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Sibling feud at heart of Jordan’s royal family bursts into open

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When Jordan’s military chief approached Prince Hamzah at his home in Amman, he displayed the respect due to a former crown prince in the Hashemite dynasty. But his message rang as a threat: he must stop associating with palace critics.

“Sir, this talk, you and I know, breaches the red lines,” said Major General Yousef Huneiti. “People are talking more than is necessary. Therefore, we hope from His Highness that starting from this day, you . . . will comply to not go to these occasions, not mixing with people.”

The request prompted an angry reaction from the 41-year-old royal, once in line to be king: “You come here and you’re telling me what to do and who to meet from my people,” Hamzah is heard shouting in a recording obtained by the Financial Times. “The mismanagement of the state, is it because of me? The failure that is happening, is it because of me?”

Saturday’s exchange — recorded by the prince and disseminated by his allies — marked the beginning of 48 hours of palace turmoil in one of the Arab world’s most respected royal families. It was a drama replete with Shakespearean twists that has unfolded in full public glare.

King Abdullah with Maj Gen Yousef Huneiti © Jordanian Royal Palace/AFP via Getty

Hours later, Gen Huneiti issued a statement saying he had warned the prince to stop activities that threatened the stability and security of the nation. Hamzah then claimed in a video posted on social media that he was under house arrest, and launched a tirade against corruption and nepotism within the ruling elite. A day later, the authorities accused him of being part of a conspiracy to destabilise the kingdom involving foreign as well as domestic parties, sending shockwaves across the region.

Up to 18 people were arrested, mostly friends and acquaintances of the prince. A Jordanian government official said the move against Hamzah and his entourage came after the king was told by the heads of security agencies that his half-brother had shifted from criticism of the king to action against him. Suspicious behaviour included paying visits to 60 tribal leaders — the bedrock of the Hashemite monarchy.

Among those detained was Bassem Awadallah, once a chief of staff to King Abdullah and now a close adviser to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Though he has often been described as King Abdullah’s envoy to Saudi Arabia, Awadallah — who is believed to have both Jordanian and Saudi citizenships — is distrusted by the Jordanian palace. He coached and advised Hamzah, one palace official claimed. According to a person familiar with contacts between Saudi and Jordanian officials, Riyadh asked that Awadallah be handed over, a request the Hashemite kingdom rejected. A person briefed on the Saudi position denied such a request had been issued.

Former Jordanian crown prince Hamzah bin Al-Hussein, left, with his half brother King Abdullah © MIKE NELSON/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Some analysts questioned the link between Hamzah and Awadallah, however. “Hamzah is a smart guy, he knows Awadallah is unpopular in Jordan, and the prince has been going around the country, speaking out against corruption and the new liberal recipe of the economy championed by Awadallah [in the 1990s and 2000s],” said Hassan Barari, a Jordanian professor of international relations at Qatar University. “If he had any ambition, he would have been stupid to have any links with him.”

Barari added: “The regime made a mistake involving Prince Hamzah. He’s popular among Jordanians.”

Though there is no talk of a coup — the army is firmly in the hands of the king — the intercepted communication following the meetings with tribal leaders and mounting domestic pressures exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic have raised alarm among security agencies and the palace.

Family tree for the Jordan royal family

Hamzah’s supporters portray him as the victim of King Abdullah’s increasing intolerance of dissenting voices. But people close to the palace describe a man obsessed with the throne, who has been exploiting the country’s economic woes to undermine his brother.

“He never got over the fact that he didn’t become king and seems to think he is destined to be king,” says a person close to the palace. A person close to Hamzah insisted the prince was not campaigning: “His fear has always been one of fear for his whole family and its legacy. He would never do anything to jeopardise his family for his own position.” 

The sibling feud has been years in the making. People familiar with palace politics say Hamzah was King Hussein’s favourite son — he speaks, dresses, and looks like his late father — and Queen Noor, his American-born mother, had been grooming him since he was a child. At the weekend the 69-year-old queen, the late king’s fourth wife, said on Twitter that she was praying for the “innocent victims of this wicked slander”.

Prince Hamzah with his mother Queen Noor © Hussein Malla/AP

Two weeks before Hussein’s death in 1999, Abdullah, who is 18 years older than Hamzah, was named crown prince and heir apparent. The anointing of Abdullah, son of the king’s British-born second wife Princess Muna, pushed aside Abdullah’s uncle Hassan in another episode of palace intrigue. The ailing monarch reportedly decreed that Hamzah should be crown prince after his death — an arrangement that fuelled speculation about a potential power struggle. In 2004, King Abdullah removed Hamzah as crown prince, paving the way for his own son, Hussein, to succeed him.

A person close to Hamzah described the relationship between the royal brothers as “very antagonistic”. It began “with grumbling acceptance” of Abdullah’s decision to sideline his younger brother, but it “snowballed” as Hamzah believed people around the monarch were corrupt and “stealing everything”.

“It is known that Hamzah and Abdullah don’t speak,” the person said. The former was fired from the army several years ago and measures were taken to irritate him, including changes to his security detail so he felt it was “not protecting him, but spying on him”, the person claimed.

Those close to Abdullah say the king’s patience has run out. When anti-government protests erupted in 2018, causing the king to sack his prime minister, the prince took to Twitter to demand a crackdown on corruption in the public sector, they noted. “The king has been magnanimous,” said one person close to the palace. “But Hamzah pushed it. He trashed the state and moved with the protection of the state. He has been using his privileges as a prince to work against the king.”

Jordanian protesters chant slogans during an anti-austerity rally in June 2018 © Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty

A deteriorating economy has heaped pressure on the king. Jordan is grappling with rampant unemployment, soaring debt and dwindling revenues. The pandemic has hurt tourism and flows of remittances from abroad, two important sources of foreign currency. Rich Gulf states have become more frugal in providing financial support to the kingdom. The Trump presidency strained Abdullah’s relationship with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister.

The royal family is now seeking to paper over the cracks. On Monday, the royal court said that after meeting senior family members Hamzah signed a letter pledging his loyalty to the king. It was Prince Hassan, the uncle sidelined years ago by the late Hussein to give way to Abdullah, who acted as an intermediary. On Tuesday, the palace banned news outlets and social media users from publishing content related to the dispute, including the audio file of the Saturday exchange with Gen Huneiti. 

“It’s probably not the end of the story,” said one person close to the royal family.

Additional reporting by Heba Saleh in Cairo



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Analysis

Third Covid wave pushes Poland’s health system to limits

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After Michal Drozdz, a Warsaw paramedic, pulls up outside a hospital, his ambulance often has to queue for hours before his patients are admitted.

“This has been happening all the time for three weeks. Every shift there’s a real threat you’ll have to spend it waiting in front of a hospital,” he said. “Sometimes it’s two hours, sometimes six . . . During that time you can’t help anyone, which is what this job should be about.”

It is not just Warsaw that is struggling. Across Poland, the health system has been brought close to its limits as the central European nation battles through its most difficult days of the coronavirus pandemic so far.

Infections have surged since early March and on April 1 hit their highest daily level since the pandemic began. In the past fortnight, Poland has recorded 989 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, the third highest figure in the EU. Deaths have surged to record levels and the number of people in hospitals and on ventilators with Covid-19 have also touched all-time highs.

“The scale is incomparable [with the first wave],” said Drozdz. “Back then there were a few confirmed cases per district. Now it’s a few confirmed cases per block of flats.”

As elsewhere in Europe, the surge has been caused by the arrival of the more infectious B.1.1.7 strain of the virus first sequenced in the UK, which in recent weeks has accounted for 90 per cent of new cases in Poland.

A nurse attends to patients at an emergency ward in Bochnia, Poland. The country has the lowest number of practising physicians per capita in the EU © Omar Marques/Getty Images

But critics say the government also made errors that let the strain spread more quickly: first, by not enforcing rigorous enough checks on the thousands of Poles who returned from the UK for Christmas; and second, by loosening restrictions in mid-February once the British variant was already circulating.

The huge inflow of patients has left the health system reeling. Although about a quarter of Covid-19 beds and 20 per cent of ventilators are still free, they are not always in the same place as the people who need them.

Some 150 patients had to be moved from the southern Silesia region to other areas this month after local hospitals were overwhelmed. In the Mazovia region, officials were so worried about oxygen supplies before Easter that doctors were asked to limit the use.

The biggest problem, however, is a lack of staff, the result of years of high emigration and chronic health system underfunding. A Eurostat study in 2018 found that Poland had the lowest number of practising physicians per capita in the EU, with just 238 per 100,000 inhabitants.

“It’s not just Covid that’s the problem. It has just highlighted how insufficient our health system is,” said one young doctor recently sent to work with Covid patients in a Warsaw hospital.

In an effort to regain control of the situation, the government imposed new restrictions in mid-March, which it extended last week to April 18. It has also used powers allowing it to oblige medical professionals to switch from their normal jobs to treating coronavirus patients, and repeatedly expanded the number of Covid beds and ventilators in Poland’s hospitals.

Medical staff at the intensive care unit of Krakow University Hospital. The government has used powers obliging health professionals to switch from their normal jobs to treating coronavirus patients © Omar Marques/Getty Images

Adam Niedzielski, health minister, said on Friday there were signs that the surge in infections was beginning to ebb and that a peak in hospitalisations was imminent. He added that Poland would now also speed up its vaccination drive by broadening the groups of people allowed to give jabs.

“[Accelerating vaccinations] is the only possible answer, given the available resources, to fight the pandemic and get out of the third wave,” he said. “It is a very difficult time and therefore special solutions are needed.”

Yet doctors in hospitals in hard-hit areas are still scrambling to cope, with small teams juggling large numbers of seriously ill patients. The Warsaw doctor said a particular challenge for new staff was helping patients who needed intubation because their oxygen levels were dropping — a procedure normally carried out by specialists.

“You just have to wait for the call from the anaesthetist,” she said. “You don’t get emotional because that’s what we do on a daily basis — but you feel a bit insufficient as a doctor . . . You feel helpless.”

The shortages have left medical staff with huge workloads. “[My colleagues] are exhausted. You don’t have to ask, you can see it when they come off their shifts. I’ve just done my first few shifts and that was the hardest day and a half in my life,” said a second doctor recently deployed to a hospital for Covid patients in Warsaw. “Those who have been working here since February look as if they were seriously ill already.”

To boost their energy, some medics have resorted to giving themselves oxygen and intravenous drips, according to Polish media. Asked about the accounts by Radio RMF24, Niedzielski acknowledged that staff shortages were “noticeable” and described Poland’s medics as “heroes”. “This really is a war and the situation requires non-standard behaviour,” he said.

On top of the exhaustion, medics also have to deal with the psychological pressure that comes with confronting death so frequently. Treating couples where one partner was far sicker than the other, or parents who would not survive, was particularly tough, the second doctor said.

“Sometimes it is easier not . . . to build up links with patients because then when they die I feel like I have lost someone close myself, someone whom I fed and gave stuff to drink, whose hand I held,” she said.

“But on the other hand . . . I cannot imagine cutting off all these emotions completely. You have to find the golden mean. But it’s not easy.”



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Analysis

Iranian TV action thriller delivers warning to Zarif

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It is hardly surprising that Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister and nuclear negotiator, is not a fan of Gando, a popular television drama that depicts an incompetent minister who scuppers nuclear talks with world powers by hiring dual nationals who turn out to be spies for MI6.

The series — made by an institute believed to be affiliated to the elite and hardline Revolutionary Guards — “is a lie from the beginning to the end” that “damages foreign policy more than me” by fuelling public mistrust, Zarif said.

By focusing on the nuclear talks, the Guards’ motive goes beyond creating compelling drama, reformist analysts say. Iran is in discussion with western powers about reviving the nuclear deal, a key reformist achievement, and hardliners want to deter the popular foreign minister from declaring his interest in the presidency in what is a crucial election year.

“I’ll be grateful to Gando-makers to let us continue our current job,” Zarif said this month, and commented that he would not run for the presidency.

The possibility of nuclear talks with the US and other powers has complicated an already fraught Iranian political scene ahead of the June election. Many reformists are pinning their hopes on Iran’s top diplomat to reinvigorate the nuclear deal and boost support at the ballot box. Hardliners might prefer to negotiate the deal themselves after the election. The polls are also seen as particularly crucial in case supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 81, dies during the next president’s term.

Pendar Akbari, left, and Ashkan Delavari, right, in a scene from ‘Gando’
Pendar Akbari, left, and Ashkan Delavari, right, in a scene from an episode of ‘Gando’. The series title refers to an Iranian crocodile able to distinguish its friends from its enemies © Bahar Asgari/Shahid Avini Cultural and Artistic Institute via AP

The purpose of Gando, which refers to an Iranian crocodile able to distinguish its friends from its enemies, “is to tell Zarif that should he dare to announce his candidacy, he will be destroyed immediately,” said one reformist analyst. “When the intelligence service of the Guards truly believes in the Gando plot lines, it means even if Zarif decides to defy such warnings, he will not be allowed to run.”

Centrist president Hassan Rouhani is due to step down this year after two terms and it is not yet clear who the presidential candidates will be. Politicians register as late as May and then have to be vetted by the Guardian Council, the hardline constitutional watchdog, which can disqualify nominees. Potential hardline candidates include Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the parliament speaker and a former guards commander; Ebrahim Raisi, the judiciary chief; and Ali Larijani, a former speaker of parliament. On the reformist side, speculation has centred on Es’haq Jahangiri, first vice-president, Hassan Khomeini, a grandson of the founder of the Islamic republic, and Zarif.

A US-educated career diplomat widely respected in the west for his pragmatism, Zarif was instrumental in the historic deal in 2015, under which Iran curbed its nuclear activity in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. But Donald Trump abandoned the accord in 2018, imposed sanctions, including on Zarif, and said he would pursue a new accord to contain Iran’s regional and military policies. The US move emboldened hardliners, confirming to them the untrustworthiness of the US.

Zarif’s background in the US both as a university student and as Iran’s head of mission at the UN — during which he met US politicians including then senator Joe Biden — has long made him a source of suspicion for hardliners.

This wariness of both Zarif and the west is evident to viewers of Gando, as is the heroism of the Revolutionary Guards. Mohammad, the action hero protagonist, warns that western negotiators may sabotage refineries as part of nuclear talks. Mohammad works out of elaborate facilities akin to those in a James Bond film. The fictional foreign minister is advised by a media adviser, the main culprit, “to enter into direct talks with the US and accept the conditions of the leader of the global village”.

Vahid Rahbani in a scene from an episode of ‘Gando’
Vahid Rahbani in a scene from an episode of ‘Gando’. State TV abruptly stopped broadcasting the series that was less than halfway through its 30-episode run © Hassan Hendi/Shahid Avini Cultural and Artistic Institute via AP

The dramatic scenes reflect, in part, the worldview of some of Zarif’s critics. “Reformists, Mr Zarif and his lobby group in Washington [Iranian dual nationals] should be wiped out from Iran’s politics,” said an aide to a senior hardline politician who is a potential presidential candidate. “We have to get rid of this cancerous tumour once for good.”

Gholamali Jafarzadeh, a former conservative member of parliament, said Zarif “is not a good statesman and should not run for president” while “reformists should know that their choices have no chance to be allowed to run”. 

This month, state TV abruptly stopped broadcasting the series that was less than halfway through its 30-episode run. Local media said broadcasts would resume when the presidential race was over. Iran’s centrist president Hassan Rouhani, whose signature achievement is the nuclear deal — alluded to the show on Wednesday and said “people’s money” should not be spent on “fabrication of the truth” and “distortion of facts”.

After three years of sanctions, many voters are disillusioned by the infighting and the prospect of real change, whatever the outcome of the election. “Whether Zarif or a figure more senior than him runs or not, I’m not going to vote,” said Hamid, a 40-year-old engineer. “Let the Guards win the election as they are the ones who are running the country anyway. Why shall I make a fool of myself?” 



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Analysis

Rising inflation complicates Brazil’s Covid-19 crisis

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After seven months in lockdown, Michele Marques received some unwelcome news when she returned to work: while she was away the prices of almost all the products she uses as a hairdresser had soared.

“A box of gloves rose 200 per cent. Colouring products increased at least 100 per cent,” said the 37-year-old from São Paulo, underlining how costs were rising while her revenue had collapsed. “I had to raise the price of my services, too.”

It is a dynamic that is playing out across Brazil, adding an extra layer of complexity to the country’s coronavirus crisis, which has already claimed the lives of almost 350,000 individuals and pushed hospital services to the brink.

With much of Latin America’s largest economy being shuttered, inflation is surging to its highest level in years, fuelling a silent scourge of hunger among poorer citizens that has run in parallel to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The high price of staple foods — rice and beans, for example — has led to the disappearance of these items from the table of millions of Brazilians,” said Ana Maria Segall, a researcher at the Brazilian Research Network on Food and Nutritional Sovereignty and Security. In the 12 months to the end of March, the price of rice increased 64 per cent and black beans 51 per cent.

“In Brazil currently food inflation has penalised the very poorest, preventing them from having adequate access to food and in many situations leading to hunger,” she said, adding that rising unemployment and the curtailment of social programmes were also contributing factors.

Volunteers hand out food in São Paulo © Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

Less than half of Brazil’s population of 212m now has access to adequate food all the time, with 19m people, or 9 per cent of its inhabitants, facing hunger, according to a recent report by Segall’s group.

“I’m doing some odd jobs, but it’s not enough to keep us going,” said Jonathan, a 28-year-old who lost his job in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant in São Paulo when the pandemic began. He said he now struggles to provide enough food for his three young children and pregnant wife.

On a 12-month basis, inflation in June is expected to surpass 8 per cent, far above earlier estimates. In the 12 months to March, food prices jumped 18.5 per cent, while the price of agricultural commodities in local currency surged 55 per cent and the cost of fuel increased almost 92 per cent.

Line chart of Percentage increase over past 12 months showing The price of rice in Brazil is soaring

The developments pose a fresh challenge to President Jair Bolsonaro, who is already under fire for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Across Brazil’s biggest cities, graffiti has sprung up labelling the populist leader “Bolsocaro” — a portmanteau of his name and the Portuguese word for expensive.

The rising prices are also likely to provide useful ammunition to leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who returned to the political fray last month and may challenge Bolsonaro in elections next year.

“Bolsonaro is to blame for the increase in food prices, he is to blame for everything. They have to remove this guy,” said Maria Izabel de Jesus, a retiree from São Paulo.

Armando Castelar, a researcher at the Brazilian Institute of Economics, said the government had underestimated inflation both in terms of the numbers and also “how much a concern it should be”.

He attributed the rising prices to the devaluation of the Brazilian currency, triggered in part by the stimulus packages passed by the US government — which helped to bolster the dollar and led to higher Treasury yields — and the brighter economic outlook outside Latin America.

“You have a situation where commodity prices are going up because the global economy is going to grow a lot this year. With the growth in the US, interest rates are going up and the dollar is strengthening. This puts a lot of pressure on the exchange rate in Brazil and emerging markets in general,” he said.

As the spectre of inflation loomed last month, the Brazilian central bank raised its key interest rate by 75 basis points, higher than the half-percentage point many economists had expected. A further rate rise is expected next month.

“The central bank acted correctly, but it cannot stop there. It is important not to be too lenient in dealing with this,” said Castelar.

Silvia Matos, a co-ordinator at the Brazilian Economy Institute, also pointed to Brazil’s weakening currency as a contributing factor to inflation. But she said the slide in the real was triggered by investor concerns over Brazil’s deteriorating public finances.

Following the creation of two separate stimulus packages to mitigate the impact of Covid-19, government debt has risen to about 90 per cent of gross domestic product, a high level for an emerging market economy.

The rollout of the second of these packages began this month, with 45m Brazilians set to receive $50 a month for four months.

Critics said, however, these stipends were not nearly enough to keep people both fed and at home in lockdown.

“It is essential that the emergency aid is of a greater value, so that people do not leave the house but no one also stays at home starving,” said Marcelo Freixo, a federal lawmaker with the leftwing PSOL party.

“We need to reduce the circulation of the disease. Brazil is already experiencing 4,000 deaths per day. We will reach 500,000 total deaths by the middle of the year.”

Matos says that inflation had hit poorer citizens much harder than middle-class and rich Brazilians because a larger portion of their income was dedicated to food, the price of which has increased substantially.

“The only thing that could help right now is to get out of this pandemic,” she said.

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