Analysis

Jordan's King Is Afraid. So He Purged His Government

King Abdullah cleared out the ranks among the senior officials in the royal court and removed senior intelligence officials. There's a message to the U.S. here, and to Israel too

Jordan's King Abdullah at a ceremony in Amman, April 14, 2019.
\ MUHAMMAD HAMED/ REUTERS

Princess Basma bint Talal of Jordan, the sister of the late King Hussein and the aunt of the present king, Abdullah II, knew back in 2013 that the sword was hanging over her head.

At the time, as part of periodic campaigns to uproot corruption in the Hashemite Kingdom, a parliamentary anti-graft committee revealed that her husband, Walid al-Kurdi, had exploited his position as the CEO and chairman of the state-owned phosphate mines company to commit fraud amounting to tens of millions of dollars. A day before Kurdi was scheduled to testify before the committee, he left Jordan for self-exile in London, where he has lived ever since.

>> Read more: King Abdullah is caught between Jordan’s protests and Jerusalem’s tensions | Analysis 

The same year, he was tried in absentia for corruption and sentenced to 37 and a half years of hard labor in prison and fined $378.8 million. Since then Jordan has been unsuccessfully demanding his extradition from the United Kingdom – but now it looks as if a deal between the Jordanian government and Kurdi will allow him to return to his country and rejoin his family.

Jordan's King Abdullah II attends the 30th Arab Summit in Tunis.
ZOUBEIR SOUISSI / Reuters

The details of the agreement are still unclear, but it will have to be one that preserves the honor of the kingdom – in other words, the honor of the king – but doesn’t tear the royal family apart.

This is a not simple task for Abdullah, who has faced harsh public criticism concerning the way he runs Jordan – so much so that he and his close relatives, including his wife Queen Rania, are also being accused of corruption and violating the constitution.

The latest round of troubles began in December 2018, when thousands of Jordanians started protesting the increase in gas prices, steep unemployment that has reached an average of 19 percent and a lack of economic prospects. In February 2019, former Labor Minister Amjad Hazza al-Majali wrote a searing letter, widely shared on social networks, demanding that the king “make practical and effective arrangements to tackle corruption and hunt corrupt individuals, including the corrupt circle that is close to you.”

In addition, Majali accused Abdullah of “sponsoring political and economic models which are based on corruption and autocracy” and demanded that the purportedly stolen funds be returned to the state treasury.

Majali is the son of former Jordanian Prime Minister Hazza Majali, who served in the late 1950s, and a relative of Habas al-Majali, who was the army’s chief of staff for over 20 years and was himself a close adviser to King Hussein – a member of the so-called Old Guard. This elite circle of the kingdom’s rich and powerful people still finds it difficult to internalize that times have changed and Abdullah is no longer the 36-year-old newly crowned king. They haven’t realized that their direct ability to influence the decision-making process has shrunk since Abdullah’s coronation almost exactly 20 years ago.

But this group still can make trouble for the king. The Old Guard’s leadership comes from well-off and deeply entrenched families or the large Bedouin tribes in the country, members of the richest classes who for generations conducted mutually beneficial transactions with the royal court. Some of them still have the king’s ear, others only claim to have influence, and all of them hold old-style political salons in their homes or hotels in which the royal court is slaughtered and dismembered limb by limb.

These gatherings of the elite are nothing new. They served as a greenhouse for planning political and economic moves. It’s where the “political refugees” from senior government positions, including ministers and military officials, met; meanwhile, those who were waiting for their turn to return to the senior positions in the government left through a revolving door. The frequent government reshuffling that King Hussein carried out – a policy inherited by his son Abdullah – kept these refugees well nourished, and allowed for layers of impatience, frustration and bitterness to accumulate.

The constant threat is that the close ties between the senior officials who were removed from their posts and those still serving could, under the appropriate conditions, lead to a palace coup. The solution was usually another round of firings and appointments intended to break up these relationships and make it clear that the “plot,” whether true or imaginary, had been exposed.

Last month, the Kuwaiti daily newspaper Al-Qabas published a sensational report that “the [Jordanian] kingdom was saved from a dangerous plot” whose goal was to shake up the country by organizing mass protests, expanding criticism of the king over his method of appointing prime ministers and his opposition to U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan.

Abdullah’s response was swift. He replaced seven ministers in the cabinet of Prime Minister Omar Razzaz, removed the director of the country’s General Intelligence Department Adnan al-Jundi and appointed Ahmad Husni, who has served in several top intelligence positions, as his replacement. He cleared out the ranks among the senior officials in the royal court and removed senior intelligence officials on the justification that they had been in contact with members of parliament and other Jordanian figures to “damage national security.”

Many in Jordan think these steps were taken in preparation for the bad news of Trump’s “Deal of the Century.” The details are still unknown, but the king fears it could include sections that might make Jordan into the alternative Palestinian state. According to this train of thought, the ousted senior intelligence officials were supporters of the deal and it was suspected that the United States and Israel were “operating” them to change Abdullah’s position on the U.S. proposal.

Jordanian commentators have found evidence for this suspicion in the wording of the letter that the king released in honor of appointing the new intelligence director. He wrote that a few of those in the intelligence service made use of their position “to advance their personal interests at the expense of the public interest.” True, the tension between the king and his intelligence services is a permanent component of the internal balance of forces, but this time it seems that the move was intended to also pass a clear and unequivocal message to the Trump administration – and maybe also to Israel, whose military cooperation with Jordan remains close but whose diplomatic relationship suffers from deep cracks.