Portraits of the late King Hussein of Jordan (left) and his son, King Abdullah. Credit: amnat30/Shutterstock.
by Ariel Ben Solomon
(JNS) — The arrest last weekend of nearly 20 people, including former Crown Prince Hamza bin Hussein, by Jordanian authorities in what is being viewed by some as a coup attempt has led to fears over the stability of the strategic Arab state.
Jordan, a key U.S. and Israeli ally, is important for Israel’s national security because it serves as a buffer against radical forces from within the country as well as those further east, Israeli Middle East experts told JNS.
“The border with the Hashemite Kingdom is Israel’s longest, and Jordan serves as a friendly buffer on the east,” affirmed Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies. “We should not forget that the territories east of Jordan until the border of India are in the hands of rulers under Islamist influence.”
On April 3, Jordan’s official media outlet denied reports that Prince Hamza had been arrested, claiming that the prince had instead been asked to stop “movements and activities that are used to target” the kingdom’s stability and security. Other key figures were also detained, including at least one other Jordanian royal, as well as tribal leaders and members of the country’s political and security establishment.
Prince Hamza, the eldest son of the late King Hussein and his American-born fourth wife, Queen Noor, and the half-brother of King Abdullah, said he would defy his house arrest conditions, adding to the intrigue behind what was reported as an attempt to destabilize the country.
“For sure, I won’t obey when they tell you that you cannot go out or tweet or reach out to people but are only allowed to see the family. I expect this talk is not acceptable in any way,” Hamza said on April 5 in a recording released by Jordan’s opposition, reported Reuters.
According to the report, Prince Hamza had visited tribal gatherings in recent weeks, where the government and the king had been openly blasted.
Middle East expert Hillel Frisch, a professor at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, told JNS, “I don’t think this is the beginning of the fall of King Abdullah. All the key actors are behind him.”
“Nevertheless, this is the first serious fissure in the royal family, which if it did not enjoy total unity was always sufficiently disciplined to keep major differences within the family,” he said. “What happened in Jordan seems to be a result of dynastic struggles within the ruling royal family.”
“A mainstay of Hashemite rule always lay in that it was more united than any other political actor in Jordan,” added Frisch. “This may no longer be the case.”
Indeed, Abdullah has ruled the country since King Hussein’s death in 1999 and has cultivated a very close relationship with the United States.
Hamza has had a strained relationship with his half-brother, who stripped him of his title in 2004 and later appointed his own son as crown prince. Nevertheless, Hamza has held multiple positions within the monarchy, including in the army, and commands a loyal following in Amman, where he often styles himself after his late father.
At the same time, for the past several years, Jordan has come under increasing strain due to wars in bordering Iraq and Syria, which has led to many refugees resettling in Jordan. The country has most recently has been hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
The United States is “closely following” the situation in Jordan following reports of an alleged coup plot involving the former Jordanian crown prince, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on April 4.
The action against Hamza comes a few weeks after the Jordanian government publicly acknowledged a new defense agreement with the United States that allows free entry for American forces. It boosts Israel’s unstable eastern neighbor, providing a base from which U.S. forces can potentially act in Syria, Iraq and Iran.
The defense pact’s timing — coming soon before the government crackdown — shows how dependent Jordan is on outside support.
Weak national identity leads to instability
Jordan is estimated to have more than half of its population of Palestinian origin, with many from the West Bank, which Jordan occupied between 1949 and 1967, in addition to a significant Muslim Brotherhood presence. These are ingredients for instability.
Add to this the fact that the Jordanian state has a weak sense of national identity, as it and other Arab states were created by Western European powers after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.
A journal article by Linda L. Layne titled “The Dialogics of Tribal Self-Representation in Jordan,” published in 1989 in the American Ethnologist, explains how the state sought to cultivate a national identity around disparate tribes.
“The symbolization of tribes has been facilitated by the Jordanian government’s policy over the last several decades to unify and integrate individual tribal identities into one broad tribal identity, that is, to promote Bedouinism in a general way rather than encouraging each tribe to maintain and develop its own individual identity,” she wrote.
One question that gets to the root of the matter is how “Jordanian” its citizens actually feel. Palestinian, tribal and Islamist elements are less loyal to the state than their ideology or kinship networks. In the Middle East, loyalty tends to be to one’s family and tribe.
The Jordanian regime keeps its grip on power thanks to military and economic aid, mainly by the United States and the Gulf states.
Indeed, America is Jordan’s biggest supporter with more than $1.5 billion in aid in 2020, including $425 million in military assistance.
The poor economic situation combined with a heterogeneous population with divergent loyalties has led to frequent unrest among a vehemently anti-Israel population.
As Frisch noted, “even though the rise of a radical regime was not in the offing, instability in Jordan is bad news for Israel.”