International and regional concerns about developments in Jordan receded by midweek, after reconciliation in the Royal Family ended with the former crown-prince vowing allegiance to the king and constitution.
This was the result of mediation by a Hashemite family elder, Prince Hassan, the uncle of both King Abdullah II and Prince Hamza.
However, it is not clear what will now happen to the more than dozen others arrested for plotting to “destabilise” the country.
The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia was asking Amman to release the main figure in the group, Bassem Awadallah, who is said to be close to the Saudi leadership and owns a company called Tomoh based in Dubai.
A Jordanian attorney ordered a media blackout of the case until further notice. The rapid action and the media blackout made many Jordanians question the official version of the story about a “foreign-backed plot” to destabilise the Kingdom.
Very little information about what happened in Jordan at the weekend has thus far been confirmed, but reports of the country’s security services arresting more than a dozen figures, including a member of the royal familyand a former minister, have been vaguely confirmed by the government.
What happened was a “threat to the country’s stability” with the backing of foreign players, in other words a palace coup to oust sitting King Abdullah II, it said.
As the two main figures arrested were former minister Bassem Awadallah and former royal chief-of-staff Hassan Bin Zeid, there has been speculation that the arrests are related to allegations of corruption.
Awadallah has previously been accused of embezzlement, when the king had to sack him, and he later resurfaced as a go-between Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Hassan Bin Zeid is a businessman with interests in Saudi Arabia. Both hold Saudi passports along with their Jordanian ones.
However, the involvement of former Jordanian crown-prince Hamza Bin Al-Hussein, a half-brother of the king, has diluted any grounds for thinking the arrests were based on corruption. Instead, there appears to have been a highly sophisticated plot to destabilise the rule of King Abdullah.
Rumours have been spreading, and the international media has intensified its coverage of the events. By last Saturday evening, a recorded video statement by Prince Hamza had emerged that was harshly critical of the king and his governmentand did not deny that the prince shared these criticisms with the country’s opposition and others.
The video, recorded in English and broadcast by the BBC and other outlets, said that talk about a plot backed by foreign players was a lie and claimed that the official line did not always reflect what was really going on in Jordan.
The next day, Prince Hamza’s mother, Queen Noor, implicitly accused the king’s government of framing her son, writing on Twitter that she was “praying that truth and justice will prevail for all the innocent victims of this wicked slander. God bless and keep them safe.”
It is known that Queen Noor, the American-born Lisa Halabi, fourth wife of the former king Hussein, wanted her son to be crowned king of Jordan and the incumbent of the Hashemite throne. But when Hussein had to make an extraordinary visit to Amman from his hospital bed in the US a short while before he died in 1999 to remove his brother, Prince Hassan Bin Talal, from the position of crown-prince, he could not designate Hamza for the position as he was still at school.
Instead, king Hussein made his elder brother, the current King Abdullah, crown-prince and put Hamza second in line to the throne. Four years after becoming king, Abdullah removed his half-brother from the position and made his elder son, Hussein Bin Abdullah, crown-prince.
One Jordanian pundit commented on the denial of a plot by Prince Hamza, saying “don’t believe it until it is officially denied.” Meanwhile, it has become clear that the security services thwarted a serious operation that had been being hatched for some time against the current king’s rule.
Jordanian Military Chief of Staff Mahmoud Youssef Huneit issued a statement denying that the prince was under house arrest. The statement said that Prince Hamza had not been detained, but instead had been “asked to stop movements and activities that were being employed to target Jordan’s security and stability,” adding that this had been done within “the framework of comprehensive joint investigations undertaken by the security services.”
Hamza had been visiting various Jordanian tribal gatherings at which criticism of the government was pronounced. This had gained him popularity among some quarters of society, but whether that was translated into followers in the state structure is not clear.
Head of the prince’s office Yasser Al-Majali was among those arrested by the authorities. He is a member of one of the Jordanian tribes rumoured to be among those whose support the prince was seeking in opposing his half-brother the king.
On Sunday, Jordanian Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Ayman Safadi gave the first official version of what had happened, though his account was short on details, as the investigations are still ongoing and the matter is highly sensitive for national security.
“The country’s intelligence services intercepted a plot as it was about to be carried out,” Safadi said, adding that Hamza had liaised with a foreign government to destabilise the kingdom. “A man with known connections toa foreign spy service contacted Hamza’s wife about leaving the country by plane, and all communications were monitored,” he said.
Though Safadi did not name the foreign country or the man who had allegedly contacted Hamza’s wife, the identity of the person involved quickly became the subject of speculation.
Israeli journalist Barak Ravid wrote that “an Israeli businessman with ties to the US government was in touch with former Jordanian crown-prince Hamza Bin Al-Hussein when he was put under house arrest on Saturdayand proposed to send a private jet to take his wife and kids to Europe.”
Ravid said he had been contacted by Roy Shaposhnik, a political operative in the centrist Kadima Party in Israel and an adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
“He [Shaposhnik] told me he was never a Mossad officer, but confirmed he proposed assistance to Prince Hamza and his family as part of their friendship,” Ravid said. That friendship went back to when Shaposhnik’s company had “provided logistical services to the Prince’s company as it was training Iraqi soldiers in Jordan.”
The remarks provided some clarity to the story and contradicted previous rumours connecting the plot to the Gulf countries. One Jordanian source told Al-Ahram Weekly that the “Gulf countries, Egypt, and other countries including the US quickly issued statements supporting Jordan and expressing their full trust in the leadership and vowing to help to maintain Jordan’s stability and security. Only Netanyahu’s government did not do so,” he said, referring to the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahuand Jordan’s solidstance against Israeli expansionist policies.
One thing many Jordanians agree on is the arrest of Awadallah. “Whether it was for his role in a foreign-backed coup attempt, or for highly sensitive business dealings that contravene Jordanian national interests, many people are pleased he is now facing the law and will be held accountable,” as one commentator put it.
Jordan has seen various economic hardships recently, compounded by the negative impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. Expatriate workers are returning from the Gulf countries to add to the Kingdom’s unemployment figures, and the country’s scarce resources are making it difficult to meet its needs. Financial support, especially from the rich Gulf countries, has declined for many reasons, among them Jordan’s stand on regional issues including Israel.
Any exploitation of popular frustrations and rising anger against the government will spark turmoil in the country. The army and security services, traditionally loyal to the king, cannot take any chances in allowing such exploitation to take root.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly