Hussein ibn Talal

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Hussein ibn Talal

Born November 14, 1935

Amman, Jordan

Died February 7, 1999

Amman, Jordan

King of Jordan and Middle Eastern statesman who supported Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf War

"Let war be banished from our lands forever, so that we may engage our minds and energies in the development of the area."

King Hussein in Current Leaders of Nations.

Hussein ibn Talal, king of Jordan was a respected Middle Eastern leader who supported Iraq during the Persian Gulf War. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the king spent the next few months trying to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the crisis. When these efforts failed, he bowed to pressure from Jordan's large Palestinian population and threw his support behind Iraq. King Hussein's decision led to strained relations between his country and members of the U.S.-led coalition that fought against Iraq. But the king was able to repair these relationships over the years, and by the time of his death he was widely regarded as an accomplished statesman.

Born into a royal family

Hussein ibn Talal was born on November 14, 1935, in Amman, Jordan, the oldest of Prince Talal and Queen Zain's four children. Hussein came from a powerful royal family. He was descended from the Hashemite dynasty, a group of Arabs who could trace their family history back to the prophet Muhammad, founder of the religion of Islam. Hussein's grandfather, King Abdullah, was the ruler of Jordan at the time of his birth.

Jordan is a central state in the Middle East. It is surrounded by Syria to the north, Iraq to the east, Saudi Arabia to the south, and Israel to the west. At 37,700 square miles (60,659 square kilometers), Jordan is about the size of South Carolina. King Abdullah negotiated with British colonial powers to form the country of Jordan (then known as Trans-jordan) in 1921. When the country gained its independence from Great Britain in 1946, it became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Hussein always loved the natural surroundings and rich history of his country. "Jordan itself is a beautiful country," he once said, as quoted in King Hussein. "It is wild, with limitless deserts ... but the mountains of the north are clothed in green forests, and where the Jordan River flows it is fertile and warm in winter. Jordan has a strange, haunting beauty and sense of timelessness. Dotted with the ruins of empires once great, it is the last resort of yesterday and tomorrow."

Throughout Hussein's youth, his grandfather Abdullah was the strongest influence in his life. Since Hussein's father suffered from schizophrenia (a form of mental illness), the king always viewed his grandson as the next ruler of Jordan. Hussein spent his youth preparing to become the king of Jordan someday. He studied at a series of exclusive private schools in Jordan and Egypt. He also spent a year at Harrow, a world-renowned prep school in England. He completed his education at the Sandhurst Royal Military Academy in England, where he gained confidence, pride, and leadership skills.

Becomes king of Jordan at the age of eighteen

While Hussein was growing up and preparing to claim the throne, his country was going through some difficult times. In 1948 the United Nations created the nation of Israel as a homeland for all Jewish people. The part of the Middle East that became Israel also was home to an Arab people known as the Palestinians. Their ancestors had lived in the region known as Palestine, located between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, since ancient times. The newly created state of Israel covered most of this territory, which Jews also regard as their historic holy land.

The creation of Israel angered many Arabs. In fact, Jordan and four other Arab countries went to war against Israel shortly after it was formed. The Arab-Israeli War lasted for nine months before Israel defeated the Arab armies in early 1949. Although the Arabs lost the war, Jordan succeeded in capturing an area of land on the west bank of the Jordan River. The West Bank was home to five hundred thousand Palestinians, as well as the important religious sites of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Another five hundred thousand Palestinians fled from Israel after the war ended, and about half of these people became refugees in Jordan. Suddenly Palestinians made up the majority of Jordan's population, which affected the political goals of the country from that time forward.

Some of the displaced Palestinians formed a group called the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The purpose of the PLO was to fight to reclaim lost territory and establish an independent Palestinian state. The PLO often resorted to acts of violence and terrorism in its dispute against Israel. It gained the support of many Arab nations, however, and was eventually recognized by the United Nations as the legitimate government of Palestine.

King Abdullah struggled to keep control of Jordan's government during this time of political turmoil. In 1951 he was assassinated by a Palestinian extremist who resented his close ties to Great Britain. Hussein was there when his grandfather was shot to death during a visit to a mosque (an Islamic place of worship) in Jerusalem. In fact, Hussein was shot in the chest but the bullet bounced off of a medal he was wearing. Hussein mourned the loss of his grandfather, who had taught him a great deal about the duties of a king. "It was he who taught me to understand the minds of my people and the intricacies of the Arab world in which we lived," he explained, as quoted in King Hussein. "And he taught me above all else that a leader's greatest duty is to serve."

Immediately after King Abdullah's death, Hussein's father, Talal, became ruler of Jordan. But the pressures of the job caused Talal's mental illness to resurface, making it impossible for him to rule. The Jordanian parliament declared Hussein the king of Jordan in 1952. Since he was still a minor at this time, the parliament established a three-person council to hold the office until he turned eighteen the following year.

Young king struggles to survive

Upon taking the throne, King Hussein proved to be a moderate (less extreme) leader whose policies tended to favor the West (the noncommunist countries of Western Europe and North America). His political views brought him into conflict with some other Arab leaders, however, as well as with Jordan's large Palestinian population. Some people viewed him as an immature ruler who was used as a pawn by the United States and other Western powers. In fact, he survived a dozen assassination attempts during the early years of his rule.

Despite King Hussein's moderate views, Jordan joined its neighbors Syria and Egypt in a war against Israel in 1967. Known as the Six-Day War, this conflict quickly ended in a victory for Israel. As a result of the fighting, the Jewish state regained control over the West Bank, which had once been part of ancient Palestine. This 3,729-square-mile (6,000-square-kilometer) area contained half of Jordan's population as well as a large portion of its industrial base. It also contained a number of important religious sites for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

The loss of the West Bank angered Jordan's Palestinian population. Palestinian extremists stepped up their efforts to overthrow the king, which resulted in a civil war in Jordan in 1970. But King Hussein maintained control of the national army and held the loyalty of many citizens. He eventually was able to win the war and strengthen his rule. In 1974 the king made an agreement with the PLO that helped ease tensions with the Palestinians in his country. Jordan gave up its claims on the West Bank, which remained under occupation by the Israeli army, and recognized the Palestinians as the rightful owners of the disputed territory.

As King Hussein's relations with the Palestinians improved, Jordan became more stable. The country's economy experienced strong growth during the 1970s and 1980s. The king granted his people greater personal and economic freedom and placed a strong emphasis on education. As King Hussein entered his forties, he emerged as a leading figure in the Middle Eastern affairs. Over the years he developed several proposals aimed at making peace with Israel while also securing greater rights for the Palestinians.

Supports Iraq during the Persian Gulf War

Jordan supported Iraq during its eight-year war with Iran (1980–88). During this conflict, King Hussein developed a friendship with Saddam Hussein (no relation to King Hussein; see entry) and came to regard the Iraqi leader as a dedicated fighter for Arab causes. On August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein had ordered his military forces to invade the neighboring country of Kuwait. Saddam argued that Iraq had a historical claim to Kuwait's territory. He also wanted to control Kuwait's oil reserves and to gain access to Kuwait's port on the Persian Gulf. Countries around the world condemned the invasion and demanded that Saddam immediately withdraw his troops from Kuwait. Many of these countries then began sending military forces to the Persian Gulf region as part of a U.S.-led coalition against Iraq. In November 1990, the United Nations Security Council established a deadline of January 15, 1991, for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait or face war.

During the months between Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the start of the Persian Gulf War, King Hussein emerged as one of the main figures behind efforts to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the crisis. He initially declared that Jordan would remain neutral (not take sides) in the conflict and tried to act as a mediator between Iraq and the United States. He stressed the importance of Arab participation in solving the problems in the Middle East, and he traveled widely in the Arab world to try to build support for a diplomatic solution. He also met with Saddam to try to convince him to withdraw from Kuwait. King Hussein desperately wanted to avoid a war, which he felt would have harmful effects throughout the Arab world.

King Hussein respected Kuwait's status as a sovereign (independent) nation and spoke out against Iraq's aggression toward its neighbor. But he also faced a great deal of pressure from within his own country. The PLO openly expressed its support for Saddam and his invasion of Kuwait. Palestinian leaders viewed Saddam as a powerful opponent of Israel and the United States. King Hussein recognized that Jordan's large Palestinian population would likely follow the PLO's lead and support Iraq. In fact, polls showed that 70 percent of Jordanians approved of Saddam's actions. The king felt that he could not ignore the feelings of the majority of his people. He worried that turning against Iraq would cause huge protests in Jordan and put his rule at risk. As a result, Jordan ended up supporting Iraq during the Persian Gulf War.

King Hussein's support of Iraq led to strained relations between Jordan and the more than thirty-five countries that joined the coalition. Many of these countries stopped trading with Jordan and cut off international aid payments. Meanwhile 750,000 refugees made their way into Jordan from Iraq and Kuwait in the months leading up to the war, putting additional stress on King Hussein's government and the Jordanian people.

The world's longest-serving head of state

Once the Persian Gulf War ended, however, King Hussein worked to improve Jordan's economy and also gave his people greater freedoms. His actions helped Jordan regain the favor of its Arab neighbors, as well as Western powers. King Hussein went on to play a leading role in peace negotiations between the Arabs and Israelis. In 1993 Israel and the PLO agreed on principles of Palestinian self-rule in the occupied territories. The following year Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel, ending a forty-six-year state of war between the two countries.

Although the king experienced success in his peace-keeping efforts, he wasn't so fortunate where his health was concerned. King Hussein was first diagnosed with cancer in 1992. When the cancer reappeared in 1998, he traveled to the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to receive treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He died on February 7, 1999, at the age of 63. He had ruled Jordan for nearly fifty years, making him the longest-serving leader in the world. By the time of his death, King Hussein was highly regarded throughout the world as a peacemaker. "I want to hear the tracks of bulldozers, not tanks; the footsteps of travelers, not troops," he once stated, as quoted in Current Leaders of Nations. "Let war be banished from our lands forever, so that we may engage our minds and energies in the development of the area."

King Hussein was married four times and had eleven children. He married Dina Abdul Hamed in 1955. They had one daughter together before they were divorced two years later. He married Antoinette Gardiner, the daughter of a British army officer, in 1961. She converted to Islam and took the name Muna al-Hussein following their marriage. They had two sons and two daughters before they were divorced in 1973. Later that year the king married Alia Toukan, a Jordanian Palestinian flight attendant. They had a son and a daughter together before she died in 1977. The following year King Hussein married Lisa Halaby, an American citizen who took the name Noor al-Hussein. They had two sons and two daughters together. Upon his death, King Hussein was succeeded on the throne by his son Abdullah II.

Where to Learn More

"Hussein I, King of Jordan." Current Leaders of Nations, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2003.

"Hussein ibn Talal." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2003.

Hussein ibn Talal. My War with Israel. New York: Morrow, 1969.

Hussein ibn Talal. Uneasy Lies the Head. New York: Bernard Geis, 1962.

Matusky, Gregory, and John P. Hayes. King Hussein. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Snow, Peter. Hussein: A Biography. London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1972.