King Hussein's Jordan: Forty Years On

By Tal, Lawrence | Contemporary Review, July 1993 | Go to article overview

King Hussein's Jordan: Forty Years On


Tal, Lawrence, Contemporary Review


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. …

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