Pandora Papers fuel growing domestic discontent with Jordan’s Abdullah

Key Israeli partner accused of corruption, as citizens suffer from economic downturn; regime is in no existential danger but revelations will add to criticism

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Jordan's King Abdullah II, reviews an honor guard before giving a speech to Parliament in Amman, Jordan, November 10, 2019. (Raad Adayleh/AP)
Jordan's King Abdullah II, reviews an honor guard before giving a speech to Parliament in Amman, Jordan, November 10, 2019. (Raad Adayleh/AP)

Jordan’s King Abdullah, whom Israel sees as a crucial guarantor of regional stability, found himself facing headlines on Sunday that surely alarmed the royal palace, as well as countries that support the Hashemite regime’s survival.

The “Pandora Papers,” a massive leaked trove of some 11.9 million documents from 14 financial services companies around the world, published Sunday by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, revealed that Abdullah secretly purchased 14 luxury homes worth over $100 million in the US and UK between 2003 and 2017.

Though Jordanian media is not reporting directly on the story, it is not hard to find on international news sites and social media.

The royal court released a statement Monday acknowledging the report and denying any wrongdoing, stressing that it “is not unusual nor improper” for Abdullah to own private residences, and that secrecy about the purchases is necessary for security and privacy reasons.

The palace’s lukewarm defense does not remove the threat of renewed domestic criticism of ruling elites and even the king himself.

While the revelations will not threaten Abdullah’s rule in the short term, they come at a problematic time for Jordan’s ruler, echoing growing criticisms of the king that have spooked the palace badly in recent years.

A reliable buffer

Since its founding, Israel has maintained some level of security cooperation with Jordan.

In the days before the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Jordan’s King Hussein met secretly with prime minister Golda Meir near Tel Aviv to warn her about the impending Arab invasion. Cooperation ramped up following the 1994 peace treaty between the sides, and though diplomatic ties are often frayed, the military relationship has grown especially close over the decades, with Israeli and Jordanian jets even together driving Russian planes in Syria away from their borders, in 2016, in a firm show of resolve.

Then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, and Jordanian King Hussein glance at each other during a joint press conference held at the end of their meeting on August 8, 1994, at the Jordanian Red Sea town of Aqaba. The two leaders, joined by US secretary of state Warren Christopher, not shown, were scheduled to discuss ways to advance Middle East peace plan. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik/File)

Israel views Jordan as a reliable buffer against hostile states to the east — once Iraq, now Iran. Israel’s border with Jordan, and the Israel-controlled frontier between the West Bank and Jordan, has remained an oasis of quiet, even as Iran’s armed proxies entrench themselves from Baghdad to Beirut, and jihadist groups grow in the Sinai.

A weakened regime in Amman could create a power vacuum that would allow terrorist groups to establish a foothold all along Jordan’s border with Israel and the West Bank. Palestinian refugees in Jordan could inspire dangerous unrest in the West Bank, and far more radical elements could replace the Jordan-funded Islamic Waqf on the Temple Mount. Iran would also likely seek to take advantage of the chaos to open a new front against Israel.

Despite the widely accepted Israeli interest in strengthening Abdullah, ties soured while Benjamin Netanyahu was in office. Meanwhile, simmering discontent with Abdullah began to bubble over.

Demands for change

Protests in September 2012 that erupted over hikes in fuel prices evolved into violent demonstrations calling explicitly for the ouster of Abdullah, alleging that he and his wife Rania were draining citizens of their wealth.

In April of this year, a rare case of palace intrigue burst into the public eye when Abdullah’s half-brother Prince Hamzah was placed under house arrest, accused of plotting a coup. Hamzah was not charged, and he and Abdullah made a show of reconciling publicly.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II, center, Prince Hamzah bin Al Hussein, second left, and others during a visit to the tomb of the late King Hussein. Members of the Jordanian royal family marked the centenary of the establishment of the Emirate of Transjordan, a British protectorate that preceded the kingdom, in April. (Royal Court Twitter account via AP)

Many critics of the regime — for reasons of both legitimacy and corruption — increasingly backed Hamzah before the palace made its move against him.

“He enjoys popularity among East Bank Jordanians,” said a Jordan-based journalist who requested anonymity, “and his popularity has shot up in recent years as the country faced critical economic and social challenges amid allegations of corruption at the highest level.”

In the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated many of the public’s grievances, albeit mostly within the confines of the monarchy’s tight control of free expression.

Feeding discontent

The fact that Abdullah is extremely wealthy and enjoys a luxurious lifestyle comes as a shock to no one.

Though the Hashemites are not especially corrupt or rich compared to other Middle Eastern royals, they are clearly international jet setters, rubbing shoulders with other royal families around the world, including in Europe.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II and his wife Queen Rania al-Yassin walk together after a state funeral for former President George H.W. Bush at the National Cathedral, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Moreover, even in constitutional republics without kings like the US and Israel, leaders enriching themselves has become rather unremarkable. The Obamas were 30 times richer in 2018 than they were when they entered the White House a decade before. Netanyahu, who was not wealthy when he became prime minister, now enjoys a net worth of around $14 million.

There is even an expectation that kings — in the Middle East and in Europe —  possess extravagant wealth and live fabulous lifestyles.

In Jordan, “there has been a division between the royal family as an economic unit and the country as an economic unit,” said an Israeli scholar of Jordanian politics.  At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the king gave money from his personal purse to needy Jordanians.

Illustrative: A Jordanian honor guard stands for review at the Royal Palace, in Amman, Jordan, March 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)

But the Pandora Papers tap into the growing currents of discontent with Abdullah and his wife, who is of Palestinian descent.

Abdullah has always faced doubts about his legitimacy. Many believe that Abdullah’s father, Hussein, would have preferred Hamzah to rule, but he was too young at the time of the king’s death.

What’s more, Abdullah is seen by critics as not fully Jordanian, born to the very English Toni Avril Gardiner, a convert to Islam who changed her name when she married Hussein. Abdullah, whose Arabic is not as fluent as his English, spent the bulk of his formative years in the United Kingdom and the United States,

When he ascended to the throne in 1999, Abdullah was initially seen as something of an international playboy. “Like his father, he liked fast cars, he liked fancy planes. When he started, he was not really seen as a serious person,” said the Israeli scholar.

The details about Abdullah’s flamboyant purchases abroad only feed into that narrative.

Moreover, with a quarter of Jordanians — and a half of young jobseekers — out of work, headlines about Abdullah’s wealth add to anger over corruption in the royal family and its inner circle.

“The willingness of the public to give them the benefit of the doubt is much reduced now,” said the Israeli expert.

Jordanian teachers chant slogans and wave their national flag during a protest in the capital Amman on September 5, 2019. (Khalil Mazraawi/AFP)

The revelations could also make Abdullah’s life more difficult with Western donor nations. Jordan is a poor country with few natural resources, and depends on massive aid from the US and Europe. In 2020 alone, US assistance topped $1.5 billion. While the US is not about to suspend aid to a country it sees as central to regional security, voices in Congress and the media who want to see the US spend less in the region will have more ammunition for their argument.

Countries that would rather find a way out of contributing to Jordan also have an easier way out now.

The new disclosures could also influence the Israeli discourse on Jordan. Like the US, Israel is not about to turn it back on the Hashemite regime in Amman. But there is a small but noticeable narrative on the Israeli right that Jordan is no friend of Israel’s and should not be treated as a partner. “King Abdullah is leading Jordan on the path of an enemy state,” read a Maariv op-ed earlier this year by right-wing activist and attorney Nadav Haetzni.

Abdullah’s secret international purchases could be used by those voices looking to discredit the king and push Israeli leaders to take a tougher line with Amman.

While the Hashemite regime is not going anywhere in the near future, Abdullah badly needs to rehabilitate his image among key segments of Jordanian society. Most Israeli leaders are hoping he does.

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