Butterfly Effect: The Hidden Story Behind Jordan's Attempted Palace 'Coup'
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Jordan's crackdown isn't a signal to a power-hungry prince. The message is actually aimed at Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Charu Sudan Kasturi
OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.
Anyone who has visited Jordan knows that the Maine-size country at the heart of the Middle East would struggle to survive without the water it receives from Israel. It’s a stirring tribute to an unlikely but firm relationship between two countries with polar opposite views on the issue of Palestine. Yet that partnership, a bedrock of peace in the region, is cracking. If it shatters, it could take decades of gains in the Middle East down with it.
This weekend, Jordanian authorities placed former Crown Prince Hamzah bin Hussein under house arrest and then arrested a series of his closest aides. Since then, they’ve accused Hamzah — half-brother of King Abdullah II — of plotting a palace coup. Hamzah, who was removed from the position of crown prince by the king in 2004, has denied the charge and insists he’s being targeted because he has spoken out against corruption and poor governance under Abdullah II. On Monday, he issued a letter, backtracking and articulating support for the king.
But the most intriguing part of Jordan’s formal statement was a reference to a “foreign” actor that Amman accused of trying to assist Hamzah. Jordanian leadership has refused to specify who it was alluding to, triggering a swirl of speculation built around some facts, plenty of innuendo and a context that is the hidden story behind the crisis in Jordan.
A publication close to Jordan’s intelligence agencies reported that an Israeli businessman called Roy Shaposhnik, who it claimed was a former Mossad agent, had offered to fly Hamzah’s wife and children out of the country. Shaposhnik denied he had ever worked for the Mossad, but confirmed he knew Hamzah well and had indeed offered to get his family out of Jordan.
Meanwhile, the identity of some of Hamzah’s closest arrested aides has led to suggestions of a Saudi hand in the alleged coup. Among them is Bassem Awadallah, former finance minister and briefly the head of the Jordanian royal court who has previously served as an adviser to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
In reality, it’s highly unlikely that any other nation would want to foment a coup against King Abdullah II using Hamzah, a royal who diplomats familiar with the region describe as weak, fickle and lacking in the qualities needed to lead a country as strategically vital as Jordan.
But of the multiple international statements of support for Abdullah II since the alleged coup attempt, Saudi Arabia’s and Israel’s have stood out. Saudi Arabia didn’t just back Abdullah II, but it also pledged support for his son, current Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah, effectively acknowledging him as Jordan’s next ruler. And Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz said his country would help Jordan in any way it could.
Those statements — and Jordan’s unwillingness so far to quell speculation — reflect the uneasiness in partnerships the U.S. and other major powers have long taken for granted.
Put bluntly, Saudi Arabia has for decades bankrolled Jordan’s Hashemite regime. In exchange, the smaller nation has done Riyadh’s heavy lifting in hosting Palestinian — and more recently, Iraqi and Syrian — refugees. Almost a third of Jordan’s population consists of refugees.
And its 1994 peace treaty with Israel allows Jordan access to much-needed water and recognizes its guardianship of the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam. Jordan, as part of the deal, ensures security along its border and acts as a buffer against Iran.
But the growing ambitions of MBS, as the Saudi crown prince is widely known, and a maverick adventurism pursued by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel are threatening that balance, with potential consequences for the whole world.
As Israel and Saudi Arabia have shown increasing public warmth toward each other, Netanyahu has in recent weeks indicated that he might give custody of the Al-Aqsa Mosque to Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has not fully scotched those suggestions.
Then, in March, Netanyahu delayed acting on Jordan’s request for water despite his bureaucrats clearing the proposal, and he denied Abdullah II access to Al-Aqsa Mosque. Jordan’s government responded by denying Netanyahu’s plane access to its airspace for a trip to the United Arab Emirates, though it eventually changed its mind.
It’s this backdrop that has turned the alleged coup into a reminder of the perils of the region’s fast-changing equations. Just as oil has made Saudi Arabia and the UAE vital members of the international community, Jordan’s currency is its remarkable stability. It’s long been an oasis of peace despite the civil wars in Syria and Iraq just across its borders, the bitter enmity between two of its neighbors, Israel and Syria, and the masses of refugees it hosts.
That stability is the foundation upon which the U.S. successfully brokered peace deals between Israel on the one hand, and UAE and Bahrain on the other. If Netanyahu and MBS concluded that Jordan had outlived its utility, the crisis and the world’s support to Abdullah II should have disabused them of that notion.
Yes, Jordan won’t survive without Israeli water. But Amman can leave the Middle East thirsting for peace too.
- Charu Sudan Kasturi Contact Charu Sudan Kasturi