Prince Hamzah affair: The lasting impact of Jordan's royal crisis

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7 min read
14 April, 2022

Last week, Hamzah bin Hussein, the son of King Hussein of Jordan and once heir to the throne, released a statement renouncing his princely title and status.

In the statement, Hamzah said “I have come to the conclusion that my personal convictions … are not in line with the approaches, trends and modern methods of our institutions”, and that the only option was to “transcend and abandon the title of prince”.

Intrigues of this sort are not uncommon in monarchies. They pepper royal courts across the world. But two things make this announcement different.

The first is the tone of the statement – a hint that the nature of Jordanian society is running away from the principles “which [Hamzah’s] father instilled in me, and which I tried hard in my life to adhere to”.

"Hamzah's alleged coup, and the way the Jordanian state responded to it, worried Western policymakers enormously"

And the second is that Hamzah’s renunciation comes almost a year to the day after one of the strangest episodes in recent Jordanian politics – in which Hamzah was accused of attempting to lead a foreign-backed coup against his half-brother, King Abdullah II.

Hamzah was Abdullah’s crown prince between their father’s death in 1999 and 2004 when his title was removed, with bitterness. Hamzah is younger than his half-brother and is charismatic and handsome. As a prince he was popular and well-liked.

At the time of the alleged coup, there was some speculation that if the throne were to become vacant Hamzah would have been a popular candidate for king, despite the removal of his place in the succession a decade and a half earlier.

The truth of the alleged plot has not been fully established, at any time in the year since. Over the first weekend of April 2021, the BBC published a video of Hamzah handed to the corporation by his lawyer, in which the former crown prince claimed he had been placed under house arrest for criticising the king.

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Hamzah’s message included attacks on the king and the state of the nation, including remarks about Jordan’s slow economic recovery from the covid pandemic and criticisms of the “breakdown in governance [,] … corruption and … incompetence”.

On Saturday 3 April 2021, the military purportedly warned the prince over actions it said were undermining security and stability in Jordan, and publicly raided Hamzah’s palace in Amman and arrested two of his aides, Sharif Hassan bin Zaid and Bassem Awadallah, along with up to 20 others.

That Monday, 5 April 2021, Hamzah signed a letter that stressed his commitment to “the constitution of the dear Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan”.

But that same day, Hamzah’s friends circulated a voice memo in which he claimed he would defy the terms of his house arrest. “I am going to escalate and won’t obey when they tell you you cannot go out or tweet or reach out to people and are only allowed to see the family”, the memo said.

Throughout this period, official sources took various lines. Reports of Hamzah’s apparent treachery were first broadcast and then banned from circulation. Jordanian authorities later alleged that there was a coup attempt, which was described as a ‘malicious plot’ far advanced, with backing from unnamed foreign powers. And then, after that April, things went largely silent.

 Jordan's King Abdullah II attends the State opening of the Parliament on November 7, 2016, in Amman, Jordan.
Jordan had openly complained about what it claims was an almost-successful foreign subversion of its politics. [Getty]

Jordan is an absolute monarchy but is considered one of the more developed and stable of the Arab kingdoms. The Hashemite dynasty has ruled for a century, aligning the country largely with the Western alliance. It has absorbed millions of refugees from Syria with fewer political travails than other neighbours.

Jordan’s state security service, the Mukhabarat, is considered elite by the United States and is depended upon as a keystone of its regional strategy. Many Westerners take Jordan’s stability unduly for granted. In reality, its politics are more fractious, and more chaotic, than appearances suggest.  

Hamzah’s alleged coup, and the way the Jordanian state responded to it, worried Western policymakers enormously. They were not used to considering the nature of the country’s internal politics at all.

Now they had a new dimension: the king’s growing unpopularity at home and Jordan’s lack of comfort with increasingly brazen American support during the Trump presidency for annexing the occupied West Bank and the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s geopolitical manoeuvring.

It was as if a solid ally was revealed to be neither a guaranteed ally nor necessarily as solid as it appeared.

"If Jordan invented or exaggerated the coup attempt for its own reasons, it did so in a way that has caused its king incalculable harm"

Meanwhile, Hamzah retreated from public life. Abdullah of Jordan was not overthrown. Domestic politics partially returned to other subjects, the most disruptive of them being the various leaks from banks and holding companies that estimated the Jordanian monarchy’s offshore assets, which was largely met with indifference and even pity among tastemakers in the country.

When two of Hamzah’s alleged confederates, bin Zaid and Awadallah (Jordan’s well-connected former finance minister and head of the country’s royal court, who had made statements like Hamzah’s of the need to modernise the economy of Jordan), went on trial a few months later, they attracted sympathy in hushed tones.

Some among the Jordanian public saw Hamzah and the king as diametric opposites, with Hamzah, even under arrest, a symbol of a new way forward for Jordan.

The state released what was characterised as farcical evidence of the plot, designed to smear the two men. No new evidence of an international coup was released for months.

For most of last year, journalists attempted to piece together fragments. The Guardian reported on the possibility that, with the tacit approval of the Trump White House, Saudi Arabia may have attempted to destabilise the Jordanian monarchy as part of a broader reshaping of the Middle East.

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In order to assist the Trump ‘Deal of the Century’ between the Arab states and Israel, Abdullah, an obstacle to normalising relations with Israel, could have been removed or shaken. When Trump lost his bid for re-election, The Guardian posits, the plot may have derailed and arrived in public half-formed when the secret got out.

If true, any intercepts by Jordanian intelligence could have been used to tie Hamzah and his associates to the plot; but no coup was either likely or possible. When he was arrested, authorities hinted at this scenario, suggesting that Hamzah had communicated with foreign parties for a long time, and had been under surveillance – accused of treachery – for many months.

This still remains conjectural in the face of such a lack of publicly available information. Hamzah’s renunciation of his status removes him still further from the possibility of power. It appears to diminish the possibility of factions growing within the royal house which could militate popular disapproval of King Abdullah’s policies and his politicians.

If the entire episode was initiated by the Jordanian state and intended to safeguard the country’s reputation for stability, it was done based on an extreme miscalculation. Even if Hamzah and his associates are removed from public life, the damage their arrests have done has been difficult to overstate.

"What was once a beacon of stability now looks like an absolute monarchy attempting to buy time"

Jordan has openly complained about what it claims was an almost-successful foreign subversion of its politics. It has built up an alternative national leader even as it arrested him and deprived him of his titles. Its leaders have given a face to largely inchoate anger about poor governance, a lack of reform, and economic stagnation. The country has rarely looked less stable and less well-governed.

The new American administration has largely remained silent. It is less dogmatically loyal to Israel than the Trump administration, and Joe Biden and his team have maintained tepid ties with Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, the annexationist government of Benjamin Netanyahu has been voted out of office and replaced by an alternative coalition, which seems to have a less grand vision for reshaping the region.

Those accused without evidence of having plotted the coup are either out of power or uninterested in destabilising Jordan further. But if Jordan invented or exaggerated the coup attempt for its own reasons, it did so in a way that has caused its king incalculable harm.

What was once a beacon of stability now looks like an absolute monarchy attempting to buy time.

James Snell is a writer whose work has appeared in numerous international publications including The Telegraph, Prospect, National Review, NOW News, Middle East Eye and History Today.

Follow him on Twitter: @James_P_Snell