Why Jordan’s Royal Family Drama Imperils Regional Stability
Jordan’s stability, long protected by the U.S. and other global allies, was suddenly shaken by the dramatic arrests in early April of some royal family members and others accused of plotting unrest in the kingdom. Former Crown Prince Hamza Bin Hussein, King Abdullah II’s half-brother, who is seen as popular among Bedouin tribes in the kingdom’s traditional society, was put under house arrest. Jordan’s stability is crucial to the region because of its role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its situation on the borders of war-torn Syria and Iraq. The kingdom has fashioned itself as a force for moderation in a turbulent neighborhood.
1. What’s at stake?
Jordan is ruled by the Hashemite family, which also ruled the holy city of Mecca for hundreds of years, as well as Iraq and Syria during the 20th century. It was the second Arab state to recognize Israel, almost three decades ago. Israel has always been concerned about Jordan’s stability, as any implosion could mean having a hostile regime or chaos on its border. The political tension comes at a time of worsening relations with Israel, in part over its suspended plans to annex the West Bank, a block of territory west of the Jordan River that the Palestinians hope to make part of a future, independent state. A Sunni Muslim-majority country, Jordan has 10 million people, many of them Palestinians who are naturalized. The kingdom also has more than 2 million registered Palestinian refugees and more than 600,000 Syrians. Its military took part in the global campaign to defeat the jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood, a group espousing the belief that Islamic law and values should play a central role in public and political life, has a notable presence in Jordan. The kingdom has seen peaceful demonstrations since the Arab Spring revolts began in 2011, but has been relatively stable.
2. What’s rocking the House of the Hashemites?
In a rare public dispute within the royal family, Prince Hamza used a six-minute video provided to the BBC by his lawyer to dismiss the accusations against him and slam the government. Saying he was “not part of any conspiracy,” he criticized the government for what he called the “breakdown in governance, the corruption” and “the incompetence that has been prevalent in our governing structure for the last 15 to 20 years and has been getting worse.” He later said he would disobey army orders to stop going out and communicating with the public, Skynews Arabia reported, citing a voice recording by the prince. He said he’d recorded what the military chief of staff told him and shared it with relatives and contacts “in case something happens.” Family tensions have been high since the late King Hussein, shortly before his death in 1999, fired his brother Hassan as crown prince after 34 years and named his oldest son, Abdullah II, as successor. Hamza was then appointed as next in line, but the title was transferred in 2004 to the current king’s eldest son, Hussein. Hamza has since been keeping a low profile.
3. Who’s Prince Hamza?
Hamza, 41, is the eldest son of King Hussein and his American-born fourth wife, Queen Noor, who groomed Hamza to succeed his father. He has occupied various roles, including brigadier in the Jordanian army. Hamza, who bears a close resemblance to his popular father, maintains close links with Jordan’s Bedouin tribes. Jordan’s leaders have always had to tread carefully between the various Bedouin tribes and the large population of Palestinians who took refuge in the country after the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel. Jordan’s peace agreements with Israel are unpopular among the Palestinians.
4. Who else was detained?
More than 16 of Hamza’s associates were taken into custody, including the head of his office and several other members of the influential Majali tribe. Among the detainees are Hasan Bin Zeid, a member of the royal family, and Bassem Awadallah, a former cabinet minister. Awadallah has served in various positions, including economic secretary to the prime minister, finance minister and head of the royal court. Until 2018, he was King Abdullah’s personal envoy to Saudi Arabia, where he was close to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
5. What’s the history?
Jordan declared independence from colonial British rule in 1946. In the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, it won control of east Jerusalem and the West Bank. While Israel seized those territories in a 1967 war, King Hussein remained the custodian of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The kingdom recognized Israel’s statehood in 1994, though it never fully embraced economic ties.
6. How’s the economy doing?
Regional wars have taken a toll on Jordan’s economy that has been compounded by the pandemic. The kingdom faces a worsening squeeze on its finances and a resurgence of Covid-19 cases that prompted the government to renew restrictions on movement, stoking public discontent. The economy contracted by 3% in 2020, and unemployment soared to 24.7% at the year’s end, the highest level in 25 years. Grants by Western countries and from Persian Gulf states have flowed to Jordan for years, including $700 million from the U.S. in August.
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