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Saudis, Israelis and the prince that would be king. The bizarre coup plot in Jordan

Abdallah
©EPA-EFE/MOHAMMAD ALI  |   A frame maker in a frameshop hangs pictures of king Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein king of Jordan, in Amman, Jordan, 04 April 2021, a day after several senior figures were detained and the half-brother of King Abdullah II prince Hamzah bin Hussein said that he was put under house arrest.

A mysterious plot in Jordan, one of the most stable countries in the Middle East, made waves in early April. It is not known exactly who the conspirators were - so far only a few names have been made public - what their intention was and who supported them. However, there’s been talk of a former crown prince, the Bedouin tribes, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The official version: a plot nibbed in the bud 

On April 3, Jordanian authorities announced that they had quelled a plot that was threatening the country's security. Among those involved were the king's brother, Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, who was allegedly placed under house arrest (authorities have denied it), another member of the royal family, Hassan bin Zaid, and a former head of the Jordanian Royal Court, Bassem Awadallah. The last two were arrested along with other alleged conspirators. The Jordanian authorities also spoke of involvement of external forces, without naming any state though.

 Hamzah bin Hussein could have become king of Jordan. He was the favorite son of King Hussein, the ruler who defined Jordan in the modern era and one of the key Middle East figures in the second half of the twentieth century. Hussein wanted Hamzah to become king of Jordan at some point and asked his successor, his brother Hassan, to choose him as heir apparent. Hassan allegedly refused, and that was one of the reasons why, just two weeks before his death, Hussein appointed his eldest son, Abdullah, as his successor. Hamzah was only 18 at the time and considered too young to be king, even though his father had been even younger at the coronation.Abdullah II respected his father's wishes and appointed Hamzah as heir apparent, but reversed the decision five years later, in 2004, and in 2009 appointed his own son to that position. The two brothers have different mothers (Hamzah is the son of Hussein's last wife, Noor, while Abdullah's mother was the second wife of the former sovereign) and there is a significant age difference between them, so they were never very close; more than likely Abdullah's decision did not improve the relationship between them. In fact, over time, Hamzah has made some negative public comments about the situation in the kingdom, but they have been overlooked, given that he hasn’t mentioned the king, and Jordan is, in any case, one of the more liberal Arab countries.This time, however, according to some reports, Hamzah has also spoken to some tribal leaders, who are primarily dissatisfied with the deteriorating economic situation, given that the country, which has limited resources, has in the past years received waves of refugees from Iraq and Syria, and since the onset of the pandemic has also suffered because of its effects. The tribes have been the power foundation of the Hashemite sovereigns since they took control of the current territory of Jordan and have helped them maintain control of the country, especially when they had problems with the country's important Palestinian community.

Hamzah’s first reaction was to send a video recording to the BBC in which he denied any involvement in the plot and said he was only blamed for attending talks where criticism of the situation in Jordan was voiced. However, the prince denounced the "corruption and incompetence" that marked the administration "in the last 15-20 years" - that is, for most of his brother's reign, who became king in 1999. After only two days, another statement by Prince Hamzah appeared, this time published by the Royal Court itself, in which he was pledging his loyalty to the sovereign. The one who played the role of mediator between the brothers was their uncle, Hassan, the former crown prince of the country.

Jordan, a pole of stability between the Levant, the Gulf and Mesopotamia

Given the turmoil and excesses common in the Middle East, a coup plot resulting in less than 20 arrests, in which not a single gunfire was fired, and the alleged leader of the conspirators was only placed under house arrest and apologized almost immediately, shouldn't impress much. However, the incidents in Jordan drew attention outside the country and support started pouring right away for King Abdullah II, primarily from the Arab countries and the United States. The interest in Jordan is justified. Although it is a relatively small and resource-poor country, it is in many ways the region's pole of stability. It lies in a position of strategic importance, between the Levant, the Gulf, the Red Sea and Mesopotamia. It is a loyal ally of the West, first of Great Britain and then of the United States, ever since the grandfather of the current sovereign, Abdullah I, took over, a century ago, the leadership of what was then called the "Emirate of Transjordan". It is the Arab state that has probably the best relationship with Israel, with which it signed a peace treaty back in 1994, but which also has an important influence on the Palestinians, given that the Hashemites are custodians of the third-most important holy place of Islam, the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. In the last twenty years, in a region marked by an explosion of jihadism and the civil wars that followed the Arab Spring, Jordan has managed to remain a safe country, even though it has occasionally faced terrorist attacks, and the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the organization from which the Islamic State stemmed, was a Jordanian citizen, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Jordan became involved in the war against the Islamic State, and one of the most brutal episodes of that conflict took place when a Jordanian pilot was captured by the jihadists and burned alive.

The first to express solidarity with King Abdullah II were the Saudis. They did so first on April 3, then, a day later, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman called the sovereign to assure him of his support, while Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan reiterated this position publicly, in an interview with France 24. Finally, the same Faisal bin Farhan traveled to Amman on April 5, also to personally convey this message to the Jordanian side. The Saudi insistence could be related to the fact that, when the Jordanian authorities spoke of foreign forces involved in the plot, the suspicions were directed primarily at them, especially since both Hassan bin Zaid and Bassem Awadallah had ties to Saudi Arabia, and the latter is said to have worked, as a consultant, for the Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman.

Hashemites and Saudis: the old rivalry between two Arab clans

Theoretically, the Saudis are interested in Jordan's stability, and the alliance between the two countries is a natural one - both are Sunni monarchies, close allies of the West, hostile to jihadists, with long ties to Bedouin tribes to whom borders on the map haver never mattered much. The situation, however, is a bit more complex.

There is an old rivalry between the two families, the Hashemites and the Saudis. The Hashemites are descendants of Muhammad (hence they all bear the title of "sharif") and for centuries were the custodians of the holy cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina, in the Hejaz region of the Arabian Peninsula. After World War I, the Saudis - who, as Muslim fundamentalists, did not place much value on the descendants of the Prophet - captured the Hejaz from the Hashemites. The British did not intervene in support of the Hashemites, even though they had been their allies during the war, when they led the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, but gave them, as consolation prizes, Transjordan and Iraq.

The relations between the Hashemites and the Saudis have not always been smooth after the war a century ago. Another tense period was in the early 1990s, when King Hussein of Jordan, who had a good relationship with Saddam Hussein, maintained that good relationship with him after the invasion of Kuwait and refused to join the Coalition mobilized against the Iraqi dictator. The Saudis took the Jordanian monarch’s stand personally, given that, for them, Saddam posed an existential threat.

Finally, the current leader of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad bin Salman, has reasons to be dissatisfied with Abdullah II. Jordan has been reluctant to get involved in either the Saudi intervention in Yemen or the blockade that Riyadh imposed on Qatar. At the same time, Amman opposed President Donald Trump's Middle East peace plan, and Muhammad bin Salman is the mastermind of a discreet policy of rapprochement with Israel, not officially assumed by Riyadh, but obvious, given that close allies of the Saudis have decided to recognize the Jewish state. That policy also entails concessions to the Palestinians, which Abdullah II cannot afford to make, given the historical relations between Jordan and the West Bank, the share of Palestinians in Jordan and the fact that the Hashemites are custodians of Al Aqsa.  Muhammad bin Salman has shown many times in recent years that he is willing to go as far as it takes to achieve his goals or to deal with those who don’t know their place: he arrested the Lebanese prime minister for not waging war with Hezbollah, he helped oust the Islamist president of Egypt, Muhammad Mursi, and his men killed the opposition journalist Jamal Khashoggi, just to give a few examples. It would not be inconceivable for the impulsive Bin Salman to think of replacing Abdullah II with a friendlier king.

Israel, the usual suspect in the Middle East

It was not just Saudi Arabia that was suspected of being the country the Jordanian authorities referred to when they spoke of a coup plot. The second was Israel, which the Arab street suspects anyway, by tradition, of all the evils in the region. This hypothesis was fueled by the Jordanian authorities themselves, who said that a person with links with a secret service provided a plane for Prince Hamzah's family to leave the country. That person is an Israeli businessman, a friend of the prince, and the secret service would, of course, be the Mossad - such an allegation is all that is needed to make thinks certain in the Arab world. After all, even though the relationship between Jordan and Israel is a good one, the two countries started as enemies, and bilateral tensions still appear regularly. The latest incident came just weeks before the plot - Jordan's Crown Prince Hussein canceled a visit to Jerusalem at the last minute, accusing Israel of not allowing access to his bodyguards, and soon after Amman stalled a flight approval for Benjamin Netanyahu, until the latter was forced to give up a visit to the United Arab Emirates.

However, the connection with Israel is a bit of a stretch. No Arab leader would have legitimacy - or too many days - if he were brought to power with the help of the Mossad. Abdullah I of Jordan was assassinated in 1951 only because he was suspected of wanting to make peace with Israel. The event deeply marked the future King Hussein, who was also wounded in the attack, so it is impossible for Hussein's son, Hamzah, not to know what kind of risks he would be exposed to. Moreover, it is very unlikely that Israel would seek to cause trouble for the most stable of its neighbors, no matter how unhappy Netanyahu was with the failure of his PR stunt and with losing the potential votes that a trip to the Emirates would have brought him.

Until the Jordanian authorities say more, it is difficult to guess what really happened, whether there really was a plot or at least a discussion on Hamzah bin Hussein’s becoming king, or whether any foreign country - Saudi Arabia, Israel or another - was involved. In the end, for all we know, the king may have decided that he no longer tolerates any criticism, and it’s time he set an example, starting with his own family. After all, no matter how liberal, Jordan is not - and never has been - a liberal democracy.

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  • On April 3, Jordanian authorities announced that they had quelled a plot that was threatening the country's security. Among those involved were the king's brother, Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, who was allegedly placed under house arrest (authorities have denied it), another member of the royal family, Hassan bin Zaid, and a former head of the Jordanian Royal Court, Bassem Awadallah. The last two were arrested along with other alleged conspirators. The Jordanian authorities also spoke of involvement of external forces, without naming any state though.
  • The interest in Jordan is justified. Although it is a relatively small and resource-poor country, it is in many ways the region's pole of stability. It lies in a position of strategic importance, between the Levant, the Gulf, the Red Sea and Mesopotamia. It is a loyal ally of the West, first of Great Britain and then of the United States, ever since the grandfather of the current sovereign, Abdullah I, took over, a century ago, the leadership of what was then called the "Emirate of Transjordan". It is the Arab state that has probably the best relationship with Israel, with which it signed a peace treaty back in 1994, but which also has an important influence on the Palestinians, given that the Hashemites are custodians of the third-most important holy place of Islam, the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
  • Until the Jordanian authorities say more, it is difficult to guess what really happened, whether there really was a plot or at least a discussion on Hamzah bin Hussein’s becoming king, or whether any foreign country - Saudi Arabia, Israel or another - was involved. In the end, for all we know, the king may have decided that he no longer tolerates any criticism, and it’s time he set an example, starting with his own family. After all, no matter how liberal, Jordan is not - and never has been - a liberal democracy.
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