Divided kingdom: Jordan shaken by split between king and ex-crown prince

AMMAN (NYTIMES) – The kingdom of Jordan has long been considered an oasis of relative stability in the Middle East. While wars and insurgencies flared in neighbouring Syria and Iraq, Jordan was for decades considered a secure and dependable ally of the United States, a buffer against attacks on Israel, and a key interlocutor with Palestinians.

But over the weekend, that placid image was upended as a long-simmering rift between the king, Abdullah II, and a former crown prince, Hamzah bin Hussein, burst into the public eye.

On Sunday (April 4) the government accused Prince Hamzah, the king’s younger half-brother, of “destabilising Jordan’s security”, making far more explicit claims about his alleged involvement than it did the evening before, when it first divulged the supposed conspiracy.

In a speech on Sunday afternoon, the Jordanian foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, directly accused Prince Hamzah of working with a former finance minister, Bassem Awadallah, and a junior member of the royal family, Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, to target “the security and stability of the nation”.

Safadi hinted that all three were involved in a failed palace coup that had foreign backing. He offered details about intercepted communications between the prince and Awadallah, and he announced the arrest of at least 14 other people.

Safadi alleged that Prince Hamzah had liaised with Awadallah throughout the course of the day on Saturday, accusing him of “incitement and efforts to mobilise citizens against the state in a manner that threatens national security”.

The accusations followed attempts by Prince Hamzah, 41, to clear his name on Saturday night, when he released a video in which he said he had been placed under house arrest. The prince denied involvement in any plot against King Abdullah, although he did condemn the government as corrupt, incompetent and authoritarian.

By Sunday, his mother had stepped into the fray. Queen Noor – also stepmother of the king – issued a combative statement in defence of her son, saying he was the victim of “wicked slander”. For a royal house that usually keeps disagreements private, it was a showdown of unexpected and unusual intensity.

“The way it unfolded, with arrests and videos, was shocking,” Jawad Anani, a former Jordanian foreign minister and economist, said in a phone interview on Sunday.

“Despite the tensions, the royal family always presented the image of a united front. But yesterday’s events shattered that image, and the rifts erupted in broad daylight.”

Prince Hamzah’s father, King Hussein, ruled Jordan for four decades, and forged a peace deal with Israel. During King Hussein’s lifetime, his sons and his four wives often jockeyed for influence. But since King Abdullah succeeded Hussein in 1999, his control has never been so publicly contested.

King Abdullah and Prince Hamzah had similar upbringings and were educated at elite British and American schools and military colleges.

But in his youth, Prince Hamzah was considered more academic – he graduated from Harvard University in 2006 – and was long seen as the likelier future monarch. Prince Abdullah was appointed Hussein’s successor only in the final weeks of the king’s reign.

The two men also represent different branches of King Hussein’s family. Abdullah is the son of Hussein’s second wife, Princess Muna; Hamzah’s mother, the American-born Queen Noor, was Hussein’s fourth wife.

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A brigadier-general in the Jordanian army, according to his website, Prince Hamzah presents himself as an anti-corruption campaigner who would take the country in a more dynamic and independent direction.

The crisis over the weekend prompted the US and other Jordanian allies, which view King Abdullah as a crucial partner in countering terrorism in the Middle East, to express support for him.

Because Jordan borders Syria, Iraq, Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the country is a considered a linchpin of regional security. And as the home of millions of exiled Palestinians, and the formal custodian of the Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, it is important to any future peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

The United States stations troops and aircraft in the country, keeps close ties with Jordanian intelligence, and last year provided more than US$1.5 billion (S$2 billion) in aid to the Jordanian government, according to the State Department.

The rift seemed to be playing out not only for the Jordanian audience, but as a public relations war directed at Washington as well. Prince Hamzah made a video in Arabic, but also took care to release one in English.

King Abdullah, who is 59, named Hamzah crown prince in 1999, but he stripped him of the title in 2004 and transferred it to his son, Prince Hussein, now 26.

In recent years, Prince Hamzah seemed to be attempting to rebuild his influence, and his brand.

He caused a stir in the kingdom with recent meetings with Jordanian tribal leaders. And he raised eyebrows by publicly criticising the government in 2018, when he called for “real action against the rife corruption taking place, for the corrupt to be accountable and to build back trust between the state and the people”.

“Oh, my country,” he lamented at the time.

But none of this prepared Jordanians for the dramatic events of Saturday night.

The royal family rarely, if ever, moves publicly against its own. But on Saturday, the government announced that Prince Hamzah had been spoken to by Jordanian officials, amid hints of a foiled coup attempt.

Jordanians were shocked, said Anani, the former minister. “Anyone that tells you they aren’t surprised by what happened in Jordan the past day is probably not being truthful,” he said.

Prince Hamzah later released the self-filmed video in which he said he had been forbidden to leave his home.

“A number of the people I know – or my friends – have been arrested, my security has been removed, and the internet and phone lines have been cut,” he said.

“This is my last form of communication, satellite internet, that I have, and I have been informed by the company that they are instructed to cut it so it may be the last time I am able to communicate.”

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Jordan frequently cracks down on major political opposition. In 2020, it arrested hundreds of teachers who organized protests to demand better benefits. Insulting the king is forbidden.

Freedom House, an American rights watchdog that publishes an annual report on the state of global rights, recently said that Jordan was no longer a free society, having previously classified it as “partly free”.

Among recent measures against free expression, Jordan recently banned Clubhouse, the new social media network, and barred demonstrators from gathering last month to protest Jordan’s coronavirus strategy.

But it is rare for the government to arrest senior Jordanian officials like Awadallah, the former finance minister and adviser to the Saudi crown prince; and Zaid, the royal family member, who is a former envoy to Saudi Arabia.

To dispel speculation over whether it might have had a role in any conspiracy, Saudi Arabia quickly released a strong statement of support for King Abdullah. And on Sunday, state-run Saudi news media announced that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had spoken with King Abdullah by phone to show support.

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