Jordan’s King Abdullah rejects claim in Pandora Papers but allegations come at sensitive time for monarch

Damning reports come just months after coup plot, reports Middle East correspondent, Bel Trew

Monday 04 October 2021 19:00 BST
<p>King Abdullah has repeatedly talked of the economic hardship his people are facing and the need for more aid to Jordan </p>

King Abdullah has repeatedly talked of the economic hardship his people are facing and the need for more aid to Jordan

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Jordan’s King Abdullah II has said claims he used offshore accounts to disguise a £70m hidden property empire were  “defamatory and designed to target Jordan’s reputation” as the monarch faces mounting scrutiny for lavish spending while also asking foreign aid to pull his cash-strapped country out of a recession.

The damning reports, released by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, claim the king used a network of secretly owned firms to spend more than $100m (£70m) on property in the UK and US, including houses in Malibu as well as luxury apartments in Washington DC, central London and Ascot.

The revelations – part of the so-called Pandora papers – come at a tricky time. They were made public on Sunday as King Abdullah was in a meeting with the head of the World Bank where they discussed further assistance to the beleaguered country which is struggling to deal with a massive refugee crisis and soaring unemployment.

It also comes as  King Abdullah’s popularity had taken a hit after his half-brother accused the country’s leadership of corruption.

Jordan has long been heralded as a vital partner for the west in the Middle East and an island of stability in a region that is often blighted by conflict and unrest. It has received substantial foreign aid from countries like the UK and the US but in recent years has been the target of a boisterous protest movement because of a worsening economic crisis.

King Abdullah denied any impropriety, saying he kept quiet about the transactions because of security concerns. The statement also repeatedly denied public finances and international assistance were used and said publishing his real estate portfolio was a “flagrant security breach and a threat to His Majesty’s and his family’s safety”.

“Any allegations that link these private properties to public funds or assistance are baseless and deliberate attempts to distort facts,” a statement from the Royal Hashemite Court said on Monday.

“Such allegations are defamatory and designed to target Jordan’s reputation as well  as His Majesty’s credibility.”

The details in the report were notably absent in Jordanian media, which is often directly or indirectly controlled by the authorities: a potential sign that the palace was alarmed by claims.

Journalists from one Jordanian news outlet that attempted to publish a piece told The Washington Post that they received a call asking them to take the article down.

Analysts told The Independent that while the revelations were unlikely to spark any fresh protests on the ground, it may further damage the popularity of the king who has repeatedly talked of the economic hardship his people are facing and the need for more aid to the country. Jordan, among the poorest and driest countries in the region, relies on billions of dollars of foreign support as it struggles to host millions of Syrian and Palestinian refugees.

“The optics of this revelation is a bitter pill to swallow for most Jordanians, who are struggling. This is a very expensive country to live in: people are largely living on economic support from the diaspora,” said Bessma Momani, professor of politics at the University of Waterloo.

“I don’t think it is a surprise that the king has lots of foreign assets. But he will have to fiercely defend himself [against accusations] that foreign aid is going into his coffers. People are legitimately frustrated with their economic situation,” she added.

The report from the consortium is based on a review of nearly 12 million files obtained from 14 firms located around the world, the consortium said.

It is being dubbed the “Pandora Papers” because the findings shed light on how the elite and the corrupt often use offshore accounts to shield assets collectively worth trillions of dollars.

In the case of King Abdullah, who awards a prize for “Government Performance and Transparency” in his name each year, the investigation claims advisers helped Jordan’s king set up at least three dozen shell companies in tax havens. Between 2003 and 2017 these companies reportedly assisted the monarch in buying 14 homes worth more than $106m in the US and the UK.

The lavish portfolio is said to include three adjoining beachfront homes under reconstruction at Point Dume, an exclusive enclave near Los Angeles. Among them is reportedly a seven-bedroom mansion on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, which was bought in 2014  through a British Virgin Islands company, for $33.5m,  a record price for the area at the time.

The report also says there were several luxury apartments in a complex in Washington DC with “panoramic views” of the Potomac River.

King Abdullah vehemently denied there was anything untoward in the purchases, saying the properties were often used for official functions.

“These properties are not publicised out of security and privacy concerns, and not out of secrecy or an attempt to hide them, as these reports have claimed,” the palace said.

“Measures to maintain privacy are crucial for a head of state of His Majesty’s position.”

The statement described the consortium’s report on his real estate portfolio as a "flagrant security breach and a threat to His Majesty’s and his family’s safety."

King Abdullah’s government faced trouble earlier this year when his half-brother, former crown prince Hamzah, accused the “ruling system” of corruption and incompetence. The king claimed he was the victim of a “malicious plot”, and placed Hamzah under house arrest. Two former close aides were put on trial.

Labib Kamhawi, another analyst, told the Associated Press that while it was still too early to draw any conclusions about whether there would be any long-term damage to the king, it was certain to raise eyebrows internationally.

“It is bound to affect the ability of Jordan to solicit aid easily,” he said. “Business as usual? It will not be the same as long as this information is floating worldwide.”

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