Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Jordan’s Royal Feud Uncovers Simmering Discontent

Jordan King Abdullah II
Women walk past a poster of Jordan’s King Abdullah II on a street in the capital Amman, on April 6, 2021, after a security crackdown revealed tensions in the monarchy. Photo: Khalil MAZRAAWI / AFP

By: Mat Nashed

Jordan needs a new nickname. The “Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom” no longer applies after a royal feud between King Abdulla II and his half-brother Prince Hamzah bin Hussein reached its pinnacle on April 3, 2021.

That day, Prince Hamzah was placed under house arrest and accused of spearheading a “foreign backed conspiracy” to destabilize the nation. The kingdom arrested 18 other prominent associates that were implicated in the supposed plot. Among them was Bassem Awadallah, the former head of the Jordanian royal court and director of the king’s office and who is now advises the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamad bin Salman (MBS).

Most Jordanians and Jordan observers failed to see the link between Prince Hamzah and Awadallah. The former is known for his strong ties with Jordan’s East Bank tribes, many of whom have protested their diluted influence in recent years. These tribes view Awadallah as part of the problem. In their eyes, he epitomizes the Palestinian-Jordanian elite that has weakened their traditional role in the Kingdom.

By detaining Awadallah, Jordan seemed to imply that Saudi Arabia was the ‘foreign power’ inciting instability in the Hashemite kingdom. But any involvement from MBS would be foolish, even by his standards. The Saudi Crown Prince still adheres to an unwritten rule that underpins the relationship between Arab monarchies: Never fuel popular unrest against another autocratic ruler if you don’t want him to exploit discontent in your own. It’s a law that broadly governs the relationship between all tyrants in the Arab world.

For what it’s worth, Prince Hamzah denied that he was trying to destabilize the country, with or without foreign help. Following his arrest, he released two videos on social media where he said that he refused to be silenced by the army. He then accused the kingdom of embezzling public funds ever since King Abdullah had assumed the throne following the death of Hamzah’s father, King Hussein bin Talal.

The videos trended widely and prompted many Jordanians to conclude that the state didn’t act to halt a coup. Many believed that the King merely sought to reign in Prince Hamzah due to this rising popularity.

The rivalry between the two men dates back to 2004 when King Abdullah replaced Hamza as Crown Prince with his eldest son Hussein. Since then, Prince Hamza has remade his image by tapping into the grievances simmering throughout large swathes of the population.

The afternoon radio show, Rainbow Street, offers a clear picture of the struggles that Jordanians endure. Aired around 3PM in the capital of Amman, the show often broadcasts angry callers that complain about the economic hardship brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. In recent weeks, more callers have specifically blamed King Abdullah for the country’s misfortune.

“People are now saying that the King is to blame for all the nepotism and the corruption,” said Mohammad Ersan, the host of the radio show. “They are saying that out loud, on the radio, and in demonstrations.”

The King has responded to the growing discontent with censorship and intimidation. In 2019, the government detained dozens of leading members of the teachers’ union before banning the organization. The teachers had mobilized to demand that the government fulfil its promise to increase their pay by 50 percent.

Over the last several years, Jordan has also fallen from 45 to 60 in a corruption ranking published annually by Transparency International. Even more telling is that Freedom House, a U.S non-profit that advocates for democracy and human rights, changed Jordan’s classification from “partly free” to no longer free.

Jordan’s mishandling of the pandemic has compounded grievances. To date, about 7,600 people have died from the disease while more than 633,000 have been infected – a large number for a population of just ten million. Poverty rates have also spiked by 39 percent over the last year, while half the country’s youth grapple with unemployment due to the pandemic’s impact on tourism.

Prince Hamzah, for his part, has echoed popular discontent at the highest level. Whether he’s genuine or opportunistic is beside the point, for now. What’s clear is that his royal status didn’t save him from crossing the line on March 14, 2021.

That day, Prince Hamza visited the city of Salt to console the relatives of nine Covid-19 patients who died after a hospital had run out of oxygen. The medical negligence triggered an outcry in the country and Prince Hamzah looked to capitalize politically. The gesture was seen as undermining the legitimacy of the King and the Crown Prince, according to eight officials that spoke to Reuters.

With all eyes still on Jordan, the country’s reputation as a bastion of stability has taken a hit. To repair that image, Prince Hamzah and King Abdullah made a public appearance on April 11, 2021. The two men recited verses from the Quran in an attempt to demonstrate their unity. However, the stunt did little to convince observers that all is well in the royal family.

Washington in particular should not take the kingdom’s stability for granted. Its future relationship with Jordan, and its close security cooperation, hinges on King Abdullah ability to regain popular trust. The U.S could help by encouraging the King to end rapid nepotism, which undermines the role and purpose of ministries and state institutions.

Jordan foremost needs a parliament that genuinely reflects the opinions of its people and benefits from a climate of free speech. That way, criticism can be heard and debated, not silenced.

These liberal reforms should accompany incremental changes to the economy. Incremental means that the International Monetary Fund should resist from pressuring Jordan to adopt rapid austerity measures that risk sparking unrest in the fragile country. Jordanians are suffering enough as it is.

The fundamental lesson from the Prince Hamzah affair is that the King’s legitimacy is undermined by his own failure to improve the lives of everyday Jordanians. Reigning in Prince Hamzah isn’t the answer. The way forward for the Hashemite Kingdom and its people is through democratization.

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