April 29, 2022

IntelBrief: Jordan Palace Intrigue Worries the Region and the United States

Yousef Allan/The Royal Hashemite Court via AP

Bottom Line up Front

  • Tensions between Jordan’s King Abdullah II and his half-brother, formerly the Crown Prince, could potentially destabilize a key actor and U.S. ally in the Middle East.
  • Hamzah bin Hussein’s renunciation of his title of “prince” illustrates that his rift with King Abdullah was not resolved in 2021, as the Kingdom had previously indicated.
  • The rift within the royal family reflects broader schisms among other Arab states over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other issues.
  • Major instability in Jordan could threaten the ability of the U.S. to project power and conduct ongoing operations in the region.

In early April, Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, the outspoken half-brother of Jordan’s King Abdullah II, announced via Twitter that he had relinquished the title of Prince. Both are sons of King Hussein, who ruled Jordan for nearly a half-century before his death in 1999. Hamzah’s mother is the well-known Queen Noor, who is a prominent figure in the United States and Europe. Prior to his death, King Hussein had named Abdullah as his successor and Hamzah to be Abdullah’s heir apparent. However, in 2004, King Abdullah removed Hamzah as Crown Prince, substituting his own son as heir apparent. The long-dormant rift between the brothers erupted in April 2021 when King Abdullah accused Hamzah of colluding with regional powers and some Jordanian officials to seize power. Hamzah was placed under house arrest; 16 Jordanian figures were detained but not charged; and two high-ranking figures—Bassem Awadallah, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, a cousin of the king—were put on trial. After seeming to confirm his disloyalty by issuing a video stating that he was not “responsible for lack of faith people have in their institutions,” Hamzah pledged loyalty to the King, and the tensions seemed to subside. Yet, clearly indicating that the split had not been settled once and for all, Hamzah explained his relinquishing of his title of Prince earlier in April as a refusal to reconcile his beliefs with the “current approaches, policies and methods of our institutions.”

There are no indications that Hamzah could immediately rally a critical mass of popular followers or regime insiders to threaten King Abdullah’s grip on power. However, he and his mother and supporter, Queen Noor, have substantial followings, including among key tribal leaders. Jordan’s unemployment rate is approximately 23%, and the country faces the resource demands of hosting more than 650,000 refugees from Syria, smaller numbers of Iraqi refugees, and a large Palestinian exile population. Jordan’s highly educated youth often express their anger about corruption and a lack of accountability—issues that Prince Hamzah has sought to highlight in his public disagreements with King Abdullah. The public’s economic and governance complaints could suddenly shift public support toward Hamzah, making the ultimate outcome of the power struggle difficult to predict.

The schism between the King and his half-brother, while mostly centering on succession, has caused concern in, as well as possible involvement by, prominent Arab capitals. Jordan, which hosts over 2 million Palestinian refugees (who have the status of citizens), made peace with Israel in 1994 in part to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian settlement that would enable Palestinians in Jordan to return to a state of Palestine. Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy is recognized as the custodian of the two holy mosques in Jerusalem, giving the country additional major standing on Israeli-Palestinian issues. Yet, Jordan is highly dependent on foreign aid, particularly from the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf. Two of those Gulf donors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have in recent years moved away from the historic Arab alignment with the Palestinian cause and toward building ties with Israel in the joint interests of countering Iran’s regional influence. Saudi Arabia’s policy shift—no doubt instigated by controversial de-facto leader Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS)—has been particularly striking insofar as it was the Kingdom that authored the 2002 Arab initiative linking peace with Israel to a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement. As an indication of how critical their donations are to Jordan’s economy, King Abdullah joined the 2017-2021 Saudi/UAE-led blockade of Qatar, which has been an episodic donor to Amman. Even though Prince Hamzah reportedly supports the Saudi and Emirati leaderships and their vision of the Middle East, none of the Gulf states want instability in Jordan, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with the other Gulf states, supported King Abdullah during the April 2021 coup plot events.

Jordan’s palace rift has also raised alarms in Washington, which has relied on Jordan as a stable partner on virtually every major regional issue. Jordan has been a key interlocutor in U.S. relations with Palestinian leadership, as well as a pivotal defense partner in the several U.S. military conflicts in Iraq. In 1996, the United States named Jordan a Major Non-NATO Ally, entitling the Kingdom to extensive defense research cooperation with the United States. The Kingdom is one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign assistance not only in the region but in the world. U.S. forces access bases in Jordan from which to operate against the Islamic State inside Syria and Iraq. In 2021, the U.S. military relocated its prepositioned armor and other materiel from Qatar to Jordan, in part to limit the vulnerability of the equipment and personnel to potential Iranian missile strikes. U.S. officials have long feared that political change or serious unrest in the Kingdom could interrupt U.S.-Jordan strategic cooperation and undermine regional stability more broadly. Yet, U.S. analysts have consistently assessed that unrest in the Kingdom would be generated primarily by economic issues rather than by rifts within the royal family. With extensive U.S. interests in the region at stake, U.S. officials and their Western allies have rallied behind King Abdullah in his power struggle with his half-brother. It is certain that U.S. and Western intelligence agencies will be monitoring the palace rift in Amman closely to determine whether this pillar of stability in a conflict-ridden region might be undermined.