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Hussein ibn Talal

Hussein ibn Talal

Hussein ibn Talal (born 1935) became at the age of 18 the king of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, a strategic central state in the Middle East. He was regarded in the West as a moderate Arab leader.

King Hussein, born in Amman, was the scion of the illustrious Hashemite family from which the Prophet Mohammed sprang in the sixth century. His great-grandfather Hussein ibn Ali and his grandfather Abdullah were leaders of the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. The latter was also founder of the modern state of Jordan, originally called Transjordan. Hussein's early life is described as happy but the family's lifestyle was not elaborate. They lived in a modest villa in what was still an unspoiled desert kingdom.

The young Prince Hussein attended primary and secondary schools in Amman, Egypt, and England, after which he was a student at Britain's Sandhurst. At Sandhurst he learned military principles and attitudes that helped in future years with his own Jordan Arab Army, which in turn became a key to his longevity on Jordan's throne. The most important formative influence on the prince, though, was his grandfather King Abdullah, who was his tutor and guide. From him Hussein learned both respect for tradition and openness to change. Crown Prince Talal, Hussein's father, suffered from schizophrenia and the King took a special interest in his grandson Hussein, the only member of the family King Abdullah believed could rule Jordan.

When Abdullah was assassinated in the Haram al-Sharif mosque in Jerusalem in 1951 Hussein was at his side, and the memory of that event would affect his personal attitude toward danger as well as his view of the significance of Jerusalem. Following the assassination Talal, Hussein's father, was crowned king, but he was removed by the Jordanian parliament within a year due to his mental illness. After a brief regency in 1953 Hussein took the constitutional oath as king. In the 1980s he became the longest ruling head of state in the world.

"The King and country were alike—young, inexperienced, poor and uncompromising" wrote John Newhouse in the New Yorker. The young Hussein inherited a country which was extremely poor, filled with refugees, and subject to the political turmoil that was characteristic of the Middle East. Considered a pawn of the West, the young king spent the early portion of his reign just trying to survive in a time when Arab nationalism was thriving. For Jordan, the results of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war were threefold. The West Bank of the Jordan River and its Palestinian population were included in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan; hundreds of thousands of refugees from other parts of Palestine found their way to Jordan; and the state of Israel was created on Jordan's western border. Within this context King Hussein faced challenges to his throne emanating from disgruntled citizens, from radical Arab nationalism and interference from neighboring Arab states, and from occasional conflicts with Israeli military forces in Jordan's West Bank. With the key support of the army, which was recruited from Jordan's tribes, and other loyal political leaders, King Hussein and his regime were able to consolidate control by the late 1950s, although they still faced periodic challenges. Despite political tumult and tensions, King Hussein's regime made strides in building up the country's social and economic infrastructure—most significantly in education, which paid off in the following decades.

The 1967-1970 period was undoubtedly the most threatening to King Hussein's rule. In 1967 King Hussein along with Egypt and Syria fought the Six Day War against Israel and was defeated. For King Hussein the defeat was a severe setback, because Jordan lost the West Bank which, despite its small size, contained half the country's people, a little less than half of the economic activity, and the important religious shrines of East Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Equally important, this defeat gave rise to the Palestinian guerrilla movements. Initially they attacked the state of Israel, which would retaliate by hitting their camps in Jordan. In 1970 the guerrillas turned their attacks on the government of Jordan. At the same time a Syrian tank force threatened the country's northern border, creating a second front which Jordan's military had to defend. With diplomatic support from the United States King Hussein won on both fronts, but not without considerable death and destruction, particularly in Amman in the struggle with the Palestinian guerrillas.

From 1967 through 1973 Jordan's economy suffered greatly as a result of the fighting and punitive actions on the part of some radical Arab regimes. In the post-1974 oil boom, however, Jordan's fortunes improved significantly. Jordan's trained population and loyal military performed valuable services for the Arab petroleum producing countries for which they were well paid. The king and his brother, Crown Prince Hassan, also sought and received grants and concessional loans from the same countries. The infrastructure built in the 1950s and 1960s allowed these funds to fuel economic expansion. Not only were there rapid advances in socio-economic development in the 1970s and 1980s, but also King Hussein allowed his people personal and economic freedom in an environment of civil order. Neither of the Hashemite monarchs, however, has allowed extensive political freedom or participation. Apparently to fill this void, King Hussein recalled parliament in 1984 after a ten-year hiatus.

Another major theme during King Hussein's reign was his difficult search for peace with Israel in the context of a realization of the just rights of the Palestinians. In the aftermath of the 1967 war with Israel he was the chief Arab negotiator in the formulation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 which stipulated the principle of exchange of territory for peaceful relations with Israel as well as the inadmissibility of acquisition of territory by war. In 1972 the king followed up on this resolution with a proposal for a United Arab Kingdom which would be composed of East Jordan and the West Bank, the latter of which would enjoy local autonomy under the Jordanian crown.

In 1974 Hussein surrendered leadership in negotiations over the West Bank and Jerusalem to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which was recognized by the Rabat summit as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Consistent with this position, he refused to participate in the autonomy talks envisaged by the Camp David agreements of 1978, which had in fact been rejected by the PLO. But when Egypt and Israel signed a subsequent peace treaty in 1979 Jordan became the first Arab nation to cut diplomatic ties with Egypt.

President Ronald Reagan's Middle East peace initiative of 1982 was similar to a combination of Resolution 242 and the Hussein 1972 proposal. In the following years, King Hussein worked at realizing the 1982 initiative through talks and negotiations with American, Arab, and Palestinian leaders. But peace remained elusive.

In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which was prompted by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, King Hussein remained neutral initially, but eventually supported Saddam Hussein. After Iraq's defeat, King Hussein's relations with surrounding nations and the West were strained.

In the mid 1990s Hussein relinquished his strangle hold over the government and permitted political parties to field candidates in the first multi-party elections since 1956. Another crucial change in Jordan's relations with its neighbors occurred in 1994, when Israel and Jordan ended their 46-year state of war with the signing of a peace treaty. After the signing of the historic treaty, Hussein admitted that the Six Day War of 1967 was a mistake. However, the road to peace was not smooth, especially after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's prime minister. Rabin's successors chose not to honor all of the peace accords and this caused Hussein much anger and loss of face within his own country.

King Hussein is married to his fourth wife, Queen Noor, the former Lisa Halaby, an American citizen. They had two sons and two daughters. Previously the king had seven children (plus one adoption) from three earlier marriages.

Further Reading

There are one biography and one autobiography of Hussein, respectively, Peter Snow, Hussein: A Biography (1972), and Hussein, King of Jordan, Uneasy Lies the Head (1962). A more recent, comprehensive book on Hussein's kingdom is Peter Gubser, Jordan: Crossroads of Middle Eastern Events (1983). Hassan bin Talal, Crown Prince of Jordan and brother of Hussein, wrote a perceptive book explaining the Hashemites' thinking and accomplishments which is titled Search for Peace (1984). Other noteworthy books which deal with Jordan and King Hussein are P. J. Vatikiotis, Politics and the Military in Jordan (1967); John B. Glubb, A Soldier with the Arabs (1957); and Benjamin Shwadran, Jordan: A State of Tension (1959). □

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