A military tribunal in Jordan this week convicted Bassem Awadallah, a former finance minister who rose to become chief of the royal court, and Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, a distant cousin of King Abdullah, of sedition. The charges related to a confused April plot to advance the aspirations of Prince Hamzah, the king’s half-brother.

Before sentencing them to 15 years in jail, the military judge said they had “sought to create chaos and sedition in Jordanian society”.

Prince Hamzah’s ambitions to succeed to the Hashemite throne were thwarted when he was removed as crown prince in 2004 and later replaced with Hussein bin Abdullah, Abdullah’s firstborn son. Prince Hamzah was put under house arrest in April. He pledged allegiance to the king and was not tried.

The brief, secret trial of Awadallah and Sharif Hassan was a foregone conclusion. They were not allowed to call Hamzah — the pretender at the heart of the conspiracy, according to the leaked charge-sheet — nor any other defence witness. This does not look like closure.

It fails to address deep divisions in society and arguably aggravates them by scapegoating. Awadallah is a western-educated Palestinian from Jerusalem, part therefore of Jordan’s Palestinian majority. He may be an alternative lightning rod to Queen Rania, who is unpopular with the East Bank or native Jordanian tribes that underpin the Hashemite monarchy, in large part because she too is of Palestinian origin.

Even before the pandemic, Jordan was in dire straits. With few resources and severe water problems, it is heavily indebted and aid-dependent. There are no jobs for more than a third of its under-24s. Under Abdullah, who lacks the regal populism and paternalist charm of his father, the late King Hussein, the palace has become remote and unresponsive to criticism.

The monarchy’s timeworn tactics, such as changing prime ministers — which King Hussein did 56 times in 46 years — or setting up royal commissions on reform, which King Abdullah has just done for the fourth time, are more threadbare than ever. At the peak of April’s tensions, Prince Hamzah released videos denouncing the regime as corrupt, incompetent and nepotistic.

Be that as it may, one root cause of Jordan’s many problems — and this latest eruption of palace intrigue — is that the desert kingdom cannot afford the social contract on which it was built.

The Hashemite bedrock is the East Bank tribes. They dominate the army and the Mukhabarat, or security services, but their prime source of employment is the public sector. The Palestinian majority originating across the Jordan river in the West Bank, occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six Day War, control most of the private sector. They also tend to occupy key technocrat positions in the finance ministry and central bank.

While Jordan fought a civil war with the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1970-71, since then it has been the East Bankers that regularly stage protests and uprisings. The fiscally squeezed army, moreover, is really tribesmen in uniform, as revolts by groups representing hundreds of thousands of veterans at the start of the so-called Arab Spring showed. Prince Hamzah crossed the Hashemite court’s red lines by actively courting disgruntled tribal leaders, presenting himself as the tribune of ordinary Jordanians.

Awadallah looks at first sight an unlikely co-conspirator. As finance minister and chief adviser to the king, he spearheaded reforms such as the privatisation of mining, telecoms and energy companies.

Critics allege he and other courtiers profited from these sales. But state assets had been a fief of East Bankers, regarded almost as tribal patrimony. That is one reason he is a convenient fall guy.

Yet there appears to be real animosity at the royal court towards Awadallah, who the king sent to Saudi Arabia as his special envoy not to become an adviser to Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi ruler, thought in Amman to have encouraged the intrigue in Jordan.

Jordanian officials also believe the Trump administration incited Mohammed to join Gulf neighbours in recognising Israel by dangling the prospect that the House of Saud could take oversight of Jerusalem’s Islamic sites from the Hashemites. Trump’s green light for Israel to annex swaths of the occupied West Bank, and potentially stampede more Palestinians across the river into Jordan, put King Abdullah in deeper jeopardy.

But next week King Abdullah will become the first Arab leader to meet US president Joe Biden in Washington. The new administration treats Jordan as an indispensable ally. That, and US aid, are invaluable capital. But the monarch still faces his half-brother’s echoes of East Bank grievances that reflect Jordan’s malaise. Prince Hamzah has tarnished the sacrosanct quality of the monarchy and made the royal family part of this contentious debate.