There are still more questions than answers about what happened in Jordan, but the crisis will allow the US to recalibrate its friendship with the Hashemite Kingdom.
Jordan’s tense state of affairs following the wave of arrests of members of the royal family and certain elite figures on April 3 is highly unusual for this country. In the Hashemite Kingdom, unlike elsewhere in the region, the arrest of royal family members is rare. This made this month’s palace turmoil shocking to Jordanians and unsettling to the US which sees stability in Jordan, an important US ally, as critical to Washington’s interests in the Middle East.
The world began tuning in to Jordan’s situation following the news of the alleged house arrest of the Kingdom’s former Crown Prince Hamza bin Al Hussain and the arrest of at least 16 people within his circle, including Bassem Awadallah, who previously served as the head of the royal court, planning minister, finance minister, and advisor to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), and Sharif Hassan Ben Zaid, a member of the Jordanian royal family. It is still unclear whether Crown Prince Hamza was house arrested in the first place.
Jordan’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said that the state had been tracking Prince Hamza and his associates and foiled this alleged plot in the “zero hour”. Safadi also said that the Jordanian government believed foreign parties were connected to this plot to destabilise the country.
At this point, not all the facts are clear. Countless conflicting reports are coming out. Although officials in Amman never used the word “coup”, did the Jordanian government prevent one? Was this strictly an internal Jordanian affair, or were foreign elements involved as alleged by officials in Amman? Who are all these foreign parties which Jordan’s government claims were involved in this purported plot?
Prince Hamza, who was the crown prince from 1999 until his removal by King Abdullah II in 2004, put out two videos (one in Arabic and one in English) through his lawyer. In these videos, he said that he did not work with any foreign powers against Jordan and that he was being punished because of his criticisms of the government.
According to his charges against Jordan’s government, “no one is able to speak or express opinion on anything without being bullied, arrested, harassed, and threatened.”
The feud between King Abdullah II and his half-brother is illustrative of the difficult times that Jordan faces. Prince Hamza, who has been active on social media, has shown sympathy for many Jordanians whose lives have suffered from the Covid-19 pandemic and the overall poor economic situation. He has not been shy in terms of criticising the government for what he sees as mismanagement, corruption, nepotism, and poor governance.
In recent weeks, the Herak (a group of tribal figures) have been demanding protests in response to government corruption in a country where Covid-19 has severely harmed the economy by raising unemployment and driving more citizens into poverty. Authorities in the Kingdom have cracked down on some of these demonstrators and Hamza is accused of seeking to rally tribal elements in Jordan against the ruling government.
Some diplomats from western and Arab countries reportedly expressed doubt about any coup plot, mainly dismissing such talks as solely based on hearsay. Moreover, these diplomats pointed to the absence of Jordan’s military in the alleged coup plot as further underscoring how unlikely it was that there was any credible physical coup threat to Jordan’s monarch.
Thus far, Jordan’s government has not substantiated its claims about foreign parties working to destabilise the Kingdom. Whether Jordan will ever point its fingers at any other country in the region is doubtful. Nonetheless, pundits have been busy speculating about which powers could have possibly been involved in this purported “malicious” plot to destabilise the Hashemite Kingdom.
Because of Awadallah’s ties to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), some analysts have raised the possibility of Riyadh and/or Abu Dhabi being the suspects. More generally, with Saudi Arabia neighboring Jordan and MBS’s history of intervening in other Arab countries’ internal affairs, speculation has been rife about Riyadh being involved. But there is no proof. Talk about Saudi Arabia, the UAE, or any other country being behind a plot to target Jordan’s security is, at least as of now, only based on rumors.
Regardless of questions about possible foreign involvement in this alleged plot to weaken Jordan, all GCC members, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Morocco, Turkey, and Yemen all came out in support of King Abdullah II. Backing for the Jordanian ruler came in from beyond the region too, with both the United States and United Kingdom giving their absolute and unequivocal support to the king.
One reason why many are skeptical about the serious accusations of a foreign-backed destabilisation plot has to do with the nature of Amman’s foreign policy. Jordan seeks to avoid creating enemies in the region and balances itself geopolitically, underscored by the country’s position between Qatar and the Saudi/UAE bloc amid the blockade of Doha.
With Jordan maintaining positive relations with virtually all countries in the Middle East and North Africa, there is this open question of which government would have anything to gain from targeting King Abdullah II and his government?
For now, there seem to be more questions than answers.
Implications for US foreign policy
From Washington’s perspective, Jordan has for decades represented a “moderate” and pro-western monarchy that serves a stabilising role in the region. The Hashemite Kingdom has also been a useful interlocutor between Israelis and Palestinians since the signing of the Jordanian-Israeli Wadi Araba peace treaty in 1994.
Yet Amman and Washington’s relationship suffered during Donald Trump’s presidency. Since the outcome of the US election last year, there has been hope in Jordan about Biden correcting some of his predecessor’s mistakes as seen from Amman’s perspective.
After Biden’s 2020 electoral victory, “there was a palpable sense of relief that the Trump years would soon be over and that US Middle East policy might change, even if only incrementally,” explained Dr. Curtis R. Ryan.
“While [Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE] enjoyed particularly warm relations with the Trump White House, Jordan was left for four years in an uncomfortable and unaccustomed position of seemingly benign neglect. Jordanian kings were used to closer relations—both nationally and even at a personal level—with American presidents.”
This palace turmoil in Jordan may create challenges as well as opportunities for the Biden administration. To be sure, this situation could give the White House the chance to show strong support for the king amid this difficult time. Thus far, the Biden administration has already done so.
Jordan’s recent military agreement with the US, which was signed in February and made public in March, might not be directly related to this alleged plot. But it is an important part of the bigger picture. This controversial agreement, which the king approved of while bypassing the parliament, gives US personnel much greater ease moving around virtually all parts of Jordan.
Certain parliamentarians and opposition groups, including the Islamic Action Front, have expressed concerns about this agreement, particularly with respect to Jordan’s national sovereignty. At the same time, some voices in Jordan have also stated that the agreement violates their country’s constitution.
Regardless of what the opposition in Jordan thinks, this agreement will, in all probability, further ensure the US’s support for King Abdullah II. As the Biden administration sees it, Jordan is too important of an ‘oasis of stability’ and a close US ally to fall to the tumult that has beset so many other countries next to and near the Hashemite Kingdom. One can safely bet that Jordan’s leadership will turn closely to Biden’s administration for support. Given how frequently the US president visited Amman during his decades as a US senator and vice president, King Abdullah II will turn to an American president whom he and those around him know very well.
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