© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: King of Jordan Abdullah II speaks in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg
By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN (Reuters) – An unprecedented public criticism of the Jordanian monarchy by a high-ranking king who has been placed under house arrest has shaken the country’s image as an island of stability in the Middle East.
On Saturday, the Jordanian military asked King Abdullah’s half-brother Prince Hamza bin Hussein to stop measures against “security and stability” in the US’s most important ally.
In unusually harsh language, recorded on a video his lawyer leaked to the BBC, Prince Hamza, 41, said he had been placed under house arrest and criticized Jordan’s leaders as a corrupt few who put their interests above those of the public would have.
“Damage has happened. For the first time we have someone who has shaken the image of this peaceful, stable kingdom,” said a former minister.
The 59-year-old King Abdullah removed Hamza from his position as Crown Prince in 2004, thwarting the ambitions of his stepmother Queen Noor, who had nursed her eldest son for the throne from childhood.
Hamza was stripped of all power and then pushed into the background. King Abdullah cemented his power by making his son Hussein his heir, and over the past year appeared to have been preparing him intensively for his future role as king.
Meanwhile, Hamza, at the head of the loose anti-government protest movement called Herak, has built relationships with disgruntled tribal leaders who have resumed their calls for anti-corruption protests in recent weeks.
The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a severe blow to the Jordanian economy, pushing unemployment to record levels and exacerbating poverty.
“The king is a red line. We will firmly confront any trembling hand that tries to manipulate the security of the country,” former Prime Minister Faisal al Fayez told parliament in an indirect reference to Hamza.
It’s unclear why the kingdom decided to crack down on Prince Hamza at that moment, but political sources say he put himself at risk by frequent visits to tribal gatherings where people openly criticize the king.
Hamza is not seen to have any real clout, and those arrested as part of an ongoing security investigation are mostly his close aides.
“He allowed himself to be part of a critical machine against the ruling system when he went to tribal gatherings that criticized the ruling establishment even if he didn’t say anything,” said a senior politician.
“When he talked about deterioration in governance and the shutdown of critics, it was very confrontational,” he added, referring to the video.
This is unlikely to pose a serious threat to the monarchy, especially without the support of the powerful Jordanian military, where the king enjoys widespread loyalty, analysts and political sources said.
“In a country like Jordan, you cannot carry out a coup d’état without the involvement of the military. There is currently no such indication,” said Oded Eran, former Israeli ambassador to Jordan and now senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies ( INSS) announced to the Israeli army radio.
“This is the only force of any importance with the ability to take over government ministries, centers of power. With all due respect to the prince – he does not have this ability.”
A former US official with knowledge of the events in Jordan said it was not a coup. Rather, the participants planned to press for protests which, with the support of the tribes, would appear as a “popular uprising with masses on the streets”.
Any attempt to take power would most likely have failed without the support of the United States and regional powers, who expressed their support for King Abdullah and all measures taken to ensure the security of Jordan.
Even so, the Jordanians try to understand the palace’s intrigue.
“I cannot see anything local that triggered this so that the foreign element could exist,” said the former minister.
The senior politician said Prince Hamza was out of his league. “A foolish, annoying prince who hasn’t weighed things up well and seeks solace in this little flirtation with angry tribal elements,” he said.