On 3 April 2021, Jordanian authorities announced the arrest of 20 unnamed people for their involvement in a plot vaguely described as “targeting the country’s security.” Later, many of those individuals were revealed to be the aides and security of Prince Hamzah, the half-brother of King Abdullah II. Other high-profile names included Bassem Awadallah, former Chief of the Royal Court, and Sharif Hassan Bin Zaid, a low-profile member of the royal family.
Soon after, unconfirmed rumors began stirring over social media that the former crown prince himself had been placed under house arrest. Prince Hamzah bin Hussein is a popular figure amongst Jordanians, known for his efforts to remain close to the ground of domestic politics, particularly among tribal and East Bank Jordanians who serve as the military and political backbone of the country.
The following day on 4 April 2021, the BBC released two videos passed to them by Hamzah’s lawyer, one in Arabic and one in English, where the Prince confirmed his house arrest, rocking the otherwise traditionally calm Middle Eastern kingdom. He began the video stating that he was visited by Major General Yousef Huneiti, the Chief of General Staff of the Jordanian Armed Forces, who informed him that he “was not allowed to go out [of his home], to communicate with people [online] or to meet with them” for allegations of taking part in meetings in which the king had been criticized and threatened Jordan’s “security and stability.” He went on to say “I am not the person responsible for the breakdown in governance, the corruption and for the incompetence that has been prevalent in our governing structure for the last 15 to 20 years… I’m not part of any conspiracy or nefarious organization or foreign-backed group, as is always the claim here for anyone who speaks out… and I am not responsible for the lack of faith people have in their institutions… It has reached a point where no-one is able to speak or express opinion on anything without being… threatened.”
Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi confirmed Hamzah’s arrest during a press conference on the same day as the videos’ release, stating that intelligence services confirmed that he was conspiring with “foreign entities” to organize a coup.
Events have cooled over following a tense but positive meeting between King Abdullah II and Prince Hamzah. A Palace statement was released on behalf of the prince bearing his signature, reaffirming his loyalties to the Monarch, and despite his public statements broadcasted by the BCC, Prince Hamzah is understood to have agreed to remain under house arrest. While an eerie silence of peace rings now, many suspect that this isn’t the end of this episode.
Was there a Coup Plot?
Due to Jordan’s press and social media ban on discussing the topic, there has been little information on the nature of the alleged coup plot and the identities of the “foreign entities” involved. Awadallah and Sharif Hassan’s alleged dual nationalities, having Saudi citizenships and owning multiple investments there, were seen as potential links to foreign involvements in the alleged coup plot. Despite these high-profile individuals’ provocative positioning alongside a perceived potential challenger to the throne, it seems highly unlikely that a coup attempt was in the works.
While Prince Hamzah certainly has “for some time been singing from his own songsheet… closer to the opposition than the official line” as Oraib Al-Rantawi, an analyst with the Al-Quds Centre for Policy Studies, describes, it is also “impossible to prepare a coup d’etat without the support of the main army units and the security and intelligence services… all [of which] are behind the king.” Al-Rantawi also adds that none of those arrested “have the profile or the capacity to lead a coup.”
It remains a mystery if Prince Hamzah had truly been liaising with foreign political forces in the Gulf through Awadallah and Sharif Hassan, as is being speculated. The probable scenario is that Prince Hamzah’s contrarian political activism and populist posturing had grown larger as a perceived threat at a time of heightened political tension against the government, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The arrests may have likely been security and intelligence forces pre-emptively snuffing out a potential counter-political development, rather than the timely interception of an organized plot as the Foreign Minister is claiming.
The Trade-War & the United States’ new stakes in the Middle East
This relatively quiet incident, while seemingly small in the grand scheme of international relations, reveals how US hegemony in the region lies on top of a fragile house of cards that could collapse by small disturbances such as the (developing) Prince Hamzah incident. Many of Jordan’s global and regional allies were unusually quick to pledge support to King Abdullah II when the arrests were announced, just prior to the BBC’s release of Hamzah’s videos while the Jordanian public were still in the dark. On April 7th, US President Joe Biden called King Abdullah II to reassure the US’s support. It appears that threats to the small, resource-poor nation seems to stir swift response from the US and its allies in the region.
In the Middle East, US foreign policy in the last few years has taken a more emboldened approach in pushing for diplomatic normalization with Israel amongst its Arab allies compared to prior decades. The “Deal of the Century,” the US-Israeli blueprint for establishing a two-state solution with little Palestinian consultation, and the Abraham Accords, the UAE-Israel peace agreement, are seen as the defining frameworks for this newly-imposed future in the region.
As some analysts and commentators have noted, this foreign policy approach to ameliorate the decades-long animosity toward Israel in the region puts economics first and politics second. The US is banking on market interests w trade and commerce to act as the diplomatic glue to bring these nations together in an economic awww bloc under US patronage, with little to no concessions made by Israel on the illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories. Indeed, following the UAE’s controversial signing of the Abraham Accords, the US has pressured other nations in the region to follow suit, including Morocco, Oman and Sudan.
One can speculate that the US’s recent bid to hastily quash the regional decades-long animosity toward Israel and form a diplomatically-unified economic bloc is a response to China’s swift unrolling of their Belt and Road Initiative over the last decade – a global infrastructure project to establish rails, roads and other means of transport to facilitate trade across Asia into Africa. The consolidation of a unified pro-US economic bloc in the Middle East would geographically intercept those plans, strategically cutting China’s access to Africa and monopolizing Middle Eastern markets. In a similar vein to the initiative, US-sponsored transnational infrastructure projects in the region have begun to be planned out, including a potential “peace railway” crossing through Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Gulf states.
In a manner similar to Cold War-era international relations, the US’ stakes in the Middle East appear to be higher than ever due to this ever-escalating trade war. In addition to physically cutting through China’s Belt and Road Initiative, unifying the Middle East diplomatically also entails securing the flow of global supply chains and commerce so they may continue to work uninterrupted, and with it the “war” effort against China. With the recent obstruction of the Suez Canal by a stuck container ship reminding the world of the global geopolitical significance of the Middle East beyond its resources, US economic interests would be critically hampered should a regional war lead to another Suez Canal Crisis or Arab Oil Embargo. Unforeseen conflict could bring world trade to a screeching halt, giving China an unforeseen advantage in the trade war. It is here where unsuspecting political actors like Prince Hamzah threaten to tip the balance.
Jordan’s place in the contemporary Middle East
Despite being a small, resource-poor country, Jordan plays a critical role in upholding the tapestry of US foreign policy in the region. Since 1952, the United States has provided the kingdom with economic assistance totaling more than $14 billion. Jordan has long been credited with playing a strategic role in maintaining US foreign interests, historically functioning as a friendly bulwark for Israel against unfriendly neighbours and contemporarily providing support toward US military efforts in Syria. For Jordan to be seized by a government unfriendly towards Israel or the US would likely cause a domino effect across the region, threatening the continued stability of US interests in the face of China’s expanding economic reach.
While the Kingdom had already established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1994, there remains a degree of hostility toward Israel within domestic political discourse despite diplomatic formalities. To fully embrace diplomatic relations in the manner in which the UAE has would be seen as crossing a red line domestically, but a red line Jordan has long been egged on to cross by developing political economic forces in the region. These forces are now in full throttle because of the Deal of the Century and the Abraham Accords.
While Hamzah has not commented on recent regional normalization efforts with Israel nor lamented Jordan’s co-operation with the US, he explicitly stated in the video sent to the BBC that he disapproves of the “incompetence that has been prevalent in governing structure[s] for the last 15 to 20 years.” This time frame coincides with King Abdullah’s neoliberal economic reforms in the early 2000s which saw increased privatization of the economy and the cutting of already weak social safety nets. Should Hamzah have seized power as is being alleged, his disapproval of Jordan’s global free market-oriented economic policy and tribal populist sympathies may have seen him throw a spanner into the works. The loss of the overlooked regional fulcrum in Jordan could curtail US hegemonic efforts at establishing region-wide diplomatic and, more crucially, trade relations to counter the Belt and Road initiative.
The Future of Globalization
If the internal affairs of the royal house of a small kingdom could potentially threaten to accelerate the geopolitical consequences of a trade war, then there must be a sober reflection on the sustainability of the current global free market given its apparent effect on politics both foreign and domestic worldwide.Smaller nations like Jordan, many of whom are former colonies, have long had their political sovereignty subjected to the whims of the world’s economic superpowers who effectively dictate the flows of capital.For the globalized political economy developed over the last 30 years to start moving in an equitable and less violent direction, the domestic turmoil and foreign policy obligations it structurally imposes on smaller nations must eventually be addressed, lest they fester and burst in potentially violent episodes such as a coup, or worse.