Jordan after King Hussein

By Foster, Charles | Contemporary Review, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Jordan after King Hussein


Foster, Charles, Contemporary Review


Charles Foster

King Hussein was bigger than Jordan. Jordan is a geographically ill-favoured stretch of oil-free sand, said to have been created by Winston Churchill in the back of a cab. In the Middle East poverty generally goes along with down-trodden insignificance. The late, much admired, King Hussein broke that rule.

Jordan's poverty meant that it dared not fall out with too many of its neighbours. Hussein's greatest talent was for duplicity: for convincing people who hated one another implacably and fundamentally that he agreed wholly with them both. Generally, because he did it so well, they never noticed the impossibility of that agreement. Duplicity or multiplicity are not usually associated with integrity, but in Hussein, oddly, they were. His was the integrity of the Bedouin survivor, making improbable deals with the sand and the water. Because survival is better than extinction, the deals were seen as good.

His 37-year-old son, Abdullah, has a hard act to follow. Nobody knows much about him. This young king is something of an Arab yuppie, keen, like his father, on fast cars and fast women. He is the commander of Jordan's elite commando unit, the Special Operations Command. Hussein is said to have thought that Abdullah's obscurity was a tremendous advantage. The only preconceptions which anyone has about him flow from the fact he is Hussein's son - and that is all to the good. Hussein's brother, Hassan, who until shortly before the King's death was assumed to be Hussein's successor, did have a personality and an entourage of his own. He had, for instance, been the patron of important institutions such as the Jordanian Institute for Diplomacy, the Higher Council for Science and Technology and the Islamic Al Bayt University. He was respected in his own right, but he was not a Hussein. He would have taken his own ready-made court to the throne, and their advice would not have been advice Hussein would have taken. Hassan would have taken advice about the running of Jordan, and would have followed it. King Hussein's overriding concern was not for Jordan, but for the Hashemite dynasty. If advice which favoured Jordan favoured the dynasty (as of course it generally would), he would take it. If it did not, he would not.

It is this concern for the dynasty which prompted the favouring of Abdullah over Hassan. King Hussein evidently thought that Abdullah was more likely to survive than Hassan. Hussein was well justified in thinking that his, Hussein's, formula, was a good one for Hashemite survival. Hussein will have said to his son (and it didn't need saying) that if he follows in his father's footsteps he, the dynasty and Jordan will be all right. He will have cautioned against significant change.

This is difficult advice to interpret, since Hussein had few policies other than the policy of survival. So much of Jordan was the King himself. Some strands of policy can be identified, and are unlikely to change. It is necessary, for instance, for any ruler of Jordan to advocate strongly the claim for a Palestinian homeland in the West Bank and Gaza. Three constituencies need to be appealed to. Palestinians comprise 60 per cent of the Jordanian population, and they need to be kept happy by their dream being kept alive in Arab national agendas. The Jordanians tend to resent the Palestinians and look forward to them leaving: they would be unhappy with any government which suggested that the Palestinians were in Jordan for good. And, third, the wider Arab world will forgive a lot of flirting with the West if Jordan's Palestinian credentials are sound. A fourth constituency, the West itself, need not be appeased on the Palestinian issue: it knows well that it is impossible for any Arab ruler to fail to bluster about it.

The other important example of policy relates to the growth of democracy and the freedom of the press in Jordan. Hussein was no liberal. He saw votes and a free press as dangers to the monarchy. …

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