The Shakespearean drama that just erupted in the Mideast kingdom of Jordan — involving an angry monarch, a spurned prince and an alleged coup plot — was astonishing for several reasons.
First, because Americans tend to take the kingdom for granted, a moderate monarchy, short on resources but with an educated population at peace with Israel, with whom it shares a very long border, and an ally of the United States.
And second, because — although the Jordanian royal court is rife with enough intrigue to fill several seasons of “The Crown” — those machinations rarely explode in public as they did last week. That’s when King Abdullah II put his younger half brother Prince Hamzah under house arrest and jailed at least 17 other officials.
All were accused of stoking sedition in the kingdom, a charge rebuked by Hamzah in an astonishing video and audio leaked to the BBC, which charged the monarchy with corruption and incompetence.
Any hint that this Jordanian linchpin of Mideast stability could go wobbly, given its borders with Israel, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, was enough to grab the world’s attention. So it’s worth looking at the backstory of the rift between these two sons of the legendary King Hussein and speculating where things go from here.
The charismatic Hamzah, 41, is the eldest son of Hussein’s fourth and last wife, the American-born Lisa Halaby, who became Queen Noor when she married the king in 1978. Hamzah was said to be his father’s favorite but was too young to take the throne when Hussein died of cancer in 1999.
At the last moment, Hussein’s choice to succeed him was Abdullah, his eldest son (by his British second wife). But, at his father’s dying request, Abdullah named Hamzah as his crown prince. A few years later, however, Abdullah stripped Hamzah of that title in favor of his own son, precipitating the drama playing out now.
I met Hamzah only once, in 1997, but that was enough to convey the tight bond between him and his father. I was waiting to interview Hussein, in the Bab Al-Salam (Gate of Peace) Palace in Amman, in a living room furnished with exquisite antique, inlaid Arab cabinets and chairs, laden with pillows rich with Bedouin embroidery.
The king was delayed, so his 17-year-old son Hamzah was delegated to keep me company. I was startled by Hamzah’s uncanny physical resemblance to his father; his movements, the way he held his body, and even the way he spoke English were a carbon copy of the late monarch.
And, as I was told at the time by royal courtiers, despite Hamzah’s British schooling, the young prince was being trained in classical Arabic so that he could orate in the much-admired style of his father. Abdullah never developed that critical skill.
Fast-forward to the present. Jordan is in deep economic trouble, lacking oil or other resources, and burdened by more than 1 million refugees from Syria’s civil war. Its 10 million citizens have been slammed economically by the pandemic, with unemployment rising and an overburdened health system.
Overshadowing these economic woes is simmering public anger over alleged corruption in royal circles.
So when the popular Hamzah started speaking to gatherings of unhappy tribal leaders, where criticism of palace shortcomings was rampant and admiration for Hussein still fervent, this clearly unsettled Abdullah. Especially when the prince wore the traditional red and white Bedouin kaffiyeh so associated with his father.
“Hamzah always provided the other option for Jordanians who aren’t satisfied with the current king,” I was told by political analyst Labib Kamhawi by phone from Amman. “Hamzeh infringed on his power base, and the king put an end to this.”
No evidence has been put forward to support palace claims of a coup attempt abetted by foreign interests (although a couple of the arrested men had close Saudi connections). Officially, Hamzah has supposedly repented and pledged loyalty to his brother. But it is hard to believe that the angry prince will stay mum.
More to the point is how the king will appease his unhappy public. And how those foreign allies that recognize Jordan’s importance, especially the United States and Israel, will help prevent the country’s collapse.
“We have taken Jordan for granted,” says retired Gen. Yaakov Amidror, former head of Israel’s National Security Council under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There is a growing rift between Abdullah and Netanyahu, who has snubbed Jordan on Palestinian and Jerusalem issues, while denying Amman badly needed Jordan River water.
“Israel should do more,” Amidror told the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, a conservative think tank. “We should unequivocally support Abdullah,” he added, “with the water problem, with Syrian refugees and in other areas like COVID-19 vaccinations.”
And the Biden administration should encourage the Saudis and Emiratis to bolster Amman with emergency aid.
But in the end, Jordan’s fate may depend on how Abdullah writes the next act of the Hamzah saga — whether he resorts to more harsh security measures and media controls as looks likely, or finally makes vital reforms and confronts corruption. The onetime crown prince may be silenced, but the drama continues, with King Hussein’s ghost in the wings.