Jordan's King Abdullah II inaugurating the 19th Parliament's non-ordinary session with a speech in Amman, December 10, 2020. Photo: AFP / Yousef Allan / Jordanian Royal Palace

A long-running family rivalry coupled with a severe economic crisis and the unrelenting Covid-19 pandemic have put Jordan’s reputation as the Middle East’s most stable Arab country at risk.

The royal family is no stranger to tumult, and it has been capable of overcoming internal disputes without battles going public. This time, however, family spats have escalated into conspiracy charges and arrests in full view of all Jordanians. 

It is a kind of Arabian desert version of The Crown, the Netflix hit TV show about the British royal family. Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, King Abdullah II’s half-brother, accused the country’s leaders of corruption, incompetence and harassment. Abdullah took this as a threat, put Hamzah under house arrest and rounded up his supporters.

The crisis ended when Hamzah pledged allegiance to the King. Yet, underlying issues bubble beneath the surface.

Jordanians protest against measures imposed by authorities to curb the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Amman on March 15, 2021. Photo: AFP/Khalil Maxraawi

First, there is a restless public: Jordan’s economy has floundered during the Covid-19 pandemic. This month, more than 30 labor unions and professional groups staged a strike in Jordan, the largest in years, to protest an austerity bill they said would penalize the poor and the middle class. The government had, in fact, increased the price of fuel by more than 5% and that of electricity by 19%.

Amman ranks as the most expensive city in the Middle East and has a higher cost of living than richer cities, including Dubai, London, and Washington DC, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. This has angered Jordanians, whose incomes have stagnated for years while prices have soared.

Hence, doctors walked out of hospitals wearing white lab coats, lawyers abandoned courtrooms in their black robes and shopkeepers shuttered their stores, hanging signs that read: “We are closed. We are on strike.”

The strike turned into daily nationwide protests with thousands of participants – the largest in the country since 2011. Adding to the nation’s misery, the country has also absorbed waves of refugees from the civil war in neighboring Syria.

Back in 2018, nationwide protests erupted across Jordan against harsh declines in living standards. That same year, Hamzah openly accused the government of “failed management” after it passed a law increasing taxes on workers, inciting thousands of demonstrators to take to the streets.

Rankling public opinion is corruption – including tax evasion, bribery and scandals involving sales of state property.

Nowadays, Jordanians are protesting against the government’s handling of the pandemic. Public anger boiled over last month when seven patients died in the city of al-Salt due to an oxygen tank shortage at a government hospital.

Reuters reported that Hamzah traveled to al-Salt to visit the relatives of the Covid-19 patients who died. That visit came before his brother’s, leading a Jordanian insider to tell Reuters Hamzah had upstaged the king. It was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” the unnamed source said.

Jordanian King Abdullah II (R), Prince Hassan Bin Talal (L) and Prince Hamzah (C) arriving at the Raghadan Palace in the capital Jordan. Abdullah appeared in public alongside his half-brother Hamzah, state TV showed, their first joint appearance since a palace crisis involving the prince rocked the kingdom. Photo: AFP/Jordanian Royal Palace

He accused Hamzah of having tried to “mobilize” Jordanians against the state for “some time.” There was no mention of whether the army or security services – normally involved in coup attempts – were part of the mobilization.

In a video statement obtained by the BBC, the Prince denied all. Hamzah said he was not “part of any conspiracy or nefarious organization or foreign-backed group” and rejected the allegations of anti-government conspiracies.

He added: “I’m in my home alone with my wife, our young children and wanted to make this recording, so that it is clear to the world, that what you see and hear in terms of the official line is not a reflection of the realities on the ground.” 

Hamzah also said he had been put into isolation due to concerns over his criticisms of King Abdullah and the government.

 Abdullah-Hamzah rivalry

The Abdullah-Hamzah dispute goes back to the time of Abdullah’s coronation in 1999. Before his death, King Hussein, Abdullah’s father, chose not to name his brother Hassan, the then-regent, as the next monarch.

King Hussein claimed Hassan had tried to exert influence over Jordan’s armed forces and had refused the King’s wish to have one of his own sons succeed Hassan.

Hussein handed the crown to his eldest son, Abdullah. That decision came as a surprise to observers. Many believed that if Hassan was not named successor, then the title would fall on Hamzah, the King’s youngest son. Hamzah’s mother is Hussein’s Lebanese-Syrian American widow, Noor.

It had appeared that Prince Hamzah was the late King Hussein and Queen Noor’s favorite. The King, who had ruled since 1952, described him as the “delight of my eye.” In the public eye, Hamzah was also the favored choice: handsome, bears a resemblance to his father, speaks classical Arabic and is popular with the tribes that are the backbone of support for the monarchy.

However, Hamzah was only 18 at the time and deemed too inexperienced and young to be King.

Jordan’s King Abdullah (2nd R), Queen Noor, widow of late King Hussein (R), and Queen Rania (L) posing for a picture January 12, 2012, with Prince Hamzah, half-brother of Abdullah, and his new wife Princess Basma Otoum during their Muslim wedding ceremony at the Royal Palace in Amman. Photo: AFP/Yousef Allan

In 1999, King Abdullah kept a promise he had made to King Hussein by naming Hamzah Crown Prince. When he revoked the title in 2004, it was taken as a sign that Abdullah didn’t want Hamzah close to the throne.

The recent crisis in Jordan risks destabilizing an otherwise calm island within a sea of conflict. A 10-year civil war rages on in neighboring Syria; Iraq continues to grapple with ethnic tensions and a possible resurgence of the Islamic State; Lebanon, meanwhile, suffers from deep unresolved economic and political crises.

Jordan, on the other hand, is a peaceable close ally of the West and has kept the peace with next-door neighbor Israel for decades. Becoming yet another turbulent state besieged by unrest and possibly serving as a springboard for terrorism would be an unwelcome shock not only for the region, but also for Washington, Europe and Jerusalem.

For now, collapse seems unlikely. The King and his rival have appeared in public together in a show of unity. What is not on the horizon, of course, are quick solutions to Jordan’s endemic corruption and economic failures. Hamzah may have been tamed, but deeply rooted issues have not.

Antonia Williams is a Rome-based journalist and researcher for the Italian Institute for International Studies, which first published this article. She previously worked in Beirut as regional editor for the Daily Star newspaper. In addition to Asia Times, her articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Open Democracy, Huffington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and Beirut Today.