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A long-simmering royal family feud is publicly boiling over in Jordan

Palace intrigue is shaking one of the Middle East’s most historically-stable monarchies. Jordan’s King Abdullah is challenged by the former crown prince, his half-brother, Prince Hamzah. Nick Schifrin explores the long-simmering reasons for the family feud, and Dr. Bessma Momani, professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, joins us to discuss the confrontation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Palace intrigue shakes one of the Middle East's most historically stable monarchies.

    Jordan's King Abdullah is challenged by the former crown prince, his half-brother, Hamzah.

    As Nick Schifrin tells us, there are long-simmering reasons for the confrontation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Jordan this weekend, a simmering family feud publicly boiled over.

  • Prince Hamzah:

    The lives and futures of our children and their children are at stake if this continues.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    When popular Prince Hamzah accused his half-brother's government of neglecting its own people.

  • Prince Hamzah:

    Their well-being has been put second by a ruling system that has decided that its personal interests, that its financial interests, that its corruption is more important than the lives and dignity and futures of the 10 million people that live here.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jordanian authorities placed Hamzah under house arrest for what they labeled an attempt to unseat his half-brother, King Abdullah. They arrested nearly 20 other people for collaboration, including former finance minister, Bassem Awadallah. in what Jordan's foreign minister called a foreign-backed plot.

  • Ayman Safadi (through translator):

    These investigations also found links between Bassem Awadallah and foreign elements, the so-called external opposition related to weakening Jordan's steadfast position on major issues.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For decades, Jordan was ruled by King Hussein. His second wife, Princess Muna al-Hussein, gave birth to their oldest son, Abdullah, the current king, who took power in 1999. Hussein's fourth wife, Noor, a Syrian-American, gave birth to Hamzah, making Hamzah Abdullah's half-brother.

    The Hashemite Kingdom has long been viewed as a reliable partner at a crossroads in the Middle East, bordering Syria, Iraq, Israel and the occupied West Bank. But its economy is struggling. This year, unemployment jumped to 25 percent. Exports and tourism are down.

    Syrian refugees tax an overburdened system. And the downturn's exacerbated by one of the world's strictest COVID lockdowns.

  • Ali Ibrahim (through translator):

    Our economy is collapsing. Look at the shop. It is empty.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That frustration has fueled protests. Last month, security forces fired tear gas at anti-lockdown demonstrators. And last year, King Abdullah dissolved the country's Parliament.

    But Hamzah's criticism is unique, because its source and target are the highest echelons of royal power.

  • Prince Hamzah:

    This country has become stymied in corruption, in nepotism and in misrule. And the result has been the destruction or the loss of hope.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jordan's allies quickly came to the kingdom's defense.

  • Ned Price:

    The king has our full support. And that is in large part because Jordan is a close friend.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And a Saudi royal court statement affirmed its full standing by and the support with all its capabilities for the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

    But, internally, Hamzah's defenders defied the government. His mother, Noor, tweeted: "Truth and justice will prevail for all the innocent victims of this wicked slander."

    Today, at first, Hamzah vowed to keep speaking out.

  • Prince Hamzah (through translator):

    of course, I will not abide when he tells me, you are not allowed to go out, tweet or connect with people and you are only allowed to see family members.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, by the end of the day, Hamzah released a statement — quote — "We must all stand behind his majesty the king."

    We explore this riff now with Dr. Bessma Momani, professor of political science at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

    Thank you very much. Welcome to the "NewsHour."

    So, Jordan's allies have always viewed it as an oasis of stability. Do these affect — do these incidents affect that stability?

  • Bessma Momani:

    Well, certainly, it suggests that there are some sort of cracks inside this system.

    And Jordanians have been really perplexed by the narrative that the government has given them. It is unclear whether or not there is some sort of foreign element to the story, or is this an internal squabble within the royal family?

    That's really the main question. And, certainly, I think many Jordanians could deal with the reality there might be internal squabbles. But the idea that there is some sort of foreign meddling or intervention or possible plot to undermine the government is something that is clearly keeping them up awake tonight.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There's no proof that authorities have presented of the foreign plot. And there's certainly talk of this family feud, which has existed in the past.

    What is the source of that family feud? And how long has it been running?

  • Bessma Momani:

    There's certainly some regular kinds of succession battles that one sees in royal families.

    But I think, unlike what you might see in neighboring countries, whether it's Saudi Arabia or the UAE and others, we haven't seen this kind of very public display of challenges from within. And that really is quite remarkable.

    Now, Prince Hamzah is a popular figure, and certainly amongst a certain group, particularly East Bank tribal community, which do see that he really is reminiscent of his father. In many ways, he has the same kind of charismatic personal touch.

    Even if you saw on the video, there was, I think, a lot of references to the common person, the struggles of corruption, the economic crisis that is really on the minds of many Jordanians. So, he is very much in the spotlight.

    And I think that really is one of the core issues that, in fact, led to this situation that the country is in today.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Does that popularity among tribal leaders that Prince Hamzah has, does that translate into actual power that allowed — would allow him to actually threaten the government?

  • Bessma Momani:

    No, I don't think so, partly because these East Bank tribes very much don't want to see the monarchy as an institution crumble.

    They're disaffected. Certainly, they do feel that there needs to be some serious structural reforms in the country. They're very frustrated with the nepotism and the corruption, but in no way do I think they have any interest in seeing undermining of the regime.

    And, regardless, I think bringing in a different king, for that matter, would just bring in that kind of instability that no Jordanian, including East Bankers, wants to see.

    But what you did see in the past few days is, in fact, many Jordanians changing their avatars, if you will, to the picture of Hamzah, a lot of outpouring of support on Facebook, questioning the narrative the government gave them.

    And I think, actually, we saw in many ways the royal palace today kind of concede to the fact that this is not working. This messaging backfired. The release of that tape that Hamzah sent out was making the situation more problematic, and they were better off to actually make amends. And that's exactly what we saw today.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Finally, let's talk quickly about some of the other people arrested.

    Bassem Awadallah, who was an informal liaison of the king to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, what's the significance of his arrest?

  • Bessma Momani:

    Well, I think, frankly, it was an attempt of distraction, trying to put a foreign elements into this.

    Look, Bassem Awadallah has no popularity inside the country. He's been, frankly, blamed for a lot of the privatization, neo-liberal policies that have made so many things difficult for the average Jordanian. So, his name is synonymous with so much of the things in the economic policies in particular that the country does not like, and feels very much challenged, the way that Jordan had its social contract for so many years.

    So, I think it really is a distraction. And the connection between Hamzah and Bassem Awadallah, I mean, I think there's no imaginative person who could make that connection. So, really, to try and find a way to lump these two together in one sense just does not make sense. And, frankly, it added more confusion and uncertainty in the narrative being provided by the government.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Professor Bessma Momani, thank you very much.

  • Bessma Momani:

    Thank you, Nick.

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