These are not the easiest of days for Jordan‘s King Abdullah II. The “Arab Spring” has reached Amman and is putting his throne under pressure from two sides. Every Friday, which has been dubbed the national “day of rage,” thousands of leftists and Islamists of mainly Palestinian descent take to the streets to demand political reform. On the other side of the spectrum, the Jordanian tribes have grown ever more vocal in their demands to curb the growing Palestinian influence in the country.
The focal point of their criticism has been none other than Queen Rania, herself of Palestinian descent. In February, 36 tribal representatives sent an open letter to the king in which they accused his wife of “building power centers for her interests that go against what Jordanians and Hashemites have agreed on in governing, and [she] is a danger to the nation, the structure of the state and the political structure of the throne.”
The letter furthermore criticized her frequent presence in the international media, and even accused her of having registered former tribal land in the name of her family. The letter hit the country like a bomb. After all, it is by law forbidden to criticize any member of the royal family. Yet the royal court could do little against the signatories, as they represented some of the country’s largest tribes, including the Bani Sakhr, which in early March blocked the airport road in protest against the state’s ongoing confiscation of tribal lands.
The royal court did act, however, when Agence France Presse Bureau Chief Randa Habib dared share fragments of the letter with an international audience. Habib had to bear the brunt of the royal anger. The court threatened to sue both her and the press agency for “slander,” as she had referred to “tribal leaders,” when in fact they were only representatives. Habib was also fired as columnist for the state-owned daily The Jordan Times.
Among the signatories was the well-known right-wing dissident and former Member of Parliament Ahmad Ouweidi Abbadi, the chairman of the Jordan National Movement, who in 2007 was sentenced to two years in jail for accusing former Interior Minister Eid el-Fayez of corruption. According to him, the “true” Jordanians are today second-class citizens within their own country.
While some of letter’s accusations seem exaggerated, the fundamental sentiment behind the criticism is shared by a considerable part of the population and touches upon the very essence and split nature of Jordan. The country’s original inhabitants mainly consist of tribal Bedouins. It was only after the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the 1967 Six-Day war that hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees entered the kingdom.
Many received passports and, on paper at least, are today full-fledged Jordanians. Some 1.2 million among them, however, only have a residency permit. The tribes are extremely worried that the royal court aims to offer them the Jordanian nationality. “King Abdullah must choose: Rania or the throne,” Abbadi told me bluntly. “If she will not disappear we will sooner or later have a civil war.” Harsh words from a bitter man, yet Abbadi is not alone. Some analysts have described the current tense situation as “a Black September without arms,” referring to the 1970 fighting between the PLO and King Hussein’s troops.
Former general Ali Habashneh, the widely respected chairman of the National Committee for Retired Servicemen (NCRS), did not sign the petition. Nor did he accuse Queen Rania of improper behavior or transaction. However, he too believes she has too much of a say at the Royal Court. As early as May 1, 2009, Habashneh offered the King, on behalf of the NCRS, a petition expressing the organization’s concerns. On March 15 this year NCRS again made headlines by publicly claiming that the royal court over the past decade has issued some 130,000 passports to Palestinian refugees.
Habashneh furthermore accused the government of being “weak” in the face of “United States and Israeli pressures to settle Palestinian refugees in Jordan.” According to him, Israel’s right-wing government has killed the idea of an independent Palestinian state, with the (financial) help of Washington, by turning Jordan into Palestine. In this scenario, he warned, the Black September without arms would likely begin to gather weapons.
Peter Speetjens is a Beirut-based journalist