S. is exactly that kind of support.

U.S. forces have already been stationed in Jordan for nearly two decades, but the treaty upgrades American military rights to the point where Jordan is now, functionally, an overseas base and bridge for U.S. military operations across the MENA region. Jordan’s effective sharing, or even transfer, of sovereignty with the U.S. means the kingdom is now, in essence, an American "protectorate" – very much like what it was under Britain in its first post-independence decade, when it was technically "sovereign," but served as a piece of empire.

On the Defensive

Conspiracy or not, the Jordanian regime is throwing its security services’ full force into suppressing widespread political dissent, adding Amman to the growing list of nations that are becoming more repressive and less democratic. Many international organizations have spotted this trend, too. Freedom House, the U.S.-based NGO that measures how "free" a democracy is, reduced Jordan's ranking from "partly free" in 2020 to "not free" in 2021.

A Jordanian man reads a local newspaper headlined with the latest, highly censored news about the palace crisis at a kiosk in the capital Amman this monthCredit: KHALIL MAZRAAWI - AFP

Meanwhile, Reporters without Borders, a media freedom watchdog, also noted that hundreds of local websites have been blocked since Jordan overhauled its media laws in 2012. The Paris-based NGO went on to underscore the fact that posts on social media in Jordan are now potentially punishable with jail sentences.

Despite that, Twitter use for the first three months of the year, perhaps as a result of the thirst for uncensored news, jumped from a tiny 1.3 percent of the population to nearly 10 percent. Also noteworthy is the growing number of Jordanian opposition activists agitating for change, via social media, from outside the country, where they have self-exiled or found refuge.

Reading Between the Lines

For ordinary Jordanians and Amman-insiders – this jaded observer included – recent events remain opaque. Amid swirling rumors about international conspiracies and security services who went too far to stop the popular prince, the citizenry and media in Jordan won’t discuss the crisis openly for fear of retribution.

The question is whether this is just the beginning of a deeper crisis for Jordan – one that could inevitably change the country's political landscape and reputation for stability for the long term?

Jordan's King Abdullah II (C-R), Crown Prince Hussein (2nd-L) and Prince Hamzah (3rd-R), the king's half-brother, arrive at Amman's Raghadan Palace, their first joint appearance since a palace crisisCredit: - - AFP

The situation in Amman seems to have calmed down somewhat now. For one thing, Prince Hamzah reaffirmed his loyalty to King Abdullah a week after the crisis, signing a letter in which he promised to abide by the norms and approach of the ruling Hashemite monarch family. For another, both men made their first joint public appearance on April 11th, when members of the Jordanian royal family marked the centenary of the establishment of the Emirate of Transjordan, the British protectorate that preceded the Kingdom.

The best and safest statement to make today is that there is more popular dissent than ever before in Jordan, and it is fueling plenty of protests, but nobody is predicting revolution. That’s because all this opposition is not unified around a single set of goals.

Some Transjordanians want to roll back neoliberal economic policies, while democratic activists want a constitutional monarchy. While the influential tribes are displeased by Hamzah’s humbling, the majority are not calling for any radical change. At the same time, elite support for the king remains strong. Simply put, there is no agreement on the street.

For Abdullah II, this division could well be as pertinent to his continued rule as his own efforts to repress dissent and control the narrative of the ‘April putsch’ and its quashing.

Marwan A. Kardoosh is a development economist with 22 years of experience working in the Middle East and North Africa. Jordan expert Professor Sean L. Yom contributed to the drafting of this article

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