Alleged sedition and a royal family feud may have been driven by a broader plan to reshape the Middle East
By mid-2020, King Abdullah was under increasing strain; buffeted by ill winds from both Washington and Riyadh. Photograph: Frederic Sierakowski/Isopix/Rex/Shutterstock
The phone call that shook the Jordanian government came in the second week of March this year. On the line to the General Intelligence Directorate (GID) in Amman was the US Embassy, seeking an urgent meeting about a matter of national importance. The kingdom’s spies were startled. Danger was brewing on the home front, they were told, and could soon pose a threat to the throne.
Within hours, the GID had turned its full array of resources towards one of the country’s most senior royals, Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, a former crown prince and half-brother of the king, whom the Americans suspected was sowing dissent and had begun rallying supporters. By early April, officials had placed Hamzah under house arrest and publicly accused the former heir and two close aides of plotting to unseat King Abdullah.
As two alleged plotters prepare to face court in Amman, a fuller picture is emerging of the three weeks that rattled the royal family. This week prosecutors in possession of phone taps, intercepted messages and recorded conversations will outline evidence supporting sedition charges against Bassem Awadallah, a former head of the Royal Hashemite Court and businessman and cousin of the King, Sharif Hassan bin Zaid.
However, away from the courthouse, evidence that a family feud could have been driven by a broader conspiracy has also been taking shape. The alleged deeds of Hamzah and his two accused conspirators are increasingly being seen as the dying echoes of a larger plot, fuelled by Jordan’s closest allies, that could have imperilled Abdullah’s grip on the throne if Donald Trump had won a second stint as US president.
As the turmoil of Trump’s term recedes, the implications of his attempts to redraw the map of Israel and Palestine via his showpiece foreign policy play – the so-called deal of the century – are crystallising. Officials in the Biden administration, which has restored a more traditional approach to regional diplomacy fear that Jordan’s interests would have been shredded in a second Trump government. And its leadership may well have been a casualty.
Regional officials say there may be links between Prince Hamzah’s alleged actions, which officials in Amman describe as sedition but not a coup, and the approach to Middle East affairs steered by Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East envoy, Jared Kushner, with the backing of his friend and ally, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The charges against Hamzah accuse him of rallying support using three key events: the deaths in March of seven people in a hospital in the town of Salt during an oxygen outage blamed on negligence; the commemoration of a 1968 battle between Israel and the Palestinians; and the birth of a Jordanian youth movement nearly a decade earlier.
“Hamzah turned up to Salt, and we know he was plotting with his aides to make a show of things,” a senior official said. “It was then that this whole thing moved from abstraction to something that was much more coherent and organised. There were trigger words and a deployment of methods such as demoralisation agents and ways explored of tapping into the hardships of the people.”
Phone intercepts from that time heard by the Guardian portrayed Hamzah and Sharif Hassan in close coordination. The pair often spoke in English and referred to each other as ‘bro’. For Awadallah, they used the nickname ‘No Lube’.
From the early months of Trump’s presidency, Kushner and Prince Mohammed rode large across the regional landscape, drawn by each other’s nakedly transactional worldview and their readiness to blend political power and business interests.
Both saw themselves as change agents breaking barriers through coercion and intimidation and were dismissive of allies who refused to do their bidding.
The normally watertight relationship between Amman and Washington, built on 50 years of security cooperation, reached breaking point in Trump’s first term, senior Jordanian officials say, as the White House pursued its Middle East agenda through a team of handpicked loyalists, eschewing both structures of state and sidelining officials whom Jordan would normally have dealt with.
First among the administration’s schemes was an attempt to forge peace between Israel and the Palestinians that ripped up the rulebook governing decades of talks and shattered understandings of what an eventual deal may look like. Despite being directly affected, Jordan knew none of its elements until the grand announcement in early 2019.
When the plan was finally revealed, Jordanian leaders sensed mortal danger in its implicit intention to share control of the Haram al-Sharif compound in Jerusalem, over which the Hashemite dynasty of the King of Jordan has maintained custodianship since 1924. Beyond that, the plan rejected many starting points of earlier peace talks, annexing 30 per cent of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley and rejecting the central Palestinian demand of a capital in East Jerusalem. The offering was so untenable to Jordan that the prime minister at the time, Omar Razzaz, warned that its peace treaty with Israel was at risk.
Guardianship of Haram al-Sharif, the site of both of al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, is a key source of legitimacy for the Hashemites, pre-dating the creation of Jordan and Israel.
“Sharing [the Haram al-Sharif] with the Saudis and the Israelis was definitely something they [the Trump administration] considered,” said one US official. “They were desperate to get this done, and made no bones about blackmailing friend and foe. For the Emiratis it was F-35s. For the Sudanese, it was getting them off the terror blacklist. The prize (for both countries) was American patronage and Israeli technical expertise.”
By mid-2020 King Abdullah was under increasing strain, buffeted by ill winds from Washington and just as troubled by the chill from across the border with Saudi Arabia. Jordan has depended heavily on both countries, the US primarily to fund its security apparatus and Riyadh to help pay its public sector. Privately, Riyadh had made its dissatisfaction felt with Jordan’s reluctance to follow Trump’s Middle East policy, according to officials in both capitals. The Kushner plan would cement Saudi Arabia as a central player in a reshaped region and clear the way for a peace with Israel.
“The rejection of the new Middle East on the other hand meant the entire plan would fall over,” said a senior regional official who refused to be named. “Others, however, were willing to go with such a formula.”
During the dying months of the Trump White House, demands to get the deal done intensified. Jordan’s defiance angered Kushner and Prince Mohammed, who had also been displeased with a similarly reluctant Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.
“They were thought of as like the Lebanese,” a Saudi businessman with ties to the Saudi royal court said of the Jordanian leadership. “They take a lot and give nothing back. The new regime (Prince Mohammed) wants a return on investment. He and Kushner bonded over this way of thinking.”
As the friendship between Kushner and Prince Mohammed blossomed – often during all-night discussions in tents deep in the Saudi desert – ties between Bassem Awadallah and Riyadh were also deepening. A former Jordanian finance minister, Awadallah joined a panel at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh in 2019, where local dignitaries knew him well from another previous role as Jordanian envoy to Riyadh.
The upshot is that Trump lost and it all fell over.
With Trump gone, only one pillar of the flatlining Deal of the Century remained: Saudi Arabia, where Prince Mohammed was yet to bring back Amman from the cold. After Awadallah was arrested on 3 April, the Saudi foreign minister, Faisal bin Farhan, flew to Amman to meet Jordanian officials. Hamzah was by then under house arrest, where he remains today. The Guardian understands that Farhan requested Awadallah’s release but was rebuffed by his hosts. Saudi Arabia has said Farhan made no request of Jordan and had flown to Amman to express support for King Abdullah.
By then, the GID was wading through hundreds of hours of intercepts all recorded from 15 March. Officials say that not long before that, Sharif Hassan had made contact with an embassy (the Guardian understands this to be the US embassy in Amman), soliciting support for Hamzah. That approach led to the US warning and the scramble to understand what had been happening.
“The upshot is that Trump lost and it all fell over,” said a regional intelligence source. “Had he been re-elected, this would be a very different region.”
Senior officials in Amman would not be drawn on the likelihood of a foreign element to the alleged plot, and nor would they confirm that their most trusted security partner, the US, had alerted them to a potential threat. However, the officials clearly took comfort from the fact that the new US administration has restored a traditional security relationship, which had been traduced under Trump.
US officials have confirmed to the Guardian that in the final months of 2020, officials sought advice on which areas of funding to Jordan were outside congressional approval and could therefore be cut without debate.
Amman was ultimately spared a budget blow. As Joe Biden has settled in, its leaders have collectively exhaled and prefer not to focus on how close, if at all, King Abdullah came to being ousted by Jordan’s two closest friends.
Instead, senior officials are busying themselves with local dimension to the alleged plot. The March phone taps and listening devices appear to depict organisers demanding that meetings of military officials be confined to a maximum of seven people, while tribal meetings consisted of no more than 15. “In addition, they were not just implementing a systematic approach that built consensus among East Bankers, they were also appealing to the Palestinian part of the Jordanian demography.”
While Jordanian officials refused to be to be drawn on whether Saudi Arabia played a role, it is understood that a bilateral arrangement broke down around the time the alleged plot was uncovered. Every autumn, locusts emerge from the Saudi deserts and fly north to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The plagues usually arrive in three waves, and early warning systems have been put in place to give Jordanian farmers time to safeguard crops. This year, there were no warnings.