Jordan’s Coup That Wasn’t

The Kingdom of Jordan has had an uncharacteristically eventful weekend. It is a stable country by reputation: a reliable ally and friend. But for a few hours at least, it seemed as though King Abdullah II was about to be deposed. The state’s Jordan News Agency was at sixes and sevens, tweeting and then deleting a number of contrasting updates to the situation. As is often the case when something happens in a country few in the Anglosphere take little notice of, panic quickly reigned and then subsided just as quickly.

In the cold light of a new week, some things are clear. The king has not been overthrown. No coup has taken place. But what has happened instead is interesting in itself, and worthy of some examination.

The challenge to the state centres around the person of Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, the half-brother of Abdullah, who was briefly crown prince between their father’s death in 1999 and 2004, when the title was revoked. Hamzah is younger than his half-brother and is charismatic and reportedly well-liked. He may, at least in theory, have been a popular candidate for the throne if it were to become vacant by happenstance or contrivance.

Over the weekend, the BBC published a video of Hamzah, in which the former crown prince claimed he had been placed under house arrest for criticising the king – criticism Hamzah does not admit to offering.

Hamzah’s message was passed to the BBC by his lawyer, but itself included a number of attacks on the king and the state of the nation, including Jordan’s sluggish pandemic economy and the ‘breakdown in governance … corruption and … incompetence’. All this is hardly a defence for the charge of undermining the king’s government.

In a further bizarre turn of events, Hamzah released a new statement on Monday evening which stressed his commitment to ‘the constitution of the dear Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan’.

The authorities, meanwhile, have coalesced around a connected but more dramatic story: that the stability of the state was threatened, and that the security services had to sweep in to thwart an attempted subversion of the nation. Yusef Ahmed al-Hunait, the chief of staff, said via a statement that he had been asked to ‘stop movements and activities that were used to target the security and stability of Jordan’.

Officials did not acknowledge Hamzah’s arrest, but did admit to the raiding of his palace in Amman and the arrest of two of his aides, Sharif Hassan bin Zaid and Bassem Awadallah, along with up to 20 others.

Awadallah was once Jordan’s finance minister and head of the country’s royal court. He has written and spoken in the past of the need to modernise the economies of the Arab world. It is possible Awadallah’s region-spanning series of directorships and connections made him the conduit for what authorities now allege: that there was a coup attempt, a ‘malicious plot‘ far advanced, with unspecified backing from foreign powers.

As strange as these accusations seem, Jordan’s deputy prime minister claims that the security forces intercepted communications between the coup plotters and their foreign supporters. These supporters are widely believed to be the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Naturally, both countries have since joined with other Arab League states to offer their fulsome support to King Abdullah and his restoration of order. But they would say that, wouldn’t they? A coup attempt would hardly be out of character.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE would be the ideal candidates for a hare-brained coup attempt, real or imagined. Each have form in this area. The Saudis notably kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, before having him resign his office from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and give an extremely uncomfortable interview defending his decision – only to have him slip through their fingers and return to Lebanon through a series of diplomatic stunts. Whereas before he was disliked, Hariri enjoyed a brief spell of popularity after his return.

Perhaps the Saudis made another rash attempt to change the composition of a nearby government, only to have the whole scheme fall amusingly apart. It is too soon to be wholly certain. There is no evidence to speak of. More may well come out – perhaps even those intercepted messages. Or the whole thing could prove what some suggest: that it is a distraction fashioned from whole cloth. Whatever we learn in the coming days will no doubt be of interest to the entire Middle East region.

Jordan is an essential partner for the United States – not least because of its apparent stability – because it hosts over a million refugees from Syria and has a considered relationship with its neighbour, Israel. Although the interactions between Abdullah and prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel arrive at new degrees of frostiness every so often, Jordan does not rattle the sabre nor pledge undying resistance to Zionism.

The American writer Abe Silberstein wrote that ‘people don’t appreciate Jordan until it’s at risk’, which this situation certainly proves. When protests forced the resignation of Jordan’s prime minister in 2018, most foreigners reacted more in response to the surprise of the event than what it might have meant.

This week, as countries – which perhaps took solid Jordanian friendship for granted – rushed to reassure its king that he has their support, perhaps some of them also reflected on how the strength of the Hashemite monarchy is a precious thing – one which only gets its due in rare times of turmoil.

This piece was originally published at The Critic.

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