Jordan’s King Is His Own Worst Enemy

There’s much more evidence of the monarch’s poor governance than a foreign conspiracy against him.

By Anchal Vohra, a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East.
King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein of Jordan speaks at the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, 2019 in New York City.
King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein of Jordan speaks at the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, 2019 in New York City. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

A century ago, Sharif Hussein bin Ali had big dreams for his Hashemite dynasty when he was king of the Hejaz and emir of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest sites. But ever since the time of Lawrence of Arabia, when the Hashemites were Britain’s main regional allies during World War I and led the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, the dynasty has been in steady decline. And with the ongoing dispute among Hussein’s descendants in Jordan, the family may have reached a new low.

The Hashemite dynasty has faced myriad challenges over all those decades, both externally and internally. Brothers in the line of succession have often been dumped for sons, but never did the family wash its dirty linen in public—until this month, when an internal rift became public gossip.

On April 3, Jordan announced that it had foiled a conspiracy to unseat its monarch and destabilize the country. Foreign entities, top officials claimed, were colluding with Prince Hamzah to topple King Abdullah II. Two weeks later, the palace still has not shared a shred of evidence, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the tale doesn’t add up.

More likely is that we are watching the oldest story in the world: a succession battle playing out between royal siblings. Jordan’s monarch placed his half-brother and former crown prince under house arrest to remove the challenge to his throne, along with 18 alleged co-conspirators. But rather than a seditious prince, the whole episode has revealed the authoritarian streak of an insecure king.

Jordan’s tribes have historically owed allegiance to the Hashemites in part due to their religious lineage as descendants of the Prophet Mohammad, who, too, hailed from the House of Hashim. Their support is essential for the dynasty, but they increasingly feel marginalized and disaffected. The United States, which give billions of dollars in aid to the country, have officially backed the king in the feud. But they have been forced to take note of mounting repression in Jordan under Abdullah’s leadership.

Abdullah sold himself to the West as a Harley-Davidson-driving, laundry-washing, pro-democracy monarch, but he has in fact consolidated power inside the palace, gagged the press, arrested protesters, and dragged his feet on devolving actual power to the legislature. The Hashemites, who were once seen as the more modern monarchs, the most Westernized, are coming to be seen as rulers of just another authoritarian Arab state.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Jordan ranks 128th out of 180 nations—below Afghanistan—in press freedom. Freedom House, a U.S.-based nonprofit that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights, demoted Jordan’s status from “partly free” to “not free” in the last year. Abdullah’s Jordan is not Syria or even Saudi Arabia—yet—but those who disagree with the state run the risk of a knock on the door from the intelligence services.

No one believes Abdullah intends on meaningful political reforms, and his economic reforms have produced more allegations of corruption than positive economic results. He unleashed austerity measures to procure loans from the international community and went on a privatization drive that some international observers applauded. But these measures came at the cost of losing support from the kingdom’s tribes.

Tariq Tell, a professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut and an expert on Jordanian politics, noted that the nationalist tribes had been critical of the neoliberal economic reforms that had come to dominate policymaking under the king. “The networks of East Bank tribes have been eroding since the privatization drive,” he said. “Their children are not getting the same jobs and benefits.” As their share of the pie, state jobs, and benefits shrank and discontent set in, Hamzah saw an opportunity to curry favor with this traditional support base. He began reaching out to tribal figures, making appearances at weddings and funerals.

Little is known about the prince’s economic and political ideology and how it compares with his brother’s approach to governance. Hamzah has voiced the concern of the masses but so far has not offered any solutions on how he intends to save a country devoid of resources and flooded with refugees. His biggest asset seems to be his looks, as he bears a close resemblance to his father, the long-ruling and fondly remembered King Hussein bin Talal. Nevertheless, his popularity has nonetheless risen since his arrest.

He is ambitious and was reportedly preferred by Hussein as a successor over his elder brother, a choice that however proved too difficult to reconcile with Jordan’s constitution. His consolation position as crown prince, next in line to the throne, was removed by Abdullah and passed to his own son in 2004. That must have hurt, but it still does not prove that he was plotting a coup against the king.

According to Tell, no one believed a coup was in the works. “Information coming out of the palace is very contradictory,” he said. “The latest events seem connected to a dispute over succession that has been going on since the removal of Hamzah as crown prince. It seems the king wanted to end it.” Adnan Hayajneh, a professor of international affairs at Jordan’s Hashemite University, said the palace’s claims have left him befuddled. “From a political science perspective, I can’t make sense of how foreign powers were involved,” he said. “The implication that Israel must be involved does not make sense because they have good ties with Jordan. Why would they want to destabilize Jordan? And even though the Saudis and Emiratis have sidelined Jordan lately, they also don’t want to destabilize the country.”

Among those arrested for allegedly plotting the coup, just two were connected to Saudi Arabia. But experts say these men are not linked in any way to the prince. Bessma Momani, a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo and a senior fellow at the Ontario-based Centre for International Governance Innovation, said the arrest of Bassem Awadallah, a Jordanian-Saudi dual national and advisor to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was tactical. “The tribes despise Awadallah and see him as synonymous with corruption and elitism,” Momani said. “But he has no link to Hamzah. Awadallah’s arrest was a distraction.”

The palace’s insinuation is that Israel and Saudi Arabia want Jordan to become an alternative homeland for Palestinians currently residing in the West Bank as part of a broader deal that replaces the Hashemites as the custodians of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem with the Al Saud family. Since Abdullah won’t play ball, they want Hamzah to launch a coup by way of a popular uprising. But analysts disagree and call it conjecture.

“The idea has been floated periodically over the past half a century or so without ever being taken that seriously, certainly not by Arab governments,” said Tobias Borck, an associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute. “It is often suggested that Saudi Arabia or the UAE now actually see this as a feasible policy option. I do not believe that. I have never heard a Saudi or Emirati policymaker seriously argue for it.”

At the heart of the king’s insecurities is the protest movement locally described as Hirak. In 2011, as the Arab Spring engulfed the region, Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and members of Jordan’s tribes took to the streets. Tell said the foundations of the Hirak movement were laid in the spring of 2010 by a revolt of Jordanian military veterans: “In 2011, the military veterans released a manifesto, and even though it did not specifically say they wanted to replace the king with Prince Hamzah, their preference was clear.” Jordan’s security establishment is controlled by members of Jordan’s different tribes. Even though Abdullah has appointed the senior officers, his biggest fear is that some might openly revolt against him in favor of the prince.

But many say the king’s fears are exaggerated. “Despite the various ethnic and ideological fault lines in Jordanian politics, pro-reform and pro-democracy demonstrators—from the leftist, nationalist, and Islamist parties and also from nonpartisan youth movements across the country —have marched and protested against corruption and for reform almost every Friday for more than a year,” said Curtis Ryan, the author of two books on Jordan and a professor of political science at Appalachian State University. “This does not mean looming revolution or civil war. Indeed, most Jordanians still support the monarchy and want it to lead the country to genuine reform.”

The king seems to be his own biggest enemy, rather than Hamzah or any popular opposition. History is replete with stories of insecure kings becoming self-destructive. Instead of arrests and unsubstantiated theories, it might serve him well if he focused on genuine political reform and devolved power to the parliament. Driving a Harley does not make him a modern king, but instituting a constitutional monarchy, where he is a figurehead and no more, would do just that.

Anchal Vohra is a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East. Twitter: @anchalvohra