When the news of a countrywide arrest spread in Jordan in April, the events hit the international community like a bolt from the blue. The surprise was even greater after King Abdullah II had spoken about a plot against him in which a member of the ruling family was also involved. Although the monarch ensured everyone a few days later that the crisis was over, many participants are still not identified, and their “foreign supporters” are still not known—which also leads to uncertainty in the country and the region alike.
Plots against the rulers of Jordan—or Transjordan as it was called in the first years after the country had been born—are not a strange phenomenon to the Arab country’s history. Even the founder of the state, Abdullah I, was assassinated by a Palestinian on 20 July 1951 while he was visiting the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Moreover, this hit also led to a succession crisis because the rightful heir could rule only one year, and, then, Abdullah I’s another son, the only seventeen-year-old Hussein ascended to the throne.
A few years later, however, he also needed to face a serious threat: in April 1957, nationalist and leftist politicians in the country caused a political crisis, and the so-called Free Officers prepared for a coup in the army. This attempt was finally prevented with the US’s financial and intelligence assistance and with the help of the loyal tribes. Indeed, the monarchy has never been closer to falling than in 1957, which does not mean that other crises have not since rocked the Hashemites. Before the civil war also known as the Black September broke out in 1970, a rumour had spread that Palestinian groups in Jordan, helped by foreign forces (i.e., Syrians) wanted to assassinate the king and take over power. The stability of the monarchy was also threatened during the “food riots” of the 1980s or by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in 2014, for the terrorist organisation find support in some Jordan settlements.
There is no doubt that the coup attempt in 2021 significantly differs from all previous similar conspiracies. On 3 April, security forces appeared at the house of fifty people, nineteen of whom were then arrested. In his statement, Abdullah II also named a suspect who comes from the inner circle of the Hashemite house: Hamzah ibn Hussein. This came as a big surprise because, until today, only officers, politicians, foreigners, and terrorists have organised plots against the throne. Let us not forget that Hamzah had been the heir before 2004 but Abdullah II, his half-brother, removed him as crown prince, and, few years later, he made his own oldest son, Hussein, the new one. Although it seemed that Hamzah resigned to his fate, he started to appear on various conferences after 2018, sharply condemning corruption, demanding the normalisation of relations with neighbouring countries (particularly Israel and Syria), pointing out the deplorable situation and constant emigration of the youth, and calling on the government to solve the deepening economic and social problems.
Following the events, Hamzah denied that he had planned a coup against the king in a video which was passed to the BBC. He admitted, however, that he had been put under house arrest and developed links with groups criticising the government. In another audio recording, the Jordanian military’s chief of staff acknowledged that Hamzah had not plotted against the king but many of his statements and critical remarks were used by the opposition as a weapon. Thanks to their uncle’s intervention, an agreement was finally reached: Prince Hamza signed a letter in which he said he was committed to the constitution of the country.
The rift within the royal family came as a shock to the country and the region alike. The local press is still reticent on the events, while the regional and the international media sometimes makes assumptions and refers to unchecked sources. As of the writing of this article, it was not even sure whether Hamzah was still under house arrest or whether he would be brought to trial. Similarly, the identity of the other eighteen arrested plotters also remained undisclosed—the government only confirmed that the army had not been involved in the plot. Despite the secrecy, however, the identity of two of the conspirators has been revealed. One of them is Bassem Awadallah, the former chief of Al-Maqa (which is the administrative and political link between the king and the state) and ex–finance minister. He is mostly known for his domestic and foreign—especially Emirati—investments and had good relations with Abdullah II. In 2016, the Jordanian king appointed him an emissary for the royal court responsible for Jordanian–Saudi ties. Soon, he got Saudi citizenship and became a close adviser to the Saudi crown prince, Mohamed ibn Salman. The other detainee is Hassan Ibn Zaid, who is a member of the royal family but not a close relative of the monarch. He has primarily been active in the business world. Due to his investments and his father, he often visited Saudi Arabia and also acquired Saudi citizenship.
Not only the true identity of the conspirators excites the whole region but also the remarks by the Jordanian authoritiesabout the conspiracy’s having “foreign ties.” The countries in the Middle East and the great powers strongly condemned the events and they assured Abdullah II of their support. Yet, in recent weeks, suspicions about three countries have lingered among Jordanian authorities, media, and analysts. These countries were Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. In each case, there are arguments for and against why the given state could or could not plot a successful coup in Jordan, similar to the most recent one.
As for Tehran, the reason could be that Amman—together with the Western countries—supported the armed anti-governmental groups in Syria with weapons and training. Besides, Jordan often provides information and free passage through its airspace to US and Israeli planes when they bomb Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria. However, there are a few counterarguments, too: Teheran is overwhelmed by many external and internal problems such as the fight against coronavirus, serious conflicts with Israel, or issues concerning its own nuclear programme. Yet, the biggest question about possible Iranian participation concerns its realisation. While it is not unimaginable that Iran has supporters and influence among the two million Palestinian refugees living in Jordan, there is no evidence that Hamzah or anyone else from the Hashemite dynasty has had contact with Iranian officials.
Israel is also mentioned by several sources in the Jordanian government, while Defence Minister Benny Gantz stated he regarded the whole incident as an “internal matter” which they had nothing to do with. Since the 1994 Israel–Jordan peace treaty, relations between the two countries have had their ups and downs, and, yet again, they hit rock bottom in the first months of 2021. On 11 March, the crown prince of Jordan and his escort wanted to visit the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, but they were turned back at the border by the Israelis. As a response to this act, Jordanian authorities did not give Benjamin Netanyahu’s aeroplane permission to pass through the airspace when a governmental delegation was en route to the UAE. Other conflicts likewise soured their relations. For example, Israel rejected the Jordanian request for more water earlier this year—yet, in mid-April, the Israeli prime minister finally agreed to provide the Arab country with additional water. Unlike in Iran’s case, we can find a direct link here: an Israeli businessman, Roy Shaposhnik, who has worked with the Hamzah family for years and offered his plane for their evacuation. Although he later acknowledged the latter, he denied any connection with Israeli secret services.
However, a coup in Jordan would cause more problems for Israel than it would solve. After a plot, the Arab country could easily destabilise, and a civil war could break out. And what the Israeli leadership does not really need in these times is that, after Syria, yet another county in its neighbourhood fall into chaos, as it could easily spread into Israel itself because of the Palestinians. Also, the Israeli leadership is too busy with its conflict with Iran, the coronavirus, or even the coalition talks after the fourth elections in two years to pay more attention to Jordan.
However, the monarchies in the Persian Gulf are looked at with the strongest suspicion: two potential plotters had Saudi citizenship, investments, and close relations with Emirati and Saudi royal circles. It was interesting to see that, few days after information about the coup attempt had gone public, the Saudi foreign minister flew personally to Amman. Surprisingly, according to some sources, his primary goal was not to express Riyadh’s support but to demand that the Saudi citizen Bassem Awadallah be released. This request was, however, rejected by Jordanian authorities.
Indeed, it might look really strange at first to ask why the two Persian Gulf monarchies—Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—would help the plotters. Jordan is a key ally in the proxy war against Iran. Economic ties between the countries are really strong and diversified, but this does not necessarily mean that the relationship between the Emirati, Saudi, and Jordanian royal families is also good. The Hashemite house and the Saud dynasty have been rivalling for more than a hundred years, and their contest has become even more bitter since 2014. Despite Saudi efforts, Jordan has not sent significant military force for the international coalition against the Houthis in Yemen, so the Arab country takes part in the conflict with only a few planes. Moreover, Amman remained neutral during the 2017 Qatar crisis: it not just refused to join the Saudi-led blockade but even strengthened its economic relations with Doha. As some analyses suggest, the main conflict is about one of the greatest fears of the Hashemites. If Saudi Arabia “normalises” its relations with Israel, then the Israeli leadership will give the special rights over the Temple Mount, granted to Amman in the 1994 peace treaty, to Riyadh—and, in this case, the Hashemite house will lose its historical legitimacy because, in the past, they have already lost two other holy cities of Islam—Mecca and Medina—to the Saudis.
In the last years, relations between the Emirati and Jordan royal families worsened, too. For example, the wife of the ruler and vice president of Dubai, who is also Abdullah’s sister, fled with Jordan’s help to Britain and was appointed an envoy of the Embassy of Jordan to get diplomatic immunity. The Emirati leadership was also humiliated when Amman thwarted the Israeli prime minister’s visit to UAE in March.
So there is no shortage of assumptions about the events in Jordan. It will probably take decades to find out the full story, and most likely there will be a few more unexpected twists and turns in the meantime. Even before this blog post was finalised, there was such a surprising turn: the monarch ordered the Jordanian authorities to release all the detained except Awadallah and Zaid, who are set to be tried at the State Security Court. No matter how the story will unfold, the events at the beginning of April proved that Jordan is not exactly a “Kingdom of Boredom” in the Middle East.