AMMAN, Jordan – In a seedy state security court on the outskirts of the Jordanian capital, a highly unusual trial unfolds that provides rare insight into the kingdom’s fractured royal family, their tensions with more powerful neighbors in the region and its alliance with the United States.
It focuses on a political intrigue, still somewhat shrouded in mystery, which erupted in April when Jordanian authorities carried out a series of arrests targeting powerful figures, including a former heir to the throne and a confidant of the crown prince of ‘Saudi Arabia, who is the de facto ruler of that country.
The confidant, Bassem Awadallah, is on trial with a second defendant, Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, businessman and distant cousin of King Abdullah II of Jordan. Both have pleaded not guilty to sedition and conspiracy to destabilize the monarchy and face up to 20 years in prison if found guilty. But the person at the center of the drama is absent from the courtroom: Prince Hamzah, the younger brother of the King of Jordan, has not been charged.
The trial has become a showcase for regional rivalries and tests US alliances with two important allies in the Middle East, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Tensions between neighboring Arab countries have arisen in part because of the normalization agreements between Israel and the Arab Gulf countries reached last year.
The first arrests in the sedition case shocked Jordanians and alarmed Western allies of Jordan, a small kingdom wedged between Israel, the West Bank, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The country has succeeded in maintaining stability and welcoming waves of refugees from conflicts around the Middle East while remaining a staunch ally of the United States in the areas of intelligence, security and counterterrorism cooperation.
The trial moved forward despite intense pressure from Jordan’s most powerful neighbor, Saudi Arabia, to disrupt proceedings.
The Saudis sent four jets with four different officials to demand the return of Mr. Awadallah immediately after his arrest in April, according to a former senior Western intelligence official who asked to remain anonymous so he could discuss the details he had been on. informed.
He said those officials were headed by Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan and included a senior official in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s office. They were joined by the Saudi intelligence chief, who stayed in Jordan for five days to pressure the monarchy to allow Mr. Awadallah to return with him.
Saudi officials confirmed the delegation flew to Jordan, but said it was to express solidarity with King Abdullah and denied that they were seeking Mr. Awadallah’s release.
“I think they pushed for Awadallah’s release because they knew he had incriminating information and they wanted him to come out,” said another former intelligence official, Bruce Riedel.
Mr. Riedel, a former CIA officer, said Jordan was able to resist Saudi pressure to fire Mr. Awadallah after CIA director William Burns, a former ambassador to Jordan, asked the White House to intervene. The CIA declined to comment on the intervention.
But President Biden also called on King Abdullah to lend his support while the Saudi intelligence chief was in Amman. And King Abdullah is due to visit the White House next month.
The kind of support the White House offered in April, at the height of the drama, would have been unlikely under the Trump administration, when relations between the two countries deteriorated to their worst point in decades.
Jordan initially blamed anonymous outside influences in announcing the alleged plot, but has since been careful not to upset Saudi Arabia, where hundreds of thousands of Jordanians are employed. If they were expelled, the Jordanian economy would be in danger of collapsing.
Mr. Awadallah, now economic adviser to the Saudi crown prince, was once one of the most trusted confidants of the King of Jordan, serving as the kingdom’s finance minister and then head of the royal court of King Abdullah . He holds Jordanian, American and Saudi nationalities.
The trial is closed to the public. But a video leaked from the courthouse on Monday showed a disheveled Mr. Awadallah dressed in a light blue prison uniform, with his hands tied behind his back, led to the state security court through a door with pieces of the wooden frame missing.
Described as a motivated and gifted economist, Mr. Awadallah has not only intimate knowledge of Saudi financial policy, but also Jordanian economic deals, former intelligence officials said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there is, ultimately, an agreement here or if Awadallah is found guilty but then sent into exile in the UK to keep his secrets to himself,” Mr Riedel said. , who wrote an upcoming book. on Jordan and the United States.
Mr. Awadallah is accused of plotting with Prince Hamzah to destabilize the country. But one of the lingering mysteries in the murky case is what allegedly motivated him to do so.
Jordan, which has a predominantly Palestinian population, has opposed key elements of former President Donald J. Trump’s normalization agreements between the Gulf Arab states and Israel. One of the biggest prizes among those deals was a deal with the United Arab Emirates, a close ally of Saudi Arabia. Jordan fears that the normalization pact may ruin the chances of an independent Palestinian state, as envisioned by its own 1994 peace treaty with Israel.
The purpose of the plot, according to the accusations, was to destabilize the country and “support the idea of Prince Hamzah becoming the ruler of Jordan”. Although Jordanian media initially reported on an attempted coup, intelligence officials say the accused plotters did not recruit military officials and did not attempt to overthrow King Abdullah directly, who has reigned since 1999.
Former intelligence officials said Mr. Awadallah would only act with the approval of top Saudi leaders.
The former Western official said he believed the Saudis’ goal was to undermine the king’s role as a central actor in the Middle East. A weaker King Abdullah would have less leeway to oppose policies regarding Israel and the Palestinians championed by the Saudi Crown Prince.
Prince Hamzah, 41, is an Air Force pilot who grew up believing he was the designated heir to the Jordanian throne. He has seen his movement and communications restricted since being confined to his palace in April and should not stand trial – likely to avoid the embarrassment of a senior royal official facing prosecution.
Instead, the palace announced a family reconciliation meeting led by King Hussein’s brother Prince Hassan. Soon after, Prince Hamzah renewed his allegiance to King Abdullah.
According to the indictment revealed by state media, Prince Hamzah has embarked on a campaign to undermine King Abdullah by meeting with disgruntled tribal figures to encourage protests against the king.
Hamzah, the son of King Hussein and his fourth and last wife, the American-born Queen Noor al-Hussein, had been prepared from childhood to take the throne. But in 1999, as the king died of cancer, he changed his successor from his brother Prince Hassan to his eldest son Prince Abdullah, who became king later that year.
This decision actually meant that Prince Abdullah’s eldest son would ultimately become king rather than Prince Hamzah. In 2004, King Abdullah deprived Prince Hamzah of the title of Crown Prince, transferring it to his own eldest son.
Jordanians say Prince Hamzah deliberately cultivated role models and manners like his father’s and never stopped aspiring to the role he and his mother insist he was born to inherit.
“The question is, is that basically it?” Mr Riedel said. “He’s definitely going to keep a low profile for the foreseeable future, but I don’t think his ambitions are going to go away.”