Washington Needs to Get to Know Jordan’s Next King

King Abdullah is young and healthy, but it’s never too early to introduce the country’s next ruler, Crown Prince Hussein, to key U.S. officials.

Jordan's King Abdullah II and Crown Prince Hussein (R) arrive for the opening session of the fourth ordinary parliamentary session  in the capital Amman on Nov. 10, 2019.
Jordan's King Abdullah II and Crown Prince Hussein (R) arrive for the opening session of the fourth ordinary parliamentary session in the capital Amman on Nov. 10, 2019. KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP via Getty Images

For such a small country, Jordan receives a fair share of media attention. Every so often, some source of tension between Jordan and Israel or domestic unrest garners coverage and renews international concerns about Jordanian stability. As a Jordanian American, however, what keeps me up at night is not the future of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty. It’s Jordanian succession—specifically, whether anyone is prepared for some freak event that leaves the 26-year-old Crown Prince Hussein in charge of the kingdom.

Every time I’ve broached the subject with family or colleagues, I’ve been met with horrified reactions: It elicits the same “la samah Allah” (God forbid) whether the conversation is in English or Arabic. I wholeheartedly share that sentiment, but hoping for the best isn’t policy; the U.S. government needs to talk about what comes next for Jordan.

It’s never too early to consider how succession might affect a small but strategically important ally. After all, Jordanian children are still told tales of the late King Hussein’s accession to the throne just before his 17th birthday—including that the king faced hostility and frequent assassination attempts. One such tale involved an investigation of numerous dead cats on the palace grounds, which turned up evidence of a Syrian poisoning plot against the king.

The immediate succession path is less troubling than the possible challenges resulting from the accession of a young and untested king.

To be clear, there is no reason to believe 58-year-old King Abdullah II is on his way out anytime soon. He’s young, healthy, and supported by numerous allies. Yet almost 70 years after King Hussein took power as a teenager, Jordan still faces myriad threats. For starters, in the age of COVID-19, you never know if a leader could be gone in a week. And as the monarch inches towards 60, it is not out of line to consider whether the stress of managing Jordan’s constant state of crisis could lead to health problems—or a heart attack.

Then there are more sinister risks. King Abdullah I was assassinated by a Palestinian nationalist in 1951, setting King Hussein on the path to power after a brief period of rule by Abdullah I’s eldest son, King Talal. Before dying of cancer at age 63, King Hussein survived at least 12 assassination plots and seven coup attempts.

Like his predecessors, Abdullah II could face threats from within Jordan. Jordanian security and intelligence services are known for their effectiveness and reach across the country, but the rare terrorist attack gets through—and plots are regularly foiled before they get off the ground. It wouldn’t be surprising if a few of those foiled plots involve attempts on the king’s life. The General Intelligence Directorate may be adept at disrupting terrorist cells, but all it takes is one smart lone wolf.

With all these risks, more people should be worried about Jordanian succession. The lack of U.S. interest is probably due to Jordan’s relatively boring royal dynamics. Unlike its Persian Gulf neighbors’, Jordan’s succession scenario is not up in the air. There are no high-profile rivalries or competing bloodlines, and the royal family mostly works together to manage the country. At the very least, Jordan should enjoy a relatively uneventful transition of power when the day comes.

But the immediate succession path is less troubling than the possible challenges resulting from the accession of a young and untested king. It’s nowhere near guaranteed that the 26-year-old crown prince could easily maintain control over a kingdom with a contracting economy, a bulging youth population, and unfolding threats such as climate change.

Jordan’s economy was already under massive pressure before COVID-19, and now it is spiraling. The kingdom is quite literally surrounded by instability; it has an eastern border with Iraq, a northern border with Syria, and a western border with Israel and the Palestinian territories. In recent months and days, Israeli leaders have threatened to annex the West Bank and Jordan Valley, which would be a huge blow to the Jordanian monarchy and Jordanians of Palestinian origin; it could even jeopardize the 1994 peace treaty with Israel.

It’s a miracle Abdullah II has guided Jordan through these overwhelming economic and security challenges while maintaining such strong ties in the region and in the United States. It’s a lot to ask a 26-year-old to do the same, though he has been groomed exceptionally well and would presumably have help from his seasoned uncles—including Prince Faisal, who plays the most prominent supporting role to the king. Even a well-intentioned young leader could make missteps, with long-lasting consequences.

Additionally, the future king may need to work to earn the support of his population. It’s common knowledge that the Jordanian king relies on a traditional tribal power base of so-called East Bankers—those with roots in the kingdom and not in Palestine. Yet, that base’s role is rapidly changing and shrinking. There are no precise statistics, but it’s widely believed that half—if not more—of Jordan’s population consists of Palestinian “West Bankers.” This estimate includes both registered Palestinian refugees and Palestinians that have been largely assimilated into the population and are considered Jordanian by official counts. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said there are also 660,000 registered Syrian refugees, approximately 70,000 Iraqi refugees, 15,000 Yemeni refugees, and 6,000 Sudanese refugees in Jordan.

In addition to being outnumbered, many Jordanian tribes and Bedouins are marginalized, mired in poverty, and susceptible to extremism. It’s not clear how popular Crown Prince Hussein would be among those tribes or that their support would be as relevant as in the past, given the increasingly diverse Jordanian population. Predictions that tribes are turning against the royal family or losing all influence may be overly hyped, but it’s safe to assume that the future King Hussein II will not necessarily be able to rely on the fabled traditional base.

And events in nearby countries don’t inspire confidence. The rise of other young leaders in the Middle East has brought about mistakes, clashes with domestic opponents, and spats with the United States. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has received the most attention, for allegedly ordering the murder of his enemies, prosecuting a brutal war in Yemen, his attempts to strong-arm regional friends and foes—including Abdullah—and his assault on domestic opposition.

Thankfully, it’s unlikely Crown Prince Hussein will jump headlong into regional adventures. By every indicator, he is competent, responsible, and devoted to his country. It’s also far-fetched to suggest that Hussein would do anything to jeopardize Jordan’s relations with the United States. Even so, it’s natural to expect him to make mistakes as a new leader, and he might find it difficult to manage competing agendas from Jordanians, Gulf partners, the United States, and Israel.

He could also be more vulnerable to coercion by wealthy Gulf neighbors, or even U.S. politicians who are not satisfied with Jordan’s response to Israeli aggression, including annexation threats. It should make U.S. policymakers uneasy to consider how this would impact Jordanian stability and U.S. interests in the region.

After all, plenty of Jordanian leaders have made their own mistakes. Jordanian elites today still go to great lengths to explain and apologize for King Hussein’s role in initiating early Arab wars against Israel. At 31 years old when the Six-Day War broke out in 1967, he was young and beholden to more influential pan-Arabist leaders such as Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Records suggest it is true that he was reluctant to attack Israel, but felt had no choice but to participate in the war. As a consequence, Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank, with consequences that remain at the center of the region’s political tensions to this day. Indeed, if Crown Prince Hussein’s grandfather and namesake had not participated or had been prominent enough to discourage his Arab counterparts from launching a war, Jordan might face a very different strategic reality than it does today.

To guard against the worst potential consequences of a Jordanian power transition, U.S. policymakers must make more of an effort to get to know the young crown prince and brace themselves for a highly unlikely but potentially catastrophic succession scenario.

Crown Prince Hussein is mostly an unknown commodity to Americans and Westerners, and his portfolio as king would be considerably bigger and less charming. It’s time for a real introductory tour—not of Silicon Valley but of Congress, the White House, and Washington think tanks—and a major televised interview to ensure that he has strong support from Congress and the U.S. public.

The Jordanian government should also make more of an effort to highlight the crown prince’s priorities and role in managing the country. The Jordanian government excels at public relations, but in this case, bringing the crown prince into the limelight is overdue.

Hussein II has slowly started playing a more visible role through international speaking engagements and visits with important U.S. private-sector players. He is constantly seen in the background of video reels and Instagram photos with his father, a noticeable change from just three years ago, when he was finishing his education at Georgetown University and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. He is stepping up to lead Jordanian youth initiatives and call for technological innovation and a response to climate change. These are all good signs, as all of these issues are critical to Jordan’s future prosperity.

But as much as everyone loves Jordanian promotional videos of royal skydiving expeditions and motorcycle rides, they’re no substitute for a real policy discussion among Jordanian officials and their American friends.

Alia Awadallah is a Middle East analyst and graduate student at John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Before that, she was a Middle East research associate at the Center for American Progress. Twitter: @aawadall

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