Jordan accused former Crown Prince Hamza bin Hussein over the weekend of allegedly conspiring with “foreign parties” to “destabilize” the country.
In an unusual example of palace drama for the relatively stable monarchy, Hamza issued a video statement through his lawyer in which he said he was under house arrest and has been ordered not to communicate with the outside world, an order he said he would not obey.
41-year-old Hamza, the oldest son of the late King Hussein and younger half-brother to current ruler King Abdullah II, was named Crown Prince of Jordan in 1999. It was widely understood at the time that King Hussein favored Hamza, but he was too young to assume control at the time of his father’s death, so he was formally designated next-in-line. This was a great disappointment to his mother Queen Noor, the king’s fourth wife and reportedly his favorite, as she had been grooming Hamza to take the throne after his father’s death.
In 2004, King Abdullah decided to strip Hamza of his title, passing it instead to his own oldest son Al Hussein bin Abdullah II. The king said he did this to “free” Hamza from “the constraints of the position of crown prince in order to give you the freedom to work and undertake any mission or responsibility I entrust you with.”
Most observers of the royal court assumed King Abdullah wished to consolidate power into his wing of the family. Lineage is particularly important to the Jordanian royal family because it claims to be directly descended from Islam’s Mohammed.
Hamza appeared to take his demotion reasonably well, voicing occasional criticism of government policies but rarely seen as a serious rival to the new crown prince or an aggressive threat to the throne. His attitude might have changed in recent years as he became close to a political movement called the Herak, a tribal coalition that styles itself as pro-democracy activists and accuses the Jordanian monarchy of corruption.
The Herak became influential after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. Their influence surged again during the coronavirus pandemic, as they accused the monarchy of mismanaging the coronavirus response and its economic fallout. Protests against King Abdullah have grown so widespread over the past few months, spurred by unemployment reaching 30 percent and a scandal over coronavirus patients dying because a hospital ran out of oxygen, that Jordanian security services began warning of serious threats to the stability of the monarchy.
Evidently, the government decided former Crown Prince Hamza was one of those threats, arresting 15 people over the weekend for their alleged involvement in a “malicious plot” against the throne.
On Sunday, after a day of confused and often conflicting statements from government officials, Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi directly accused Hamza of being involved with the plot. Safadi said Hamza, former finance minister Bassem Awadallah, and another member of the royal family called Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, had launched a plan to disrupt “the security and stability of the nation” in a palace coup with foreign backing.
Safadi described this plan as an imminent threat to the government and said communications had been intercepted between Hamza and Awadallah in which the plotted “incitement and efforts to mobilize citizens against the state in a manner that threatens national security.”
“The investigations had monitored interferences and communications with foreign parties over the right timing to destabilise Jordan,” Safadi said in a televised news conference. “Initial investigations showed these activities and movements had reached a stage that directly affected the security and stability of the country, but His Majesty decided it was best to talk directly to Prince Hamza, to deal with it within the family.”
Safadi accused Hamza of breaking from “the traditions and values of the Hashemite family” by refusing to cooperate with the “amicable” investigation. He said Awadallah was trying to flee the country at the time of his arrest and was trying to arrange for Hamza’s family to evacuate as well.
The Jordanian military denied arresting Hamza, but said he was instructed to “stop activities that are being exploited to target Jordan’s security and stability.”
A former U.S. official told Reuters the plot under investigation by the military was not a traditional “physical coup,” but rather an effort to destabilize Jordan by organizing a “popular uprising with masses on the street,” drawing upon the close relationship Hanza has forged with the Herak movement and some tribal leaders. Hamza is very popular with some disgruntled tribes, in part because he has a strong physical resemblance to his father, the late King Hussein.
Other sources inside the Jordanian government implied Hamza and his co-conspirators were supported by parties within Saudi Arabia, in part because these Saudis have some financial interest in complicated and rather murky plans to privatize billions of dollars in Jordanian infrastructure. The Saudi monarchy officially stated its “full support” for King Abdullah after news of the arrests in Jordan broke.
Hamza sent a video statement to the BBC through his lawyer in which he claimed he was under house arrest, by order of the top officials in Jordan’s military, intelligence services, and police.
“I’m making this recording today to try to explain what has happened over the last few hours with me. I had a visit from the Chief of Staff of the Jordanian Armed Forces this morning in which he informed me I was not allowed to go out, to communicate with people, or to meet with them,” he said.
“I am not the person responsible for the breakdown in governance, the corruption and for the incompetence that has been prevalent in our governing structure for the last 15 to 20 years and has been getting worse,” Hamza said in response to the allegations against him.
“And I am not responsible for the lack of faith people have in their institutions,” he continued. “It has reached a point where no-one is able to speak or express opinion on anything without being bullied, arrested, harassed and threatened.”
Hamza promised he would not “make moves and escalate now,” but also vowed to disobey orders to isolate himself from the public and remain silent. He insisted he was not “part of any conspiracy, or nefarious organization, or foreign-backed group,” but presented himself as one of the royals who “still love this country” and put the welfare of its people “above all else.” His video pointedly refrained from criticizing the king by name, instead blaming the corrupt “ruling system” for Jordan’s problems.
Hamza’s mother Queen Noor al-Hussein entered the controversy with an unusually barbed statement of support for her son on Sunday:
Praying that truth and justice will prevail for all the innocent victims of this wicked slander. God bless and keep them safe.
— Noor Al Hussein (@QueenNoor) April 4, 2021
“We are closely following the reports and in touch with Jordanian officials. King Abdullah is a key partner of the United States, and he has our full support,” the U.S. State Department said in response to the crisis.