Jordan: Coup Attempt or Crackdown?
By Christian Hawkes
April 3, 2021, brought shocking news of the arrest of top Jordanian officials for “security reasons,” including former finance minister Bassam Awadallah and Prince Hassan bin Zaid. Prince Hamzeh, son of the late King Hussein’s fourth wife and half-brother of current King Abdullah II, was also placed under house arrest, allegedly for “actions targeting Jordan’s security.” Jordan’s government quickly called it an attempted coup, backed by unspecified “foreign entities” threatening to destabilize the kingdom.
The news that this was allegedly a coup with foreign support led to an immediate pointing of fingers. One Israeli outlet claimed that this was an attempt by Prime Minister Netanyahu to undermine the Jordanian monarchy after recent spats. Others pointed to potential Gulf involvement; Israeli media claimed that the UAE and Saudi Arabia were involved in the attempt. Moreover, Basem Awadallah, arrested as part of the alleged plot, is seen as a conduit to the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and Saudi officials were allegedly insistent that he be released. All of these seemed plausible. Jordan has historically maintained custody of the Muslim holy sites in East Jerusalem, but since the US recognition of an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in late 2017 rumors have swirled that Saudi Arabia may be interested in a pro-Israel peace deal that would grant the Saudi monarchy control of al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock. Israel had clashed with the Hashemite royal family weeks prior, when Crown Prince Hussein abruptly cancelled a visit to the al-Aqsa mosque over a dispute over his security detail. Frustration from Israel and the Gulf states over Jordan’s refusal to back the recent peace plan, which garnered support from Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, may have motivated any or all of these states to seek a friendlier regime.
But while uncorroborated speculation swirled surrounding potential foreign involvement, the government’s narrative seemed to fracture. The day of the arrests, Jordan’s news agency initially denied reports that Prince Hamzeh was under house arrest, but the prince put out an English-language video asserting that he had been placed under house arrest by the military and that his Internet and phone lines had been cut. Hamzeh asserted that he was not involved in any conspiracy or criticism of the king but decried “the corruption and … the incompetence that has been prevalent in our governing structure for the last 15 to 20 years.” The video, contrasted with the official statements, indicated that this was not an attempted coup. This was bolstered by who was—and who was not—arrested: no military leaders were arrested for plotting a coup, but members of the influential Majali tribe were. Additionally, a legitimate coup attempt seemed to run contrary to tribal interests.
Indeed, this may have been little more than an attempt to clamp down on opposition and rein in a popular politician. Hamzeh himself is quite popular among Jordanians, especially among those who support the monarchy, in no small part due to his resemblance to his father, the late King Hussein. Additionally, he is seen as more in-touch with the Jordanian people than his older half-brother and has regularly decried corruption in the public sector. Hamzeh may have been viewed as a palatable and popular alternative to the current system, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic and Syrian refugee crisis have laid bare problems within the country’s government.
The Royal Family has made a show of reconciliation. King Abdullah appointed his uncle, Prince Hassan bin Talal, to resolve the royal dispute. Shortly thereafter, the Royal Court published a statement signed by Prince Hamzeh affirming his support for the current monarch and saying that “the interests of the homeland must remain above every consideration.” A few days later, the two royals appeared in public, signaling an anticlimactic end to a public dispute that drew international attention. Still, Jordan issued a gag order prohibiting publication of information associated with the prince, and the whereabouts of the other detainees are unknown as of publishing.
King Abdullah has assured the public that there is no ongoing threat to the nation or the government. The public reconciliation between the monarch and his half-brother indicates that there is at present no immediate threat to Abdullah’s reign. But this public dispute indicates the fragility of a nation that has typically been viewed as an island of stability. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit the country hard in recent months, and concerns about peace deals upsetting the Palestinian demographic mean that the king is desperate to maintain his legitimacy. This brief family feud may have been a way to remind the country’s key internal supporters and regional neighbors just who is in charge.