Understanding the dynamics that led to Jordan’s royal crisis

The crisis was the result of deep-rooted rifts and rivalries within the royal family, as well as growing public resentment of the government’s failure to implement successful political and economic reforms.

Jordan's Prince Hamzah was put under de facto house arrest for his alleged role in a conspiracy to undermine Jordan’s national security on April 3, 2021 [File/Muhammad Hamed/Reuters]

Jordan, currently led by King Abdullah II, has long been perceived as an oasis of peace and stability in a volatile region, and for good reason. Indeed, unlike those of its neighbours, Jordan’s governing institutions proved to be robust and reliable in the face of myriad domestic and external challenges over the years. The Jordanian regime survived even the Arab Spring, thanks to the Jordanian people’s trust in and loyalty to the monarchy.

And yet, events of this month demonstrated that Jordan, too, is not immune to domestic instability.

On April 3, King Abdullah’s popular half-brother, Prince Hamzah, was put under de facto house arrest for his alleged role in a conspiracy to undermine Jordan’s national security. It was known that he had been attending tribal meetings critical of the king, but the news of his arrest still shocked the Jordanian people and the world.

Rather than seeing the intervention as a warning and quietly backing down, the prince decided to fight back. In a videotaped statement, he denied participating in any conspiracy against his half-brother but accused the kingdom’s “ruling system” of corruption, incompetence and harassment.

In response, the government issued its own statement and accused Prince Hamzah of collaborating with former Chief of the Royal Court, Bassem Awadallah, and unnamed “foreign entities”, to destabilise the country. The authorities also revealed that Awadallah, who served as planning minister and finance minister in the past, has been arrested alongside several others from the higher echelons of Jordan’s governing elite.

Prince Hamzah swiftly responded to the accusation of foreign collaboration by releasing an audio recording of his conversations with Jordan’s military chief, which indicated that the prince was targeted not for his involvement with any foreign power, but for meeting with the king’s domestic critics. This gave the prince further credibility and increased the public’s support for him.

Eventually, after mediation from members of the royal family, Prince Hamzah signed a letter promising to abide by the traditions and approaches of the ruling monarchy, de-escalating the crisis.

But what was behind this unprecedented upheaval in the royal family that carried Jordan to international headlines and gave rise to fears that this oasis of stability may soon descent into chaos?

This crisis was the result of deep-rooted rifts and rivalries within the royal family, as well as the growing public resentment over the government’s failure to implement successful political and economic reforms.

Since the establishment of the Emirate of Transjordan in 1921, Jordan has been ruled by the Hashemite royal family. For nearly 100 years, the Hashemites have managed to keep their house in order and avoided divisions and feuds that resulted in the fall of many monarchies. But a rivalry that started some 20 years ago eventually resulted in last week’s feud and shattered the royal family’s image as a strong, united and stable governing body.

When Jordan’s King Al Hussein bin Talal passed away from cancer in 1999, Abdullah was crowned and his younger half-brother, Hamzah, was titled the crown prince of Jordan. The designation was out of respect for King Hussein, who ruled for 47 years and was known to have favoured Hamzah the most among his 12 children from four marriages.

In 2004, however, King Abdullah II relieved Prince Hamzah of his title and in 2009 appointed his then-teenage son, Prince Al Hussein, as the new crown prince of Jordan. The move consolidated King Abdullah II’s power, but also caused resentment among Prince Hamzah’s supporters within the ruling elite.

The relationship between King Abdullah II and Prince Hamzah all but broke down after the appointment of a new crown prince, but the two royals successfully kept the tension between them hidden from the public for a very long time.

However, things started to change over the last few years. As Prince Hamzah’s popularity increased, the king started to view him as a threat to his authority. He stripped his half-brother of his military titles, indicating his intention to keep him away from Jordan’s leading institutions for good. In response, Prince Hamzah started talking publicly about government mismanagement and corruption, and established himself as a well-respected anti-corruption figure in the eyes of the public. Over the last three years, he also held many consultative meetings with Jordan’s tribal leaders. During these meetings, it is alleged, the government was repeatedly criticised for failing to end corruption and to restore public trust.

As Prince Hamzah successfully cast himself as a down-to-earth royal who understands the worries and struggles of common Jordanians, Crown Prince Al Hussein failed to make any impression on the public. All this increased King Abdullah II’s worries about the future of his rule and paved the way for the public rift on April 3.

The king would have been less concerned about Prince Hamzah had he been more proactive in his attempts to tackle the political and economic challenges the country is facing.

Since his accession to the throne in 1999, King Abdullah II and the ruling elites surrounding him put reform efforts on the back burner.

While the king presented himself to the West as a committed reformer, he failed to support this rhetoric with a credible blueprint for transitioning Jordan from autocracy to democracy. The modest reform package he passed on the heels of a series of demonstrations during the Arab Spring proved enough to calm tensions temporarily, and appease the West, but did not satisfy the significant number of Jordanians who are yearning to live in a democracy.

The king always thought the Jordanian people would continue to support him, even in the absence of meaningful structural reforms, if he ensures the economy is functioning in a satisfactory manner. But Jordan is now struggling economically. Youth unemployment is on the rise, and many Jordanians are fearful for the future.

More importantly, in light of these economic challenges, Jordanians seem to be losing faith in the king’s ability to keep Jordan politically stable, economically prosperous and safe from external threats in the years to come. Indeed, opinion polls in recent years repeatedly demonstrated that a clear majority of Jordanians believe the country is heading in the wrong direction under King Abdullah II. It is therefore understandable that the king grew concerned about the rise of a younger royal who successfully presented himself to the public as an honest anti-corruption figure who understands the struggles of the common people.

Thus far, the Jordanian government did not provide any proof to back its claim that Prince Hamzah conspired with a foreign entity to destabilise the country. While the identity of this foreign entity is not publicly known, it is strongly implied, by figures close to the government, that Israel is the culprit. Indeed, the Israeli government has plenty of reason to try and manipulate the Jordanian government to support its interests. Jordan has long been a key defender of Palestinian rights and has been reluctant to embrace the newly emerged alliance between Israel and a group of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia.

But as the Jordanian government refrained from officially accusing any foreign power of conspiring with Prince Hamzah, a growing number of Jordanians suspect that the government is not telling the whole truth. Some even go as far as accusing the government of baselessly implying that the prince has links to foreign entities to make him less appealing to disgruntled but patriotic Jordanians. There is a growing suspicion in the country that the entire crisis was staged to eliminate Prince Hamzah as an alternative to King Abdullah II within the royal family.

On April 7, the king publicly addressed the royal rift for the first time in a letter read on television, saying the “sedition” that caused him “pain and anger” has now been buried. But he refrained from giving any further details or explaining what foreign entities have been involved in the alleged plot against his rule. His statement, aimed at reassuring the public that all is well within the monarchy, failed to calm the growing anxieties. What the Jordanian public wants to hear is that their king is committed to changing his approach to governance that left so many of them impoverished. King Abdullah II, however, appears more interested in eliminating his perceived rivals than addressing the real issues that are threatening the future of his rule.

This month’s events were a symptom, not the cause, of Jordan’s crisis. The country’s problems are rooted not in any real or imagined conspiracy, but in the reluctance of its rulers to implement much-needed reforms. If the king does not act fast to address the grievances that led to the increase of Prince Hamzah’s popularity in the first place, Jordan may one day lose its status as an oasis of safety and stability without the help of any domestic or foreign adversary.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.