EVERY ROYAL family is unhappy in its own way. Jordan’s is no exception. There were sharp disagreements between King Hussein and Crown Prince Hassan, the brotherly duo who ruled the desert kingdom for decades. Weeks before his death in 1999, the ailing king abruptly flew back from an American hospital to remove his brother from the line of succession and make his son, Abdullah, the heir apparent. But the Hashemites are usually disciplined about showing a united front in public: Prince Hassan accepted his defenestration in silence.
Thus it was extraordinary on April 3rd when authorities accused Prince Hamzah—a half-brother of King Abdullah, and once his designated successor—of plotting against the crown. Up to 20 people were arrested, among them a former finance minister and royal-court adviser. Officials claimed the scheme was backed by an unnamed foreign country. There were even rumours that Prince Hamzah had been placed under house arrest, though the government denied that it had taken such strong action against a royal.
Then Prince Hamzah spoke. In a video message (see picture) the prince claimed that he and his family were confined to a palace outside Amman, their internet and phone lines cut. He attacked the government for leaving the country “stymied in corruption, in nepotism and in misrule”, and for its authoritarian tendencies. “It has reached the point where no one is able to speak or express an opinion on anything without being bullied, arrested, harassed and threatened,” the prince said.
The government has presented no evidence of a serious plot. It promised to do so, but in a televised press conference the foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, offered little of substance. That no arrests have been reported within the army or security services seems telling: it is hard to organise a coup without guns. Jordan’s secret police are legendary for their reach and ruthlessness, and a sophisticated plot would have been difficult to hatch under their omnipresent gaze. Far from a coup attempt, this looks more like a dramatic family feud, one that underscores the public’s growing frustration and the government’s growing intolerance of it.
King Abdullah’s relatives have grown more vocal in their criticism of the longest-serving Arab ruler. In 2018, for example, Prince Hamzah rebuked the government for mismanaging the public sector and failing to fight corruption. He meets often with tribal leaders, the so-called East Bank Jordanians who are both the monarchy’s main power base and an impoverished, frustrated constituency. Admirers say the prince has a common touch lacking in the king, who grew up speaking English and can seem more comfortable in a Georgetown salon than a Jordanian village.
His popularity has unnerved King Abdullah’s inner circle—particularly when his criticisms are widely shared. Jordan has lost billions to tax evasion, corrupt customs officials and other kinds of graft. The economy was stagnant even before the pandemic. Last year it contracted by 5%, while unemployment hit 25%. In March seven people died in Salt, a poor town west of the capital, after an oxygen failure at a government hospital treating covid-19 patients. Many saw the deaths as emblematic of widespread official incompetence.
King Abdullah went to his usual playbook. He sacked the health minister. In an angry speech, he asked “how long we can bear neglect and corruption” and excuse it as a part of Jordanian culture. At times the king sounds more like the head of a good-governance group than a powerful monarch. He acts above the fray; when things go wrong it is the fault of cabinet members or the prime minister, a job held by 13 different men since he ascended the throne in 1999.
Jordanians are tiring of this routine. To judge by the chatter on social media, some appreciate that Prince Hamzah gave voice to their frustrations. Others thought his criticism was out of line. But all agree the arrests have sent a chilling message: if a prominent royal can be detained for raising his voice, ordinary citizens have no room for dissent. Police were already using the pandemic as an excuse to ban demonstrations. Last year hundreds of teachers were jailed for protesting a crackdown on their union.
If confining the prince was meant to silence him, though, it has so far had the opposite effect. In another brief recording he said the army chief warned him not to communicate with the outside world. “Of course I won’t abide when they say you can’t go out, can’t tweet, can’t communicate with people, you’re only allowed to see your family,” said Prince Hamzah. His mother, Queen Noor, called the allegations against him a “wicked slander”. None of this seems a real threat to the king. But if he wants to silence his critics, the best way is to respond to their criticisms.