MS Risk Blog

Jordan: How did the sedition saga unfold, and what was the Prince’s role in it?

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On 3 April 2021, the security forces of the Kingdom of Jordan publicised they had arrested about 20 people on security grounds. Said security grounds barely were (and still have yet to be) elaborated on, but soon the Kingdom’s “security and stability” were invoked as somehow having been at risk. Further clues about the situation would come through revealing the identities of some of the arrestees. Right at the beginning of the saga it was announced that high ranking officials and leaders in Jordanian society had been implicated in the saga – including former royal envoy to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Sharif Hassan Zaid, and former royal court chief and close confidant of the King, Bassem Ibrahim Awadallah. The proximity of such figures to both Jordanian power was worrying enough, and suggested sedition or a conspiracy against the rulers of Jordan might have been brewing in the country. This would spark an investigation, which would cause details of the saga to unfold.

Meanwhile, since the beginning the government and palace had been keeping tight lipped about what was happening, and thus whether or not it truly was sedition could not be confirmed. Nonetheless, whatever the situation was, it was certainly being taken seriously – this was evident from the increased police presence in the Dabouq area of Amman, near the royal court. That particular observation in itself provided some clues as to the nature of the saga – that it was something physically and metaphorically surrounding the royal court.

Going back to the chain of events, at the time of the arrests there were rumours that a high-profile member of the royal family was caught up in the saga: Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, the half-brother of King Abdullah II of Jordan. Before I go into the details of how events in the saga unfolded, I have to provide context about who the Prince is and how he fits into everything. Prince Hamzah is the fourth son of the late King Hussein of Jordan and his fourth wife Queen Noor. He was a favourite son of the King, and was often described publicly by the King as the “delight of [his] eye”. This relationship in itself suggests the Prince himself felt beloved by the King, and extremely loyal to his father as a monarch.

For a time Prince Hamzah held the powerful title of Crown Prince of Jordan, and thus was heir to the throne, behind his brother King Abdullah II. The title stemmed from a decree made by King Abdullah II himself on the day of his father King Hussein’s passing: in expression of the late King’s wishes, his younger son would succeed his eldest son to the throne after he passes. Thus from 1999 onwards Prince Hamzah was the Crown Prince of Jordan. But this would change on 28 November 2004, when the King removed his brother as Crown Prince, expressing to him in a letter that the “symbolic position ha[d] restrained [Prince Hamzah’s] freedom and hindered […] entrusting [him] with certain responsibilities” – as the “honorary position” did not afford Prince Hamzah any real authority or responsibility. The Prince publicly accepted the decision, and declared his loyalty to the King. However, whether he did in his heart is another matter entirely. It is possible he took this decision to be a betrayal of his father’s wishes.

Meanwhile, the position was left vacant for years but was expected to be filled by the King’s own son, Prince Hussein – who was at the time his father assumed the throne, 10 years old. It should be noted that according to the Jordanian constitution, the eldest son of the monarch is to succeed them should he pass away, unless the King designates one of his brothers as his heir. Thus with this status having been rescinded from Hamzah, Hussein now seemed the natural person to become the next Crown Prince – a position that would be afforded to him on 2 July 2009. It is possible Prince Hamzah resented this choice, and saw it as perceived nepotism and corruption on the part of his brother the King. Such thoughts, as well as the theme of betrayal, are prominent in the Prince’s sentiment throughout this saga and will be revisited at as another part in the chain of events telling this saga.

Returning to the saga as it unfolded, at the time of the arrests, reports had been circulating that Prince Hamzah had been arrested by the security forces, and therefore the media focus suddenly shifted to him. To curb such opinions, the Chief of Staff of the Jordanian Armed Forces (JAF) Maj. Gen. Yousef Huneiti denied the reports, but did not hide the Prince’s involvement in the saga – revealing Prince Hamzah had been asked by the security services to “cease all activities or movements exploited to target Jordan’s security and stability”. He also noted that investigations into the wider saga were ongoing and would be revealed in a “transparent and clear manner”. In short, the Army Chief’s statement was enough to implicate the Prince as a part of the conspiracy, but without revealing much about the role he played or the specific actions he had been asked to stop.

In the context of events the denial of his arrest led me to inferring one of two things. The first inference I made was that it was likely true the Prince had not been arrested and was asked to desist from his actions against Jordan’s security and stability. This is because a person of royal status, and no less someone closely related to the King, would be treated in the way that any more ordinary, less royal Jordanian subject would in such circumstances. Therefore it would make sense that the Prince would receive a courtesy call of sorts from the security forces, telling him to cease what he was doing – whereby it would give him a chance to abide by such a request, before further action is taken against him. On a side note, the request itself might also have a deeper meaning or purpose: a veiled threat that was made to sound dignified to public ears, but in actual fact functioned more as a command – and perhaps a precursor to more drastic actions to be taken in the future, should the Prince not comply.

The second thing I inferred from the statement was he possibly had been arrested, but that the security forces were withholding this information from the public temporarily – at the very least until the investigations had included or until a time they had deemed it best to do so. This would make sense, as if he was indeed implicated in the saga, this would be an embarrassing matter for the Hashemite royal house – which would make it likely they would try to conceal such high-profile matter from the guise of public scrutiny. It would also be understandable why they would choose to do so, considering the current pressures facing Jordanian society with the Coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. In other words, hiding this matter would ensure the stability of the country does not take another knock from such a serious situation. It would also make sense for the security forces to keep the situation from public view, as it would allow the King to deal with this rather royal issue ‘in-house’ – so as to allow the royal family privacy to deal with it.

But what the Prince himself would do next would do much to confirm his role in the saga. On the same day as the arrests, the Prince released a video, in which he tried to explain what was going on. He claimed he was under house arrest, and had been instructed to remain home and not have any contact with anyone bar his family. This seemed to contravene the idea that he had not been arrested, and that he had merely been asked to stop his harmful activities towards the state. According “to the Prince, Maj. Gen. Yousef Huneiti had told him “[he] was not allowed” to leave his residence, nor meet with or communicate with others – be it via phone, the internet or otherwise. In the video he also claimed other members of the security forces had instructed him in a similar manner – namely the Chief of Police and the Chief of Security Services. The Prince also shed light on the seditious activities he was said to have participated in: saying he had attended “meetings” that engaged in, or facilitated “criticism of the government or the king”. This personal admission confirms the Prince was by the very least passive in the saga, and at the very most an active participant in it – perhaps even having encouraged it.

He also stressed he was not part of any foreign conspiracy against the Kingdom – which could be read either one of two ways: he was either meaning to say he was not a part of any conspiracy at all, or he is neither confirming or denying he is involved, and is by the very least aware that the conspiracy is domestic in nature. Therefore, for much of the video he does not appear to incriminate himself much – rather he makes his involvement in the saga seem no more than circumstantial, and speaks more on the way he is being treated.

On the other hand, other things the Prince said in his video were odd. Notably, he denounced the Jordanian ruling system as corrupt, and said: “I am not the person responsible for the breakdown in governance” in the country, nor [am I] for “the [endemic] corruption and […] incompetence that has been prevalent” in the Kingdom’s governance for the past 15-20 years – which he said has worsened each year. He also said “they are responsible”. Such words of the Prince can very easily be read into. Firstly, the 15 to 20 year period he speaks of roughly matches with both the amount of years his brother King Abdullah has ruler for, as well as the time that has elapsed since the title of Crown Prince was rescinded from him. Assuming that is true, this suggests the Prince has a grievance with the King – which makes sense when you consider that the Prince denounced the ruling system as corrupt, and held “they” as responsible. Whilst he did not offer clarification for “they,” it is quite possible the “they” he is referring to is King Abdullah II, or perhaps the establishment – specifically the government and the security services or state institutions.

Something else the Prince also said corroborates the above theory. In the video he referred to the others who were arrested in the saga as “[his] friends”. Putting this into the context of who we know to be caught up in the conspiracy, we know it was some in the royal court, along with tribal leaders and members of the security establishment. The fact such people had been arrested for sedition said involved parties, like the Prince, had grown tired of the institutions that they held high positions in. This would make sense – especially since the Prince had in the video said he had participated in meetings with said people espousing views that were critical of the government and the king.

Moving on, on 4 April, Jordanian media responded to the situation. The national newspaper of Jordan, Al-Rai released a statement warning that any attempts to harm the Kingdom’s “security and stability” are what they call a ‘red line’ – which they said “must not be crossed or even approached”. The paper also claimed some parties were “trying to create the illusion of an attempted coup,” trying to implicate Prince Hamzah in what it termed “sick fantasies”. This statement was very telling. First and foremost, it spoke to the gravity of the situation: that a party or various parties had gone beyond the bounds of the law. Secondly, it seemed to place the Prince at the centre of things, albeit deflecting the attention away from the Prince and painting a picture that he was not the guilty party in this situation. Instead, the Prince was portrayed as a victim, being used as a tool by opportunists who sought to use him to project the image of a coup – so as to make Jordan appear unstable. Use of the phrase “sick fantasies” in particular suggests the parties involved in the conspiracy were either using the Prince to further their own agenda (to take over Jordan), or they did so in order to blame him for their own transgressions against the state.

Meanwhile, pro-government newspaper Addustour had chosen not to publish an editorial on the arrests, but carried official statements (presumably from the government and the royal court), and reported that “moves to target Jordan’s security” had been “thwarted” by the Jordanian security services. Further, an independent daily newspaper, Al-Ghad, wrote about the global solidarity expressed with the Kingdom’s actions to safeguard its security. At a glance, the press response to the situation seems very measured – seemingly orchestrated to achieve the desired effect. This hypothesis was supported when it was revealed on 6 April that Jordan’s Public Prosecutor acted to ban outright the publishing of information pertaining to Prince Hamzah’s situation by all media and social media – so as to “preserve the confidentiality of the ongoing investigation”. The ban included all audio and visual media, and was set to be in effect until “another decision is made”.

With regards to the information ban itself, that quick decision to formally ban the publishing of information relating to Prince Hamzah’s situation seems somewhat reactive to what Prince Hamzah did in releasing the video. Thus in that regard, the decision seems to be a means of preventing the Prince from getting his views out there, and preventing him from garnering sympathy from the public and across the globe. This theory is supported by the words of Jordan’s Deputy Prime Minister Ayman Safadi – who publicly made a speech in which he denied what Prince Hamzah had claimed in his video, dismissing the stunt as the Prince’s attempt to distort facts and invite local and foreign empathy for his cause.

However, the information ban can also be seen as active as opposed to reactive – by this, I mean the ban was planned before the video was released, so as to allow the state to control the narrative. This theory is plausible, as by observation, the ban was perfectly timed to give the Jordanian press enough time to flip the narrative to one that does not make the royal family (Prince Hamzah) look bad. It also allowed the Jordanian government enough time to get the media to portray Jordan as strong and resilient – reporting that Jordanian security forces had “thwarted” the sedition plot, and that it had the backing of foreign nations. Therefore, this controlling the narrative ensured the involved parties responsible for the conspiracy, and perhaps the Prince himself did not get air time were prevented from having a platform. Moreover, controlling the narrative in turn allowed Jordan to safeguard its stability and security from the damage of those seeking to overthrow it.

Aside from the information ban, another development would occur on 6 April. An audio recording of a heated exchange between the Prince and the Army Chief was leaked across social media. The authenticity of the recording was not yet to be verified, however the Prince’s voice was recognisable and matched with the other recording he himself made. Summarising the recording, its contents are were in line with the Prince’s claim that he was placed under house arrest and had been told to remain at home and not contact anybody. On the recording, Huneiti is heard saying: “I’m asking his royal highness starting from today to stop attending these events, stop meeting with these people… and stick to family visits, and that there be no tweets”. To paraphrase the Prince’s response to the Army Chief, he angrily rejected those commands – at one point saying: “You come to me, telling me what to do and what not to do… in my country. You’re coming to threaten me… What is this?” Then he went on to say: “I am a free Jordanian, the son of my father (King Hussein). I have the right to mix with my people, people of my country, and to serve my country, as I promised him and swore to him when he was on his deathbed.”

The entire exchange was very interesting, as it reveals much about the Prince’s character and how he sees himself in relation to Jordan. The Prince seems passionate about being a member of the Jordanian royal family, and speaks much about his royal duties. Specifically invoking his father and his own promise “to serve [his] country, as [he] swore to [his father] on his deathbed” was an especially telling statement. This is because it seemed to indicate the loyalty that he had to his father as monarch, but not necessarily to his brother’s role as monarch. Additionally, his promise “to serve [his] country” was tied up in his duties as former Crown Prince of Jordan. In other words, his words here seemingly refer to him serving his country as Crown Prince – something that he is no longer. This perhaps suggests a deep-seated bitterness for no longer holding this position – especially seeing as he no longer has the capacity to serve his country in the way his father envisioned for him. Serving his country could also be something that could account for the Prince’s role in the saga: assuming he did involve himself in sedition against the Jordanian state, perhaps his cause was in his mind a noble one: a quest for him to take back a position in the royal family that he perceived as being rightfully his. Assuming this was true, the Prince might have wanted to do this in order to have the opportunity to serve as a benevolent king, for the good of Jordan.

On the other hand, his attitude in the video could be interpreted as narcissism and entitlement. For instance, the Prince’s words to the Army Chief were: “You come to me, telling me what to do and what not to do… in my country. You’re coming to threaten me… What is this?” Such words are reminiscent of a “do you not know who I am…I am [so and so]” attitude, suggesting an air of superiority – call it being spoiled or bratty. In short, the Prince might himself have shown a different side to him in the recording: that he thought of himself as untouchable, and beyond the grip of the law in his country. This attitude could perhaps explain any decision to break said law – such as engaging in a conspiracy – as feeling entitled, he might have thought he had the power to act with impunity because he was a royal. This theory is credible, as in reality his elevated status reigns true – as in other words, him being a prince and no less the brother of the king seems to be the only thing that saved him from being detained and thrown into prison like the other involved parties. This is something I will revisit towards the end of this article.

Returning to the Deputy Prime Minister’s speech, what was also interesting is that he appeared hostile to the Prince – going as far as to publicly denounce his actions as having been directed towards harming the security of the Kingdom. This revelation is the first time the Prince had publicly been accused by the establishment as having engaged in sedition. Unlike the previous times the Prince was mentioned by a high-ranking figure or the media, this time the Prince was said to be guilty. This perhaps could be interpreted as a means of flipping the narrative (the Prince’s narrative: that those the people governing Jordan were to blame) and centring it on the Prince (as the guilty one).

Further, Safadi added that the investigations carried out revealed the Prince had planned to target the nation’s security. This claim was almost the proverbial nail in the coffin, as it used the weight of the law (the investigation) to demonstrate the Prince’s guilt. Further, looking deeper into what Safadi said the investigation revealed, his claim that Jordanian authorities had intercepted communications between the Prince and foreign entities was a massive revelation, as it provided clear-cut evidence to say the Prince was actively engaged in sedition, as opposed to his passive claim. Additionally, the issue of intercepted communications did much to legitimise the security service’s decision to cut the Prince’s communications – offering context as to why they prince had had his communications cut, and in turn reassuring the public that the security services had only subjected the Prince to such treatment in order to safeguard the security of the nation (as opposed to merely being antagonistic to the Prince).

Going back before the information ban and the leaked audio, on 5 April King Abdullah II authorised his uncle, Prince El Hassan bin Talal to deal with the situation regarding Prince Hamzah. From this action can two things can be inferred. The first inference is that this is the way the King recuses himself from his closeness to the situation. In other words, giving it to his uncle to deal with allows him to remain objective, and protect his impartial image – for the good of his family and also the good of the Kingdom of Jordan. The second thing I inferred from this action was that the King had done this in order to keep the issue in-house – leaving it to a wise, senior royal to deal with.

On the same day, Prince Hamzah wrote and signed a letter to King Abdullah II, saying: “I place myself in the hands of the King, stressing that I will remain committed to the constitution of Jordan, and I will always be of help and support to his majesty the King and his Crown Prince”. He also said in the letter: “The interests of the homeland must remain above every consideration, we must all stand behind the King in his efforts to protect Jordan and its national interests”. Such words only indicated to me one thing: this is the Prince’s way of proverbially bending the knee. In other words, this letter is something he was forced to say in order to prevent him going to prison. The later point would be found true when Jordanian legislators on 12 April revealed Prince Hamzah would not be facing trial.

This proverbial bending of the knee also appeared to be a very quick and formal way of getting the royal family appear as a united front. As the royal family is not an ordinary family in Jordanian society and can be seen as the lifeblood of the nation, the Hashemite family projecting itself to the public as united and free from infighting is necessary for maintaining the stability of Jordan. Therefore it would make sense that the royal house would require the King to make public reconciliation.

The above view has been supported by events the followed, as King Abdullah II himself publicised on 7 April gave a statement announcing to Jordan and the world that his brother Prince Hamzah had now committed himself to putting Jordanian interests and laws above any other considerations. With regards to how the royal court would be dealing with things going forward, he added that he had decided to deal with the saga within the Hashemite family – again, officially announcing he had tasked entrusted his uncle, Prince El Hassan bin Talal with doing so. With regards to the unified royal front, the royal family personified this through a public show of unity – when the King and Prince Hamzah made their first joint appearance since the saga unfolded, attending a wreath laying ceremony with other members of the royal family at the memorial in Raghdan palace.

After this apparent resolution to the issue within the royal court, the rest of Jordanian society proceeded with the trial of the other non-royal parties involved in it. This helped to shift away from the Prince’s role, and also gave the royal family the privacy they needed to deal with the Prince. How they will deal with him is unclear, but judging by King Abdullah II’s claim that the Prince was “with his family in his palace under [the King’s] care,” I would presume he is still being watched very closely by the King and the court, in case he ever tries a stunt like this again. Although, if I am being rash, I would say it would not be far-fetched to theorise he is currently under house arrest there – much like before, but this time without any possibility of leaked videos to the press.

On 14 April a trial was announced as soon as it began for the remaining parties to the sedition saga – with Jordan’s State Security Court tasked with the responsibility of carrying it out. The court has a limited jurisdiction over five areas: high treason, espionage, drug trafficking, counterfeiting money, and terrorism. It is unclear which area the alleged sedition conspiracy falls under – quite possibly multiple areas. Meanwhile, on 18 April the court revealed that 18 people have been arrested so far, accused of trying to destabilise Jordan. It was also announced by the Military Public Prosecution at the court that the investigations into the recent sedition saga had concluded. Such announcements appear to put an end to the sedition saga, but in truth it seems more plausible that this is only an end to most public matters – rather what is done behind closed doors is yet to be seen. It is quite possible that the matter will be revisited in the next few weeks or months, or more plausibly next year – once the country has recovered from its current health and economic crises.

There is however still the matter of the arrested parties: on 22 April 16 of the 18 had been released – with the two most notable figures, Sharif Hassan Zaid and Bassem Ibrahim Awadallah remaining in custody. Giving justification for their prolonged detention, Jordan’s State Prosecutor exclaimed: “They have not been released because of their role and the level of incitement which is different than those of the other [16] accused who were set free”. In short, they are likely being made an example of, so as to deter any future action.