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By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
Recently there have been signs of “trouble in paradise” when Jordan, which has been a stable and relatively havoc-free country, witnessed a rare drama unfold. And like all good drama, it was a family affair. King Abdullah II revealed a coup d’etat attempt and that his half-brother, former Crown Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, was named the key culprit. Hamzah, a popular member of the royal family, is the son of the late King Hussein and his American-born wife, Queen Noor.
Before we delve into the details of this latest drama we need to understand Jordan’s unique history. This country is a great example of how colonial powers created the modern Middle East, giving rise to countries with minimal national identity at their core.
After the Collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the British Took Over Most of the Former empire
After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the British took over most of the former empire to carve up the booty. And there were many powers waiting to get a piece of the pie.
The area that is today Jordan had a major local player awaiting its fate. The British made many promises to many regional players. The Zionist movement was expecting to get both sides of the Jordan River to establish a Jewish national homeland.
During the First World War, “the French and British sent armies and agents into the Middle East to foment revolts in the Arabian Peninsula and to seize Iraq, Syria and Palestine. In 1916, French and British diplomats secretly reached the Sykes-Picot agreement, carving up the Middle East into spheres of influence” for their respective countries. That agreement was superseded by another which established a mandate system of French and British control, sanctioned by the new League of Nations.
During the war, Britain contacted the Hashemite clan in Mecca, who viewed themselves as direct descendants of Muhamad, the founder of Islam, and the guardians of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. As the leader of the clan, Hussein dispatched his son Faisal to negotiate with Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt. Faisal came away with the impression that the British had promised him the entire Middle East after the war.
When the War Ended Faisal’s Inexperience in International Politics Cost Him Dearly
But when the war ended Faisal’s inexperience in international politics cost him dearly. The British had made many territorial promises, including to the French. The latter entered Damascus, the city Hussein had declared the capital of his unified Arab kingdom, and escorted Faisal out. [HD1] [IF2]
As a consolation prize, the British created two new countries out of thin air for the Hashemite clan: Faisal was named King of Iraq and his brother Abdullah the Emir of Trans-Jordan, on the eastern bank of the Jordan River.
Jordan became an independent state in 1946, and was renamed the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1949, after Jordanian forces seized control of the West Bank during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. (Israel recaptured and annexed the West Bank in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.)
When Faisal was ousted in a revolution, the dynasty remained in control of Jordan. Abdullah then created a coalition of support based on the Bedouin tribes of the area. After Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, many Palestinian refugees settled in Jordan, creating a checkered Jordanian identity.
While Visiting the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, King Abdullah Was Assassinated in 1950
While visiting the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, King Abdullah was assassinated in 1950 by a Palestinian because he was seen as collaborating with Israel. Abdullah’s son Talal ruled for a year then abdicated due to mental illness. So for the next several decades Abdullah’s son Hussein ruled Jordan and made it an island of stability in the midst of the turbulent Middle East.
Hussein saved Jordan from an attempted takeover by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1970 and was able to keep Jordan from further trouble until his death in 1999. Through most of Hussein’s life the crown prince and heir apparent was his brother Hassan. But just before his passing King Hussein named another son, Abdullah, as his successor. Hussein’s son Hamzah was named crown prince. After a few years on the throne, however, Abdullah removed Hamzah and named his own son Hussein as crown prince.
What exactly happened in Jordan at the beginning of April was not made public, so it is not easy to gather information. But it seems that several people holding important positions in the government, the military, and the Bedouin clans conspired with Prince Hamzah.
Hamzah Was Placed under House Arrest and Denied any Involvement in the Coup Attempt
Hamzah was placed under house arrest and in a video broadcast by the BBC from his lawyer, he denied any involvement in the coup attempt. Hamzah claimed that he only criticized the government concerning the difficult economic situation in the kingdom.
A day after his arrest Hamzah made a public statement in support of his half-brother. In a letter signed by Hamzah and published by the palace, he said, “I will remain … faithful to the legacy of my ancestors, walking on their path, loyal to their path and their message and to His Majesty, I will always be ready to help and support His Majesty the King and his Crown Prince.”
The palace announced mediation attempts to resolve the family tension. It was also published in regional news outlets that the Saudi government had assisted Hamzah. That claim does not seem to be true as the BBC posited: “It is certainly hard to see the logic behind either of Jordan’s most powerful neighbors — Saudi Arabia or Israel — wanting to destabilize this small, relatively impoverished kingdom. Under the late King Hussein and now his son King Abdullah, Jordan’s monarchy, the Hashemite dynasty, has managed to survive the buffeting winds of Middle Eastern politics.”
Even in Areas that Seem Stable Tribal Politics Can Raise Tensions
What does this episode tell us? That even in areas that seem stable tribal politics can raise tensions. The economic crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic hit Jordan hard and there are many among the Jordanian power structure who would like to have a bigger seat at the table.
The palace has reported mediation attempts and hopefully, they will succeed not only for the sake of the royal family. No one in the region wants a failing state in Jordan. Israel shares its longest border with Jordan and would have trouble if Jordan were to disintegrate. The same is true for Saudi Arabia and the U.S., which has always seen the royal family as an ally. So it is in everyone’s regional interests to keep Jordan stable and united.