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Pandora Papers: The royal 'you know who' from Jordan

October 4, 2021

The global Pandora Papers investigation has shed light on King Abdullah II's investments abroad. Though probably not illegal, they are still at odds with the government's declared principles of financial transparency.

King Abdullah II of Jordan
King Abdullah II of Jordan is listed in the Pandora Papers but rejects any wrongdoingsImage: Ameer Al Mohmmedaw/dpa/picture alliance

Jordan's King Abdullah II is among the prominent people listed in the global Pandora Papers investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and a team of 150 news outlets — including DW's Turkish service.

Their research, which was published on Sunday, revealed that the 59-year-old monarch used money from his various offshore accounts to buy properties in the years 2003 to 2017.

In total, he is said to have purchased 14 houses and flats in the United States and the United Kingdom for a total of more than €91 million ($106 million) through his 36 front companies that are registered in tax havens.

He was generally referred to by trust firm sources quoted in the report as the "final beneficiary" living in Jordan, or "You know who" from Jordan.

However, an immediate statement by the king's lawyers rejected the claims that King Abdullah II had used money that was not his own: "HM [His Majesty] has not at any point misused public monies or made any use whatsoever of the proceeds of aid or assistance intended for public use … HM cares deeply for Jordan and its people and acts with integrity and in the best interests of his country and its citizens at all times."

On Monday, the royal court also issued a statement confirming that the monarch owns properties abroad for diplomatic visits and consultations. For security reasons, it had been important to treat their details as secret, the statement says. The statement also adds that none of these purchases were funded by the state treasury or by foreign grants or loans that Jordan has received as foreign assistance.

"I wouldn't say that the papers have revealed anything sensationally surprising. It has always been clear that the royal family is wealthy and owns properties abroad," Dr. Maria Josua, Middle East analyst at the Hamburg-based research institute GIGA, told DW.

King Abdullah II of Jordan and his wife Queen Rania
King Abdullah II of Jordan and his wife Queen Rania are generally seen as the modern couple of the Middle EastImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. van Katwijk

Repressed discontent

However, the Jordan-related content of the Pandora Papers still hits a sensitive nerve among the population.

"There is significant discontent toward the monarch, and these revelations are vindicating what a lot of people feel about the monarch. The question is now whether this will lead to any significant political changes in the country," Karim Merhej, a non-resident fellow at Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told DW.

Opinion polls routinely show that Jordanians generally have very little trust in their state institutions. For instance, according to the Arab Barometer, in 2018 only 38% of Jordanians said they had some or great trust in the government, while 68% said they had no trust in parliament.

However, surveying citizens' views towards the king or the royal family is not allowed.

"Another aspect is that for Jordan, repression is currently extremely strong," Josua said, adding that unions and professional associations that had advocated for improvements were closed down or strongly censured.

Furthermore, as has been seen before in Jordan, a news blackout has been imposed. "It is the royal attempt to control the narrative," Josua said. The ICIJ website was also taken down in Jordan only hours before the Pandora Papers were published on the organization's webpage.

Above criticism

Despite these measures, however, the revelations will likely contribute to furthering discontent in the country towards the political system, even though the disguised purchases of the real estate might have been legal, as the Royal Hashemite Court claims.

On previous occasions, discontent and accusations, though veiled, have been directed toward the palace and the royal couple of Abdullah II and his Kuwaiti-born Palestinian wife, Rania.

In early 2021, a purported coup concocted by Prince Hamzah, King Abdullah II's half-brother, alongside Bassem Awadallah, a former chief of the Royal Hashemite Court whom many Jordanians despise due to perceived corruption, was thwarted. While under house arrest, Prince Hamzah released a video addressing Jordanians in which he criticized the desolate state Jordan has found itself in, emphasizing the rampant corruption that now allegedly plagued the country.

"But there have never been direct accusations against the king himself," Josua said.

Pandora Papers website seen on a smartphone
The ICIJ website has been taken down in Jordan Image: Zeljko Lukunic/PIXSELL/picture alliance

Major foreign assistance

Economically, the country has been struggling for a long time. Poverty and unemployment rates are very high. According to the Jordanian Bureau of Statistics, 25% of the population over 18 was out of work in the first quarter of this year. Youth employment is estimated to be up in the region of 40%.

Jordan, with its population of around 10 million people, lacks the rich oil and gas deposits possessed by many of its neighbors and suffers from a shortage of water. One of the poorest countries in the region, it has been receiving billions of dollars in development aid from the US (in 2020, $1.5 billion/€1.29 billion), the European Union and other nations, including Germany.

But it seems that according to current knowledge, development aid hasn’t been funnelled to the palace. "Jordan ranks very high on the Open Budget Survey and the Jordanian government has effectively made its finances quite transparent — this is not very surprising given the fact that the country is heavily reliant on grants and loans from other countries and international organizations," Merhej told DW. 

Demonstrators hold up posters in front of Jordanian policemen during a protest near the prime minister's office in Amman
The population has protested against high unemployment rates and corruption in the past Image: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

Germany, which has also sent millions in aid to Jordan, also seems fairly sure that the money went to the projects it was meant for, including assistance for tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.

A spokesperson told DW that the "Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) has no knowledge that development cooperation funds for Jordan for which the BMZ is responsible have been made available to the Jordanian royal family. Rather, the structure of our development cooperation with Jordan and the disbursement of corresponding funds is linked to the agreed progress of the respective joint projects."

But the coming days, months and years will show the real impact of the Pandora Papers, in Jordan as well. According to the ICIJ, the previous global investigation, dubbed Panama Papers, is still creating waves, even five years after its publication.  



Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Jennifer Holleis is an editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa.