On a searingly hot afternoon in Amman, a 27-year-old shop assistant with glossy black hair and thick eyeliner abandoned her usual caution and launched into a tirade against the Jordanian government and the royal family.
“Do they think we’re stupid?” Arwa asked as customers drifted around the guitar shop where she worked. “That if they say that everything is OK then we just believe them? The situation is very, very bad.”
What Arwa knows — as do thousands like her — is that the royal court is trying to cover up a dynastic struggle that has set brother against brother and queen against queen, and has led to high-level arrests and allegations of an attempted coup in this increasingly unhappy kingdom.
For decades, Jordan was a steady bulwark of stability in a region beset by civil war and violence. King Hussein, the diminutive but dashing monarch who ruled for nearly half a century, was better known around the world for his wives and sports cars than for his statecraft.
Now, however, his eldest son and successor, King Abdullah, 59, has been accused by Prince Hamzah, 41, of allowing Jordan to sink into crisis and corruption.
The charge strikes a powerful chord with urban Jordanians such as Arwa, already suffering from a devastating economic collapse and the coronavirus, and with the East Bank tribes that have always been the backbone of the Hashemite monarchy.
King Abdullah, 59, has been accused by Prince Hamzah, 41, of allowing Jordan to sink into crisis and corruption.
And while Abdullah flounders in the face of the crisis, a war of the wives divides the royal court as factions line up behind rival queens.
In Amman, as the uncertainty grows, ever more unlikely rumors spread through streets emptied each night at 7pm by a stiflingly harsh Covid-19 lockdown. Many locals — from ordinary people to politicians and analysts — are afraid to talk to journalists, or worry aloud about who might be listening to their phone calls.
The scandal has ripped open the divisions in the glamorous royal family, and stoked public resentment toward the government and the ruling monarch, who many perceive as being out of touch and patronizing.
The royal schism has riled a dissatisfied populace whose living conditions have deteriorated in recent years. In the resource-poor country, which is heavily reliant on dwindling foreign aid, regional instability, corruption and mismanagement have slowed growth and caused debt to balloon.
Almost a quarter of adults are unemployed, and more than a million Jordanians live in poverty, a tenth of the population. The dire economic situation has been compounded by the harsh Covid-19 restrictions, which left the country locked down for months and many ordinary people unable to earn a living. Slowly, some have started to go hungry, giving up meat and subsisting largely on bread and tea.
Early this month, hours after the military published allegations of attempted “sedition”, Hamzah released two short videos to the BBC via his lawyer, claiming he had been told by Jordan’s top general that he had been placed under effective house arrest, and that his communications had been blocked.
Speaking calmly into his phone camera, the prince — who was educated at Harrow and, like Abdullah, at Sandhurst — delivered a series of damning allegations of mismanagement and misrule at the highest level of the Jordanian ruling classes.
“I am not the person responsible for the breakdown in governance, the corruption and for the incompetence that has been prevalent in our governing structure for the last 15 to 20 years and has been getting worse by the year,” he said. “It has reached a point where no one is able to speak or express an opinion on anything without being bullied, arrested, harassed and threatened.”
The king, in a statement, described the events as the “most painful” of his reign, but a gagging order has been placed on local media, leaving young Jordanians incredulous that their rulers expect them not to ask questions about Hamzah’s videos.
The scandal has ripped open the divisions in the glamorous royal family.
“We need answers,” said Arwa, which is not her real name. “Where is Prince Hamzah? Before this, I didn’t know much about him. Now there are so many questions.”
The attempt to silence Hamzah has — analysts in the country say — spectacularly misfired, making the prince, once little-known by the general public, a cause célèbre for Jordanians who want the survival of their Hashemite royal family but are furious at years of economic mismanagement and corruption, which they partly blame on their king and his wife, the glamorous Queen Rania.
As rumors flourish in the information vacuum created by the royal court, long-held resentment against Rania has come to the surface. Best known in the West for her designer wardrobe and her appearances on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, she has become increasingly unpopular among ordinary Jordanians, who struggle to pay soaring electricity bills.
“I think anybody who is fashionably in the know can point out the fantastic designers that she’s wearing, and the very chic items she uses,” said Bessma Momani, professor of political science and expert on Middle Eastern politics at Waterloo University, Canada. “But for a country where the median income is under $1,000, it’s a little hard to digest that.”
In the wake of Hamzah’s arrest, critics of the queen have been quick to paint her as a Machiavellian force behind the throne. Half a dozen sources said that she had worked to engineer Hamzah’s dismissal as crown prince in 2004, and the appointment of her own son, Hussein, 26, as her husband’s successor.
A regional official with close knowledge of Jordan said that Rania had backed a close ally to be the head of the security and intelligence services, expanding her influence over the country’s institutions.
Rania is of Palestinian descent, as are about half of the country’s population — a source of additional resentment to many Jordanians of East Bank descent.
Bloodlines are significant in this royal dispute. Abdullah is half-British. His mother, Princess Muna, was born Antoinette Gardiner and grew up in Chelmondiston, Suffolk. She reportedly met King Hussein while working as a secretarial assistant on the film set of Lawrence of Arabia and became his second wife.
Critics of the queen have been quick to paint her as a Machiavellian force behind the throne.
Hamzah’s mother, by contrast, is Hussein’s fourth wife, the glamorous Queen Noor — American-born, Princeton-educated and in possession of a Twitter account, where she has fired off veiled criticisms of her son’s detention.
Hamzah bears a striking resemblance — both in looks and in his bearing — to his father, who for many Jordanians represents a nostalgic ideal of Jordan’s glorious past.
Like Hussein, Hamzah favors a neatly trimmed mustache and a red and white checkered headscarf. “Just the fact that he looks like him makes people remember King Hussein,” said a local journalist. “People are very nostalgic for him, and so they see his qualities in Prince Hamzah.”
In Amman, almost everyone seems to have a story about spotting the old king pulling up at a set of traffic lights in his Jaguar. King Abdullah, however, is seen by many as lacking the common touch, focused more on the outside world than on the lives of ordinary Jordanians.
Like Hussein, Hamzah also speaks classical Arabic well, while Abdullah’s poor command of it, now much improved, used to be mocked by Jordanians.
Diplomats and analysts said that the former crown prince appears to have been targeted because of his increasingly close relationship with the leaders of Jordan’s East Bank tribes. Many of them are descendants of the clans who rose against the Ottomans and fought for the Hashemite Sharif Hussein of Mecca alongside Lawrence of Arabia in the Great Arab Revolt during the First World War.
Today’s king is the great-great-grandson of the Sharif, but it is Hamzah — according to people close to him — who has been listening to the grievances of many among the tribes about the economic downturn and the restrictions of the Covid-19 lockdown.
“People were suffering and he came to visit them,” said one diplomat. “He was there with them. I don’t know if there was a plot, but I imagine that just the fact that he was so popular with the tribes would have made [the king] very suspicious of his intentions.”
Yet the tribes, as well as the military and the police, remain, in practice, firmly under the king’s control. If there was a plot by Hamzah, a number of regional officials pointed out, it was not a particularly impressive one.
For now, it seems as if the immediate risk to the stability of the monarchy — if there was one — has passed. Yet Jordanians continue to demand answers. In the past, said Osama Al Sharif, a journalist and political commentator in Amman, the king had taken steps toward outlining his own vision of democratic reform for the country. The time, he said, had come to implement them.
“I think this latest crisis got out of hand, [was] totally mismanaged and therefore now they are focusing on limiting the damage,” said Sharif. “I think that there will have to be some sort of a political correction coming soon, within weeks and months. It has to come, because the pressure from the bottom will continue.”
Though Jordanians still overwhelmingly support the monarchy, the rift has shaken the stability of the ruling elite.
“I don’t think the people of Jordan [will] go against the Hashemites. But if you split the Hashemites, there’s a taboo broken in the minds of people,” said Amer Al Sabaileh, a political analyst from Amman.
“Everybody wanted to see Jordan as a stable oasis of democracy in the middle of a turbulent Middle East. This was the fixed slogan. But in the last two years these are the worst in the history of Jordan when it comes to liberties, democracy, and the repression of human rights.”
Louise Callaghan is a Middle East correspondent for The Sunday Times of London