Inside the Middle East's Latest Very Messy Royal Family Drama

What you need to know about a dramatic week in a normally stable Jordan.
What You Need to Know About the Middle East's Latest Messy Royal Family Drama
Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, pictured in 2010: Photo: Salah Malkawi/Getty Images

It’s been a very dramatic week for the ruling family of Jordan, typically one of the Middle East’s calmer countries.

The Arab kingdom was rocked by news of a series of arrests of high profile figures including the former crown prince, Hamzah bin Hussein.

Hamzah, the half-brother of Jordan’s King Abdullah, appeared in a video message claiming to be under house arrest over what he described as criticism of government corruption and incompetence. "I am not part of any conspiracy or nefarious organisation or foreign-backed group, as is always the claim here for anyone who speaks out," he said in the video in English.

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The former crown prince accused the leaders of the kingdom of harassment after attending meetings with local clan leaders where concerns were voiced around the government’s ability to kickstart the country’s deteriorating economy. 

"It has reached the point where no one is able to speak or express an opinion on anything without being bullied, arrested, harassed and threatened," Hamzah said.

Despite his house arrest, Hamzah was still fortunate: an ordinary citizen could face a hefty prison sentence for publicly criticising the royal family and discussing corruption in such an open manner.

Women stand next to a poster of Jordan's King Abdullah II on a street in the capital Amman. Photo: KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP via Getty Images

Women stand next to a poster of Jordan's King Abdullah II on a street in the capital Amman. Photo: KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP via Getty Images

The Jordanian government did not respond to the video until Sunday, by which point it had been viewed by much of the country on social media. Deputy Prime Minister Ayman Safadi dismissed Hamzah’s claims, saying that it was part of a plot to "destabilise" Jordan. He also accused the prince of trying to "mobilise" the masses against the state. 

"The investigations have detected interferences and communications, including some with foreign entities, on the ideal timing for taking steps towards destabilising Jordan's security,” Safadi said. 

The government claimed that Hamzah had been arrested alongside "16 to 18" other people as part of an active investigation into a “malicious plot” to overthrow the King, and the perpetrators had been arrested before they could take any action, without giving any further details. 

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Compared to its neighbours, Jordan has long maintained political stability inside the country. The Hashemite family rules the country as part of constitutional monarchy in principle, but it has a tight grip over critical state institutions and broad control over the media. The royal family has consistently enjoyed nationwide support from a society built on a complex power-sharing alliance among regional Arab tribes over 100 years ago. 

The last time the country was on such a high alert was a decade ago during the Arab Spring, and while Jordan experienced a few sporadic demonstrations, King Abdullah acted swiftly, and made changes in the constitution, changed cabinets, and promised more reforms. Soon police and intelligence forces cracked down on the organisers, and the protests died down.

But Jordan’s economy has suffered since 2008. The harsh reality is of an economy fatigued by corruption and nepotism, high unemployment rates among young people, and further setbacks caused by the global pandemic. A wide range of Jordanian society has been affected by the faltering economy, even those in royal circles. 

As the royal drama unfolded this week, Jordanian media responded with stories of a "foreign plot" by unnamed entities against the kingdom, and broadcast videos of military drills at the border of Syria and Iraq. Regional leaders also voiced their support of King Abdullah.

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Hamzah has since appeared to backtrack on his previous statement. In a letter posted by the Royal court account on Twitter, he apparently said: "The national interest must remain above all else, and we must all stand behind His Majesty the King in his efforts to safeguard Jordan and its national interests and ensure the best for the Jordanian people."

The following day, Hassan al-Abdalat, the kingdom's general prosecutor, banned any publication and even comments on social media related to the royal drama.

On Wednesday, a statement from King Abdullah was read out on state television, describing recent events as some of his "most painful" days. He also assured the people that "Hamzah is now with his family in his palace under my care." The prince, meanwhile, has reportedly "pledged to remain loyal.”

Sedition has been nipped in the bud," the King said

Jordan may have weathered the crisis in the royal court, but the Hashemite family will need more than internal mediation to hush critics to maintain political stability – concerns around the economy are there to stay.