June 22, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 288

Jordan: The Coup That Never Was

June 22, 2021 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Jordan | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 288

King Abdullah II of Jordan and his son Crown Prince Hussein on Umra in Mecca in 2018

It was like catnip for the ruling American elite. In April 2021, Jordan unveiled information about an alleged plot to overthrow King Abdullah II, a plot involving even his own Hashemite half-brother Prince Hamza. More important for the D.C. chattering class were the supposed villains in the story: former U.S. president Donald Trump, former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS). This is like the triple crown of figures reviled by the incoming Democratic administration of Joe Biden and much of the mainstream media. The timing was exquisite and the lineup of bad actors could have only been bettered if somehow Putin would also have lent a hand.

If the cast of villains was irresistible, so was the hero. Here was that plucky Abdullah of Jordan, with his "glamorous" wife and his impeccable English, a close ally of the West – he was even an extra on an episode of Star Trek: Voyager! Abdullah was, in this telling, a man of principle threatened by the MAGA President's ridiculously amateurish son-in-law Jared Kushner and his thuggish Middle Eastern partners in Jerusalem and Riyadh. If you carefully read the fine print of the coverage, particularly Washington Post columnist David Ignatius's detailed piece on the "palace intrigue in Jordan and a thwarted deal of a century" some red flags might be raised, but you would be reassured that "Jordan is back in favor" in Washington now, the supposedly all-important Hashemite custodianship of Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem is intact, and the plot was disrupted.[1] Indeed, two of the three main Jordanian culprits – former senior government official Bassem Awadallah and Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, a Hashemite relative (from the Mecca branch) and former diplomat – were put on trial in Amman beginning in late June 2021.[2]

Reading the Western media coverage of this story, something seemed off to me. It was not only the comments of many Jordanian contacts who were dubious about much of this tale but what I could see was obviously missing in the story that seemed strange. For one, it was strange that, in a story about how foreigners – especially the Americans – had conspired to remove King Abdullah in the past few years, that there was no acknowledgement that it was the Americans who supposedly had placed him in power in the first place in 1999. I served in Jordan beginning shortly after a terminally ill King Hussein displaced his brother Hassan to make the young Abdullah, who could hardly speak Arabic, crown prince, ensuring he became king a few weeks later at the age of 37.

The broad perception among many Jordanians – especially critics of the government, and particularly East Bank Jordanians – at the time was that Abdullah's rise was engineered by U.S. Ambassador William J. Burns and CIA station chief Robert Richer, who prevailed on the ailing King Hussein to make the change. Whether it was true or not, it was a perception broadly and fervently held. Why this alleged coup was done varied with the telling. Some saw it as cleverness: "The smart Americans knew that Prince Hassan was not up to the challenge of being king and wanted someone better." Others saw a different conspiracy theory: "The Americans wanted to place the half-British Abdullah with the grasping Palestinian wife on the throne in order to 'Palestinianize' the Hashemites."

In the alternate telling by some Jordanians of today's coup story, the key elements are still about power, but as much – or more – about power and money in Jordan as they are about Trump's "Deal of the Century." For these Jordanians, the details of this plot cannot be divorced from generalized unhappiness at the political and economic situation in Jordan, poverty, unemployment, inequality, and a strong sense that it is all the fault of a corrupt king and queen. For these Jordanians, the fact that Bassem Awadallah is supposedly part of this plot is telling.

For the first decade of King Abdullah's rule, Awadallah was a key figure, touted to eventually become prime minister, seen as very close to the Americans and a champion of "reform," supposedly streamlining Jordan's administration and reforming it along neo-liberal economic lines. Deeply distrusted by East Bank Jordanians because of his Palestinian roots, his fall from grace in 2009 (it was rumored that he had assaulted his wife) signaled an end to reform efforts. Jordan was corrupt with Awadallah's influence and it would become even more corrupt without him.

In the alternate telling of recent Jordanian events, Awadallah is the hapless fall guy, manipulated into being the local villain of the tale by Jordan's extremely capable General Intelligence Directorate (GID). In fact, the whole chain of events is seen by some as a polished GID "legend" from start to finish, combining real bits of data with an intentional and misleading political agenda. Awadallah's public humiliation is a sop to disgruntled East Bankers – traditional pillars of Hashemite rule but very alienated today. Arrogant and closely connected to the king for years and then involved with the Saudis, making him a scapegoat distracts from anger at the perceived corruption of the king and especially Queen Rania, in those same local circles.

The role in the plot revealed so far of Sharif bin Zaid also combines real elements while obfuscating real information. There is a supposed internal fight over revenues due – tens of millions of dollars or much more – from Hashemite properties in Mecca. The Meccan Hashemites feel it is theirs and these revenues have not been fully paid because of bad blood between MBS and King Abdullah. The Jordanian ruler would dearly love to be the recipient of this expected windfall.

The part about the alleged involvement of Prince Hamza is true, up to a point. Unhappiness with the king has damaged the reputation of his son and heir and conversely boosted the popularity of the powerless Hamza, especially among the many Jordanians who – despite their discontent – still prefer to see the continuation of Hashemite rule in some form and fear becoming another dysfunctional Arab republic.

The key incident here is not something done by outsiders but by Hamza himself, in March 2021, when he paid a call to bereaved Jordanians in the city of Salt after COVID-19 hospital patients suffocated to death because of an oxygen shortage.[3] King Abdullah had explicitly forbidden members of the royal family to pay condolence calls – except for himself and his son and heir Crown Prince Hussein. Hamza's visit upstaged and disrupted the planned photo op prepared for his nephew and rival. Three weeks later, the coup story broke.

Rather than seeing Hamza diminished by the still unrolling political scandal – so far – some see his status enhanced as a royal alternative. His very powerlessness and isolation, and the quiet dignity with which he handled the crisis have enhanced his status. Whether this impression survives an orchestrated show trial of the other "conspirators" is still to be determined.

The Ignatius piece, relying on a Jordanian document shared with him by "a knowledgeable former Western intelligence official," while breathlessly promoting this Trump-Netanyahu-MBS plot also, if you look closely, has some important caveats. The plotters' actions "do not amount to a coup in the legal and political sense" and "Trump, Netanyahu and MBS don't appear to have been working to overthrow the king." The Al-Aqsa angle also seems dodgy. Yes, there is a historic Jordanian custodianship but also a struggle between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority over Jerusalem. Jordan has real equities there but one of the redlines of Jordanian policy is not to be left at the end of the day holding too much of the Palestinian issue, either. Influence, attention, and money coming from the Jerusalem file are as welcomed as much as anything that contributes to the pernicious idea that "Jordan is Palestine" is to be rejected.

If indeed this is in any way a GID-concocted tale fed to credulous American media sources, it is one of their biggest accomplishments in a long secret history of successful operations.[4] In this sense, the coup story has helped the Jordanian government in some important ways – helped it in Biden's Washington certainly and rallied, at least for the moment, domestic support for King Abdullah at a volatile time – while seemingly making a potential future Hashemite succession struggle more bitter and lasting. The May 2021 conflict between Hamas and Israel was also received joyfully by the Amman authorities as it, like the coup story, allowed malcontents to let off steam, distracted attention from domestic issues, and underlined Jordan's continued relevance to the politics of region. And relevance means money, either from the West or Arab regimes interested in stability. Jordan is still a simmering political and economic mess but the regime has played this round of the influence game, no matter what the real truth actually is, rather well. So far.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1], June 11, 2021.

[2], June 20, 2021.

[3], April 8, 2021.

[4], September 12, 2014.

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