The combination of a long-running family rivalry coupled with asevere economic crisis, chronic political problems, and the unrelenting Covid-19 pandemic have put Jordan’s reputation as the Middle East’s most stable country at risk.
The royal family is no stranger to tumult, but it has been able to overcome internal disputes without a public battle. This time however, family spats have escalated into conspiracy charges and arrests.
It was a kind of replay of “The Crown,” the Netflix hit TV show about the British royal family, except set on the edge of the Arabian desert. Prince Hamzah, King Abdullah’s half brother, accused the country’s leaders of corruption, incompetence, and harassment. Abdullah took this as a threat and put Hamzah under house arrest, roundingup his supporters.
The crisis ended when Hamzah pledged allegiance to the King, though underlying issues bubble beneath the surface.
First, there is a restless public: Jordan’s economy has floundered during the COVID-19 pandemic. The country has also absorbed waves of refugees from the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Last week, over thirty labor unions and professional groups staged a strike in Jordan, the largest in years, to protest an austerity bill they said would penalize the poor and the middle class. The government had, in fact, increased the price of fuel by over 5 percent and that of electricity by 19 percent.
Amman ranks as the most expensive city in the Middle East and has a higher cost of living than richer cities, including Dubai, London, and Washington D.C., according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. This has angered Jordanians, whose incomes have stagnated for years while prices have soared.
Hence, doctors walked out of hospitals wearing white lab coats, lawyers abandoned courtrooms in their black robes and shopkeepers shuttered their stores, hanging signs that read: “We are closed. We are on strike.”
The strike turned into daily nationwide protests with thousands of participants — the largest in the country since 2011.
Back in 2018, nationwide protests erupted across Jordan against a proposed government tax and price increase at a time when the economy was already suffering amid rising public dissatisfaction due to harsh living standards.
The same year, Hamzah openly accused the government of “failed management” after it passed a law increasing taxes on workers, leading thousands to take to the streets in protest. He tweeted: “Oh my country,” bemoaning the state of the nation his half-brother leads.
Nowadays, Jordanians are protesting against the government’s handling of the pandemic. Public anger boiled over last month when seven patients died amid an oxygen tank shortage at a government hospital in the city of al-Salt.
Reuters reported that Hamzah made a trip to al-Salt to visit the relatives of the same Covid-19 patients who died. That visit came before his brother’s, leading a Jordanian insider to tell Reuters Hamzah had upstaged the king. It was the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” the unnamed source said.
A “Destabilization” Plot
In a news conference last Sunday, Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister Ayman Safadi claimed security officials had intercepted word that Hamzah, his circle, and other foreign plotters had concocted a plan that he said undermined the country’s stability and security.
He accused Hamzah of having tried to “mobilize” Jordanians against the state for “some time.” There was no mention of whether the army or security services — normally involved in coup attempts — were part of the mobilization.
In a video statement obtained by the BBC, the Prince denied any wrongdoing. Hamzah said he was not “part of any conspiracy or nefarious organization or foreign-backed group” and rejected the allegations of anti-government conspiracies.
He added: “I’m in my home alone with my wife, our young children and wanted to make this recording, so that it is clear to the world, that what you see and hear in terms of the official line is not a reflection of the realities on the ground.”
Hamzah also said he had been cut off from most forms of communication and put into isolation due to concerns over criticism of King Abdullah’s government.
The investigation in the alleged coup remains active.
The Abdullah-Hamzah Rivalry
The Abdullah-Hamzah dispute goes back to the weeks prior to Abdullah’s coronation in 1999. That same year, the late King Hussein, Abdullah’s father, chose not to name his brother Hassan, the then-regent, as the next Monarch.
King Hussein claimed Hassan had tried to exert influence over Jordan’s armed forces and had refused the King’s wish to have one of his own sons succeed Hassan.
Instead, Hussein handed the Crown to his eldest son, Abdullah. Once again, that decision came as a surprise to observers. Many believed that if Hassan was not called to be the next Monarch, then the title would fall on Hamzah, the King’s youngest son.
It was no secret that Prince Hamzah was the late King Hussein and Queen Noor’s favorite. He was often described by the King, who had ruled since 1952, as the “delight of my eye.” In the public eye, Hamzah was also the favored choice: handsome, bearing a resemblance to his father, speaks classical Arabic, and popular with the tribes that are the backbone of support for the monarchy.
However, Hamzah was only 18 and deemed too inexperienced and too young to become ing. K
In 1999, King Abdullah, keeping a promise he had made to Hussein, named Hamzah as Crown Prince, but later revoked the title in 2004.
The recent crisis in Jordan risks to destabilize an otherwise calm island within a sea of conflict: a ten-year civil war rages on in neighboring Syria, Iraq continues to grapple with ethnic tensions and a possible resurgence of the Islamic State, while Lebanon suffers from a deep economic and political crisis.
Conversely, Jordan has long been relatively peaceful, it is a virtual ally of the West, and it has kept the peace with next door neighboring Israel for decades.
Yet another nearly failed state, besieged by unrest and possibly serving as a springboard for terrorism would be unwelcome both in the region as well as across Washington, Europe, and Jerusalem.
For now, however, collapse seems unlikely. The King and his rival have appeared in public together in a show of unity. What is not on the horizon, of course, are any solutions to Jordan’s endemic corruption and economic failures. Hamzah may have been tamed, but deeply rooted issues have not.