A century ago, Sharif Hussein bin Ali had big dreams for his Hashemite dynasty when he was King of the Hejaz and Emir of Mecca and Medina, the holiest sites in Islam. But since the time of Lawrence of Arabia, when the Hashemites were Britain's main regional allies during World War I and led the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, the dynasty has steadily declined. And with the ongoing dispute among Hussein's descendants in Jordan, the family may have hit a new low.
The Hashemite dynasty has faced innumerable challenges over the decades, both externally and internally. Successor brothers were often dumped for sons, but the family never did their dirty laundry in public – until this month when an internal rift turned into public gossip.
On April 3, Jordan announced that it had foiled a plot to overthrow its monarch and destabilize the country. Foreign units, top officials claimed, were working with Prince Hamzah to overthrow King Abdullah II. Two weeks later, the palace has still not shared a trace of evidence, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the story is wrong.
It is more likely that we will see the oldest story in the world: a succession battle between royal siblings. The Jordanian monarch placed his half-brother and former crown prince under house arrest to remove the challenge to his throne, along with 18 alleged co-conspirators. But instead of a rebellious prince, the whole episode has revealed the authoritarian trail of an insecure king.
The Jordanian tribes have historically owed allegiance to the Hashemites, partly because of their religious descent as descendants of the Prophet Mohammad, who also came from the House of Hashim. Your support is essential to the dynasty, but they feel increasingly marginalized and dissatisfied. The United States, which is giving billions of dollars in aid to the country, has officially backed the king in the feud. But they were forced to take note of the increasing oppression in Jordan under Abdullah's leadership.
Abdullah sold himself to the West as a Harley-Davidson-driving, laundry-washing, pro-democracy monarch, but he has actually cemented power in the palace, gagged the press, arrested protesters and dragged his feet to transfer actual power to lawmakers. The Hashemites, who were once considered to be the more modern monarchs and the most westernized, are seen as the rulers of just one other authoritarian Arab state.
According to Reporters Without Borders, Jordan ranks 128th out of 180 nations – among Afghanistan – in terms of freedom of the press. Freedom House, a US-based not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom and human rights, downgraded Jordan's status from "partially free" to "not free" last year. Abdullah's Jordan is not yet Syria or even Saudi Arabia – but those who disagree with the state run the risk of being knocked on the door by the secret services.
Nobody believes that Abdullah intends major political reforms, and his economic reforms have generated more allegations of corruption than positive economic outcomes. He launched austerity measures to obtain credit from the international community and launched a privatization offensive, which some international observers welcomed. However, these measures came at the expense of the loss of support from the tribes of the kingdom.
Tariq Tell, professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut and an expert on Jordanian politics, noted that the nationalist tribes had criticized the neoliberal economic reforms that dominated policy-making under the king. "The East Bank tribal networks have been eroded since the privatization offensive," he said. "Your children don't get the same jobs and benefits." As their share of cake, government jobs, and benefits dwindled and dissatisfaction set in, Hamzah saw an opportunity to gain favor with this traditional support base. He began to turn to tribal figures and performed at weddings and funerals.
Little is known about the prince's economic and political ideology and its comparison with his brother's approach to government. Hamzah has voiced the concerns of the masses but has so far not offered any solutions on how to save a country without resources and flooded with refugees. His greatest asset seems to be his appearance, as he is very similar to his father, the long reigning and fondly remembered King Hussein bin Talal. Even so, his popularity has risen since his arrest.
Ambitious, he was reportedly preferred by Hussein as his successor over his older brother, a decision that proved too difficult to reconcile with the Jordanian constitution. His position of comfort as Crown Prince next to the throne was removed from Abdullah and passed on to his own son in 2004. That must have hurt, but it still doesn't prove he was planning a coup against the king.
According to Tell, no one believed a coup was in the works. "Information coming out of the palace is very contradicting," he said. “Recent events appear to be linked to a succession dispute that has risen since Hamzah was ousted as Crown Prince. It seems that the king wanted to end it. “Adnan Hayajneh, professor of international affairs at Hashemite University in Jordan, said the palace's claims confused him. "From a political science perspective, I cannot understand how foreign powers were involved," he said. “The implication that Israel must be involved makes no sense because they have good relations with Jordan. Why would you want to destabilize Jordan? And while the Saudis and Emiratis have gotten Jordan out of the way lately, they don't want to destabilize the country either. "
Among those arrested who allegedly planned the coup, only two were linked to Saudi Arabia. However, experts say that these men are in no way affiliated with the prince. Bessma Momani, professor of political science at the University of Waterloo and a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation in Ontario, said the arrest of Bassem Awadallah, a dual Jordanian-Saudi national and advisor to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was tactical. "The tribes despise Awadallah and see him as a synonym for corruption and elitism," said Momani. “But he has no connection with Hamzah. Awadallah's arrest was a distraction. "
The palace's suggestion is that Israel and Saudi Arabia want Jordan to become an alternative home for Palestinians currently living in the West Bank, as part of a broader agreement signed by the Hashemites as administrators of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem Al Saud family replaced. Since Abdullah won't play ball, they want Hamzah to start a coup d'état as part of a popular uprising. But analysts disagree and call it conjecture.
"The idea has been circulated at regular intervals over the past half a century without ever being taken so seriously, least of all by Arab governments," said Tobias Borck, Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “It is often suggested that Saudi Arabia or the UAE now actually see this as a viable political option. I do not believe that. I've never heard a Saudi or Emirati politician seriously argue for it. "
At the center of the king's uncertainties is the protest movement known locally as Hirak. In 2011, as the Arab Spring engulfed the region, Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and members of the Jordanian tribes took to the streets. Tell said the groundwork for the Hirak movement was laid in the spring of 2010 by a riot by Jordanian military veterans: “In 2011 the military veterans published a manifesto, and although it was not specifically stated that they wanted to replace the king with Prince Hamzah, their preference was clear. “The Jordanian Security Institute is controlled by members of the various tribes of Jordan. Although Abdullah appointed the senior officers, his greatest fear is that some might openly rebel against him in favor of the prince.
But many say the king's fears are exaggerated. “Despite the various ethnic and ideological fault lines in Jordanian politics, protestors for reform and democracy – from left, nationalist and Islamist parties, as well as from non-partisan youth movements across the country – have marched protesting against corruption and reform almost every Friday for more than a year “Said Curtis Ryan, author of two books on Jordan and a professor of political science at Appalachian State University. “This does not mean that a revolution or a civil war is imminent. In fact, most of the Jordanians still support the monarchy and want it to lead the country to real reform. "
The king seems more like his greatest enemy than Hamzah or a popular opposition. History is full of stories of insecure kings destroying themselves. Instead of arrests and unsubstantiated theories, it might serve him well if he focuses on real political reform and transfers power to parliament. Riding a Harley doesn't make him a modern day king, but establishing a constitutional monarchy in which he's a figurehead and nothing more would do just that.