Jordan Crisis: Is Saudi Arabia Responsible?
In April 2021, the half-brother of King Abdullah II of Jordan, Former Crown Prince Hamzah, was placed under house arrest on charges of destabilizing the regime. This news was seen as a routine family dispute over power, as the general perception was that a power struggle had occurred. The public was correct; Hamzah had been removed from that position and King Abdullah II’s own son was appointed as crown prince. It was natural for people to assume that this was just power politics at play.
However, an increasing number of reports argue that Saudi Arabia could be responsible for the current instability in Jordan. The Saudi’s appear to be engaged in a myriad of activities on Jordanian soil, including at Al-Aqsa, the famous mosque in Jerusalem, whose internal management is handled by the Jordanian Waqf. According to a report, a potential Saudi stake in the management of the Al-Aqsa mosque could threaten the Jordanian regime’s control over the holy site. This could be speculation, but looking at Middle Eastern history, it’s possible to think that Jordanians could be worried by Riyadh.
After World War I, the Hashemite dynasty, which currently rules Jordan, were granted control of Mecca and Medina, two of the holiest places of Islam, by the British Empire. However, Jordan’s opposition to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, as stated in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, resulted in the British withdrawing their support for Hashemite control over the holy lands. This withdrawal of support ultimately allowed the Saud dynasty to displace the Hashemites as the guardians of the two holy places of Islam.
Al-Aqsa mosque is a major flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Israeli-Saudi thaw could result in a reduction of Jordan’s influence on Palestinian affairs if the Saudis are granted entry into Al-Aqsa. For Saudi Arabia the interest is clear: one more holy site of Islam under Saudi control, which will help expand their legitimacy in the Middle East.
For the Jordanian regime, a loss of control over the Al-Aqsa compound would directly impact the legitimacy of King Abdullah II’s regime. History may repeat itself, as the Saudis once again replace the Hashemites for control over Islam’s holy sites.
Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Jordanian affairs isn’t limited to religion. The former Minister of Finance of Jordan, Sharif Hassan Bin Zaid, had deep ties with Saudi Arabia as a dual Jordanian-Saudi citizen, and was an economic advisor to Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. Zaid was involved in the coup against the Jordanian regime in April and arrested shortly thereafter. According to reports, the Saudi foreign minister traveled to Jordan to secure Zaid’s release, which was promptly rejected by Jordanian authorities. Saudi Arabia has denied they ever sought his release.
The Trump administration’s relationship with Saudi Arabia provides an additional layer to the Jordan-Saudi dynamic.
President Trump was well known for pursuing a transactional relationship, and this was something that Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia engaged in. To convince the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to sign the Abraham accords, to normalize ties with Israel, the Trump administration offered incentives such as F-35 jets; to convince Sudan, Trump’s administration removed Khartoum from the terror list. Riyadh gazed hopefully towards a potential offer of control over Al-Aqsa mosque. But the new administration in the United States has left little room for Saudi Arabia’s desires, especially with Al-Aqsa.
Biden’s approach has so far been drastically different from his predecessor’s, leaning in favor of the status quo in Al-Aqsa. The Jordanian Foreign ministry issued a statement reaffirming control over Al-Aqsa after a call between King Abdullah II of Jordan and President elect Biden in November 2020. With Washington’s position in mind, believing that Riyadh aims to destabilize Jordan would be a reach. Biden’s administration prefers the status quo; assuming that the Saudis could interfere in Jordan despite Washington’s position would be too far fetched, as the Kingdom of Jordan is a United States ally, too.