By Dr. David Wurmser
In previous parts, we reviewed Jordan’s current problematic behavior and the shift over the last years which that behavior represents not only vis a vis Israel but with respect to its other neighbors and geostrategic alignments. We also examined the foundations of the Jordanian state and the discouraging historical record of previous attempts to co-opt or preempt Arab and Palestinian nationalism. It emerges from these inquiries that Jordan and the problem of its policies reflect several much broader trends and questions concerning how the West, Israel and some of our other regional allies have traditionally understood the region and responded to it. Specifically, the unique tensions between the tribal and locally traditional structures of power, influence and access in Jordan – and even in Judea and Samaria – have faced a nearly two-century assault by external forces to upturn those traditional structures. Moreover, attempts to appease or co-opt those intrusions have only enflamed the situation and weakened calmer and stable structures.
Which brings us back to our original question: what does all this suggest to us regarding the right path to take in response to Jordan?
In the last five years, Jordan has crossed several red lines against Israel. And the pace is accelerating. It has dismissed Israeli (and Jewish) historical claims that touch upon the very foundation of Israeli and Jewish identity and interests. It has weakened Israel’s ability to control events in Jerusalem, which has led to a vacuum which radical forces are filling – the same mistake King Abdallah II’s father made in weakening the Hejazi tribal control in Judea and Samaria in 1957-1970, which let the PLO in. King Abdallah II has forced the further empowerment and vast expansion of the Waqf – the Islamic religious council in Jerusalem – at the same time that it has radicalized, restricted Christian and Jewish rights substantially over the last decades, and begun to provide safe haven for violent attack on Israel and Jews. Jordan also upheld the letter but damaged the spirit of peace by curtly demanding Israel return leased, farmed areas, such as Naharayim.
Not only have these policies failed to control incitement against Israel, but it has violated the peace treaty by itself inciting against Israel for violence and prolonging crises rather than calming them. Jordan also now harbors mass-murderers of Israelis and Americans (civilians and soldiers), such as the unrepentant Ahlam Tamimi, and gives terrorists who killed many Israeli children light sentences (Ahmad Daqamseh, who killed the schoolchildren at Naharayim). It balks not only at extraditing these criminals to either Israel or the US but fails to subject them to any sort of justice at all (they are given comfortable haven) in some cases. Ultimately, Amman has most recently escalated significantly by not only engaging in offensive, deliberately humiliating historical denial of any connection of the Jewish people to Jerusalem but is peddling position papers to regional powers and the United States that seek to reassert absolute Islamic control over Jewish and Christian holy sites in an attempt to turn the clock back to the Ottoman-era status quo of 1852.
Amman’s government-supported mouthpieces have descended the dark path to Holocaust denial and reopened not only the questions of 1967 – the dispensation of Judea, Samaria, Gaza and Jerusalem – but the questions of 1948 – whether Israel should even exist.
Amman has also tempered its strong affiliation with the Western camp globally to support Russia in its latest Ukraine adventures. And it has acted against its Gulf Arab neighbors by trying to weaken, or even sabotage outright, the critically geo-strategic Abraham Accords in order to replace them with the three-decade failed and bloody Oslo process again. And Jordan has begun to set powerful tribal forces of the Hejaz adrift – which can also profoundly threaten the stability of the Saudi Kingdom — by shifting the foundations of the Jordan state in favor the Palestinians.
This parade of genuinely dangerous statements and actions by Jordan certainly raise the temptation by Israel, among some of Jordan’s neighbors, and even the United States to abandon their patience and indulgence of Jordanian noxious policies. Voices are multiplying that argue the time has come to finally draw red lines and demand from Amman a shift back to older foundations. Some have even suggested that perhaps the time has arrived to just cut Amman loose and outright abandon the constant effort to meet the incessant demands from Amman to help the Crown “save” itself at the cost of a pound of flesh, and then some, from Israel, Saudis, and even the West.
And yet, in Jordan’s defense, one must acknowledge that it is plagued by an impossible array of pressures (political, geo-strategic, economic and societal) and is forced to navigate a narrow bridge to survive. There is no indication that King Abdallah II holds any particular animus toward Israel or the Jews. His history, in fact, suggests he does not. The peace treaty with Israel — while fraying – more or less continues to hold. Geostrategic cooperation on keeping Iran and the eastern threats to the Levant at bay continue to both Israel’s and the West’s benefit. Jordan imperfectly but genuinely does try to keep its territory from becoming a free-flowing conduit of terrorist arms to Palestinians in Israel. The border with Jordan remains largely peaceful and prevents another front from emerging against Israel akin to what is happening on the Syrian and Lebanese borders. And while the Crown’s relations with the tribal structures underpinning the state are stressed, ominously simmering, and even rancorous, and while dangerous ideological trends appear to be filling the vacuum caused by the tribes being jilted in favor of new foundations being laid for the state, the Hejazi tribes remain, thus far, restricted in their growing opposition to letters and threats but have not erupted violently into a profound threat to both Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The lid on these problems may be rattling – indeed rattling menacingly — but it still sits atop the pot.
These considerations would countenance continued strategic patience and indulgence from the United States, the Gulf Arabs and Israel, if not even cooperation in helping Amman co-opt the dangerous undercurrents which could threaten Abdallah II’s regime by trying to preempt their underlying grievances (address their roots causes). In other words, despite aggravating policies pursued by Amman, Jordan’s collapse is a grave threat to be averted at all costs, not a solution to be sought. And if the price to pay to help Amman survive is to try to reignite the Oslo process at all costs, and at Israel’s expense, then there are those who would countenance that so be it. Larger interests are at stake.
So which is it: confront or indulge Amman?
For those who advocate the first path, the choice is simple: demand Jordan abandon its attempt to appease radical forces locally, regionally and globally, return to the outlook and grounding of the Hashemite state of his father after 1970, and deepen strategic cooperation between Amman, the United States, with the Saudis and Israel to manage rather than champion Palestinian-Arab radicalism, reestablish the importance of the traditional leadership of the tribes and re-anchor Jordan to them. If Amman refuses to do so, then strategically Amman has chosen an adversarial path which none of its neighbors needs to suffer or indulge, especially at their own expense, vital interests, and identity.
The downside, of course, is that the United States, Israel and Jordan’s neighbors would essentially be proactively surrendering on a peace treaty which as rickety as it may be, still more or less holds, at least for the moment.
The other route is more complex. Can indulgence save the crown? Again here, the historical record is quite instructive. It warrants further investigation since the attempt to indulge Amman – attached as it is if not to hopes for potential success then at least to the promise of avoiding further harm and danger – is grounded in two critical but unexamined assumptions: the very concept of a “Palestinian” issue and the usefulness of addressing ostensible “root causes:”
- The specific construct in question here – the Palestinian issue – has traditionally served as an artificial cover for a much more dangerous and disruptive body of ideas: the destruction of traditional Arab society. Nor is this recent, but dates back at least a century and a half.
- The historical record of attempts to co-opt or preempt radicalization by championing their ostensibly underlying grievances has consistently failed, not only in Palestine (land of Israel), but in Syria and Egypt as well.
As such, given the problematic nature of these two assumptions, the attempt to create a stabilizing and quiescent Palestinian nationalism may not only be impossible at this point, but the very effort to do so deepens the crisis.
In other words, the idea that indulging Jordan is only mildly harmful when balanced against the potential for saving the Crown and the peace might be wrong. The harm might not be as negligible as assumed, and indeed might accelerate the demise of Jordan as we know it.
What is the essence of the Palestinian national movement?
Palestinian Arab nationalism never was a movement organically emerging from indigenous communities of Judea and Samaria. It always had been instigated and dominated as a tool of external forces that sought to use the Palestinian issue as a dagger-bearing tentacle aimed at traditional Arab power structures and states. That was true regarding the interplay between the Ottoman Sultan and the local populations as it is regarding the interplay between Iran and local traditional forces. The Palestinian issue is the language of radicalism through which the inter-Arab, inter-Muslim or geopolitical rivalries are conducted.
Traditional forms of authority – much of which was tribal, some of which was urban but still largely clan-oriented – has for the better part of the last two centuries been besieged from forces seeking to either clip, suppress or altogether eliminate traditional forms of authority in the region. In Ottoman times, the internal exile of problematic Muslims from other parts of the Ottoman empire were transplanted to the Palestine province to challenge local power brokers whose fealty to the Sultan was increasingly dubious. The Tanzimat reforms largely attempted to rationalize and centralize authority in the empire, and this challenge to local authorities inevitably generated resentments. The Ottoman Sultan hoped that a dislodged community imposed over a hostile local population would owe its allegiance ultimately to the imperial power protecting it rather than the neighbors who bristle at the intrusion and subjugation.
Enter the British in World War I and its effort to turn besieged Arab tribes and clans against their Ottoman-imposed local representatives and instigate a revolt. The point of the meticulous intelligence work of Sir T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) and Lady Gertrude Bell was to understand and navigate these traditional power structures who were becoming so frustrated with the pressures from Istanbul that their increasing alienation from the Sultan and their local allies could be turned as a useful asset to mobilize against the Ottoman Empire in the approaching war. It was no easy task since the fissures among tribes, and the law of tribal life, demanded great insight, empathy and acumen to manage properly and avoid simply instigating anarchy. For they knew that erasing Ottoman authority comes with a price, namely a vacuum. Filling that vacuum was a tricky affair, navigated somewhat well by the first team (Sir Reginal Wingate, Sir T.E. Lawrence, Lady Gertrude Bell, etc.), but not well at all by the follow-up replacement in the Levant and Egypt (Lord Herbert Samuel, Lord Alfred Millner).
But during and after World War I as the Ottoman empire collapsed, Lawrence’s and Bell’s efforts paid off and these traditional Arab and Muslim structures in Mandatory Palestine and elsewhere became the foundation of British power in the region. Which meant the German Kaiser and inter-war German intelligence – who hardly had reconciled to the permanence of British predominance — naturally settled on tapping into and expanding those forces in region that challenged that traditional power structure. They focused particularly those elements that had now been orphaned by the collapse of the Sultanate (the crown of the Ottoman Empire), or even the Khaliphate (the mantle of leader of the faithful). As such, the great power competition between Germany and Great Britain, and then between the West and the Soviet Union animated an upheaval wherein Germany (interwar and in World War II) and then the Soviet Union (post-War) was a battle of radical, externally encouraged forces laying siege to traditional power structures. And it has been an ongoing struggle over which the West, its foreign office elites and its local allies (Israel and Jordan) have often lost their focus, or even departed from its comprehension.
The reason for the enduring particular attraction of Palestinian Arabs to radical ideas, which has rendered them consistently the incubator of regional radical ideas, emerges from this founding and history. As the Hashemites in Jordan grew out of the British-mentored tribal Arab revolt against the Ottomans, and have thus ever since been aligned with occasional deviations with British and American strategic objectives, the Arab and Muslim nationalist movement (for they were not separate in the 1930s) emerged as a politically organized modern movement intertwined with the original German subversive networks between World Wars I and II, and then as part of the Nazi subversive networks during the war, of which Haj Amin al-Husseini and the Arabs of Palestine were the vanguard. Those networks never went away, but passed to Soviet control after World War II and then became loose cannons available to any movement radically challenging the reigning order and traditional political structures of the region.
In other words, until the mid-1960s, the anti-Zionist project in Palestine did not assume or refer to a unique Palestinian national character, but was really a concept embodying a radical, upheaval-seeking form of revolutionary politics. One need look no further than the leadership of the Arab Palestinian nationalist movement itself for confirmation of this. In in 1937, the founder of the pan-Arab nationalist Istiqlal party, Awni Bey Abd al-Hadi, who paralleled Hajamin al-Husseini’s radical pan-Islamic leadership of the Arabs in the area: “There is no such country as Palestine. Palestine is a Zionist term invented by Jews. Palestine is alien to us. There is no Palestine in the Bible. Our country was for centuries part of Syria”1 He saw the Arabs of Palestine not as a unique people, but part of far broader Islamic or Arab entity, and politically – if the Arab nation were not unified into one – at least as part of the Syrian nation that was being formed.
Indeed, Abd al-Hadi’s political activity — including the reason for which he created the Istiqlal party — was animated primarily around an attack on the Nashishibi family – namely a revolutionary struggle against the most established and prominent Arab leadership.2 His co-founders of the party were Fahmi al-Abboushi, Mu’in al-Madi, Akram Zu’aytir, ‘Ajaj Nuwayhid, Rashid al-Hajj Ibrahim, Subhi al-Khadra, and Salim Salamah – all of whom were the central leaders of the 1936-39 Arab revolt in Palestine. While ostensibly the revolt was about destroying the Jewish national endeavor and expelling the Arabs, it was a bloody orgy of killing against fellow Arabs as part of a purge of the traditional Arab leadership and suppression of their remnants into quiescence on behalf of pan-Arab nationalism.
As such, Abd al-Hadi’s real aim – as was his more Islamist equivalent, Hajamin al-Husseinei –was not Arab enfranchisement, but the diminution, indeed, defeat, of traditional grand Arab families/clans of Jerusalem, Samaria, Judea, Syria and the Trans-Jordanian Palestinian area. It is no wonder then that he spent most of the rest of his life in Egypt, with the exception of the five years before the 1958 upheaval in Jordan.
This rejection by the Arabs of Palestine themselves of a unique Palestinian peoplehood or nationality – and the use of their struggle as part of a pan-Arabist radical regional revolution against existing elites — persisted until quite recently, in fact. Hence the jolting assertion (in terms of today’s discourse) by a member of the PLO’s executive committee, Zahir Muhse’in, as late as 1977 to a Dutch newspaper, Trouw, that: “The Palestinian people does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against Israel and for our Arab unity [italics mine]. In reality today, there is no difference between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people.”3
But the 1960s were a time of change and geopolitical competitions answered also to a new Soviet overlord. The PLO was created by Nasser as a weapon internal to Arab politics to destabilize key traditional governments and as a weapon against traditional society, not as agent of peoplehood, and by the Soviet Union – using the model deliberately and in consultation with the Vietcong and French FLN – as part of a global strategy to tap into de-colonization to undermine the West’s containment and circumvent the stalemate it created in Europe globally to change the overall “international correlation of forces,” project a rising Marxist tide and crumbling Western world.4 The PLO’s employment of the concept of unique Palestinian peoplehood and championing of self-determination was thus only acquired in the following years (1970s onwards) by the Soviets, and was directed at doting self-flagellating Westerners. Indeed, not only did it become part of the overall Soviet national liberation ideological universe exploiting the West’s anti-colonial self-immolation emanating intellectually from Europe’s growing leftist fad of nihilism and existentialism thought developed by Franz Fanon, but it became one of the most important protection, training, logistical and ideologically-inculcating structures of that universe. The Palestine liberation cult assumed the leadership and umbrella structure of the hydra-like world of chic liberation guerilla movements.
In other words, Palestinian nationalism is not led by those who unwisely chose the wrong side of history; it was a creation of those forces. It is not plagued by radicalism; it is the embodiment of radicalism. It was always a means to assault the underlying power structures which even before World War I were seen as threats needing harnessing or erasing by the Ottoman Khaliph, and as a result naturally gravitated toward the British and then Americans.
The framers of the Oslo “peace” process had erroneously hoped that Palestinian nationalism could be domesticated. They imagined that Palestinianism was a bounded quest by local inhabitants for political enfranchisement and increasing autonomy. But, the record shows it was far from that either modest or introverted essence. Palestinian nationalism in fact is a movement inherently existing only as a vehicle for revolutionary struggle and radicalizing upheaval. Which is why every genuine attempt at granting the inhabitants of Judea and Samaria any “national” authority of any sort or any level of sovereignty descends instantly into a brutal assault on the local Arab population (and traditional Jordanian-aligned or tribal elites) – since that is the essence of the movement – and a perpetuation of conflict with Israel – since that is the validating cover of this eternal revolutionary upheaval – and a geopolitical alignment with the world’s global aggressive powers, since it was ultimately created and sustained by them. And it also why no matter what Jordan, Israel or the West try to do, Palestinian nationalism will inherently gravitate toward any regional ideology and geopolitical force advocating upheaval, revolution and the overturning of the traditional order of Arab society. And it is also why any great external power will see in the structure of Palestinian nationalism a ready and valuable asset. Taming Palestinian nationalism, or its Arab nationalist umbrella, is thus not only impossible, but dangerous.
Again, the very construct of a “Palestinian people” is really a recent vehicle (last 150 years) for the radical upturning of traditional Arab order, and thus the elites of Palestinian nationalism are inherently a revolutionary elite against traditional elites. But they cannot in their failed exhaustion moderate. The immense destruction wrought on Arab and Muslim society by this revolutionary clique not only was destined to fail but also to leave a vacuum in the wake of their failure that would be filled not with the reemerging traditional elites, but a parade of ever more violent, radical forces. In other words, there is no promise of a better future without a fundamental, bottom-up rebuilding of the Arab polity in in Judea and Samaria – an enterprise of generations, not months – to replace the amorphous vehicle of radical destruction, namely Palestinian nationalism, with normal politics based on local communities and the remnants of traditional leaderships (tribal, sectarian or clan) aligning in pursuit of introverted objectives of self-interest.
Moreover, it is unlikely that this can be done through independence and internally only, since the prejudice for radical solutions will continue to tempt and succeed. The Palestinian national project stands as the barrier to that evolution because it will be intentionally encouraged and dominated by any new radical ideology seeking to overturn the region since at its core, that has always been the purpose of that fantasy.
Since Palestinian nationalism did not choose to side with the wrong side of history, but rather was an integral part of it, will likely require an external overlay while local Palestinian Arab structures might evolve bottom-up and emerge over time into a self-sustaining and self-absorbed political body.
This is not to say that the populations of Judea and Samaria, and the non-tribal population of Jordan, should remain entirely disenfranchised and abjectly powerless. But what it does mean is that a new foundation of politics would need to be nourished based on restoring the residual tribal, clan, sectarian and familial power structures (inasmuch as they still exist) that had existed in the centuries prior to the last century of radical challenge and distortion of Arab society in the areas of Israel, Jordan and Palestine. While perhaps too distorted, a successful return to that structure of authority and order essentially returns the populations to an era prior to the rise of Arab nationalism and “Palestinian” identity – to before World War I – which was purposefully designed to embody any regional radical idea to challenge the presence of Western powers, undermine the Jordanian monarchy’s continuation, and destroy Israel. This, however, is the enterprise of generations, not years and even decades.
Until then, that political body will continue to be plagued by the domination of the latest regional radical challenges. And the PLO – whose weakness does not make it more moderate, just weaker – hasn’t the substance and following any more to compete in that marketplace of radical brutality. Its success in destroying the old elites, however, has also meant that there is no structure to which one can turn back easily to re-anchor Palestinian polity. That would have to be encouraged and resurrected from the bottom up, or with the help of the traditional elites in Jordan which the Jordanian Crown is abandoning at the moment.
The record of co-opting underlying grievances (root causes)
But could one perhaps at least address the underlying grievance that lent appeal to the radical sentiment so effectively captured by the Germans, the Soviets, Gamal Nasser, Rouholla Khomeini and Ghassan Soleimani, Tayyip Erdogan, and so forth? It is a question not only about policy toward Jordan, but the region more broadly. What fuels the rage, and what can be done to douse it?
There is a history of Western powers attempting to preempt radical challenges to the traditional order of things in the region by either co-opting their grievances directly or by including supposedly “moderate” forces which share with radicals their claim to grievance. Sadly, this history has a long, unbroken historical record of failure reaching back to the end of World War I. Indeed, not only did it fail, but it consistently increased, rather than decreased, the violence, intensity and currency of the radical challenge. And this is true in Palestine and Egypt, and in Syria and Iraq:
- The efforts of Lord Samuel begot Haj-Amin al-Husseini, the Arab Revolt of 1929 and 1936 and the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood aligned with Hitler – and eventually the PLO.
- The efforts of Lord Baring, the 1st Earl of Cromer, and Lord Milner in Egypt begot Saad Zaghlul, the Wafd Party and his campaign of Egyptian unrest and assassination in the 1920s, followed by the rise of other radical pro-Nazi movements, and then Nasser and the pro-Soviet camp after World War II.
- After the French conspired to oust Faisal, the son of the Hashemite Emir of Mecca in 1920, from Syria (the Hashemites briefly were given reign over Syria immediately after its capture by British troops in 1919), Paris courted radical Syrian nationalists by creating a unitary Syrian state, which was the underlying factor triggering the Syrian Revolt, starting with the revolt of the Druze.
- The British White Paper of 1939 radicalized and stimulated rather than calmed Arab nationalism in Palestine.
- Western attempts to appease Nasserite Arab nationalism in the mid-1950s led to the threat to Lebanon and Jordan by the end of the 1950s.
- Jordanian King Hussein’s attempt to indulge the PLO led to Black September in September 1970.
In short, the historical record of attempts to appease radical sentiments by trying to co-opt their underlying grievances has an unbroken record of validating the grievance, inciting further rage, and more rapidly and thoroughly undermining the more conservative, calm traditional indigenous Arab leadership. And this record holds true for both Westerners and Arabs who have tried to employ this policy of co-opting radicalism.
Palestinian nationalism thus is not led by those who chose the wrong side of history; it was a creation of those forces. It was always a means to assault the underlying power structures which even before World War I were seen as threats needing harnessing or erasing by the Ottoman Khaliph, and as a result naturally gravitated toward the British and then Americans.
In other words, although the framers of Oslo had erroneously hoped that Palestinian nationalism was a bounded quest by local inhabitants for political enfranchisement and increasing autonomy, the record shows it was far from that either modest or introverted essence. Palestinian nationalism in fact is a movement inherently existing only as a vehicle for revolutionary struggle and radicalizing upheaval. Which is why every genuine attempt at granting the inhabitants of Judea and Samaria any “national” authority of any sort or any level of sovereignty descends instantly into a brutal assault on the Palestinian population (and traditional Jordanian-aligned or tribal elites) – since that is the essence of the movement – and a perpetuation of conflict with Israel – that is the validating cover of this eternal revolutionary upheaval. And it also why no matter what Jordan, Israel or the West try to do, Palestinian nationalism will inherently gravitate toward any regional ideology advocating upheaval, revolution and the overturning of the traditional order of Arab society. And it is also why any great external power will see in the structure of Palestinian nationalism a ready and valuable asset. Taming Palestinian nationalism, or its Arab nationalist umbrella, is thus a fool’s errand carrying dangerous consequences.
The king’s col de sac
For these two reasons – the toxic essence of Palestinian/Arab nationalism and the historical record of failed attempts to appease radicalizing trends by co-opting underlying grievances (root causes) – it is highly likely that King Abdullah II will eventually find himself at a dangerous impasse. His efforts to tame, harness and ultimately integrate Palestinian nationalism will not only fail catastrophically, but they will accelerate the mortal threat they pose to his realm.
As if that is bad and threatening enough, the real problem is that King Abdallah II has done so at the expense of the cultivating the solid foundation of Hejazi tribes upon which his reign ultimately rests and which might help him survive the tempest, as the evidence of the episode of the Huweitat tribe of 2017 (discussed in part IV) and the letter of criticism sent by tribal leaders in 2011 both demonstrate.
King Abdallah has not helped himself in this regard. Indeed, this is the one area he has demonstrated a bewildering cluelessness in is his insensitivity to the tribes – bewildering since its mastery was so crucial to the way his father had reigned and survived. As a preeminent historian of Jordanian history and politics, Asher Susser, noted in comparing the ways of King Hussein, the father, with King Abdallah II, the son:
“Hussein, since his youth, learnt the ways of the tribes through his intensive exposure to their values and traditions under the watchful eye of King Abdallah I, his dear grandfather and political mentor. Conversely, King Abdallah II’s upbringing did not include intimacy with tribal mores and politics, which were second nature to Hussein. Abdallah was even disrespectful at times towards tribal elders, whom he once dismissed impatiently as ‘dinosaurs.’“5
Dinosaurs are big. Offending them is dangerous. The depth of crisis in the monarchy between the King, the Hejazi tribes and the elements of the Hashemite family who remain popular among the tribes — and who fear for the survival of the state as currently constituted – has led by 2021 to something never before seen within Hashemite circles: the public criticism of the King by another close-in member of the royal family, Prince Hamza.
In April 21, 2021, Prince Hamza, whom King Hussein had on his death bed instructed become Crown Prince under King Abdallah II when he ascended the throne, was suddenly placed under house arrest. Some of his advisors and confidents were arrested, and one — Bassem Awadallah, who was also close to the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) — was arrested essentially for treason and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Upon his house arrest, Prince Hamza released a dramatic tape to social media with ominous undertones, suggesting he would likely disappear from visibility upon arrest. But he justified his actions as the voice of despair over the precipice over which he felt King Abdallah II was throwing the Kingdom. He echoed the tribes’ letter of 2011 by claiming he could no longer remain silent over the corruption and the Kingdom’s demise to which this would lead.
This was a serious moment, exposing the deepest roots of the structure undergirding the monarchy’s survival and essence. It was not just a sibling affair; that was only a vehicle for far more alarming forces at play. As described by Susser:
“The ‘Hamzah Affair’ was not just another spat in the family. It was an unprecedented clash of personalities and politics that might not be easily resolved. It represented a coalescence of forces between Jordan’s disaffected East Banker opposition and a spokesperson for their cause from the inner core of the royal family.”6
Moreover, the serious accusations against Bassem Awadallah – essentially suggesting he worked with a foreign country (which everyone assumed was Saudi Arabia given that Awadallah was seen as the closest Jordanian to the Saudi Kingdom) – raised the idea that this was the beginning, or perhaps initial planning, of an aborted coup attempt by the Saudis to change the direction of Jordan’s succession and alter the developing, new nature of the Hashemite monarchy. It had been long rumored that CP Muhammad bin Salman of Arabia held King Abdallah II of Jordan in low esteem.7 King Abdallah II’s dismissal of the importance of the Hejazi tribes was not only baffling in terms of Jordanian stability, but also represented an internal concern for the Saudis. The political stability of the Hejazi tribes – which King Abdallah II was cutting loose and adrift by re-anchoring his Kingdom – rattled Riyadh’s complicated control over the Hejazi areas of the Saudi Kingdom and presented a critically dangerous challenge that if left unaddressed, could even bring the Saud’s own stability into question.
Whether the Saudis were involved or not, and whether it was a coup attempt or not, it was clear that King Abdallah II saw Crown Prince Hamza as challenging his authority. He also understood that Prince Hamza governed the loyalty of the tribes with whom the King never had a common language and over whom the King was losing whatever residual loyalty he still held. In contrast, Prince Hamza, as his father King Hussein had been, was successfully among the tribes which King Abdallah II distinctly was not. As described by the regional correspondent of the Financial Times:
“[Prince Hamza’s] alleged pursuit of the tribes’ backing — two Jordanian officials describe it as the first stage of seeking their formal allegiance — struck at the very core of the legitimacy of King Abdullah’s reign. The tribal leaders who spoke to the Financial Times describe the king as distant, surrounded by a coterie of city-dwelling advisers and deaf to the suffering of his people.”8
In contrast, according to the Financial Times correspondent:
“Prince Hamzah, 41, has pursued a different track — making deep inroads into the far-flung and disaffected tribes that a century ago helped create what grew into the modern state of Jordan. Now a minority in their own country, some tribal leaders complain of being left behind, with their young people unemployed. In the prince, they found a sympathetic ear.”9
Susser was even more specific:
“Hamzah was popular, especially in the tribal hinterland of the south. In many respects, Hamzah was exactly what Abdallah was not. There was a striking physical resemblance between Hamzah and the revered late King Hussein. They looked alike and their voices and diction were almost identical. Hamzah was brought up in Jordan and interacted intimately with the tribes since his youth. He knew their ways and spoke the language as they did, in stark contrast to Abdallah’s foreign upbringing, his imperfect language, his cultural and mental distance and apparent disdain, at times, for tribal norms. As much as Abdallah was as an outsider, Hamzah was one of them and he had spent years building up a loyal base of support among the tribes.”10
The tensions between the tribes upon which the entire edifice of Jordanian survival is rooted and the Crown is showing no signs of improving. First of all, fate was not kind to King Abdallah. Internationally, a leak of 11.9 million documents of offshore accounts, knows as the Pandora Papers, implicated many leaders and elites of nations in maintaining secret wealth out of sight and reach to their countries’ people. King Abdallah appears glaringly in these:
“Last year, a massive leak of more than 11.9m confidential files revealed that between 2003 and 2017, the Jordanian king had amassed an international luxury property empire that includes 14 homes across the US and UK, from California to central London.”11
The public perception of corruption thus continued to swell.
Then, or perhaps in part because of this, King Abdallah’s attempt to remove the thorn of Crown Prince Hamza by placing him under house arrest last year seems to have put little, if anything, to rest. Indeed, the King once again over the last months had to act against Crown Prince Hamza since the problem with him seems to only have grown. In March 2022, King Abdallah forced Prince Hamza to issue a rare public apology, in which the Crown Prince was forced to say:
“I have erred, Your Majesty, and to err is human. I, therefore, bear responsibility for the stances I have taken and the offences I have committed against Your Majesty and our country over the past years … I apologise to Your Majesty, to the people of Jordan, and to our family, for my actions which, God willing, will not be repeated,”12
Apologies go only so far. Suppressing the unwanted hardly goes farther than even that since Prince Hamza himself is not really the problem. Prince Hamza’s apology might have been genuine or not, but it was irrelevant. The underlying reasons that lead to Hamza’s behavior and lends him currency are the font of the real problem bedeviling King Abdallah. Thus, these underlying trends will with certainty return to haunt the King.
Indeed, they have returned to haunt the King already scantly a month later. In a terse statement on April 3, Hamza renounced his title as crown prince – the first voluntary move as such in Jordanian history although it is reasonable to assume it was not as voluntary as publicly suggested. As if this sign of unresolved royal tensions was not bad enough, Prince Hamza left the stage with a parting, caustic slap at King Abdullah II and his policies:
“I have come to a conclusion that my personal conviction and principles my father (the late King Hussein) instilled in me are not in line with the path, directives and modern methods of our institutions…”13
In other words, former CP Hamza accused King Abdallah of betraying the legacy of his father and the foundations of State.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV. And indeed, King Abdallah II appears to have purchased little respite. His troubles only mounted since last spring as the tribal opposition boils further over. In early July, the heads of all the major tribes gathered in Amman. Many of the large, key tribes upon which the Crown’s structure rests were all there: the Huweitat, Majali, Abadi, and Bani Hassan tribal heads. Angry over the increasing wave of arrests of their members, they criticized the King and ominously warned:
“There are many sons of officials who get jobs and are paid thousands of Jordanian dinars per month without any accountability. What they do is monitor political opponents, make their lives difficult, put pressure on their work, and prevent the right of assembly which is guaranteed by the constitution … Where is justice in the reign of the renaissance of King Abdullah II?”14
Bad enough indeed, but the crises over Prince Hamza and over the tribes are ever more converging into one and the same, meaning that the tribes were not only directing their anger at the King, but focusing their energy increasingly toward an alternative. As one tribal member near Amman described the image of Hamza among the tribal communities:
“It’s his way of talking, his modesty … [When Hamzah visited us] he came without guards or anything, he was just driving a truck … This is how the people of Jordan love their leaders.”15
Another tribesman from Madaba added:
“I like all of the Hashemite family [the Jordanian monarchy], but what I like about him [Hamzah] is that he’s very humble and he’s closer than the other princes and princesses to the citizens.”16
Troubles do indeed come in battalions, so in a very unusual and novel development, these voices of frustration managed to find media outlets. The press in Jordan has always been very tightly controlled, but it is precisely because of this that it is paradoxically not surprising that sentiments of frustration are finding their paths into the public. In order that journalists bend to the interests of the Hashemite state, it was inevitable that most of the journalist elites over the decades in Jordan are creatures of that very Hashemite state. But this means that they reflect and come from the very same traditional structures undergirding it – namely the tribes – that King Abdallah II is seeking to supplant. Dissing those who narrate your reign leads to bad press.
In response, the King now tries to suppress rather than address the problem. As Mohammad Ersan, the editor of two major Jordanian media outlets, said recently:
“The Jordanian authorities want to silence opposition voices and this is terrifying … Especially if you are an independent journalist – you worry every day that someone will knock on your door to arrest you.”17
And his colleague, Khalid Qudah, who is on the board of Jordan’s Press Association, chimed in:
“Our silence proved again that we are controlled, we work within a certain agenda, that we are not independent nor partial,”18
But like with his brother Prince Hamza and the tribes, the press in this case are mere vehicles to expose the problem. They were not the problem itself so their suppression only produces the lulling but misleading silence before eruption.
The King’s gambit goes bust
The real problem is that we are now seeing that all these forces – some of which are entirely of his own making, none of which King Abdallah is able to control, and many of which he cannot address by asking for help from traditional external because of the policies he has chosen – are converging to devour his crown:
- The Iraqi tribes remain unsettled and a hotbed of Islamic radicalism.
- The Palestinians, are radicalizing yet further despite, or indeed to some extent because of, King Abdallah’s misguided focus on undermining Israel’s control over Jerusalem and attempted replacement by the politically deceased PLO – a deadly combination which only creates a vacuum for Hamas and others, not for Jordan or the PLO, to fill.
- The Hejazi tribes are drifting away – jilted, orphaned and increasingly vocal, and potentially threatening even to the Saudis if the drift continues; and
- Parts of his own family are acting increasingly in despair over the precipice they feel the King is taking them.
- He is increasingly offending even his own “controlled” press.
Unlike his father, King Abdallah has burned his bridges with the one sure-fire structure upon which his reign is built. Neither the US nor the PLO, nor even Israel, can replace the importance to his survival of the tribes he has discarded. And unlike the bitter lesson his father learned about Arab and Palestinian nationalism – there is no path to integration of it. Individuals can be integrated, but the Arab nationalist movement and its particular Palestinian manifestation cannot since its very purpose always was to overthrow the traditional order of things, beginning with challenging the tribes.
Moreover, the determination to continue down the shibboleth on which King Abdallah has strayed is amplified rather than discouraged by its key partners, Israel and the United States both in their own attempts to satiate Palestinian nationalism as well as in their efforts to try to help Amman co-opt and champion the Palestinian cause to avert the specter of its further radicalization.
For entirely understandable reasons, therefore, the Hashemite King has with the best of intentions embarked on a deadly path. And yet indulging him, either out of personal empathy or out of a strategic outlook, will only encourage him to travel further down this path. And that would only hasten his reign’s reckoning and make less likely its eventual survival through this reckoning.
Indulgence dooms the Crown
Is that it, then? Is the Jordanian Kingdom then doomed?
Perhaps, but Jordan’s weakness and instability is not pre-ordained. The real threat is in fact the self-inflicted wound, but that also means a change of course is within King Abdallah’s – or at least the Hashemite family’s — power, and if taken can perhaps still heal that wound.
But make no mistake; although out of good intentions, the Hashemite Kingdom has mis-stepped so gravely in the last five years that it threatens its own demise, the advanced signs of which we are seeing now in this crisis. And though also largely out of good intentions, the policies of the West and Israel, which alternate between encouraging that misstep and indulging Amman in patience, have only exacerbated the malaise.
In short, indulgence is not helping, but hurting. It hurts not only Jordan’s neighbors, but ultimately the Hashemites themselves.
To be sure, Jordan is a sovereign country that cannot be saved despite itself; the only path to Jordan’s survival lies in Amman – not Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Manama, Jerusalem or Washington. And yet, because this will have significant implications for the United States, Israel and the Gulf Arabs, it would be prudent for them to enter into quiet strategic discussions to stand ready to help Jordan change course, or if Amman is unwilling and disaster becomes inescapable, to contain the effects of its collapse.
The point of this series of essays was neither to denigrate Jordan nor to cast it and the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty away glibly. The peace has served both Israel and Jordan well for three decades, and there is little point in intentionally discarding it. The point is to warn that Jordan’s recent behaviors are symptoms born of a dangerous strategic miscalculation, which is partly of Jordan’s own making. And answering Jordan’s increasingly desperate situation by deepening its descent into the failed strategy which led to the despair is not only unwise but will help plunge Jordan even further into its crisis.
Already in 2016-7, the Jordanian Crown decided the foundation of Jordanian foreign policy lies in his championing of Arab, and particularly Palestinian, nationalism and integrating the Palestinian majority’s role into the core of Jordan’s identity more than in continuing to cultivate and protect the Jordanian state’s tribal Hejazi moorings. Jordan will fail in its efforts to indulge, co-opt and ride ideological challenges. And it will undermine Israeli and Saudi efforts to control the collateral damages caused by these policies as well because it has created two dangerous conditions:
- It replaced the strong and focused Hejazi tribal foundations upon which the survival of his realm is based with an unsustainable and ultimately threatening Palestinian one.
- It ceded Jordan’s vital role as strategic partner with Israel in managing the Palestinian issue and instead demoted Amman to being a mere vessel for Abu Mazen and his failed, irrelevant and illusory authority.
Since Abu Mazen hardly even commands the Mukatah compound, Jordan’s tethering to him created a vacuum of power over a role which Amman had previously filled but is now the subject of a scramble between Hamas, Turkey, and Iran to fill – especially the more Israel pulls back in deference to Jordan’s demands to further reduce the Jewish states’ profile.
In short, Jordan’s attempt to co-opt Palestinian radicalism will, as it traditionally always has, deepen its crises and most profoundly threaten the survival not of only the monarch, but of the very essence of what the Jordanian state is. Given the immense weakness Jordan faces already which has generated the despair that led to this miscalculation, it is quite possible that Jordan will be unable to survive it unless there is quite soon a dramatic change of policy by Amman and its neighbors…and then without guarantees.
Jordan’s policies not only fuel the violence rather than just being fueled by it, but they lead Jordan to starkly depart from its previously amicable relations with Israel and rattle the foundations of peace. Unfortunately, those policies are a more extensive embrace of a policy whose milder versions in the past have proven nearly fatal for Jordan. And the prospects are quite real that this far more extensive embrace of this strategy could likely lead to even worse results. Thus, prudence demands of its neighbors and allies to plan for such eventualities.
The King of Jordan has reached a dangerous state of affairs in his realm. His regime is threatened, in large part because of grave mistakes he himself has made over the last years. Faced with an increasingly desperate circumstance, he has flung himself, royal prestige, and his family fully into the Palestinian issue to emerge as its champion and, he hopes, to navigate a path to survival through this.
Maybe he will succeed, and we should all hope for it, but if the past is any guide, he has taken several large steps to his regime’s demise. His plunge into the abyss of Palestinian politics is a darkness from which he more likely will not emerge. His father – who erred onto that path occasionally but certainly not as wholeheartedly (not even a fraction of it, in fact) – needed foreign intervention to survive. But assuming this time it is even something that is feasible, who exactly would come with military intervention to the King’s aid now? Jordan’s neighbors would be well-advised to pull back on their indulgence of his policies in as much as it weakens not only them and damages their own interests, but also undermines the Jordanian Crown.
Jordan needs to be strongly discouraged to engage in peace process fantasies and encouraged instead to return to the essential foundations that define the state structure, and that it understands that its fundamental role now has shifted away not only from championing the Palestinian Arabs but to understand that its primary purpose is to help stabilize the Hejazi tribal universe and isolate it from the threats from Tehran, Ankara and others. Sadly, because of its missteps, for the foreseeable future, Jordan’s role in any capacity to moderate, control or manage the Palestinian issue on behalf of itself or others has reached its end.
It would be irresponsible for Jordan’s neighbors and allies to ignore the very real problem that the current path of the monarchy could lead to its dissolution and create a stage upon which the region’s worst actors can play out their horrific conflicts in one of the most important strategic pieces of regional real estate.
These parameters, thus, suggest two things:
- First, the assumptions underlying counseling patience and yielding to the strategic utility of indulging Amman in its increasingly provocative and hostile behavior are flawed. As such, it is not only futile, but also imprudent to indulge Jordan – especially if it weakens Israel and Saudi Arabia, and forfeits an opportunity to bring other states at peace with Israel into the equation — since it will not help, and indeed only enables Amman’s continued plunge into the abyss; and
- Second, Jordan’s neighbors and allies should hope the monarchy navigates itself into safe haven, but plan for the worst and lay out a strategy and prepare foundations for stabilizing the Hejaz were that to happen. The area between Amman and Mecca – and the far-reaching implications of its potential instability — are far too important to continue to ignore.
Should Amman refuse or fail to restore its tribal moorings, however, it would be wise for its neighbors and allies to begin self-protectively to plan for the day after he does not pull it off and contemplate a world in which Jordan is either unstable, or worse.