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Jordan’s King Abdullah II (right) talks to his half-brother Prince Hamzah bin al-Hussein (third from left) at a wedding in 2004.
Jordanian Royal Palace/Getty Images

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Jordan’s royal family feud and alleged coup plot, explained

The story of King Abdullah and the half-brother prince.

Rifts in Jordan’s royal family rarely spill out into the public. But over the past few days, they captured the world’s attention after what was either a brutal crackdown against familial dissent or the collapse of a daring conspiracy against the crown.

What exactly happened remains unclear, but the evident turmoil inside one of America’s staunchest Middle Eastern allies — seen in Washington as a linchpin against terrorists and for desired peace between Israelis and Palestinians — made the US and other nations immediately take notice.

What roils Jordan is a high-stakes he-said/he-said.

The government of 59-year-old King Abdullah II claims Prince Hamzah bin al-Hussein, the ruler’s 41-year-old half-brother and years-long critic of his sibling, led a foreign-backed scheme to “promote sedition” with the goal of “destabilizing Jordan’s security” — phrasing that heavily implies a coup attempt.

In response, the regime arrested Hamzah and as many as 17 others on Saturday to thwart whatever they allegedly had planned. “The plot is totally contained,” Ayman Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister, announced on Sunday.

But Hamzah, under house arrest in his palace, sent a video to media on Saturday in which he both denied leading an elaborate conspiracy and further blasted Abdullah’s leadership.

“Even to criticize a small aspect of a policy leads to arrest and abuse by the security services,” he stated, “and it’s reached the point where no one is able to speak or express an opinion on anything without being bullied, arrested, harassed, and threatened.”

Prince Hamzah bin al-Hussein in 2011. The prince has been arrested along with 17 others for a possible coup attempt.
Khalil Mazraawi/AFP/Getty Images

Other royals soon weighed in, further exposing deep divisions within the royal family.

Queen Noor Al Hussein, Hamzah’s American-born mother and a stepmother to the king, tweeted on Sunday that “truth and justice will prevail for all the innocent victims of this wicked slander.” In a now-deleted tweet, Princess Firyal, an aunt to both Abdullah and Hamzah, responded, saying the “seemingly blind ambition” of “Queen Noor & her sons” is “delusional, futile, unmerited.”

“Grow up Boys,” she added.

While open squabbles between royals in other countries happen often, they’re not a common occurrence in Jordan and have never been this serious in the modern era. “This kind of family feud is extremely rare,” Jawad Anani, formerly Jordan’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, told me. “This last episode has actually shocked the Jordanian public because they’ve never experienced something like that.”

It also caught governments around the world flat-footed, leading longtime partners of the regime, including the United States, to rush to publicly back the monarch. “King Abdullah is a key partner of the United States, and he has our full support,” Ned Price, the State Department’s spokesperson, tweeted on Saturday.

It seems the crisis has come to an end, at least for now. On Monday, Hamzah apparently reaffirmed his loyalty to Abdullah, based on a typed letter sent out by the royal court with the prince’s signature on it.

“The interests of the homeland must remain above all else, and we must all stand behind his highness the king and his efforts to protect Jordan and its national interests,” the letter reads. “In light of the developments over the past two days, I place myself in the hands of his highness the king.”

So what really happened during this days-long saga? Right now, no one seems to know for sure. “It is going to be a slow process before we come to the full truth of this matter,” Anani told me.

Still, experts surmise that Abdullah may have engineered this crisis both to silence Hamzah and to stifle the Jordanian public’s increasing public dissent against the crown. If that’s the case, the events of this past weekend show the royal family’s fight has grown so large that it can no longer be contained.

King Abdullah and Prince Hamzah have a long history of tension

To understand the roots of the Abdullah-Hamzah dispute, you need to go back to the weeks just before Abdullah’s coronation in 1999.

Then-King Hussein, Abdullah’s father who had ruled since 1952, opted not to name his brother Hassan as the nation’s next monarch. That decision came as a shock to most, because Crown Prince Hassan had served as the designated heir for 34 years.

But King Hussein said his sibling had tried to exert influence over Jordan’s armed forces and had refused the king’s wish to have one of the king’s sons succeed Hassan.

Jordan’s Queen Rania and King Abdullah II at the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Assisi, Italy, in 2019. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is also pictured.
Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images
Prince Hashem bin al-Hussein (left) and Prince Hamzah bin al-Hussein, half-brothers of King Abdullah II, seen in 2006.
Mohammad abu Ghosh/AP

Instead of handing the crown over to Hassan, then, the king tapped one of his own sons — Abdullah, his eldest — to replace him.

But that decision was also a surprise. That’s because many observers believed if Hassan wasn’t to be king, then surely it would be the king’s young son, Hamzah. After all, Hamzah was often at his father’s side during the king’s cancer treatment and was widely seen as the dying monarch’s favorite.

The problem was that Hamzah was just 18 at the time, and Hussein felt being king was too much responsibility for a teenager. The elder Abdullah, while popular with Jordanians and the military, also had the advantage of being 18 years older.

Abdullah assumed the throne two weeks later when the king died, and promptly named Hamzah as crown prince. It’s unclear exactly why he did that, as the half-brothers didn’t have a particularly close relationship. But most experts believe Abdullah was fulfilling his father’s wish.

That arrangement ended five years later, in 2004, when Abdullah abruptly stripped Hamzah of his heir-to-the-throne designation. In a letter to Hamzah, Abdullah said that crown prince was just an “honorary” title and that holding it “restrained your freedom and hindered our trusting you with certain responsibilities that you are fully qualified to undertake.”

Therefore, Abdullah continued, “I have decided to free you from the constraints of the position of Crown Prince in order to give you the freedom to work and undertake any mission or responsibility I entrust you with, along side with all our brothers, the sons of Al Hussein, and other members of the Hashemite Family.”

Abdullah didn’t immediately name Hamzah’s replacement, but the king eventually gave the title to his own son, Prince Hussein, in 2009.

Why the switch? “The simplest explanation for the timing of Abdullah’s move is probably the most accurate,” Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, DC, wrote in a 2004 analysis. “[H]e changed the line of succession because he could.”

“Nearly five years after the death of his father, Abdullah no longer operates under his father’s shadow and clearly considers himself to be in full control of the Hashemite kingdom,” Satloff added.

Abdullah’s decision also had precedent, Satloff noted. King Hussein changed the line of succession four times, with his last reshuffle handing the reins to Abdullah. It also helps that the Jordanian constitution clearly states: “The Royal title shall pass from the holder of the Throne to his eldest son.”

Any animosity Hamzah might have felt toward Abdullah after the demotion was mainly kept within the family. Over the years, Hamzah became an increasingly marginalized figure in Jordan’s power structure and hasn’t really materialized as an internal threat to the crown.

What Hamzah has become, though, is a vocal critic of his sibling’s policies.

King Abdullah II gives a speech in Amman, Jordan, on December 10, 2020.
Yousef Allan/The Royal Hashemite Court/AP

In 2018, for example, he 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. That same year he tweeted, “Oh my country,” bemoaning the state of the nation his half-brother leads.

While those and other comments caused a stir in Jordan, King Abdullah could mostly ignore them as the musings of a disgruntled but insignificant political player.

But that has become harder and harder to do as Hamzah has increasingly cultivated — and publicized — personal connections with key players among the country’s powerful tribes, many of which form the backbone of Abdullah’s political base.

Some of those tribal figures say Abdullah’s handling of the economy, the coronavirus pandemic, the integration of 600,000 refugees from Syria, and government corruption are desperately wanting. Hamzah, who paints himself as an anti-corruption crusader, fits the bill as someone tribes could turn to as an alternative to the current leader. It helps that Hamzah looks a lot like his father, the late King Hussein, who remains a beloved figure in his country.

On Friday, Reuters reported that Hamzah made a trip to the city of Salt to visit relatives of Covid-19 patients who died after a hospital ran out of oxygen. That visit came before his brother did the same, 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.

Put together, all of that was apparently a step too far for the king. Instead of handling this situation in private, as is normally the case for the Jordanian royal family, Abdullah made sure his next move sent a clear, public signal.

Not even royal family members are safe as Abdullah becomes more repressive

If the allegations leveled against Hamzah by Jordan’s government seem a bit outlandish, it’s because they just might be.

Abdullah’s regime said Hamzah was in cahoots with Bassem Awadallah, a former finance minister and longtime confidant of the king, and Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, another royal family figure, to target “the security and stability of the nation.”

Safadi, the deputy prime minister, claimed the government intercepted communications between the prince and Awadallah showing they’d corresponded all throughout Saturday, and accused Awadallah of “incitement and efforts to mobilize citizens against the state in a manner that threatens national security.”

Jordanian officials haven’t shown any evidence that Hamzah and the others were planning a coup or some other move, but they have said a foreign government provided support for whatever was afoot.

That allegation seems to point to two countries: Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Bassem Awadallah, a former Jordanian finance minister, center, seen in 2006.
Gilles Bassignac/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

The Saudi connection comes from the fact that at least one of Hamzah’s alleged co-conspirators has some ties to Riyadh.

Awadallah, who is now the CEO of the Dubai-based financial consultancy firm Tomoh Advisory, has reportedly done consulting work for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and last month participated in a Saudi government-led investment conference (along with numerous others). He also assumed the role of special envoy to Saudi Arabia, and some experts I spoke to, citing Jordanian sources, said he is also a special adviser to Salman.

The Saudi prince, however, has already called Abdullah to express his and his country’s solidarity with the Jordanian king and his “support for all measures taken by His Majesty to preserve Jordan’s security and maintain its stability.”

The Israel tie stems from Hamzah’s friend, Israeli businessman Roy Shaposhnik, having apparently offered the prince’s wife and children a private plane to escape Jordan. Ammon, a Jordanian news site with ties to the nation’s intelligence community, claims Shaposhnik is a former member of Mossad, Israel’s spy agency.

Any effort to foment a possible coup inside Jordan would already be viewed poorly by the king. But it would especially hurt since Jordan and Israel have had a peace treaty in place since 1994.

In a Facebook statement on Sunday, Shaposhnik acknowledged that he has “maintained a friendship with Prince Hamzah Bin Hussein of Jordan” and that after Hamzah contacted him over the weekend “to express concerns about the safety of his family,” Shaposhnik “extended an invitation for the prince’s wife and children to stay at his home in Europe.”

However, Shaposhnik denied any connection to Israel’s spy agency and any knowledge or involvement in the “events that are allegedly transpiring in Jordan” and described the invitation he made to Hamzah’s family as merely a “benign, humanitarian gesture.”

Those foreign connections seem to form the backbone of Abdullah’s case. It’s possible the king’s claims have real merit, but experts I spoke to aren’t so sure.

Jillian Schwedler, a professor at Hunter College who follows Jordanian politics, told me she’s skeptical of the charges against Hamzah. For starters, Awadallah is viewed as a corrupt and deeply unpopular figure in Jordan. He’s just not the kind of person Hamzah, who portrays himself as an anti-corruption fighter, would interact with. It therefore doesn’t add up that they would work closely together to depose Abdullah.

Furthermore, the government’s claim that Hamzah has international backers isn’t as nefarious as it sounds. “Any member of Jordan’s royal family would have foreign ties,” she said, noting that Abdullah, like Hamzah, studied at the Sandhurst military academy in Britain. Abdullah even served in Britain’s armed forces for a time.

Instead, Schwedler and others say Abdullah likely wanted Hamzah arrested to send a message: Not even dissent from the royal family will be tolerated now.

It’s illegal in Jordan to criticize the king, but certain powerful people — like the prince — could get away with it. That seems to no longer be the case. “There’s a clear effort to silence all manner of dissent,” Schwedler said.

If that was the true goal of Hamzah’s detention — to silence him, and the Jordanian public in the process — then it fits an increasingly repressive pattern by Abdullah.

Particularly since the 2018 protests over taxes, the government has cracked down hard on any protesters. Last year, officials arrested 1,000 members of Jordan’s teacher’s union after it protested the shutdown of its offices by the regime.

Even so, demonstrators continue to fill the nation’s streets in defiance of the king, most recently spurred by Abdullah’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic. In March, for example, a state-run hospital ran out of oxygen, leading to the death of six Covid-19 patients.

King Abdullah II addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 22, 2020.
Tiffany Hagler-Geard/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Abdullah’s decision to arrest Hamzah seems to have worked, at least for now. The letter he allegedly signed on Monday — in which he once again swore loyalty to the king — seems to have ended this particular crisis.

It could pick up again, though. Hours before the royal court released the letter, Hamzah put out an audio message in which he said he wouldn’t immediately leave his home so as not to escalate the situation, “but of course I’m not going to adhere when they tell me you can’t go out and you can’t tweet and you can’t communicate with people and you’re only allowed to see family.”

It’s therefore possible that Abdullah and Hamzah will continue their feud in public instead of in private. Either way, it’s become clear the king will stop at nothing to repress dissent, even if it means detaining members of his own family.

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