Hussein Bin Talal (1935–1999)

views updated

Hussein Bin Talal

Hussein bin Talal al-Hashem was the king of Jordan from 1952 until his death in 1999. He indelibly marked the modern history of his country and its people.


Hussein was born in Amman, Transjordan, on 14 November 1935, the eldest of four children of Talal bin Abdullah (1909–1972), eldest son of Transjordan's leader, Emir Abdullah bin Hussein Ali (1882–1951), and Zayn al-Sharaf bint Jamil (1916–1994). He was named after his great-grandfather, Sharif Hussein of Mecca, leader of the Arab revolt against the Ottomans during World War I. The al-Hashem family claims descent from the prophet Muhammad. Hussein's two brothers, Muhammad (1940–) and Hassan (1947–), and sister Basma (1951–), all served with him in various capacities after he became king. Hussein's mother Zein, who exercised undeniable influence on her children, displayed a penetrating political mind and was the power behind the throne until her 1994 death.

After completing his elementary education in Amman, Hussein attended Victoria College in Alexandria, Egypt, and Harrow School in England in 1951. He later received his military education in 1952–1953 at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst in the United Kingdom.

Hussein was for many Jordanians the father of the modern state. Yet, beyond his preoccupation with regional affairs, which earned him the moniker "PLK" (plucky little king) from Western officials and admiring journalists, he served at a critical time despite significant uncertainties. In fact, his rule witnessed a period of domestic strife and extensive international turmoil, as well as three major wars with Israel. Through these tragic developments, Hussein demonstrated a knack for survival. Above all else, his genuine biculturalism, which allowed him to feel as much at ease in the West as in the East, helped forge a climate of openness and tolerance in Jordan. When he passed away after a long illness on 7 February 1999, Hussein was the longest-serving head of state in the world, having been in power for forty seven years.


Transjordan was created by the British in 1921 when they detached it from Palestine within their League of Nations Mandate. Abdullah bin Hussein Ali al-Hashem, a son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, the king of Hijaz (now part of Saudi Arabia), had established himself in Amman with the intention of moving against the French in Syria. Instead he accepted the British offer to become emir of Transjordan, with that state as a semiautonomous entity under British colonial tutelage. Britain held control of the country's finances, external relations, and its army, the Arab Legion.

Transjordan was a destitute rural environment, consisting of small towns and villages, large deserts, and practically no water resources. It was this stark reality that persuaded Abdullah and his successors to agree to continued British, and later American, domination even after the end of the mandate. This at least ensured a minimum standard of living to a hapless population. Abdullah also welcomed Arab nationalists who had been expelled from neighboring Syria. Amman became an open city, where Arab dissidents could mingle with the Hashemites. Against some odds Abdullah painstakingly developed key institutions, including the country's 1928 Organic Law that planted the seeds of a full-fledged constitution. Difficult negotiations culminated with the comprehensive 22 March 1946 treaty that formally ended the British mandate. Transjordan gained formal independence and changed its name to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan; Abdullah formally became King Abdullah I. The British retained substantial control, however; under a 1948 treaty they managed Jordan's finances, stationed troops in the country, and retained command of the Arab Legion.

Abdullah's previous dealings with the Zionists had led to a division of Palestine between them. However, with the establishment of the State of Israel on 15 May 1948 and the bitter 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Abdullah's Arab Legion occupied East Jerusalem and what became known as the West Bank. The war ended with several armistice agreements signed at the Rhodes Conference although Jordan opted to conclude a separate bilateral truce with Israel on 3 April 1949. Jordan later annexed the territory it had occupied during the war.


Name: Hussein bin Talal al-Hashem

Birth: 1935, Amman, Jordan

Death: 1999, Amman, Jordan

Family: Four wives: Dina bint Abd al-Hamid (1955–1957); Antoinette Avril (Toni) Gardiner (Princess Muna al-Hussein, 1961–1971; two sons, Abdullah [II] and Faisal; three daughters, Alia, Aisha and Zayn); Alia Tuqan (Queen Alia, 1972–1977 [d.1977]; one son, Ali; two daughters, Hayah and Abir Muheisen [adopted]); Elizabeth (Lisa) Halaby (Queen Noor al-Hussein, 1978–; two sons, Hamzah and Hashim; two daughters, Iman and Raiyah)

Nationality: Jordanian

Education: Court and religious education, Bishop's School, Amman; Victoria College, Alexandria, Egypt; Harrow School, Middlesex, 1951; Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, 1952–1953


  • 1952: Succeeds as monarch, 11 August, following abdication of father; becomes field marshal, Jordan Arab Army, marshal, Royal Jordanian Air Force
  • 1957: Survives coup attempt
  • 1958: Forms short-lived federation with Iraq
  • 1967: Arab-Israeli War of 1967; West Bank and East Jerusalem occupied by Israel; major influx of Palestinian refugees into Jordan
  • 1970: Major clashes between government forces and Palestinian guerrillas; heavy casualties in civil war remembered as "Black September"
  • 1974: Arab League recognizes PLO as sole legitimate representative of Palestinian people
  • 1986: Severs political links with PLO, orders its main offices shut
  • 1988: Abandons claim to the West Bank and East Jerusalem
  • 1989: Political liberalization begins
  • 1994: Peace treaty with Israel

On 20 July 1951, Abdullah went to Jerusalem for his regular Friday prayers, with his young grandson Hussein at his side. A lone Palestinian gunman assassinated the monarch on the steps of al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam. Hussein survived when a bullet lodged in a medal his grandfather had recently awarded him, but the event left a profound mark on the young man. In his memoirs, Hussein recalled how three days before that fateful day in Jerusalem, his grandfather had turned to him and said: "I hope you realize, my son, that one day you will have to assume responsibility. I look to you to do your very best to see that my work is not lost. I look to you to continue it in the service of our people." Abdullah was succeeded by Hussein's father Talal, his eldest son, who ruled for only a short period; he was persuaded to abdicate on 11 August 1952, for health reasons. Talal suffered from mental health problems, perhaps schizophrenia. Hussein thus assumed the mantle of power even though he needed a regent for another year until he attained legal adulthood. He formally assumed the throne on 2 May 1953.

Political Evolution

Under British protection, King Hussein managed to build his influence, although ultranationalist Arabs in neighboring countries as well as inside Jordan derided him as a British stooge. Over the years, British officers, led by John Glubb—who became known as Glubb Pasha—ran a mixed military that was built on the foundations of the Arab Legion. It was a force loyal to both the Hashemites and their foreign masters.

Throughout the 1950s, the king became fully aware of his constitutional responsibilities, although he ruled as an autocrat. Hussein built his regime on the support of loyal and conservative Bedouin tribes, and increasingly, East Bank Jordanian elements. Relying on these elites permitted the energetic monarch to suppress opponents—perhaps best illustrated by the April 1957 coup attempt as well as the fierce struggle with Palestinian fighters in September 1970—even as he realized that the indispensable bulwark of his regime was the military. Consequently, starting in the mid-1950s, Hussein emphasized his attachment to the army. The latter received additional funding, modern equipment, and advanced training. Foreign advisers and updated supplies arrived from both Western and Communist governments. In July 1958, Hussein welcomed British forces into the country to buttress the regime after a bloody military coup in Iraq overthrew the Hashemite, pro-Western monarchy there.

To the monarch's credit, the image of the Jordanian military evolved, as he successfully managed a shift in perception. While he was still the most pro-Western Arab ruler, King Hussein was no longer exclusively seen as a British tool, although the Jordanian military's overall capacity for effective defense against Syria and Israel were marginal at best. On the domestic front, however, the army proved indispensable, especially in April 1989 when serious political disturbances challenged the regime. Fulfilling International Monetary Fund (IMF) directives to eliminate subsidies on foodstuffs, Jordan faced the wrath of destitute citizens in traditionally royalist towns such as Ma'an, Karak, and Tafila. Naturally, the army intervened, but the use of force and high casualties accomplished little. This uprising was different from the major 1970 international crisis involving the Palestinian forces. Because those who rioted in the heartland in 1989 were East Bank Jordanians—the monarchy's political base—the insurrection indicated the weakness of the monarchy's foundations. Hussein could not simply rely on brute force to regain the upper hand and, consequently, opted to liberalize his political philosophy.


Prince Hassan bin Talal al-Hashem (1947–) is the younger of King Hussein's two brothers. Born in Amman on 20 March 1947, Prince Hassan studied in Summer Fields School and at Harrow in Britain, and received a B.A. (honorary) and M.A. from Oxford University. He married Sarvath Ikramullah (1947–) in 1968. His brother appointed him crown prince in April 1965. Thereafter he became the country's First Intellectual. Hassan established a number of scholarly endeavors, including the Royal Scientific Society in 1970, the al-Bait Foundation in 1980, the Arab Thought Forum in 1981, the Jordan Higher Council for Science and Technology in 1987, and the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies in 1994. In January 1996, King Hussein removed Hassan and named his eldest son, Abdullah, as crown prince.

Shortly thereafter, Hussein called for parliamentary elections, legalized political parties for the first time since 1957, and convened a national conference to draft a new covenant among the ruling elites. The consultation proved effective because opposition forces acknowledged the king's preeminence while the ruler vowed to respect Jordan's evolving political pluralism. Reinvigorated political institutions gained confidence as the king embarked on his program of liberalization within carefully defined parameters. He would tolerate genuine dissent but demand total allegiance in return. Remarkably, this new covenant proved effective for most of the 1990s, especially after Jordanians experienced concrete economic benefits that lifted the population's living standard. The experiment amounted to a form of representation with limited taxation. Yet, because most Jordanians rejected the October 1994 Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty, the positive effects of the 1990 covenant quickly eroded.

Parliamentary Politics

After Jordan lost the West Bank in June 1967, and following the king's decision to suspend parliament between 1974 and 1984, no elections were held in the country. The cabinet assumed those legislative responsibilities that were later fulfilled by successive parliaments. When a serious economic crisis started in the late 1980s, Hussein could no longer simply rely on the military to restore order, but turned to his suspended parliament to buttress his throne.

In November 1989 full parliamentary elections were finally held in Jordan, following a very gradual liberalization of political institutions. Reestablishment of Jordan's parliament, a bicameral legislature composed of a popularly elected eighty-member Chamber of Deputies and an appointed forty-member Senate, was intended to restore the monarch's tainted legitimacy. All 650 candidates for the House were technically "independent," but the best-organized opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, scored something of a political triumph. The banned party ran a list of 26 candidates and, remarkably, managed to elect 22. Another 12 Islamist representatives were chosen by voters for a total of 34 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. With other nationalist candidates, the 1989 Chamber of Deputies boasted 44 opposition members, a stunning victory. The monarch took note even if he initially refused to acknowledge this upsetting shift.

In 1990 Hussein appointed his brother and heir, Crown Prince Hassan, to lead a royal commission representing the entire spectrum of Jordanian political thought to draft a national charter that, along with the Jordanian constitution, would serve as a guideline for institutionalization of democracy and political pluralism. The regime authorized additional parliamentary elections in 1989, 1993, and 1997, which were internationally monitored and relatively free, even if it regretted the dramatic liberalization process that resulted.

This trend for genuine reform was abruptly interrupted by the 1 August 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the crises that followed, especially the American involvement in defense of Kuwait. As a key regional actor, Hussein was deeply involved in the protracted negotiations that pitted the strong-willed Iraqi dictator, saddam hussein, against the rulers of Kuwait. The king proposed critical mediation efforts to avoid hostilities but failed to persuade either party. It would be facile to conclude that King Hussein sided with Saddam Hussein, but he was caught between two intractable positions. First, Jordan was financially dependent on Iraq for generous oil subsidies, as well as crucial remittances. Second, the king desperately sought to fulfill his traditional obligations toward a fellow monarchy (Kuwait), as well as to absorb the estimated half a million Jordanian and Palestinian workers and their dependents who were expelled from Kuwait. Therefore, what preoccupied Hussein fore-most was the overall financial burden, which further strained the Jordanian economy. Ultimately choosing to support Iraq in a departure from his usually pro-American policies, the king was in an impossible position, especially after the United States and Britain chose to perceive him as a conspirator. At home, however, his legitimacy reached its zenith. There he was viewed as resisting a Western diktat and supporting a fellow Arab nation under attack from the West.

Ever the astute survivor and opportunist, Hussein proposed the adoption of an updated National Charter, which carefully regulated the government's ongoing liberalization policies. Even opposition leaders jumped on the monarch's bandwagon, hailing the charter as a victory for democracy or, more accurately, for democratization. The Crown welcomed pluralism as well as competition, but only within the confines of unquestionable Hashemite rule. In effect, the 1992 charter sealed the monarchy's legal character, ensured loyalty toward it among political elites, and allowed the regime to tackle domestic reforms from a position of relative strength. With this epoch-making accomplishment, Hussein displayed renewed flexibility as he tolerated various Islamist appointments to sensitive posts, including the ministry of education and the Chamber of Deputies speakership. To be sure, and while Hussein weighed the consequences of the 1990–1991 Gulf crisis and war, it was amply clear that the 1989 elections set the stage for the political shifts that he introduced. Henceforth, Hashemite rule embraced open political activities and limited debates. This commitment was first tested in 1993 when new parliamentary elections were held.

In 1993 the Islamists lost as true independent candidates, who distanced themselves from both left and right, filled the ranks. Of course, the Crown fared well too, as it underscored the necessity for strong leadership, capable of steering the ship of state on stormy seas. In fact, Hussein was caught off guard by the Declaration of Principles adopted in September 1993 at Oslo by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). This important step in the Arab-Israeli peace process prompted Amman to seek its own separate treaty with the Jewish State. Parliament ratified the subsequent October 1994 Israeli-Jordanian treaty by a comfortable 55-23 margin, although opposition leaders quickly blocked several normalization measures. By November 1997, when Jordan held its last elections before King Hussein died, Amman was once again operating under strict press laws and fewer rights. Leading parties boycotted the scheduled November elections, as most objected to the normalization with Israel, but far more important, all rejected various "temporary laws" that were favored by the regime. The king, like President John F. Kennedy, forgave his enemies but never forgot their names. None of those who stood up to PLK were appointed to the Senate, but this was, perhaps, an error by an increasingly ailing ruler. The thirteenth parliament saw political centrists, pro-regime conservative figures, and tribal candidates—for a total of seventy-five (out of eighty) independent nominees—fill vacant seats in the House of Representatives. Toujan al-Faysal, the first female parliamentarian in the history of the monarchy, lost her seat, as did most nationalist and Islamist candidates, as a gloomy disillusionment descended over Amman. Sadly, because of lack of action, the reforms of the previous decade slowly withered away, and both government and opposition figures blamed each other for the overall loss of popular confidence.

The Succession

While the Hashemite monarchy was safe in the late 1990s, the succession became a predicament for Hussein. Jordan's constitution of 1952 (adopted under King Talal) provided for succession to the crown based on primogeniture. As the actual number of male Hashemite progeny was extremely limited, it fell to Hussein to consider alternatives. Toward that end, the constitution was amended in 1956 to empower the king to make needed changes. Specifically, in an unusually detailed article identifying exactly who was eligible, it gave him the prerogative of choosing his own successor. In 1965 he designated his brother Hassan as crown prince.

In the late 1990s, according to Queen Noor in her memoir, Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life, Hussein was inclined "to modify [the existing mechanism] for the next generation after Hassan by the creation, perhaps, of a family council" (2003, p. 359) that would settle on the most qualified individual. Allegedly because of a disagreement between Hussein and his brother about this plan, on 25 January 1999, six days after returning to Amman from cancer treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, Hussein wrote a formal letter to his brother, informing him of his removal as crown prince. The long missive contained harsh criticisms. Perhaps to soften his calculated blow, Hussein noted that he had designated Hassan in 1965 because the king's son Abdullah had been too young. (In fact, Hassan had probably been appointed to prevent a political vacuum in case of a successful assassination attempt.)

Hussein noted that he proposed the formation of a family council "to ensure the unity of the Hashemite family so that when the time came for you to choose your successor, the family would have a great role in naming the most suitable successor." In other words, Hussein wanted the family, not solely a future King Hassan, to make the decision about a successor—under the then-current arrangement, the prerogative of the monarch. He further claimed that Hassan disagreed with this judgment, wishing to make the decision himself after he took the helm. The letter concluded on a positive note, as Hussein welcomed his regent's willingness to abide by his decision, and he informed his brother that he was returning to the "original Constitutional rule," which designated Prince Abdullah as heir apparent.

True to his nature, Hassan stepped aside, as the king was rushed back to the Mayo clinic on 26 January 1999 to undergo additional chemotherapy treatments for his metastasized cancer. His health deteriorated sharply over the following few days, and Queen Noor decided that they would return to Amman to await "God's will." On 7 February, Hussein died, and his son acceded to the throne as abdullah ii.

Foreign Policy Issues

Hussein's political nemesis, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, towered over the Arab world throughout the 1960s. The two leaders had different policies regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict and fell on different sides of the Cold War, with Nasser leaning toward the Soviet Union and Hussein remaining steadfastly pro-Western. According to Hussein in his autobiography, Uneasy Lies the Head, Nasser was behind a few of the assassination attempts directed toward him. To save himself from assassination and his throne from a coup, the Jordanian oscillated between pro- and anti-Nasser periods, but could never shake the Egyptian's influence. It was debatable whether Hussein was a good judge of character, or whether he relied on cronies eager to please him, but one thing was certain: Hussein survived because Nasser failed to eliminate him and, equally importantly, because Hussein seldom hesitated to destroy domestic opponents. Hussein was comforted in the knowledge that outside powers—especially Britain—would rush to his assistance if his rule were threatened.

As Hussein tackled perceived radicalism within Jordanian society, he and his government made colossal errors in regard to the Palestinians between 1967 and 1970, including job discrimination and banning access to the media. These faulty policies eventually led to violent events of Black September in 1970.

At the October 1974 Rabat summit meeting of the Arab League, Hussein saw the Palestinian mantle stripped from his shoulders, as Arab leaders recognized the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. This rebuff was soon followed by the fallout of the September 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt that further isolated Jordan in Western eyes. Consequently, Hussein opted to align with Saddam Hussein's Rejection Front—Arab states opposed to Camp David—a decision that earned him Western contempt. To be sure, the new couple was odd, but that was less pertinent than the primary consequence of this fragile alliance, namely, a gradual economic rapprochement with Iraq and other Arab states that slowly drew Amman into the Iraqi orbit. Along with Egypt and North Yemen, Iraq and Jordan created the Arab Cooperation Council in February 1989, which wished but had no ability to align the indebted with the underdeveloped and the war-damaged. Ironically, King Hussein's cataclysmic 1990 choice, to back Ba'thist Iraq against Al Sabah-ruled Kuwait, sealed the plucky little king's personal fate in conservative Arab circles. No longer were fellow Arab monarchs willing to dole out generous support to a dependent Jordan. The Western, especially American, wrath was even more devastating.


Hussein was respected outside Jordan, although his opposition to the Palestinian resistance movement after 1968 led to severe military clashes in September 1970. After that date, Hussein was disliked by Palestinians because he drove them away from the battlefield against Israel.

This significant legacy notwithstanding, Arab, Muslim, and world leaders paid tribute to the king by attending his funeral. In fact, his funeral assembled one of the largest gatherings of kings, presidents, princes, and officials from all over the world anywhere in the twentieth century. Among those who participated in the funeral were U.S. president Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton. The president and first lady were at the head of a large U.S. delegation that included former presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush, along with many congresspersons. From the Arab world, president husni mubarak of Egypt, Sultan Qaboos of Oman, president ali abdullah salih of Yemen, Palestinian Authority president yasir arafat, then-Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Shaykh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa of Bahrain, President omar al-bashir of Sudan, Crown Prince Sa'ad al-Abdullah Al Sabah of Kuwait, vice president Taha Moheiddin Ma'arouf of Iraq, and other senior officials attended the funeral. United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan and his wife, along with French president Jacques Chirac and his wife Bernadette, German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, British prime minister Tony Blair, Dutch prime minister Wim Kok, and Turkish president Suleyman Demirel, were all present. Russian president Boris Yeltsin headed a delegation including prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, while Vaclav Havel represented the Czech Republic. The entire immediate Spanish royal family was present, led by King Juan Carlos and his wife Sofia, accompanied by Crown Prince Felipe. The British royal family was represented by Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands attended along with King Albert and Queen Paola of Belgium. Crown Prince Naruhito and Princess Masako of Japan accompanied Japanese prime minister Keizo Obuchi. Among many other guests, and as an illustration of Hussein's legacy outside of Jordan, Israeli president Ezer Weizman led his country's delegation, which included prime minister BINYAMIN NETANYAHU and several senior government officials.


My grandfather [King Abdullah I, r.1921–1951] … wanted a brave, intrepid Bedouin son to carry on the great traditions of the Arab Revolt. He was incapable of accepting an invalid in place of his dream. It was the bitterest disappointment of his life…. He taught me the courtly functions, how to behave and—perhaps because he was a sadly disappointed man who had been deceived by the British and French—he taught me how to come to terms with adversity as well as with success. And he taught me above all else that a leader's greatest duty is to serve…. This was the man who sat facing me one evening and told me: "Remember, the most important thing in life is to have the determination to work, to do your very best, regardless of all the setbacks and all the difficulties that will occur. Only then can you live with yourself and with God."



Hussein inherited a gargantuan portfolio that encompassed the Palestinian question and the Arab-Israeli conflict after 1948. What the Hashemite monarchy owed Britain—for creating it in the first place and protecting its dependent regime in the complex Arab political arena for decades—was enough to drive a mental wedge between monarch and his subjects. Jordanians understood where the king's loyalties lay, and of course the Palestinians hated him and his grandfather for sufficient reason. Undoubtedly, the young ruler was predisposed to excel, especially given his energy, capabilities, and appetite for power. Yet his grandfather's assassination, and his own survival of at least twelve known attempts on his own life immediately after acceding to the throne, colored the way he ruled. Above all, he became astutely aware that his kingdom was a multiethnic society, in which half the population was Palestinian. To defend his Hashemite monarchy while remaining true to core Arab causes was no small accomplishment.


Bligh, Alexander. The Political Legacy of King Hussein. London: Sussex Academic Press, 2002.

Boulby, Marion. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Kings of Jordan, 1945–1993. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1999.

Dallas, Roland. King Hussein: A Life on the Edge. London: Fromm International, 1999.

Dann, Uriel. King Hussein and the Challenge of Arab Radicalism: Jordan, 1955–1967. Oxford, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Hussein, King of Jordan. Uneasy Lies the Head: The Autobiography of His Majesty King Hussein I of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. New York: Bernard Geis Associates, 1962.

――――――. My War with Israel, as told to and with additional material by Pierre Lauer and Vick Vance. Translated by Walter B. Michaels and June P. Wilson. New York: William Morrow, 1969.

――――――. Mon Métier de Roi. Paris: Robert Laffont, 1975.

Joffe, George, ed. Jordan in Transition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Noor, Queen. Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life. New York: Miramax, 2003.

Robins, Philip. A History of Jordan. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Ryan, Curtis R. Jordan in Transition: From Hussein to Abdullah. Boulder, CO, and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002.

Salibi, Kamal S. The Modern History of Jordan. London: I.B. Tauris, 1998.

                                          Joseph Kechichian