On 14 July 1958, the Iraqi royal family was brutally murdered in a revolution which overthrew the Iraqi monarchy and threatened the Jordanian throne as well. While the mob dragged the dismembered corpses of the slain royals through the streets of Baghdad, Britain despatched a parachute brigade to protect King Hussein of Jordan. Anthony Nutting, in Amman as a correspondent for a New York newspaper, reflected the view prevalent among Western journalists and diplomats: |However much one may admire the courage of this lonely young king, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion his days are numbered'.
Yet today, forty years after Hussein's accession to the Hashemite throne, he still rules and is more popular than ever in Jordan. The |lonely young king' has outlasted all of his contemporaries and is now the longest serving head of state in the Middle East. Hussein has survived the Cold War rivalry which split East and West and has dealt with nearly every major leader - including nine US presidents - during the past four decades.
On 20 July 1951, the fifteen-year-old Prince Hussein accompanied his grandfather, King Abdullah, to Friday prayers in Jerusalem. As the royal entourage entered the al-Aqsa mosque, a disillusioned Palestinian gunman fired a bullet into Abdullah's head, killing him instantly. Another bullet hit Hussein on the chest but bounced off the military medals he wore on his uniform. The assassin was shot dead by the royal guards, and Hussein was whisked back to Amman. For the next two years, the Prince studied at Harrow and Sandhurst, while his father, King Talal, ruled in Amman. He was eventually deposed due to mental illness, and Hussein ascended the throne upon reaching his eighteenth birthday.
Abdullah left Hussein three pillars underpinning Hashemite rule. The first was an external power which could finance Jordan's economic and security requirements. Britain created Jordan in 1921 and continued to underwrite the kingdom after its independence in 1946. London retained its influence in Jordan through a network of British military commanders, development experts, and diplomats. The second pillar was the security forces. Loyal regiments, usually recruited from Beduin tribes and established Jordanian families, ensured the permanence of Hashemite rule in a country encircled by larger, more powerful states. The third pillar was a political elite committed to the Hashemite entity. During his thirty-year reign, Abdullah surrounded himself with a coterie of Jordanian and Palestinian notables who dispensed patronage and maintained stability by acting as intermediaries between government and local inhabitants. How Hussein manipulated these pillars' in the face of internal and external pressures explains his survival.
Hussein's first tests began in October 1953, when an Israeli military force under the command of Ariel Sharon attacked the village of Qibya on the West Bank, a region under Jordanian control since 1948, blowing up houses and killing 66 people, most of them women and children. The raid, in retaliation for a terrorist incident in Israel, led to a popular uproar among the Palestinians who charged the British-officered Arab Legion with failing to protect them. Qibya set a pattern which would recur frequently in the years to come.
The next challenge came with the parliamentary elections of October 1954, when the Jordanian opposition - which included communists, socialists, Arab nationalists, and Islamic fundamentalists - accused the government of rigging the vote. Riots erupted throughout Jordan, and the Arab Legion, under the command of General John Glubb Pasha, was deployed to suppress the disturbances. For the first time, the army opened fire on the crowds, leaving 24 persons dead and over 100 injured. The protests marked the beginning of the devolution of British control over Jordan. Although Glubb Pasha had been wrongly criticised for his failure to save parts of Palestine in 1948, it was when the army became associated with oppressive measures against Jordanians that a coherent anti-British campaign began among opposition elements.
Another event which was to have an indelible impact on Jordan was the rise of the Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Although the historical record shows that Nasser's career was chequered with foolish political gambits and acts of |brinkmanship' which eventually led the Arab world to the precipice of disaster in 1967, his effect during the 1950s cannot be underestimated. To disenchanted young Arabs, Nasser's anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist rhetoric struck a responsive chord. Nasser used the medium of radio to spread his revolutionary message, calling for all Arabs to unite. Egypt also utilised financial and diplomatic channels to exert political leverage in Jordan.
Hussein first felt the sting of Nasser's propaganda during the Baghdad Pact crisis of December 1955. The Pact, conceived as a Western defence strategy to protect the Northern Tier countries against Soviet encroachment, was perceived by Nasser as a threat to his quest for regional hegemony. Egypt launched a vociferous campaign against Hussein, who was under British pressure to accede to the agreement. Demonstrations were staged in most Jordanian towns, and the Arab Legion used tear gas and gunfire to quell the disturbances. Hussein went through four prime ministers in a twenty-five day period, as successive governments collapsed in the face of popular resistance. Calm returned only when Hussein announced that Jordan would not join the Pact. The opposition had won its first victory.
Sensing that he needed a bold move to regain the political initiative, Hussein decided, against the advice of some of his closest advisers, to dismiss Glubb. The justification given for Hussein's action was Glubb's alleged failure to protect the West Bank against Israeli raids. But Glubb was firmly committed to the defence of Jordan, believing that it was only a matter of time before Israel seized the West Bank. Hussein's real intention was to undercut Glubb's base of power in Jordan. He would never be an independent ruler as long as Glubb, who regulated the distribution of military funds and controlled all promotions, retained his grip on the army. Hussein was also under increasing pressure from Jordanian military officers to |Arabise' the armed forces. The departure of Glubb and other British advisers boosted Hussein's popularity in Jordan and throughout the Arab world. He filled the positions vacated by the British with Jordanians. Officers were promoted almost overnight and many with little military experience were placed in positions of responsibility. For instance, Captain Ali Abu Nuwar was rapidly promoted to major-general and soon became Chief of Staff.
Glubb's dismissal coincided with a liberalisation of the electoral process. In the October 1956 poll, the National Socialist Party (NSP) under Suleiman al-Nabulsi captured a majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The Nabulsi government is often viewed as a milestone in the history of Jordan, a time when free elections unleashed progressive forces seeking to alter the complexion of Jordanian politics. In reality, most members of the Nabulsi chamber were not elected for their ideology but on the basis of communal ties, tribal loyalties, and personal reputations. Nevertheless, the Nabulsi government attempted to align Jordan's policies with those of Egypt and Syria. Taking advantage of popular sentiments engendered by the Suez crisis, Nabulsi convinced Hussein to abrogate the Anglo-Jordanian treaty. He also called for the establishment of ties with the Soviet Union and China.
Hussein, realising that his gradualist, pro-Western brand of Arab unity was incompatible with Nasser's vision, decided to consolidate his regime. He dismissed the government and dissolved parliament. In April 1957, the King discovered that a coup was being planned in the army. He executed a countercoup against the rebel officers, removing the chief conspirator, Ali Abu Nuwar and ordering a number of others to be tried and sentenced by a military tribunal. Hussein also tacitly accepted the Eisenhower Doctrine, which promised American financial and military assistance to any Middle Eastern state under threat from |international communism'. The US responded by granting economic aid to Jordan and deploying the Sixth Fleet off the coast of Lebanon as a show of force for the King. Finally, Hussein banned all political parties and declared martial law.
The Jordan crisis of July 1958 was the last test in Hussein's |trial by fire'. After uncovering another plot to overthrow his regime, Hussein requested British military assistance, and British troops were sent to Jordan - over-flying Israel since Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iraq were all hostile. During the next three months, his security services took draconian measures, arresting hundreds of suspected plotters. The crisis was successfully resolved when the United Nations extracted a promise from Nasser to refrain from sponsoring subversive activities in Jordan.
Hussein consolidated his regime by transforming the three pillars of his rule. First, he replaced one external actor - Britain - with another - the United States. Second, he placed the armed forces under Jordanian control and purged the ranks of disloyal elements. Finally, he turned back to the traditional political elite, whose advice he had ignored in his gestures towards the opposition in 1956. Hussein also personalised his reign by displaying considerable courage during the crises. More than once he risked assassination by confronting rebellious elements of the armed forces.
Although Hussein ensured internal stability in Jordan, he still faced external pressures from Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. During the period known as |the Arab Cold War', Hussein survived numerous assassination attempts, including bombing and poisoning plots. One of the most spectacular occurred in November 1958. While flying over Syria to go on holiday, Hussein's private jet was attacked by two MIG-17 fighters. Hussein and his co-pilot managed to evade the interceptors and returned to a tumultuous welcome in Amman, where soldiers of the royal guard had threatened to shoot the entire cabinet for allowing the King to fly over Syria. The British ambassador in Amman reported that |the episode has strengthened the already potent "Hussein Legend".'
The first Arab summit in Cairo in January 1964 heralded a new era in inter-Arab co-operation. The summit led to a rapprochement between Nasser and Hussein, who agreed to the formation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Hussein allowed the PLO to train and recruit in Jordan, but his co-operation with the Palestinians proved to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, he could use his backing for the Palestinian cause to mobilise support for Jordan in the Arab world. On the other, Palestinian guerrilla operations against Israel endangered the uneasy truce which existed between Jordan and its Jewish neighbour. In November 1966, an Israeli brigade attacked the West Bank village of Samu in reprisal for the deaths of three soldiers who died in a landmine explosion in Israel. The Israelis destroyed Samu, killing 21 Jordanians and providing the catalyst for riots against the regime. Whether Israel hoped to provoke a Jordanian counter-attack, thereby providing a pretext for capturing the West Bank, is still in dispute.
The disastrous June 1967 war, which resulted in Jordan's losing the West Bank, was the outcome of a series of Arab miscalculations, and Nasser must bear the greatest share of the blame for the Arab defeat. But Hussein also made a mistake in going to war against a militarily superior Israel. Popular opinion in Jordan was undoubtedly in favour of fighting. Defenders of Hussein argue that he would have faced an uprising by the Palestinians if he did not confront Israel. Further, Hussein would have lost all prestige in the Arab world if he stayed out of the hostilities. Critics reply that Hussein could have controlled the Palestinians by military means. Moreover, since the Palestinians went to war against the regime in 1970, it would have been better for Hussein to confront the PLO on his own terms in 1967. Another criticism - raised by some of Hussein's closest advisers and military commanders - was that the King should not have placed his armed forces under Egyptian command. Instead, Hussein should have sacrificed the West Bank, which could not be effectively defended, and concentrated his forces in Jerusalem, where Israel could not use its air power without destroying the Old City.
One major consequence of the Arab defeat in 1967 was an increase in the size and scope of the Palestinian liberation movement. The PLO fought alongside the Jordanian army in March 1968 at the battle of Karameh, in which an Israeli tank and infantry division was routed after a twelve-hour battle. Although many Jordanians charged that the Palestinians did little of the fighting, Hussein, perhaps unwisely, allowed the PLO to take the lion's share of the credit for the victory. By 1970, the PLO guerrillas in Jordan - who were given almost full run of Amman - were acting as if they possessed |a state within a state'. Hussein came under intense pressure from many advisers in his inner circle to expel the Palestinians. Finally, a machine-gun attack on Hussein's motorcade, followed by a multiple hijacking of foreign airliners to Amman by radical Palestinians, gave Hussein a reason to strike.
Black September of 1970 has become the source of many myths and misconceptions about the nature of Jordanian-Palestinian relations. The fact is that the Jordanian army moved against the PLO, and after a few weeks of fighting, ejected the Palestinian fighters from Amman. In 1971, the army managed to crush the remaining pockets of PLO resistance in the hills round the ancient city of Jerash. The PLO - and some of the |radical' Arab states - charged Hussein with slaughtering innocent Palestinians, producing exaggerated casualty figures to support their claims. What the PLO failed to mention was that numerous Jordanians were pro-Palestinian during the civil war, while some Palestinians fought on the side of the Jordanian army. Thus, the Jordanian and Palestinian populations of Jordan were not neatly divided against each other.
The October 1973 Middle East war (in which Jordan did not fight) led to peace talks between Egypt and Israel and a re-definition of the nature of the Palestinian liberation struggle. With the Arab military option against Israel a foregone conclusion, the Arab states meeting in Rabat in 1974 proclaimed the PLO the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The summit called for the formation of a Palestinian entity in any territories emancipated from Israel. Hussein still believed in Jordanian sovereignty over the West Bank, especially in Jerusalem, but acquiesced to the demands of his fellow Arabs. Among his political elite, some argued that Jordan should take the Rabat decision to its logical conclusion, severing administrative ties with the West Bank and revoking citizenship from Palestinians living in Jordan. But Hussein refused to disengage from the West Bank, hoping to balance his territorial ambitions with his support for the PLO.
The negotiations between Egypt and Israel resulted in the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1978. Although Jordan was mentioned fourteen times in the Accords, Hussein did not participate in the talks and rejected the agreement. First, the Accords made no provisions for Palestinian statehood and treated the Palestinian problem merely as a refugee issue. Second, the agreement perpetuated Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza and did not discuss the sensitive issue of Israeli settlements. Hussein was right to denounce the Accords as offering less than a just and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian problem. Hussein was punished for his refusal to countenance the Camp David framework for peace. The Carter Administration reduced budgetary support for Jordan from $40 million in 1978 to $20 million in 1980. In 1981, the US withdrew all budgetary support to Jordan but continued to provide technical assistance and loans.
Despite the loss of aid from the US, Jordan enjoyed a period of unprecedented economic prosperity during the 1970s. The 1978 Arab summit in Baghdad pledged $1.2 thousand million to Jordan as a |confrontation state' with Israel. The kingdom also benefited from remittances from the 300,000 Jordanians working in the Gulf states, revenues derived from exports of agricultural products and phosphates, and transit fees from the port of Aqaba. But increasing affluence - Jordan's economy grew nearly ten per cent per year during most of the 1970s - resulted in economic and social dislocations by the early 1980s, when declining oil prices reduced external revenues from the Gulf region. Many people in Jordan did well during the boom years, but others suffered, with income disparities growing between rich and poor. By the late 1980s, Jordan had economic and demographic problems. Unemployment was increasing, population was rising, and foreign reserves were dwindling. More and more people were becoming dependent on a shrinking resource base.
The rapid economic growth also had implications for Hussein's traditional instruments of power. Jordan introduced national service in 1976, marking a shift from a professional to a conscript army. Yet career military personnel - who still comprised the backbone of the security apparatus - enjoyed increased economic privileges designed to ensure their loyalty. The political elite had always been co-opted by the Hashemites, but they now competed with each other for a larger share of the wealth controlled by the state. In effect, Jordan had become an |aid economy' with a growing number of citizens dependent on government largesse.
During these years, Hussein's diplomacy on the Arab front remained predicated on national security concerns. He improved his relations with Syria - which had deteriorated due to Jordan"s support for Saddam Hussein and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, both enemies of President Hafez al-Assad. Hussein also made several unsuccessful attempts to resolve the Palestinian issue. His efforts were undermined by the gradual shift in the locus of the Palestinian liberation struggle from the diaspora to the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians living under the oppressive conditions of military occupation realised that their leadership-in-exile had failed to liberate a single inch of Palestine. The result was a growth in self-reliance, which gained momentum after the PLO's 1982 exodus from Beirut, and culminated in the outbreak of the Intifada in 1987.
The Palestinian uprising symbolised a rejection not only of Israel, but also of Jordan. Hussein was confronted with a Palestinian population on the West Bank which had cultivated its own institutions and structures of local government and no longer wanted his leadership. Accordingly, he severed all administrative and legal ties with the West Bank on 31 July 1988. Another factor behind Hussein's decision was his frustration with America's reluctance to press Israel for substantive concessions on the question of trading land for peace. Hussein's surprise move created the political space the PLO needed to declare an independent Palestinian state in November 1988. The process of disengagement which began at Rabat was finally complete.
Hussein's most recent challenge came during the Gulf crisis in 1990. He condemned the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait but also denounced the use of Western military force to restore the status quo ante. Because Jordan had historical, political, and economic links with Iraq, it would have been difficult for Hussein to sever ties with Baghdad. However, some maintained that Hussein made a tactical blunder: he should have immediately disassociated himself from Saddam Hussein and signed on with the coalition forces. But Hussein's stance during the Gulf war does not seem to have done him great harm, at least in the short term. Jordan appears to be back in the good graces of the West. The 300,000 Jordanians and Palestinians who left Kuwait after the war and resettled in Jordan are investing in the country, and the Amman area is currently experiencing a slight economic boom. But such economic growth is ephemeral and cannot be sustained without substantial infusions of capital. Questions are now being asked about the future of Jordan. The King's recent return from the US, where he underwent an operation for cancer, caused many Jordanians to realise just how much they depend upon Hussein. It seems that Hussein's brother, Crown Prince Hassan, will enjoy a smooth succession to the throne. However, most people believe that only democratic institutions and political liberalisation will guarantee the long-term stability of Jordan.
Since 1989, Hussein has conducted an exciting experiment in liberalisation. Free parliamentary elections (which returned a chamber dominated by Islamists, who enjoy broad support because of their wide networks of social welfare services and uncompromising stand against corruption), an end to martial law (in effect since 1967), and new press freedoms have contributed to a more pluralistic political arena, Liberalisation, however, is not synonymous with democratisation. Hussein has expanded the base of his regime by opening up political space in the media, professional associations, trade unions, universities, and mosques. Liberalisation has provided a safety-valve for the regime by allowing people to air their grievances. On the other hand, the liberalisation has been |risk-free'. Authorities have been able to manipulate the electoral laws to exclude certain candidates from standing at local and national levels.
Hussein's success during the past forty years has been conditioned by his ability to rebuild the pillars under his regime to meet changing circumstances and new challenges. In particular, the King has been adept at neutralising former opponents by bringing them into government. He maintains secret ties with Israel and open relations with the PLO but places Jordanian interests at the top of his agenda. Hussein knows that he can no longer depend solely on his traditional instruments of power. He thus hopes to diffuse decision-making throughout the state structure, allowing more people to enter the political field. The greatest test of Hussein's leadership, though, will be how well he prepares his people for life without him.
[Lawrence Tal is a member of St. Antony's College, Oxford. He has recently returned from a research trip to Jordan.]…