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Jordan rebuffs US request to release dual national accused of plot against king

Bassem Awadallah allegedly worked with Prince Hamzah bin al-Hussein, the king's half-brother, to destabilise Hashemite monarchy
Awadallah, a former finance minister, is among the closest economic advisors to Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (AFP)

Jordan has rejected a US request to release a former top official and dual Jordanian-American national imprisoned in an alleged plot to overthrow King Abdullah II, according to his family and lawyer.

The US State Department requested in March that Jordan release Bassem Awadallah after he went on a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment.

Awadallah was sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of conspiring with Prince Hamzah bin al-Hussein, the half-brother of King Abdullah, to destabilise the country and remove its longtime monarch from power.

The allegations rocked Jordan, a resource-poor but relatively stable kingdom that is one of America’s closest allies in the region.

Jordan is squeezed between Iraq, Syria, Israel, the occupied West Bank, and Saudi Arabia. It is viewed as a bedrock of stability in a volatile region, but it faces serious economic challenges.

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Roughly a quarter of the country is unemployed. A vast patronage network between the Hashemite monarchy and Jordan’s powerful tribes, which contributed to stability has begun to crumble as the state’s coffers run dry. Meanwhile, Jordan is struggling to meet the needs of 1.3 million Syrian refugees and the drug trade from war-ravaged Syria is spilling across its border.

In April 2021, Jordan arrested 19 people, including Prince Hamzah bin al-Hussein, on charges of trying to destabilise the kingdom. Hamzah released a shocking video after his arrest that called out corruption, misgovernance, and incompetence in the country, taking a thinly veiled swipe at his half-brother, King Abdullah.

Awadallah, a former finance minister and chief of the Royal Hashemite Court, was one of just two people tried over the alleged plot. Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, a minor royal and distant relative of the king, was also convicted to 15 years of hard labour. King Abdullah said last year that his brother was in "a state of delusion" and would remain under house arrest.

In February, Awadallah’s lawyers said their client had been subjected to “physical, psychological and emotional torture”. The Jordanian government denied the allegations, adding that allegations he had gone on hunger strike earlier this year were “inaccurate”.

Bassem Awadallah and the princes 

Awadallah was once a darling of the western think-tank and media world. He was a one-time visiting fellow at Oxford University and sat on the advisory board of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics.

Ordinary Jordanians, particularly members of the tribal community, despised his ties to Amman’s wealthy business community, many of whom, like Awadallah, have Palestinian roots. He pushed through a mass privatisation of state assets that locals said were tainted by corruption and enriched a close circle of friends.

Awadallah’s role in the alleged plot to overthrow King Abdullah is still murky, but Middle East Eye previously reported that Jordanian intelligence services intercepted and deciphered encrypted voice and text messages between him and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

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Awadallah served as the Jordanian Royal Court’s special envoy to Saudi Arabia and also had a long-standing relationship with Prince Hamzah.

Jordanian authorities believed Awadallah was working with Prince Hamzah and the Saudis to destabilise the kingdom, potentially with the aim of taking away the Hashemite monarchy’s custodianship of Muslim and Christian Holy sites in Jerusalem as part of a deal to normalise ties with Israel.

Jordan has since worked to patch up ties with Saudi Arabia. Analysts say the marriage of Jordan’s Crown Prince Hussein to Saudi Arabia's Rajwa al-Saif helped cool tensions, although differences persist.

US President Joe Biden has a long-standing relationship with King Abdullah and personally called him to show US support during the plot, telling the monarch to “stay strong”.

The US is the top provider of foreign aid to Jordan. Last September, the US signed a deal to provide Jordan with $10.15bn in aid over the next seven years, in an agreement that Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said was the “longest and the largest” package ever signed between the two allies.

“It is impossible to believe that any responsible, careful, justice-oriented consideration was given by members of King Abdullah II’s regime that resulted in this mockery of internationally-accepted judicial process and arbitrary denial of the US State Department’s request,” John Ashcroft, Awadallah’s attorney, wrote in a statement.

The Jordanian embassy in Washington DC said they had no comment. The State Department didn’t respond to Middle East Eye’s request for comment by the time of publication.

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