Jordan’s carefully crafted international image was jolted recently when news broke of multiple arrests, the alleged detention of a Hashemite prince, and announcements of a seditious plot to undermine stability in the kingdom. Among those detained were Bassem Awadallah, once chief of staff of the royal court, minister of finance, and trusted advisor to King Abdullah II and Sharif Hasan bin Zayd, a relative of the royal family. Former Crown Prince Hamza bin Al Hussein was placed under house arrest. Also detained were prominent members of the influential Majali clan, some of whom were part of Prince Hamza’s security detail. On April 7, the king released a message to the nation, saying that the crisis was over and that Prince Hamza was at home “in my care.” While some Jordanians exhaled in relief, others remained skeptical regarding the official narrative of what had taken place.
Arrests and Accusations
The sudden arrests of such prominent figures would alone have been enough to startle most Jordanians or Jordan watchers. But the allegation that these figures were supposedly linked was even more jarring. Prince Hamza has usually been seen as having a popular base among some in Jordan’s East Bank tribes, while no one could say the same of Awadallah, who had long been almost villainized in these same circles (and in others) as part of the archetypal Palestinian-Jordanian technocratic and neoliberal elite often accused of curbing the power and influence of Jordan’s more traditional East Jordanian and tribal elite. The Majalis, for example, are a large clan with a long history of loyalty to the state and extensive service in Jordanian cabinets, legislatures, and military and security services, but they are not usually associated with figures like Awadallah.
For many Jordanians, these are not names one ever puts in the same sentence, so something did not seem to add up. Given the state’s tendency to stifle media and issue gag orders during crises, Jordanians were left to speculate on social media since many people trust neither the state nor the mainstream press to give them the full story. The widespread and unusual nature of the arrests also seemed to have a chilling effect since they included people from vastly different and even polarized camps and those in the highest echelons of the system.
The widespread and unusual nature of the arrests also seemed to have a chilling effect since they included people from vastly different and even polarized camps and those in the highest echelons of the system.
State security officials quickly denied early reports that the prince himself had been arrested, but videos then surfaced in which Prince Hamza stated flatly that he was indeed under house arrest, that his security detail had been detained, and that he was forbidden from communicating with the outside world. By the time Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Ayman al-Safadi held a press conference announcing that a plot had allegedly been foiled, countless Jordanians and others had already seen the prince’s viral videos.
It was the second part of the prince’s commentary that was more likely to resonate with most Jordanians, even those uninterested in royal rifts or in the alleged plot: the prince specifically decried the state of affairs in the kingdom, including widespread corruption, governmental incompetence, and the increasing tendency to silence critics—even a Hashemite prince. If the intent had been to move quietly, the outcome was the opposite. The prince’s viral videos changed the narrative and likely resonated with many people, not just his supporters.
Challenges—and Not Just to the State and Regime
Intra-royal rifts are not actually all that unusual in Jordan, but such a public airing of grievances and overt moves against a popular royal are rare indeed. Predictably, this led many to the same question: if a prince can be silenced, what chance does anyone else have? And the prince’s quick assessment of the grim national situation echoed the exact read that countless Jordanians of all walks of life already discuss every day. The specific list of complaints surely resonated with millions of Jordanians. This does not mean that they favor plots, sedition, or even regime change of any kind, but it does indicate that these complaints are real and vital to understanding the increasing difficulties of everyday life in Jordan. It also conveys that these issues—long after the dust of the royal rift settles—must be addressed for the sake of the present and future of the kingdom.
These concerns are all part of the much broader context to Jordan’s current crises. There is (and has been for some time) a crisis in public confidence. Faith in governing institutions is low—so much so that most Jordanians are forced to turn to alternative sources of information to figure out what is “really” going on with almost every incident and crisis. Many people trust neither official government statements nor the largely state-oriented press. The main Arabic daily newspapers, for example—Addustour, Al-Ra’y, Alghad—often sound indistinguishable from press releases from the prime minister’s office or the Royal Hashemite Court. At the height of the Prince Hamza crisis, they even put out remarkably similar headlines, using wording directly from the deputy prime minister’s press conference.
The point is that the lack of a vibrant free press in Jordan clearly does not serve the public well, and not even the state, since most citizens ignore the semi-official press and are forced to look elsewhere: to Twitter, WhatsApp, and now also Clubhouse.
The point is that the lack of a vibrant free press in Jordan clearly does not serve the public well, and not even the state, since most citizens ignore the semi-official press and are forced to look elsewhere: to Twitter, WhatsApp, and now also Clubhouse. Another key point is that this is not just about stability, survival, or security. The larger issue for most Jordanians is simply their own well-being and that of their country, and the prognosis at present is grim. In short, reform—real, genuine, inclusive reform—is essential for the state and society to do more than simply survive.
The economy is suffering terribly, unemployment is soaring especially among youth, and citizens have been chafing under recent curfews and lockdown restrictions as a horrible new surge in the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the country; on April 7, Jordan had about 645,000 infections and almost 7,400 deaths from the disease. But speaking out has become increasingly difficult in Jordan. Civil society and press freedoms have regressed, and the state has steadily increased its list of red lines against protests and demonstrations in recent years. Many Jordanians—activists, journalists, or ordinary citizens—complain not only of a steadily narrowing range of options for participating in public life, but also of goalposts that seem to keep moving.
Especially after nationwide protests in 2018, new “red lines” appeared, attempting to thwart national-level protests and links between localities, between groups, and between urban centers and the rural governorates. In 2019 and 2020, the state began moving against the teachers’ union, often seen as one of the few real achievements of the Arab Spring; but that, too, is now curbed, with the leadership arrested and the union suspended.
Jordan introduced restrictions on online media at the height of the Arab Spring. It already had a long history of curbing print media, to the point that self-censorship is almost reflexive for many writers even as they try to navigate the latest moving goalposts of restrictions. In the last several years, the state has often issued gag orders in response to countless crises, large or small. And almost on cue, the state did so again on April 6, 2021, banning reporting in any way about Prince Hamza.
Attempting to Heal a Rift
Two days after the crisis began, the king dispatched his uncle, Prince Hassan, to communicate with Prince Hamza in an effort to resolve the issue within the framework of the Hashemite royal family. Prince Hamza agreed and even signed a letter expressing the solidarity of the royal family and his own loyalty to the king and crown prince. Yet at that same time, audio recordings went viral of the prince’s heated exchange with security officials, in which he decried the attempt to silence him and limit his activities, and refused to comply. With the running order of these events unclear, the latest gag order ensured that clarity would remain elusive.
For all the original talk of a coup, there was no real evidence in the conventional sense: no military units had moved or shifted allegiance, no weapons were involved, no violence erupted.
For all the original talk of a coup, there was no real evidence in the conventional sense: no military units had moved or shifted allegiance, no weapons were involved, no violence erupted. Those arrested were accused of trying to sow unrest. But in effect, the state may have launched a kind of preemptive strike, whether against a real or imagined threat, attempting to secure the throne today and the succession to the king’s son and crown prince, Hussein, sometime in the future. Coup-proofing may therefore be the better term, but it may therefore be part of a broader pattern that has been going on for some time, albeit a blunt and jarring stroke. Hamza had been crown prince himself from 1999 to 2004, when the king then shifted the line of succession from his half-brother to his eldest son.
Over the years, there have been periodic rumblings of support for Hamza, coming from royalist circles upset with the current monarchy. Hamza’s base has historically been strong among many tribal East Jordanians, with intermittent rumblings coming from veteran military officers or tribal figures, for example. But the king also has a base of popular support. At the height of the recent crisis there were even dueling Twitter hashtags between those “with Prince Hamza” and those “with the king” (or “with Abu Hussein,” the king’s nickname as father of Hussein).
Many—and perhaps most—Jordanians have no interest in picking a team here, unless it is team Jordan, and instead are very uncomfortable with the kind of attention their country is currently getting. Most would welcome stability and security, but they do not see that as a zero-sum game in which they must choose between a more open society or a more stable and secure one.
Given all the wild speculation about what “really” happened, and the widespread distrust of official statements, government press conferences did little to allay suspicions or clarify matters. Nor did the state’s oblique reference to outside support for an alleged plot. It was not clear, for example, if this referred to foreign individuals or to entire governments. Public speculation, of course, focused on the ties of some of those arrested to Saudi Arabia, and specifically to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But the Saudi government moved with lightning speed to announce its support for King Abdullah against any plot. Other speculation, especially on social media, focused on various combinations of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates. Even if all these lines of suspicion ultimately lead nowhere, there is a broader context here to Hashemite suspicions.
To be clear, the Hashemites take their role as protectors of the Muslim and Christian holy places in Jerusalem very seriously; they carefully guard against any attempts to undermine it.
Specifically, during the Trump years, the monarchy and the government had feared that Trump’s so-called peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians would come at Jordan’s expense, that it would sideline Jordanians and Palestinians alike, and that potentially the next in line of the various “normalization” deals (the Abraham Accords) might involve trading the Hashemite custodian role of Al-Aqsa Mosque to Saudi Arabia in exchange for Saudi-Israeli normalization. To be clear, the Hashemites take their role as protectors of the Muslim and Christian holy places in Jerusalem very seriously; they carefully guard against any attempts to undermine it. Still, although there is not yet any real evidence of an explicit foreign role in the incident, suspicions abound at both the regime and street levels.
As difficult as the affair has been in the context of domestic politics, the Hashemite monarchy received clear messages of support from the United States as well as European and Arab allies. Even if the monarchy has now stabilized itself and has begun healing a family rift as well as securing its own security or succession, Jordan as a state and society is left to pick up the pieces. This latest crisis has only underscored the kingdom’s need for a genuinely free press and a free and unhindered civil society as well as the urgent requirement to restore trust between state and society. Jordan, like all societies, needs news sources that are free to report the actual news, including with critical analysis, ones that are not silenced by gag orders or that fawn over state pronouncements and act as mouthpieces of the state. It behooves the government to open, not close, the system and hear the voices of all Jordanians.
Jordan has had multiple moments of openness and liberalization over the years (such as during1989-1993 and 2011-2013), but this is not one of them. The kingdom’s increasing crackdown on dissent comes as it grapples with a severe economic crunch, regional crises, a controversial new defense agreement with the United States, and the horrors of another COVID-19 surge. To be sure, the country has always been at its best when it meets foreign and domestic challenges by opening up and tapping the resourcefulness and talents of its own people, and not by closing off the press and media and impeding civil society, protest, and political mobilization. A more open Jordan would be a stronger Jordan, one better equipped to deal with the next crisis.