The past month has been a period of upheaval and uncertainty in Jordan. The claims and counterclaims between King Abdullah II and his half brother, Prince Hamzah, the former claiming to have uncovered a planned coup, the latter denying all charges in leaked videos and audio, have come with scant evidence but plenty of rumor. The uncertainty around events has undoubtedly deepened existing problems in the country, but instead of viewing this as a crisis, a third member of the royal family sees an opportunity for reflection, a chance for a “reconfiguration of our priorities.”
Prince Hassan bin Talal, uncle to both Abdullah and Hamzah, was brought in to mediate the dispute between them, resulting in a letter of loyalty from Hamzah to the king and a joint public appearance, visiting the tomb of their father King Hussein. Crown prince himself for over 30 years during his brother Hussein’s reign and removed just three weeks before Hussein’s death, Hassan understands Hamzah’s position as a previously powerful member of the royal family, once seen by the country as the future king, only to be stripped of any official position or role. But despite this previous position of power, at 74 Hassan poses no threat to the king nor the crown prince. “I don’t have any delusions of grandeur myself,” he told me, “Look at my bald head, khalas, I’ve had it!”
This lack of “delusions of grandeur,” as he puts it, is reflected in his discretion. Although Hassan is credited with the truce between the half brothers, uneasy but ongoing, he has kept out of the limelight, with no comment from him or his office reported throughout the whole affair. (A statement with his photo was passed around on WhatsApp and other channels in the early days of the alleged coup, but it turned out this was not his official response; someone had merely taken his words from a speech celebrating the centenary of Jordan the previous month and turned it into a meme to be circulated.) He chooses his words carefully when trying to characterize the situation Jordan has just been through. “This was a kind of suspension,” he says, “of al-thawabit al-Urdaniah,” or the “constance of Jordan.” As he put it: “Suddenly this constancy was interrupted, which coincided with the beginning of Ramadan.” But he quickly returns to his discreet approach: “I don’t want to talk about what the butler saw,” he said, “I want to know what comes next.”
This lack of both power and the desire for power comes with a degree of freedom unavailable to those in positions of authority, as Hassan explains to me when acknowledging potential criticisms, charges of why he didn’t achieve his plans during his decades as crown prince. “I had to watch the balance required to get anything done, to follow the state-building logic, to be acceptable. You have foreign governments, many other parties—” He trails off, the message clear: Being in power requires a constant balancing act. Without this power, he can think more freely, unconstrained by the need to please foreign or internal allies, and it is clear that this is far more comfortable for him: “My former position forced me to take things more seriously than I cared to as a human being.” In his tribute to the United Kingdom’s late Prince Philip, he speaks of his peer’s commitment to the long term, or as he put it to me: “He was always talking about ‘in time’ … in time, this or that will happen. It was never that things should be addressed or sorted out in my time, or in our time. He wasn’t that sort of a person. And I’m not that sort of a person.”
“He could have taken the easy way out, enjoyed the status and enjoyed the perks that come with it, and lived a happy, more joyful life,” said Fares*, an ex-employee who worked with Hassan during and after his tenure as crown prince. Indeed, his staff begged him to slow down, knowing how hard he had pushed both himself and them for 30 years. “It turns out he was not driven by his official status,” said Fares. Instead, it was “his sense that he embodies a historical heritage that is born of the dynasty, his faith, and family lineage, it’s given him a huge sense of responsibility not only to Jordan but to humanity at large.” The Hashemite line can be traced back to the Prophet Muhammad, Hassan being in the 42nd generation, and the family has just celebrated the centenary of ruling Jordan. Hassan, according to Fares, feels the weight of both, a direct duty to Jordanians, Arabs, and Muslims, and his lifetime’s work in bridging what he calls the “human dignity deficit.”
One outcome of this feeling of responsibility is Hassan’s constant generation of ideas in which human dignity and the natural world are served with a view to the long-term healing of both. “It’s all encompassed in the notion of the hima,” he says, referring to an Islamic framework in which “you have ecology on one side, and the human on the other.” He has founded a number of institutes for research and dialogue over the decades, from the Royal Scientific Society (founded with Hussein) in 1970, the Arab Thought Forum in 1981, The Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies in 1994, and the think tank West Asia-North Africa (WANA) Institute in 2009, among others.
WANA was named in an attempt to overcome the Eurocentrism inherent in the term “Middle East” and an example of how he strives to cross borders to solve problems: Another idea, yet to be realized, is that of a “Mediterranean Institute,” widening the area of focus yet further. He sees the divisions inherent in current forms of problem-solving as inefficient at best and at worst as exacerbating the overall situation. Referring to the pandemic, he says, “we’re trying to balance the economic versus the health issue. Why do you have to balance it all? Isn’t it all part and parcel of the holistic health of society?”
This holistic approach to analyzing problems dovetails with Hassan’s tendency to think in the long term, another luxury of being outside the political system. Politics is always short term, in any system, with elected officials always eyeing upcoming elections, budgets set in terms of years rather than decades, and the silo effect of dividing up problems according to departments and ministries. All this means that governments tend to the reactive response, with a firefighting approach dominating over addressing structural issues. “There’s a term we have, feza’,” Walid*, a Jordanian researcher, describes this approach. “Basically, when you have a crisis or an issue, people come together and help. If you’re from a tribe and there’s a fight, others will bfiza’ — they come and support you. That’s the mode here, politically. Structured or organized feza’. And it doesn’t work.”
It’s not only the events of the past weeks that have seen Jordanian authorities in a mode of “organized feza’.” This crisis has come on top of compounded pressures on Jordan over months, years, and decades. A year of COVID-19 lockdowns has added to the considerable problems already facing Jordan environmentally, economically, and socially, which have been growing over the past decade with a sharp rise in the number of refugees. According to the United Nations, Jordan hosts the second-highest number of refugees per capita, which has added to the acute water shortage, demands on a creaking health system, and pressure on public schools. The pandemic took all these struggling systems and laid on an economic crisis that exacerbates all the other chronic structural problems. “COVID is a stress test for everything, whether on an individual, family, community, or state level; even the Hashemite family itself is a family under stress,” said Walid, referring to an unpublished report on the subject that has “exposed, and will continue to expose, the structural vulnerabilities and imbalances inherit within our systems.”
A major part of this report focused on the formidable challenges facing the education sector in Jordan and the fact that public schools have basically been closed for over a year, providing online classes that many of the poorer Jordanians have no means of accessing. The lack of schooling and the protests seen in the unrest of the past month are connected and lend legitimacy to Hassan’s holistic approach: These issues cannot be divided by ministry but have knock-on effects. “The demographics are different from before; they’re much younger,” said Walid, comparing these street protests to those of 2011. “They’re 15, 16 to 20, 21, school or university students who have been sitting at home for a year, doing nothing.” He talks of how these were not only places of education but also protective environments from social issues such as radicalization, drugs, or petty crime.
Another space that offers such a role are the mosques, but they, too, are closed. Then there are the social aspects of Jordanian life that unite any population: “Funerals, weddings, all those kinds of things are important. … That’s what keeps up resilience, and they’ve been absent for a year.” On top of this, the health service, which was already stressed, is focused on COVID-19. “There is no other health care. You have cancer? Good luck to you!”
The report Walid is referring to, unpublished but seen by New Lines, makes for grim reading, but Hassan would welcome the conclusion that the formidable challenges facing Jordan “require holistic solutions that are participatory in nature.” He sees the urgency for inclusion: “Either you’re trying to invite everybody to go and become a crook of some kind or another because they’re out of the system, or you’re trying to embrace them in the system with an emphasis on human dignity.” Increased participation requires a recalibration of values in order to include as wide a demographic as possible. “We need to rediscover how important a healthy environment is for all our well-being and replace a sense of owning, money-grabbing owning — a sense of ‘he’s important because of his money’ with a sense of belonging. How to encourage a sense of belonging?”
The national pause caused by these unprecedented events (Prince Hassan’s “suspension of the constance of Jordan”) coincided not only with Ramadan but also with the pandemic (and Hassan is clear that this is only the first wave; there will be no going back to “normal”) and the myriad pressures on the environment, seen in Jordan most urgently with an acute water shortage. All these different timelines of politics, pandemic, and climate change were seen in one conceptual framework by Hassan, and when he read a recent article describing the idea of an “anthropause,” something clicked for him. The term “anthropause” was coined by Christian Rutz and defined as a slowing down of human activity, whether brought about through a natural event (such as a pandemic or extreme weather), a human-caused disaster (such as war or Chernobyl), or politics. Hassan discovered the concept from the article, “After the anthropause: Lockdown lessons for more-than-human geographies,” authored by geographers based at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
“I just thought it was wonderful because it’s about animal geographies as much as human geographies, which takes us back to the notion of the hima.” The concept made such an impression on Hassan that he asked his office to convene a meeting with the authors along with the researcher credited with coining the term, a meeting I also attended. “The anthropause is an opportunity. We don’t want to talk about Byzantine politics, we want to know what are the priorities in water, energy, and nutrition, and education and health. ”
His plans have many aspects, but at the core they involve a new information ecosystem, bringing together all types of citizens to discuss issues in parallel to the political system — a sort of “citizens assembly.” This encourages a new way of sharing information, especially essential in the light of a dysfunctional (and often gagged) media combined with the rumor mill of social media, and a new way of debating and discussing information, a practice Hassan sees as fast disappearing. Finally, this type of activity, it is hoped, would encourage a renewed sense of belonging.
Not that this will be easy. Hassan hopes that by creating a space for citizens to share and discuss information, “people will come forward and have the guts to stand full square and say, ‘We want to be entrusted to think in the best interest … to become stakeholders in our own future.’” As he ruefully acknowledges, with a laugh, “I’m head and shoulders above the parapet, and I’m getting pretty lonely and pretty fed up!” But the events of recent weeks have sharpened the very fears that already make it hard for people to speak out, with a media gag on reporting the events and the lack of clarity from the government as to what the threat to Jordan’s stability actually was. “Why were all these countries pledging support to Jordan? Support for what? What are you supporting?” Alia*, another Jordanian researcher, is laughing. “I mean, China issued a statement that it supported us! China! Nobody understands, and in the absence of a clear government official narrative it leaves you with a million and one questions.”
And it’s not just an official narrative that’s missing; even when the Jordanian media is not under a gag order, there is a degree of self-censorship that isn’t surprising when rules are not clear and gag orders can appear at any time. “The local media is scared,” explained Walid. “They don’t know what the rules are. If they talk about Prince Hamzah, are they going to be punished? If they talk about specific topics within the subject, are they going to be punished? Nobody knows!”
This self-censorship extends to the population as a whole: Only Hassan was willing to go on the record and put his head above the parapet, as he would say. The rest, mostly from the elites, were pleased to talk to me (“It’s great to have someone to vent to,” was one comment; “Thank you. It’s been wonderful to just get all this off my chest,” another), but all were scared, both for themselves and those they knew, about having their names in print. They’ve just seen friends, including members of the royal family, swept into prison or house arrest in humiliating ways, with no official charges or evidence offered, and so are only too aware of the risk.
The lack of freedom of speech has various knock-on effects. First is the sense that you are unheard, voiceless, and thus marginalized from decision making, a feeling at the root of so many problems worldwide, from crimes against the other (such as extremism, domestic violence, and hate crimes) to self-harm (seen in suicide rates, drug abuse, and alcoholism). Indeed, a recent book that has influenced Hassan, “The Lonely Century” by Noreena Hertz, identifies a lack of political voice as contributing to the global epidemic of loneliness we saw even before COVID-19; given the political oppression, this is a pernicious problem in Jordan, impossible to improve without significant and long-term political reform. A space to discuss and debate might be one step toward sending the message, “You belong; your opinion matters,” and helping ameliorate feelings of isolation, but this requires a sea change in how the rulers approach freedom of speech. And even if the oppression is lifted, creating the space is only the first step; the ability to converse across opposing points of view is just as challenging as encouraging participation in the first place, a problem Hassan considers recent.
“The head of the Communist Party had been put into a lock-up at a certain stage during my late brother’s tenure, and when we spoke to him, as we did, we had an exchange because we’re human beings. I don’t care whether you are a royal or a communist or whatever it may be, and nor did he. We could converse.” He sees legion sources for this widespread malaise, from social media to journalists paid by people with an agenda. Thus, picking the right people is crucial for the success of any such information-sharing venture, but never for personal reasons. “It’s about the right attitudes,” explains Hassan. “I may not like them, for any number of reasons, but I don’t care as long as they are prepared to enrich the argument.”
Participatory democracy, a space to express yourself, hear the opinions of others, and try to come to some sort of compromise or solution, seems a worthwhile idea. But Jordanian politics is moving away, not toward, such a laudable goal. Jordan has just been downgraded from “partly free” to “not free” by Freedom House, partly due to “harsh new restrictions on freedom of assembly,” moves directly in opposition to Hassan’s own ideas for improvement. Regional politics are also against him, with all Jordan’s neighbors going through crises of their own. And how long can the uneasy peace with Israel last with such egregious assaults against human rights we are currently witnessing in Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem?
Many things are urgently needed in Jordan right now, from water in the rivers to oxygen canisters in hospitals. But the long term is not a luxury: These problems will only grow when a firefighting, feza’ approach is used, and they will rear their heads in the future, again and again, worse each time. Jordan could well benefit from having a prince without a portfolio, free to think of the long term, and may do well to harness the popularity of the other ex-crown prince, Hamzah, to do the same. But if they have no power, can they actually achieve anything?
“With all the health scares of recent years,” said Hassan, alluding to his heart surgery and cancer scares, “My wife asks me, ‘Why are you still trying to save the world?’ My answer is of course that I am not, that I merely facilitate the conversation in the hope that others will carry the baton on.”
*Names were changed upon request