Dissident prince resonates with public in pandemic-stricken Jordan

Every afternoon at around 3 a.m. Jordanians angry at the gravity of their lives call themselves Rainbow Street, a radio show in Amman, and warmly complain about the lack of jobs and the economic hardship caused by the pandemic of coronavirus.

But in recent months, Mohammed Ersan, the show’s popular host, has noticed something he had never seen before. The callers blamed King Abdullah, the Western ally and the moderate force in power for 22 years, for their woes.

“People are now saying that the king is to blame for all the nepotism, the corruption – they are now saying it out loud, on the radio, at protests,” Ersan said.

King Abdullah said this week what he describes as a sedition attempt by his own half-brother – a charismatic young prince who tapped into a vein of growing discontent in the increasingly impoverished people of the small kingdom.

The 10 million people of Jordan, which borders Israel, the occupied West Bank, Syria and Saudi Arabia, includes 3 million refugees and guest workers. The unprecedented drama has raised concerns about the stability of the resource-poor Hashemite kingdom, which has been run by the same family since 1922.

Much of the attempted sedition remains unknown. The king and his government said Prince Hamzah, the 41-year-old son of the late King of Jordan Hussein and alleged heir until his demotion in 2004, has gone from open criticism of the government’s failures to taking action against him. They say he was working in tandem with a former finance minister with ties to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Prince Hamzah remains “in my custody,” the king said on Wednesday, describing a form of house arrest for his half-brother, saying the attempted sedition had been contained.

Column chart of the annual change (%) showing that the Jordanian economy does not grow according to its population

At least 18 people, including Bassem Awadallah, the deeply unpopular former finance minister, who was once the king’s chief of staff, and members of the prince’s staff, remain under arrest as a wide-ranging investigation continues .

But Jordan’s economic woes remain clearly visible, leaving the issues Prince Hamzah has built his popularity on unresolved.

Even before Jordan fell into the pandemic, it was deeply in debt, growing just 2 percent a year, and with one in four working-age adults unemployed. A year later – after some 7,600 coronavirus deaths and strict lockdowns – nearly half of the country’s young people are unemployed after the tourism collapse.

As the Jordanian economy has been rocked by external factors – conflicts in Syria and Iraq have cut trade routes and squeezed markets while sending nearly a million refugees across the border – Frequent changes of government have also shaken investors, said Mazen Homoud, vice-president of the Jordanian Economic Forum. “Successive governments have missed great opportunities that could have had a very significant impact on the unemployment crisis in Jordan,” he added.

In leaked tapes over the weekend, the prince criticized the corruption and nepotism Jordanians routinely associate with their inability to find jobs. “Prince Hamzah was smart – he used the language of people on the streets, who feel their lives are constantly on the decline,” said Ersan, the radio host.

For decades, successive Jordanian governments – King Abdullah is his 14th prime minister in 22 years in office – have promised more jobs and reforms to an economy dependent on US aid and institutional loans such as the IMF, as well as income from tourism. .

But in practice, they moved slowly, fearing to upset the tribal south that erupted in protests after the IMF-led cuts in 1989, analysts said. A restructuring of army-alienated Bedouin tribes who relied on the military for jobs, sparking protests in 2011 that nearly culminated in the Arab uprising in Jordan. In 2018, mass protests resulted in the sacking of a prime minister and a postponement of a planned tax increase.

The pandemic has only intensified these challenges. Jordanian banks remain relatively healthy – deposits fell to just under $ 50 billion in the last quarter of 2020 – but this has pushed small businesses into debt, according to the World Bank.

In Amman, Majdi Mutlaq Yasim, 59, runs a small women’s clothing store, after abandoning a more upscale boutique in a mall that closed during Covid.

He still owes money to the mall for rent, the bank for his son’s studies in Turkey and the UK, and a university for his two daughters’ tuition fees. While he had a job planned before graduating from college in the 1980s, none of his children were employed.

“We need help, but we know the government can’t help us – it’s a poor government,” he said. “The future looks very bad and at my age admitting this makes me very sad – sometimes I can’t breathe.

With sales tax constituting the bulk of tax revenues, the lockdowns hit government revenues. As a result, it will find it difficult to continue creating public sector jobs that have helped maintain the loyalty of the Bedouin tribes.

Outside of Amman, the leader of a small tribe said he was roaming the capital with 100 CV, hoping to find at least one of his tribal comrades a job, but in five years he didn’t ‘did not land one.

“Previously, you could promise your son a future, help him get married and send him out into the world,” he said, requesting anonymity. “Now he’s sitting at home and hiding the sadness in his eyes.”

Line graph of the unemployment rate (%) showing that Jordan entered the pandemic with the worst unemployment since 1993

In the absence of reliable opinion polls, it is difficult to assess the popularity of Prince Hamzah. His physical resemblance to his father, deeply revered in Jordan, and his fluency in classical Arabic trigger nostalgia for better times. (“We all love him,” a group of young women said at a cafe in an upscale hotel in Amman. “He’s amazing.”) The prince hasn’t been tested, however.

“Prince Hamzah has never played a role in the management of the country,” said Amer Al Sabaileh, professor and columnist. “He introduces himself to their [ tribal leaders] weddings, their funerals, sometimes driving his own car – he is the image of (the late) King Hussein.

Navigating the post-Covid economic landscape, while managing dissent without alienating Western donors, will be difficult for King Abdullah, Al Sabaileh said. “The real challenge for Jordan has not yet come,” he said.

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