It doesn’t happen here: Why ‘coup plot’ in Jordan sent shock waves

Yousef Allan/The Royal Hashemite Court/AP/File
Jordan's King Abdullah addresses Parliament in Amman, Jordan, Dec. 10, 2020. On Monday, following allegations of a thwarted coup, the royal court said Abdullah's half brother, former Crown Prince Hamzah, had agreed to reconcile within the royal family.

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America and the West have relied on Jordan for the Mideast peace process, and leaned heavily on the kingdom to help lead the fight against jihadis from Al Qaeda to Islamic State. Jordan is both a mediator and advocate for the Palestinians, and it coordinates security with Israel. Its safe space is a meeting place for rival factions from across the region.

But its image as an oasis of stability and calm was punctured Saturday when, under King Abdullah’s directives, the army placed the monarch’s half brother, former Crown Prince Hamzah, under house arrest and detained dozens of his associates for an alleged coup plot.

Why We Wrote This

Jordan is a key U.S. ally and an important regional facilitator. Which is why, whatever the facts of the purported thwarted coup, just the hint of instability sent tremors far and wide.

Messages of solidarity, along with expressions of concern and renewed appreciation for Jordan’s outsize geopolitical importance, poured into the kingdom.

Royal family feuds are common in some Arab monarchies – think Saudi Arabia – but are unheard of in Hashemite Jordan. “The Hashemites offer the perfect balance between all the different competing forces in the region, and they seem to have found a niche that has become Jordan’s strength,” says Jordan-based journalist and analyst Daoud Kuttab. “When this stability of the royal family is shaken, it weakens one of the core pillars of Jordan’s existence, and it threatens regional stability.”

Jordan has long been the calm oasis at the center of regional storms, never the center of attention.

But its image of stability and calm was punctured Saturday when, under King Abdullah’s directives, the army placed the monarch’s half brother, former Crown Prince Hamzah, under house arrest and detained dozens of his associates across the country for an alleged coup plot.

Alarm quickly spread from here across the region and to Europe and Washington as the moderate oasis that foreign governments had long relied on – and perhaps many had taken for granted – was suddenly rocked with the waves of what was at the very least a royal family feud.

Why We Wrote This

Jordan is a key U.S. ally and an important regional facilitator. Which is why, whatever the facts of the purported thwarted coup, just the hint of instability sent tremors far and wide.

Messages of solidarity, along with expressions of concern and renewed appreciation for Jordan’s outsize geopolitical importance, poured into the kingdom.

In a press conference Sunday, the government named Prince Hamzah; former royal court chief and adviser to the king Bassem Awadalleh; Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, a royal and Abdullah’s former envoy to Saudi Arabia; and associates in an alleged conspiracy to sow “sedition” in the country. It alleged they had the backing of a “foreign party,” saying the security services were able to “nip [the seditious activities] in the bud.”

It refused to disclose which foreign actor was engaged in the conspiracy, citing ongoing investigations.

On Monday the royal court said Abdullah, through his uncle Prince Hassan, had approached his half brother, who in turn agreed to reconcile within the royal family. Hamzah signed a letter pledging allegiance to the king and Hashemite legacy, stating, “I place myself at the disposal of His Majesty the king.”

Strength in stability

Yet concerns among diplomats, allies, and observers remain high.

Royal family feuds are common in other Arab monarchies – most recently Saudi Arabia – but are unheard of in Jordan, where the Hashemite royal family’s steadfastness has allowed the tiny kingdom to become a linchpin of regional stability as its neighbors underwent revolutions and upheavals.

“In 70 years, no Jordanian royalty has been put under arrest. ... This is one major reason people are concerned,” says Jordan-based journalist and analyst Daoud Kuttab.

“The Hashemites offer the perfect balance between all the different competing forces in the region, and they seem to have found a niche that has become Jordan’s strength,” he says. “When this stability of the royal family is shaken, it weakens one of the core pillars of Jordan’s existence, and it threatens regional stability.”

America and the West have relied on Jordan for the Middle East peace process, and leaned heavily on the kingdom to help lead the fight against jihadi extremism, from Al Qaeda to Islamic State.

Jordan is both a mediator and advocate for the Palestinians, and it coordinates security with Israel. Its safe space is a meeting place for rival factions from across the region; its tolerant and liberal-leaning promotion of interfaith harmony has made the kingdom a refuge for minorities and displaced people.

Raad Adayleh/AP/File
Jordanian police surround protesters to prevent them from reaching Cabinet headquarters in Amman, Jordan, Nov. 30, 2018. The protesters had called on the Jordanian prime minister to resign over his tax policies and alleged failure to improve the country's economy.

Also important is the kingdom’s strategic location linking the Levant and the Persian Gulf.

“Jordan stands on the front line of major crises in the region and in between many regional players: Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Israel,” says Oraib al-Rantawi, director of the Amman-based Al-Quds Centre for Political Studies.

“We saw regional and international powers immediately offer their support and solidarity with the leadership during this incident because they all know that any instability in Jordan will have a spillover effect in the region,” he says.

“This crisis is one of the few occasions when we actually feel this small country’s very unique geopolitical position and importance.”

Tough times

The royal family feud and coup plot allegations come at a difficult time for the kingdom.

Jordan is mired in an economic crisis that predates the pandemic. This year, the pandemic pushed the official unemployment rate to 24.7%; experts say in reality it could be as high as 40%. Government funds and vaccines are scarce.

Jordan imposed a costly lockdown last year, but the health sector is now overwhelmed with one of the highest infection rates and death rates per capita in the world.

Frustrations came to a head last month when an oxygen shortage due to mismanagement at a government hospital was blamed for the deaths of nine COVID-19 patients.

Regional wars and tumult on its borders have flooded the country with refugees, spiked inflation, and hobbled the kingdom’s economy.

Some observers say it is these conditions at home – economic crisis, distrust, rising public anger toward the state – and not foreign intrigue that prompted the state to detain Hamzah and stop his ongoing meetings with disgruntled citizens and influential tribal figures.

Who is Hamzah?

The former crown prince is the son of the late King Hussein and his fourth wife, Queen Noor.

As part of a royal family compromise to settle a succession dilemma in 1999, Hamzah was named crown prince and Abdullah, Hussein’s eldest son, was tapped as monarch. In 2004, King Abdullah replaced Hamzah with his own son, Hussein, as crown prince. 

Hamzah, with a physical likeness to his father, has since grown into a romanticized figure by tribal Jordanians pining for the “golden years” of Hussein’s patriarchal reign, when the state was the main provider and employer, life was affordable, and inequality minimal.

Yousef Allan/AP/File
Jordan’s King Abdullah laughs with his half brother Prince Hamzah (right), shortly before the monarch embarked on a 2001 tour of the United States. Prince Hamzah said in a recording released April 5, 2021, that he would defy government orders to stay at home and refrain from public statements. But he later signed a letter pledging allegiance to the king.

Hamzah’s supporters, like many Jordanians, have chafed under the neoliberal reforms and austerity measures of Abdullah’s reign, which have grown the private sector but led to wider income gaps and a tax regime favoring the wealthy.

For most of the past decade, Hamzah has echoed the public’s grievances, lobbing thinly veiled rebukes of Abdullah and his inner circle. In doing so, he has boosted his own popularity and crafted the persona of a royal who is connected to the common man and woman.

“I am not the person responsible for the breakdown in governance, the corruption, and for the incompetence that has been prevalent in our governing structure for the last 15 to 20 years and has been getting worse,” Hamzah said in a smuggled video message on the day of his detention, denying coup allegations. 

“There is a vacuum created by the government’s failures to enact socioeconomic reform. Prince Hamzah has jumped in and capitalized on this issue successfully and that is the government’s fault, not his,” Mr. Rantawi says.

Foreign plot?

If a foreign country was behind a nascent coup attempt, as the government insinuates, Jordanians and observers have been left in speculation. Jordan, with its “friends with all” foreign policy, has few enemies or natural rivals.

Just who, exactly, would wish to destabilize Jordan?

For those supporting the government’s narrative, the suspect is a regional country that desires a change in leadership within the Hashemite royal family.

Many first pointed to Saudi Arabia, due to Riyadh’s alleged attempts to inspire a coup in its rival Qatar and the strong Saudi connections of several of those arrested.

Yet Saudi Arabia was the first to express support for Abdullah, within less than two hours of the plot becoming public. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman followed up with rare phone calls to both Abdullah and Crown Prince Hussein to voice his personal support.

It also remains unclear why a Sunni Gulf monarchy would wish trouble in a fellow, neighboring monarchy and a longtime ally.

One theory blames the United Arab Emirates, which has had an at-times fraught relationship with Abdullah over his refusal to support the Trump peace plan. Abdullah frustrated the UAE’s normalization with Israel by blocking Jordanian airspace to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as part of an ongoing spat between Mr. Netanyahu and the king. 

Others, still, circle back to Israel and Mr. Netanyahu. Official “leaks” to Jordanian news outlets claimed that an Israeli businessman who officials alleged is a Mossad agent contacted Hamzah’s wife to arrange a private jet to fly them out of Jordan on the day of his house arrest. (The Israeli later denied being a Mossad agent, saying he was a friend of the prince’s.)

Israel, a peace partner of Jordan, is currently embroiled in post-election coalition-building. Mr. Netanyahu is trying to claw his way to a sixth term while fighting off corruption charges.  

All of which leaves many Jordanians and their allies grappling with one uncomfortable truth: the unshakable, stable monarchy is not as secure as once believed.

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