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David Hirst, the noted Middle East correspondent for the British Guardian, wrote this excellent portrait of King Hussein as one of a series about Arab leaders that appeared during March, 1993. Hirst describes His Majesty as “the only Arab leader to command the true respect and affection of his people,” and notes the phenomenal reception the King enjoyed when he returned home from successful cancer treatment in the US in November, 1992.

The article recounts some of the defining experiences in King Hussein’s life, such as viewing the assassination of his grandfather King Abdullah, and describes the tumultuous events of the 1950s and 1960s of which few expected the monarch to survive. Not only did he survive, though, he emerged victorious to lead Jordan on the path to becoming a prosperous democracy--a model for others in the region. Hirst lists some of His Majesty’s most distinguishing character traits, particularly his sense of mercy, his regal bearing with a common touch, and his determination to always “do one’s best.” To explain King Hussein’s good political fortune, Hirst points to “the sense of timing which is born of great patience in the taking of decisions but great resolution, courage and occasional ruthlessness in carrying them out.”


“King Who Rules From the Heart”

After 40 years, King Hussein of Jordan is the only Arab leader

to command the respect and affection of his people. Now he is in a

position to see his beloved Hashemite Kingdom expand.


David Hirst, The Guardian

March 22, 1993

This article is based on an interview with His Majesty King Hussein.


When Hussein bin Talal, fortieth in the line of descent from the Prophet, was crowned king forty years ago this May, few thought he would last long. His Hashemite throne was a legacy of the Arab Revolt which, with British aid, had driven the Ottomans from their last Arab provinces in the first world war. But now Britain was losing the will and means to uphold such protégés; worse, it had betrayed promises made to the new king’s great-grandfather, Sherif Hussein of Mecca, concerning the creation of a free and independent kingdom embracing all those Ottoman provinces. Beneath the mandatory fig leaf, Britain and France had carved them up between them; and, thanks to the Balfour Declaration, the Arabs had lost Palestine altogether to the Zionist settler-state.

Two years before, the new king’s grandfather, Abdullah, founder-ruler of Transjordan, had been murdered before his eyes: it was the 16-year-old’s first encounter with the kind of realm he was to inherit. The extrovert Abdullah had been disappointed with a son, Talal, who was not cast in his own “brave, intrepid, Bedouin” mold. He doted on his grandson instead. And for Hussein, his grandfather still remains “the man to whom I owe more than I can say.”

Politically, Abdullah had been the dominant personality of the Arab East. He never hid his thwarted Hashemite ambitions. “Nothing,” he used to say, “will prevent my accession to the throne of Damascus.”

But by the fifties, new revolutionary forces, led by the emergent Arab champion, Colonel Nasser, were convulsing the region; they cast Abdullah, and his fellow-Hashemites in Iraq, as “imperialist lackeys” and “reactionaries” whom the people’s wrath would sweep away. Abdullah had indeed enlarged his hitherto tranquil Transjordanian backwater; but instead of Damascus, he had acquired that part of Palestine, the West Bank, which the Zionists failed to conquer in their 1948 “war of independence.” His enemies said he had conspired with the British and the Zionists. In fact, his Arab Legion had done more than any other Arab army to save what could be saved of Palestine. The trouble was that the Legion still had a British commander, Glubb Pasha, and in the climate of the times, such charges had a mischievous plausibility—especially for Abdullah’s new subjects, the seething destitute, resentful refugees.

It was a Palestinian assassin who, in July 1951, put a pistol to Abdullah’s ear in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque. As the boy rushed to his already lifeless grandfather’s aid, he saw his “so-called friends, those men of dignity of high estate, doubled up, scattering like bent old women.” He was so disgusted, he later said, that he never wanted to be king.

And he wasn’t immediately. His father, Talal, came straight from his Swiss sanitarium to the Basman Palace, while he himself had to leave Victoria College in Alexandria for Harrow. There, “a man among boys,” he felt spurned and lonely; he knew no one save his cousin Faisal, uncrowned king of Iraq; his schoolmates “gabbled their colloquial English” at an incomprehensible pace; they were “rather snobbish”; and instead of soccer, they played the strange game of rugby. But everything gradually sorted itself out—the diminutive Crown Prince even made an ideal scrumhalf. “I remember the glow I felt one day when a boy threw a long, low pass, shouting: ‘Get moving, Hussein! It’s yours’.” The privileged young Englishmen, with their “rigid codes and shibboleths,” had finally accepted this highest born of Arabs.

Before long, the gentle, incurably schizophrenic Talal was declared unfit to rule, and the 18-year-old Hussein took full powers on May 2, 1953. It was to be a long time before his subjects granted him the kind of acceptance he had won from his Harrow schoolmates, but when they did, it was gratifying beyond compare.

Hussein is not merely one of the world’s two or three longest-serving rulers, he is the only Arab leader to command the true respect and affection of his people. It all came to a head last November, on his return from cancer surgery in the US. A third of Jordan, Palestinian campdwellers among them, came out to greet him with a rapturous spontaneity unseen in the Middle East since Ayatollah Khomeini’s homecoming after the fall of the Shah.

Arab intellectuals are puzzling over this metamorphosis in the fortunes of one of the region’s numerous potentates. Seen in the context of the great ideological conflicts which raged upon his accession, his people’s tribute amounts to a victory for the erstwhile “reactionaries” over erstwhile “revolutionaries,” for the old over what was once so promisingly, so gloriously new.

It is as a Hashemite that he has done it. He insists on that. Not that his noble lineage confers an automatic right to rule. “No sir”—the honorific he bestows on all with the flattering charm that is a family trait—“No sir, I would step down if I felt my people no longer wanted me.” But in the absence of any other truer measure of legitimacy, democracy for example, he does believe that being of “the oldest house, the oldest tribe” in the area, he has a right and duty to “help our Arab nation,” that he can rise above “differences and interests”; and he must fulfill the trust his grandfather bequeathed him.

He has never been an intellectual, a political theoriser. But just as his common touch never impaired his regal bearing, so his basic simplicity never lacked guile. It is the ordinary human virtues he exalts; and the old Harrovian in him, the understated semi-Englishman, contributes to his exaltation of one above all others—the modest, homespun ambition always to “do one’s best.”

That would not have sufficed without luck or without the sense of timing which is born of great patience in the taking of decisions but great resolution, courage and occasional ruthlessness in carrying them out.

For all his vicissitudes, and the sudden spectacular changes of course they have forced upon him, one can trace beneath them a seam of personal and political consistency. His instincts were always liberal. Early on he nursed a desire to know what his people really thought of him, and taking after a Caliph of Baghdad, he once spent two nights as a taxi-driver cruising for fares—until one of his loyalist Bedouins, ultimate bulwark of his throne, nearly beat him up for daring to suggest that “His Majesty” left much to be desired. The impetuous 18-year-old ordered his first prime minister to relax controls on political parties and newspapers. In 1956, he peremptorily sacked the devoted, almost saintly, but irritatingly paternalistic Glubb, to his people’s brief delight and the outrage of the right-wing British press.

Glubb forecast that Jordan would become “just one more unstable, passionate, bloodstained Arab country.” It almost did. For such concessions were but hopeless sops to the surging, Nasser-led emotions of the time. Monarchs everywhere trembled on their thrones, but none was exposed like little Hussein with his small, poor, British-subsidised realm hemmed in on three sides by richer, more powerful Arab states, and an aggressive, expansionist young Israel on the fourth.

The refugees hung on Cairo Radio’s every word, its blood curdling calls to rid the region of British puppets; ugly riots swept Amman; the Israelis staged murderous, wantonly provocative raids on sleeping frontier villages; neighbouring republics plotted coups with their local accessories. Would-be-assassins tried to poison him, killing off most of the palace cats instead. Once, piloting his grandfather’s De Havilland Dove, he came under attack by two Syrian MiG-17s and he extracted from that aging aircraft feats of hedge-hopping aerobatics that almost tore it asunder in the most hair-raising of his many escapes.

In July 1958, with his cousin Faisal’s murder in the Iraqi Revolution, Hussein called the British back; the paratroopers flew in from Cyprus at six hours notice. He survived again, but the Sunday Times noted that “when he drives out from his Palace, his car is escorted by 12 jeeps, each carrying four soldiers armed with Bren guns, and even when he visits the British Brigade the 48 men, fingers on trigger, surround him as he inspects the guard of honour.” The Washington Post said flatly that “Hussein will probably leave when the British do.”

In the next seven years, with the Eisenhower doctrine and superpower rivalry in the Middle East at its height, the king strayed furthest from the liberalism with which he had begun. Opponents were jailed, some were tortured, and a few died under it.

In June 1967, in his last reconciliation with Nasser, he made a defence pact with Egypt—and promptly lost the Palestinian half of his kingdom in the Six-Day War. That led to the second great crisis of his reign, the rise of Yasser Arafat’s fedayeen [guerrillas] who, despairing of Arab regimes, republics as well as monarchies, launched a “popular liberation war” of their own—choosing a kingdom now reduced to its original Transjordanian dimensions as the place from which to do it.

In 1968, at a famous press conference, the king was obliged to declare: “We are all fedayeen.” Two years later, in September, 1970, he unleashed his faithful Bedouins, and in 10 days of fratricidal strife, broke the back of the guerrillas’ state-within-his-state; then he drove them out of their remaining bases in a campaign so fierce that scores of them crossed the Jordan, surrendering to the Israelis rather than fall into the hands of his vengeful troops. To most Palestinians it seemed unforgivable, and the struggle between them and the Hashemites, that most poisonous leitmotif of his grandfather’s reign, took new and vicious forms; Jordan became the first target of the Black September terrorist organisation.

But in due course, Hussein recognised the PLO as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” in effect renouncing his claim to what he had lost in 1967. The conflict gradually diminished; the PLO’s standing declined as the King’s slowly rose. Others were to do worse to the Palestinians with less justification. And this became the central feature of a much larger reality. To be sure, the King owes his apotheosis to his own achievements, but nothing, in the measuring of them, has helped like the failings of others.

“Can one,” writes Palestinian political scientist As’ad Abdul Rahman in a study of the King’s extraordinary popularity, “compare regimes which kill tens, hundreds, perhaps thousands—publicly or secretly, no matter—with a regime which always did its utmost to kill no one?”

It was back in 1957 that his friend Ali Abu Nuwar, newly promoted commander of the Arab Legion, gave Hussein his first taste of personal betrayal. “I could not bring myself to put him to death. I have certainly been criticised for this act of mercy. But there it is—I couldn’t do it.” Now, all his former adversaries pay tribute to this obdurate gift of reconciliation. Yaakoub Zeidin, the Communist Party leader 12 times imprisoned met the king recently. He told him we were once young and very extreme, and he replied that ‘We, too were young and made mistakes’” In Jordan, former plotters regularly reemerge as ministers and even in one case as chief of intelligence.

Glubb once forecast that if Hussein ever reached 45 and like his grandfather, put behind him the impetuosity of youth, he would, like him, become “a great ruler.” Sure it is that for him, longevity has become an asset rather than the liability it usually is. Time has proved that, though an advocate of Arab-Israeli peace long before others dared to be, he has never “sold out”; others, President Assad, Arafat himself, now seem closer to that than he. And without the reserve of credit which time has conferred, he might not have risked the three great initiatives—his new “democracy”, his juridical and administrative “disengagement” from the West Bank, his “independent” line during the Gulf crisis—which have now raised him, morally, far above any other regime in the region.

Is he cured of his cancer? It is not yet sure. But if he is, the tantalising question arises: does the last of the Hashemites now hanker after the larger, Pan-Arab ambitions of his grandfather? That he has gone over to the moral offensive is not in doubt, with his promotion of Jordan as a “model,” his missionary zeal for democracy and human rights.

If this moral offensive leads to a territorial one it will start with Iraq. Would he accept an Iraqi throne? “Sir,” he replies with habitual modesty, “I don’t believe I could handle it.” But few doubt that he wouldn’t mind having a go. Of course, his long and dubious association with Saddam, belatedly ended, has left him in moral debt with Kurds and Shi’ites. Kurdish visitors report that, when asked why he did not break the Arabs’ shameful silence over the gassing of Halabja, it was with tears that he stammered out his apology.

But, among the people who know him best, the Jordanians themselves, favourable comments on his Pan-Arab, his renascent Hashemite dreams come from surprising quarters. “If he sticks to his democracy,” said a member of the Palestine National Council. “I, for one, would gladly see him take not just Iraq, but Syria, Lebanon, and yes—though Arafat is my friend—what we can get back of Palestine too.”