The Pandora Papers have built a detailed picture of a global network of the super rich and their techniques for getting richer. Stories about world leaders around the world have so far dominated the headlines; from Tony Blair, escaping the tax that regular U.K. citizens pay when buying a house, to King Abdullah II of Jordan, secretly buying up luxury properties around the world worth $108 million.
Reactions around the world have varied. Jordanians shrug their shoulders. They ask, so what if the king of Jordan has investments in property? So did his father, the beloved King Hussein, as do most people who have the money; property abroad is a sound investment, and monarchs are rich. This is also the predominant reaction in Lebanon, where various wealthy people have been shown to have acquired their billions in illicit ways: “We knew all this already” was the response. Even so, there is often value in seeing tangible proof of what people might “know” already: the pictures of Malibu beach houses, the exact figures of the billions some individuals own, and where and how they are hidden from tax authorities. But seen from the Middle East, was this a nonstory? Simply proof of what was going on already, not worth the time of the investigative journalists?
For many Jordanian elites, the story became something else; given it wasn’t anything much to comment on, why was there all this attention from the world’s media? It felt targeted, and it felt personal, leading to revisions of other momentous political events earlier this year. A picture is developing of hostile foreign powers working against the kingdom, which has only improved the king’s reputation among his population.
The gap between the framing in Western media outlets and the perception of the story in Jordan is huge. The original articles that broke the news contextualized the sums involved and the dates of the king’s acquisitions with a picture of the kingdom’s economic situation, heavily reliant on billions of dollars of foreign aid, and a timeline of events, including the Arab Spring protests of 2011, protests against a proposed tax law in 2018, and the dire situation in both health and economic terms during the COVID-19 pandemic. “While foreign aid poured in, Jordan’s King Abdullah funnelled $100m through secret companies to buy luxury homes” was the headline from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ). The implication was that the king was squirrelling away valuable foreign currency whose origin was questionable. Further, these purchases were at times when ordinary Jordanian citizens were increasingly struggling to make ends meet. And the government’s hypocrisy was also pointed out, using former Prime Minister Omar Razzaz’s comments on foreign currency leaving Jordan: He was paraphrased as saying that “Jordan would track every last dinar that citizens had hidden in tax havens.” Apparently that scrutiny did not include the king, the article argued.
The king’s office was quick to point out in return how the facts — figures which they did not deny — were mixed with unproven opinion and insinuations. They argued that the secrecy was not a lack of transparency, but rather a concern for security; it would be safer for members of the royal family if their addresses were not common knowledge. (There was also the point that using a third party to buy on your behalf avoids the inevitable price inflation if the identity of the buyer was known; a feeble argument given that only the super-rich could be buying properties worth millions.)
Their response in itself is a change for the notoriously nontransparent monarchy, a feature of this situation noted by observers. “For the first time a response from the royal court was organized and to the point,” Jordanian researcher Fares told me. “It was transparent in that they didn’t deny anything, and they responded actively to the accusations, pointing out how speculative most of the news was.” From a PR perspective, this was great for Abdullah. “If anything, this story made him look good,” said one young Jordanian, previously critical of the king during a difficult year in Jordan. “I actually feel sorry for him,” said another citizen, “That he’s being targeted in this way, and for what? Having money? He’s the king!”
But the calm and measured appearance of the palace in response to these stories is belied by their decision to hire DLA Piper, a legal team specializing in media protection, right before the leaks came out. The contract with the palace was to provide “legal advice related to potential defamation and other legal remedies associated with inquiries and/or articles concerning His Majesty King Abdullah II from media outlets.” This prepared his population for the worst. “Clearly they were worried, because they hired lawyers especially,” said Layla, a local researcher. “Someone in the palace was panicking.” Is there actually more to this story, other details they worried would come out? Did the team heave a sigh of relief when the article was read and found lacking in punch?
It certainly seems as if Jordanians in general were not as shocked as Western commentators, though this is difficult to know for certain given the media blackout in the country on the subject. “Why the Pandora Papers may hurt King Abdullah most of all” was the headline of an article that concluded: “Abdullah’s reputation in the eyes of his people, already battered, has suffered another blow.” This is in reference to the unprecedented political upheaval in the kingdom earlier this year; in April came accusations of a planned coup with the king’s own half-brother, Prince Hamzah, at the center of the plot. The other two main players, the king’s cousin Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, and his former friend and adviser Bassem Awadallah, were quickly tried, found guilty and jailed. Prince Hamzah himself has remained silent, rumored to be under house arrest until now. But the problem is not so easily fixed, given that the grievances Hamzah was expressing were felt by many of the East Bank Jordanians from whom the ruling Hashemites draw their support. At that time, there was widespread sympathy for Hamzah, and a mistrust of the king’s true motivations. But this latest scandal has actually reversed those feelings for many people I interviewed around that time: sympathy is for the king, and further, some are revising their thoughts about the alleged coup.
“If I had to bet, yes, I would say it was the same people as were involved with Hamzah,” said Alia, adding, “It can’t be a coincidence.” Her friend suggested the influence of Queen Noor, mother of Hamzah, who lives in the United States and was vocal on social media with support for her son. Someone else suggested those close to Awadallah are behind this leak of the king’s information, citing his Saudi citizenship and connections, and the Saudi desire to take over custodianship of the holy sites in Jerusalem, replacing the Hashemites (part of Trump’s Middle East peace plan; another perceived threat to the king and kingdom). The tone has flipped from a suspicion of political motivations on the part of the king’s movements against Hamzah, to wondering now whether he had astutely cracked down on a foreign threat to the stability of the country.
Of course, attitudes are not uniform in Jordan. Some commentators have seized on the Pandora Papers story to criticize the regime, but these are opposition figures, using it as ammunition for existing causes. As Fares put it, “It didn’t affect the core constituents on both sides or even those in the middle. It was just another piece of news which gave a platform for support or for opposition.” The question for most, then, is neither whether the leaks are correct nor whether the king was right or wrong to have bought properties abroad, but rather why Jordan is being singled out, with the king’s alleged corruption on the front page of news sites from The Guardian to The Washington Post. “There’s this entire global scandal and you pick a king and his 100 million dollars’ worth of properties?” said one Jordanian. This is giving rise to speculation verging on conspiracy.
“It’s being framed locally as part of a campaign against Jordan,” Fares said. Fellow researcher Layla believes that it’s not a straightforward case of simple investigative journalism, but it came with an intention; someone was targeting the king, among others. “Why wasn’t Erdogan part of this investigation?” she asked. “Why wasn’t Israel?” Some see the timing as suspicious, given the recent rapprochement with Syria, sealed with a phone call between President Bashar al-Assad and Abdullah on Oct. 3 (the very same day the Pandora Papers story was published), seen as unpopular with other, particularly European, countries. There is also talk about Iraq and attempts to bring it further into the Arab world and away from Iranian influence. “People think that this repositioning of Jordan is making some of the regional powers unhappy,” Fares concluded.
The original story was that of a poor country, recipient of huge amounts of foreign aid, being used by its monarch to get rich. The source of this cash remains unverified, though many believe it is simply old money and gifts down the generations, wisely invested. No one denies the endemic corruption in Jordan, but many do reject the link drawn between the foreign aid pouring into the kingdom and the beach houses owned by the king in Malibu.
So, there was actually no need for the king to hire the expensive Washington lawyers to defend his reputation from journalists: The charges as leveled seem so innocent to those among his population he relies on for support, elites who are long inured to corruption, that he has gained sympathy rather than lost face. And with the feeling that he, and by extension Jordan, is a target of unknown foreign powers, comes a certain revision of recent history, now seen in the light of these indistinct but real threats: This targeting of the king by investigative journalists is being linked both to America’s aim to remove Hashemite custodianship of holy sites (as well as sideline their religious legitimacy) and the attempted coup with Prince Hamzah at the center, now believed to have had foreign backing. Abdullah has emerged from this “scandal” more popular than he has been for a long time.