Jordan officials, royal family member arrested amid apparent plot against King Abdullah II
Hours after being confined to his home by military officials, Jordan’s popular former crown prince issued a scathing broadside Saturday against the longtime rule of King Abdullah II, blaming the government for corruption and incompetence even as it tolerates no dissent.
Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, who was removed from his role as crown prince in 2004, spoke in a dramatic video hours after an announcement from the state-run Petra news agency about a series of arrests of leading Jordanians including Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, a member of the royal family, and Bassem Awadallah, a prominent official who once ran the royal court. The pair, according to an unnamed official, were detained along with “others” after “close monitoring.”
It was an unprecedented series of arrests and public airing of grievances in a kingdom known for stability, amid rising discontent over the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic policies.
Hamzah, 41, said in the video that he had been told by the army’s chief of staff — with the sign-off of the head of police and the country’s mukhabarat or intelligence service — to restrict his movements to his home after attending meetings in which the government and the king were criticized, even though he had not participated in the criticism.
Since being told to remain home, Hamzah says in the video, “a number of my friends have been arrested, my security has been removed and the internet and phone lines have been cut.” He adds that he had been able to send out the video through a satellite internet service he expected would soon be cut off as well.
“As I said to the chief of staff when he came, I’m not the person responsible for the breakdown in governance, for the corruption, and for the incompetence that have been prevalent in our governing structure for the last 15 to 20 years, and has been getting worse by the year,” he said. “I’m not responsible for the lack of faith that people have in their institutions. They are responsible.”
Earlier on Saturday evening, Jordanian army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yousef Huneiti issued a statement saying Hamzah had not been detained but instead was “asked to stop movements and activities that were being employed to target Jordan’s security and stability,” adding that this was done within “the framework of comprehensive joint investigations undertaken by the security services.”
“All the procedures were conducted within the framework of the law and after being required as a result of vigorous investigations,” he said. “No one is above the law, and Jordan’s security and stability is above any consideration.”
The prince’s home in a quiet suburb in the capital, Amman, according to observers and activists on social media, had been raided by a 20-vehicle force, which detained members of his security detail. His head of office, Yasser Majali, was picked up after a heavily armed force burst into his relatives’ home, according to Basma Majali, a family member who wrote of the incident on Twitter.
“Communication was lost with him more than three hours ago,” she tweeted.
The news has rocked the tiny desert kingdom, a close regional ally of the U.S. often lauded for its sense of calm in a crisis-ridden neighborhood. That has made it a major regional destination for those fleeing conflict in their own countries, including 600,000 Syrians and more than 2 million registered Palestinian refugees. It borders Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the West Bank.
The Saudi royal court issued a statement in solidarity with Abdullah, asserting it stood with the Jordanian monarch and supported whatever decisions he makes to “preserve the security and stability and frustrate any attempt to tamper with them.” Both Bahrain and the Palestinian Authority followed suit, and Egypt said that Jordan’s stability is integral for Egyptian and Arab national security.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said, “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.”
Jordan’s 59-year-old king came to power in 1999, when King Hussein before his death elevated him from his relatively obscure position as head of Jordan’s special forces to become the new monarch. Since then, Abdullah has been a top U.S. ally, often allowing U.S. troops to stage operations from Jordanian territory and participating in the anti-Islamic State campaign. The kingdom, which has scant resources, received some $1.5 billion in assistance from the U.S. in 2020 — a result of Abdullah’s popularity among congressional leaders.
Yet he is decidedly less popular at home, where Jordanians often compare him negatively to his father, a deeply popular, charismatic figure who steered the country through many convulsions, including several regional wars, a military coup and more than a dozen assassination attempts. Some of that nostalgia rubbed off on Prince Hamzah, who bears a striking resemblance to King Hussein and was often considered his favorite.
As the eldest son of Queen Noor (nee Lisa Halaby), his father’s fourth and final queen, the now-41-year-old prince was thought to be King Hussein’s top choice as successor; he was passed over because he was still in school. Nevertheless, King Hussein insisted on putting Prince Hamzah next in line to the throne after Abdullah.
When his half-brother removed him from the role in 2004, Prince Hamzah largely receded from the limelight. But in 2012, a year after the Arab Spring uprisings felled neighboring regimes, his name was frequently invoked by the country’s main opposition movement as a possible replacement for Abdullah.
Awadallah was a former minister of planning and finance who also once headed Abdullah’s office and his royal court. He served as Jordan’s special envoy to Saudi Arabia, but Abdullah removed him from the role in 2018 over what were said to be his overly close ties to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. He later became chief executive of Tomoh Advisory, a Dubai-based consultancy.
In Hamzah’s video, which lasts 5 minutes and 42 seconds and has the prince speaking to the camera with a picture of his father behind him, he excoriates the country’s ruling class for putting personal and financial interests above the “lives and dignities and futures of the 10 million people that live here.”
“I am making this recording to make it clear that I’m not part of any conspiracy or nefarious organization or foreign-backed group as is always the claim here for anyone who speaks out. I have spoken with people … in the hope that they realize that there are members of this family who still love this country, who care for them, and who will put them above all else,” he says. “Apparently that is a crime worthy of isolation, threats, and now being cut off.”
The turbulence comes at a precarious time for the monarch. Relations with Israel are at a low point, with tensions brewing over Israel’s plans to annex the West Bank as well as a series of tit-for-tat diplomatic slights with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Domestically, the country is experiencing a brutal coronavirus wave, with fatalities only recently dipping below 100 a day. Discontent has risen, with Jordanians increasingly angry over the government’s handling of the pandemic and its inability to contain the economic devastation wreaked by strong lockdowns and weekend quarantines. Many complain that a culture of corruption has become all-pervasive in government quarters (though those complaints usually steer clear of the king), emptying state coffers even as the government levies taxes that have disproportionately affected lower-income segments of the population — an issue Prince Hamzah emphasized throughout his video.
“Unfortunately, this country has become stymied in corruption, nepotism, and in misrule,” he says. “The result has been the destruction or the loss of hope that is apparent in pretty much every Jordanian, the loss of hope in our future, the loss of dignity, and a life under constant threat because we simply want to speak the truth.”
Jordan is rated as “Not Free” by the U.S.-based think tank Freedom House, with an electoral system that keeps the opposition at a disadvantage as well as restrictive laws on media and civil society groups. But even Jordan’s harshest critics acknowledge its tolerance for dissent is far greater than most of its neighbors.
Well past midnight on Sunday, Jordanian Minister of Media Affairs Sakhr Dudin said the government would issue a detailed statement to clarify what happened in Saturday’s arrests.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.