Jordan’s former crown prince, Hamza bin Al Hussein, posted a rare message on social media in early April 2022, announcing that he was relinquishing his royal title. This dramatic gesture was the latest in a series of events that aired differences within the Hashemite royal family publicly. The Hashemites have historically tried to keep family matters in-house, so these rifts are unusual—not for the differences they expose, but for their highly public nature. The question, though, was whether Hamza’s move amounted to the end of a royal feud of sorts, or whether it was the beginning of something altogether new.
This does not mean that all or even most Jordanians were glued to this latest set of royal events and their probable outcome. While many Jordanians, especially on social media, came out very publicly for or against the prince, it is fair to note that most are far more concerned with Jordan’s economic challenges, its staggeringly high unemployment rate (especially among youth), and domestic and regional politics. For many Jordanians, royal rifts are the least of their concerns, yet these seem to keep occurring.
Prince Hamza’s renunciation of his own title came in the form of a letter posted on Twitter. It was his first message in many months. The prince had stated in his last messages—back in April 2021—that he was effectively under house arrest after news broke of a sedition plot against the king. He was not accused of, nor charged with, any personal involvement. But the regime did argue that he was associating with individuals who were attempting to undermine the king, and perhaps set the stage for a shift in monarch if not in the monarchical system. Former Royal Court chief Bassem Awadallah and Sharif Hasan bin Zayd, a fairly distant royal relative, were both tried and convicted of sedition, in a plot that some in the Jordanian public speculated was linked to foreign powers, including perhaps Saudi Arabia. But in public, at least, Saudi Arabia and Jordan expressed only solidarity and mutual admiration, while the seditionists went to prison, and a Hashemite prince seemed to vanish from public view, with his various social media accounts going silent.
Hamza was not accused of, nor charged with, any personal involvement. But the regime did argue that he was associating with individuals who were attempting to undermine the king.
There had been royal rifts before, but none quite like this. In 1999, the late King Hussein—then suffering from cancer and being treated in the United States—returned to Jordan one last time, only to abruptly change the line of succession on the tarmac of the airport, merely weeks before his death and hence a royal succession. The king changed the succession from his long-serving brother, Prince Hassan, to his eldest son Abdullah, with the apparent understanding that King Abdullah II would make his half-brother Hamza crown prince. This he did, at the time of succession in 1999. In 2004, however, King Abdullah changed his own line of succession, naming his eldest son, Prince Hussein, crown prince and heir to the Hashemite throne. Both of these were very public moves, so royal differences have clearly emerged before. But no previous event had invoked words like ‘sedition’ or an attempted ‘coup,’ certainly not from among the royals themselves. Still, Hamza was himself not accused in these harsh terms, and after months of silence, seemed to return to a kind of public view when a letter attributed to him was published last March, admitting mistakes and asking his brother, the king, for forgiveness.
Yet about a month after that letter emerged, on April 3, Hamza directly released his title renunciation letter, making no mention of the prior one whatsoever, and instead arguing that Jordan was decidedly on the wrong path. “Following what I have witnessed in recent years,” Hamza wrote, “I have come to the conclusion that my personal convictions which my father instilled in me, and which I tried hard in my life to adhere to, are not in line with the approaches, trends and modern methods of our institutions.” He continued: “From the matter of honesty to God and conscience, I see nothing but to transcend and abandon the title of prince. I had the great honour of serving my beloved country and my dear people over the years of my life. I will remain as I have always been and as long as I live, loyal to our beloved Jordan.”
Perhaps the most glaring part of the surprise announcement was not just the renunciation of a royal title, but the pointed invocation of the memory of the late King Hussein.
Perhaps the most glaring part of the surprise announcement was not just the renunciation of a royal title, but the pointed invocation of the memory of the late King Hussein and the remark that Hamza’s own actions were in line with the convictions of his father, whereas those of others, presumably, were not. Meanwhile much of the public reaction was characterized by confusion, with some questioning whether the prince was actually able to relinquish his own title, according to the Jordanian constitution. Ultimately the key power on this, and on so many things, lay with King Abdullah himself. Others speculated whether the first letter was real, since the second seemed largely (at least in tone) to contradict part of the first. In any case, Prince Hamza appeared to want to distance himself from the regime, while also shoring up his credentials with his own popular base.
Yet in the immediate aftermath of the announcement, it was now apparently the turn of the monarchy, the government, and the state themselves to go silent, at least on this topic. This was in stark contrast to yet another unwanted royal news splash: when the Pandora papers suggested a large royal real estate fortune amassed overseas. That exposé landed with something of a thud in Jordan. Many were either not in any way surprised or expressed minimal wonderment that the holdings were so paltry compared to other monarchies, regimes, and public figures. But the Diwan—the Royal Hashemite Court—had reacted to that news with lightning speed, sending out copious details refuting many aspects of the report and arguing that the holdings were legal and legitimate.
News and Media Challenges
This underscores an unfortunate feature of contemporary Jordanian politics, however, and that is the tendency for the Jordanian public to have to go to the foreign press, or to wild speculation on Jordanian social media, in response to countless crises, scandals, or dramatic events. These tendencies are a legacy of the kingdom’s own approach to media. Jordan’s press and publication laws have changed often, alternately more open or more closed depending on the precise timing. But the moving targets of what is acceptable and what is not, in addition to the ever-present shadow of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), or mukhabarat, have led most Jordanian journalists to routinely practice varying degrees of self-censorship.
Before the Arab Spring era, Jordan had among the most open approaches to online media of any Arab country. Yet at the height of the regional uprisings, new rules reined online media in, so that it was increasingly as constrained as print media. Jordan closed down multiple online sites for violating rules and instituted a new cybercrimes law whose elastic parameters remain a mystery even to many serious media professionals. Even prominent and highly-regarded journalists like Daoud Kuttab and Taghreed Risheq, as well as others, were recently detained simply over online articles or social media posts. Today these legacies of media repression remain, with serious journalists in print and online media simply attempting to do their jobs, but ever conscious of gag orders over controversial issues or self-censorship when unsure about the state’s parameters regarding acceptable news coverage at any given time.
Jordan closed down multiple online sites for violating rules and instituted a new cybercrimes law whose elastic parameters remain a mystery even to many serious media professionals.
The most recent Hamza episode, therefore, is but the latest event to suggest that Jordanians are being underserved, both state and public alike, by media restrictions that lead many to search for news and information anywhere but in the Jordanian media or state institutions. Jordanian social media in particular were awash in speculation: was the prince trying to leave the country? Was he attempting a whole new political career, as a non-royal? Was it just a gesture, knowing that the king would probably not accept the renunciation of the title? Was it coerced or part of a deal? Did the second letter imply nullifying the first? But all of these takes were mere speculation, which took place in the context of a prolonged economic crisis and a widely perceived decline in freedoms regarding civil society, the press, and individual speech. Therefore, for many Jordanians, there were deeper and more important issues to address, including unemployment, COVID-19, the outrageously high cost of living (especially for food, fuel, and housing), questions over domestic freedoms, and finally, significant challenges to Jordan’s shifting position in regional affairs.
Even as the various royal machinations were unfolding, regional diplomacy and summitry was moving rapidly, sometimes including Jordan and at other tims appearing to sideline the kingdom. And that, in turn, has become a particularly sensitive subject over the last several years.
With the rise of Donald Trump to the US presidency, American policy appeared to shift. The Trump Administration seemed to put all its emphasis on a personalized politics of key leaders (often via WhatsApp) in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. But Jordan had spent decades as a vital ally of the United States, from the early Cold War period onward. Hashemite kings were used to close relations with American presidents. But Trump seemed to shunt Jordan aside, disregarding it as a go-between, especially as Israel and Gulf Arab states gravitated closer together, with no need anymore for Jordan as a link. Jordanians had feared the Trump so-called ‘deal of the century’ would come at the expense of Palestinians and of Jordan. And while the deal never came to pass, the Trump White House put all emphasis on normalization agreements—the so-called Abraham Accords—especially between Israel, Bahrain, and the UAE. Jordan already has a full peace treaty with Israel, dating back to 1994, but it was nonetheless marginalized in this entire process.
Trump seemed to shunt Jordan aside, disregarding it as a go-between, especially as Israel and Gulf Arab states gravitated closer together, with no need any more for Jordan as a link.
With the shift to the Biden presidency, Jordanian officials were noticeably more optimistic. They had survived a difficult four years, but now intended to recoup their losses and reestablish a close US-Jordanian relationship. The Biden Administration seemed inclined in the same direction, and the Jordanian sedition case, in the spring of 2021, proved to be an early test of where things stood. The White House came out strongly in favor of King Abdullah, reiterated its support for the monarchy and for Jordan, and economic, military, and intelligence cooperation continued apace. But the regional winds of change continued to blow, with select regional powers—Egypt, Israel, and the UAE—meeting in a first of its kind summit in Egypt. Israel had never before been so clearly part of mainstream Arab and regional politics. The same powers held a follow-up meeting in Israel itself that included the United States, in yet another first of its kind gathering. Jordan participated in neither of these events; but while it appeared that it had been marginalized once again, King Abdullah did hold a separate summit with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, and later hosted a meeting with the leaders of Egypt and the UAE before they continued on to the summit in Israel.
Jordan’s regional position was therefore not the same kind of go-between role it played before, especially between Israel and the Gulf states, but the Hashemite Kingdom remained very active in both regional and global diplomacy. American-Jordanian relations seemed to be mainly back on track, with continued and extensive economic, military, and intelligence cooperation. Jordan for its part had worked hard to cement a new inter-Arab alliance with Egypt and Iraq, or a “New Levant,” while also maintaining its ties to the Gulf Cooperation Council and each of its member states.
But challenges remain, especially regarding the Palestinian issue and other regional concerns like Iran. Additionally, internal challenges remain, if anything, even more pressing, from the dire economic situation, to urgent domestic questions regarding reform and change within the kingdom, to concerns over freedoms of speech and press. And each of these, in turn, is likely to remain far more urgent for most Jordanians, even if they might still maintain an eye on royal rifts and challenges within the state itself.