Argument

­­A Hashemite Family Reunion Can’t Hide Jordan’s Woes

Making nice after an alleged coup attempt obscures serious challenges, including water scarcity, a refugee crisis, and unhelpful neighbors.

By Albert B. Wolf, an associate research fellow at Johns Hopkins SAIS and an assistant professor of political science at the American University of Central Asia.
2018 jordan protests
Demonstrators hold up posters in front of Jordanian policemen during a protest near the prime minister's office in Amman, Jordan, on June 6, 2018. AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is no stranger to royal intrigues and attempted coups. The first 20 years of the late King Hussein’s rule was wracked with coup plots, assassination attempts, and a civil war with the country’s large Palestinian population. Most recently, the former crown prince and half-brother of King Abdullah II, Prince Hamzah, was accused of engaging in sedition and placed under the “protection of the king” (i.e., house arrest) until the two made a joint appearance on Sunday.

On Monday, the prince pledged his allegiance to the incumbent monarch and seemingly defused the latest royal tempest. But his display of deference doesn’t mean the end of instability in Jordan.

This episode is a symptom of the challenges Abdullah has faced since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, not the problem itself. It is unlikely to be the last challenge the king faces to his rule unless Jordan’s economy undergoes significant economic reforms—quickly.

Jordan has experienced multiple bouts of protests that were brought on by economic downturns (including during the Arab Spring and the COVID-19 pandemic) and were met with a combination of changes in economic tactics and giveaway programs, repression, and government reshuffles.

This is unlikely to be the last challenge the king faces to his rule unless Jordan’s economy undergoes significant economic reforms—quickly.

This plot supposedly came from within the royal court, giving a tabloid quality to a security threat, especially after the prince made his house arrest all the more unusual by issuing a personal statement online. However, Hamzah’s alleged plan to overthrow Abdullah is a distraction from Jordan’s ongoing strategic and economic problems that do not have readily apparent solutions.

Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, described the latest royal feud as the “most serious political crisis” Jordan has faced in 50 years. Regional experts have heard these warnings before. However, Abdullah’s combination of political savvy and luck in negotiating the challenges he has faced since the outbreak of the Arab Spring does not mean he will continue be lucky in the future.

Domestic stability cannot be taken for granted. Tourism, Jordan’s biggest industry, ground to a halt after the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. It had accounted for $5.8 billion in revenues in a $43 billion economy in 2019, but Jordan could not allow tourists back into the country as COVID-19 spread. Furthermore, remittances, which had accounted for $3.7 billion in 2018, were estimated to drop by nearly 20 percent for the entire region in 2020.

Two weeks ago, protests broke out in Amman along with other cities because of the deaths of six people from COVID-19 at government hospitals. The cause was low oxygen supplies. However, the literature on comparative authoritarianism shows that protests may provide elites with opportunities to reveal their preferences and split from the incumbent regime.

Should more protests occur due to the worsening economic situation, water shortages, the coronavirus crisis, or the strains of hosting a large refugee population, a window of opportunity may open for Prince Hamzah or another opportunistic contender for the throne. (According to Jordan’s Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, 34 percent of the population are refugees, most of whom are Palestinian. The U.N. refugee agency counts 663,210 Syrians who have registered as refugees—while the Jordanian government counts more than 1.3 million.)

Many commentators and Jordan watchers have expressed shock and surprise at Hamzah’s open criticism of Abdullah. However, the more shocking display has been the public outpouring of criticism of the incumbent monarch. Popular radio programs have reported regular call-ins criticizing Abdullah, blaming him for the country’s poor economic performance and corruption.

Prior to the pandemic, the country had less than 2 percent annual growth, and nearly 1 in 4 adults were unemployed. Some Jordanians who have been left behind economically felt that Hamzah used the language of the Arab street to speak to people’s needs in order to advance his own interests. Even Jordanian Finance Minister Mohamad al-Ississ reportedly said, “Unemployment is this country’s greatest problem.” Official figures put unemployment at 24 percent currently.

Jordan is surrounded by “frenemies” like Israel and Saudi Arabia, which benefit from its stability but tend to engage in behaviors that undermine its steadiness.

Jordan’s supposed regional allies are not helping. The kingdom is surrounded by “frenemies” like Israel and Saudi Arabia, which, despite benefiting from the stability and cooperation of the Hashemite royal family, tend to engage in behaviors that undermine its steadiness. These frenemies’ behaviors exacerbate Jordan’s domestic political tensions.

One of the most significant issues is water. Access to water is a problem for many Jordanians—and water theft is a big business that the state has failed to address. While water consumption continues to rise, an agreement with Israel’s government over providing an additional 8 million cubic meters remains elusive. Because of these problems, ordinary Jordanians are at the mercy of water thieves who drill untapped reservoirs without the permission of the state and charge what they want to people currently unserved and underserved by the state. Jordan has made clear it hopes to build a canal to the Red Sea or Dead Sea to ameliorate these problems, but, so far, it has been unable to cut a deal with Israel.

There are rumors—and this time they are just that, rumors—that Saudi Arabia was involved in the alleged plot to overthrow Abdullah. It is important to note that once details of the arrests of Hamzah and others had leaked, most countries issued statements of support for Abdullah. However, some in Jordan fear that the Saudis are interested in a peace deal with Israel in order to displace the Hashemites as the guardians of Al-Aqsa Mosque and take over custodianship of Jerusalem’s holy places.

The royal family’s latest feud is an allegory for Jordan’s ongoing economic and strategic problems. Should they continue, it is highly likely that this moderate ally of the United States and the West will find itself convulsed by domestic challenges again in the future. This could come in at least two forms: The first is another civil conflict with Jordan’s large Palestinian population. The second could be another challenge for the throne, possibly from Hamzah or from another royal rival who has yet to reveal himself.

Albert B. Wolf is an associate research fellow at Johns Hopkins SAIS and an assistant professor of political science at the American University of Central Asia.