Hussein, King I

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King Hussein I

Born on November 14, 1935 (Amman, Transjordan)
Died on February 7, 1999 (Amman, Jordan)

King of Jordan

King Hussein, who was crowned King of Jordan and handed the responsibility of leading his country when he was just a teenager, was the longest serving monarch in the modern Middle East. He spent most of his forty-year reign trying to maintain stability within his own country's borders. His other principal challenge was keeping the peace with his Israeli neighbors and the rest of the Arab world. During his lifetime he witnessed much change in the region, including the rise of nationalism and the evolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as many bloody uprisings. He survived twelve assassination attempts and seven plots to overthrow him; in the end it was cancer that claimed his life. At the time of his death he was one of the most loved Arab monarchs of the twentieth century and one of the most respected leaders in the region.

"To my mind, the problem of the Arab world is to define itself clearly and positively through united actions in the Arab League in a manner that would be respected and adhered to on all issues. Over the need for Arab unity there is no difference of opinion."

Raised during a time of change

King Hussein descended from a prominent family of Bedouin (nomadic Arab tribesmen) leaders in the Gulf of Arabia, the area known today as Saudi Arabia. His family claimed a direct line to the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, which is the religion of the Muslims. He was born on November 14, 1935, in Amman, the capital of Transjordan (which was renamed Jordan in 1949). His family had royal status, but at the time that did not mean they lived a life of great privilege. Jordan was then a small country with no natural resources, and poverty was widespread. Hussein's parents, Princess Zein and Crown Prince Talal, did not have access to large reserves of money and their living standard was quite basic. Hussein wrote in his autobiography, Uneasy Lies the Head, that his little sister died of pneumonia as an infant because it was cold in Amman and his family did not have heat.

The country of Transjordan was created in 1921 in the aftermath of World War I (1914–18; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and their allies). Transjordan was carved out of what was previously known as "Greater Syria," a region administered by the Ottoman Empire. After 1921 it was administered under a mandate (a form of rule) by the British government. In 1946, just after the end of World War II (1939–45), the country was granted independence. (During World War II, Great Britain, France, the United States, Russia, and their allies defeated Germany and Japan.) King Abdullah (1882–1951; reigned 1921–1951), Hussein's grandfather, was put on the throne by the British government, which hoped that he would serve as an ally to stop the French from interfering in British interests in the region. The British gave King Abdullah a stipend (salary) to rule the country, though it was not enough money to give him much power. In 1949 Jordan took control of the Arab part of the former territory of Palestine (now known as the West Bank), and Abdullah officially renamed his country Jordan in 1950. In fact the full name of the country is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, with Hashemite referring to the branch of the royal family that traces its lineage to the Prophet Muhammad. The newly created state was never able to fully convince its Arab and Israeli neighbors that it was a viable entity, however, and suffered much interference in its affairs by other countries.

By the 1950s, because of King Abdullah's ties to the West (countries such as Britain, France, Canada, and the United States), many of Jordan's neighbors considered him to be a puppet of Western imperial powers, especially Britain. They accused him of being a spy for the British government or a tool of the Zionists, who believed that Jews should form an independent state in Palestine. Part of the suspicion was based on the fact that the head of the Jordanian army was a British commander called Glubb Pasha. Many of the king's subjects did not want to take orders from a British officer, causing friction in all military matters.

Became key player in the Arab-Israeli conflict

Jordan became a shelter for the Palestinian people after they were expelled from their land following the creation of the state of Israel. Even in the early 2000s, a large majority of the Jordanian population, about 60 percent, is made up of Palestinians. The influx of these uprooted Palestinians created much instability within Jordan and ultimately shaped the course of King Hussein's rein.

On July 20, 1951, when Hussein was sixteen, he came face to face with the realities of conflict in the Middle East. He accompanied his grandfather, King Abdullah, the reigning monarch at the time, on an official trip to Jerusalem to visit the al-Aqsa mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam. They had an early breakfast together, but when Hussein sat down at the table his grandfather noticed that young Hussein was wearing a suit and tie and not, as was customary, a military uniform. Abdullah demanded that Hussein change clothing.

As they approached the al-Aqsa mosque by foot, the gates of the mosque were opened. Instead of a welcoming religious figure, however, a Palestinian assassin opened fire and shot and killed Hussein's grandfather. He then turned and fired a single bullet at Hussein. The young boy survived only because the assassin's bullet bounced off the medal on the military uniform he had changed into. As Abdullah fell to the ground bleeding, Hussein remembered seeing his grandfather's aides fleeing. He recalled in his autobiography that he was struck by "the frailty of their political devotion," and claimed that "the cruelest of all teachers helped to transform me from a boy of sixteen into a man."

Hussein's father, King Talal (1909–1972; reigned 1951–1952), was living in a mental asylum in Switzerland because he had paranoid schizophrenia (a kind of mental illness). On the news of King Abdullah's death he was rushed to Amman to be crowned king. Meanwhile, Hussein flew westward to England, in the opposite direction, where he attended a prestigious private boarding school for boys in north London called Harrow. Hussein described his days at Harrow as lonely and sad, according to his autobiography. He found his fellow students immature, snobbish, and uninterested in Arab culture. Nevertheless, Hussein excelled at academic work and was very good at sports. Though it took some time for him to make close friends, eventually his fellow students accepted him. Just as he was settling into the school, however, the Jordanian Parliament declared his father unfit to rule, due to his mental illness. On August 11, 1952, Hussein was proclaimed the king of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. However, he had to wait until he was eighteen to be granted his full powers as king, which he received on May 2, 1953.

Difficult early years as king

Lacking experience in life and in governance, King Hussein faced many challenges in his early years ruling Jordan. During his first twelve months on the throne the young king took steps to bring greater freedoms to his country. He demanded that his prime minister allow all political parties to operate freely within the kingdom. He called for immediate free, fair, and open elections. He also fired Glubb Pasha, the British commander of the Jordanian armies, who had caused controversy for many Jordanians. Shortly after his first year, King Hussein was faced with the problem of the Palestinian refugees in Jordan who had lost their homes, their money, and most of their rights as they fled from their former homes in Israel. Many of these Palestinians were attracted to Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970; see entry) and his socialist ideas that promoted equality and called on people to stand up and fight regional monarchies such as that in Jordan. Trouble soon broke out on the streets of Jordan. This forced King Hussein to abandon his early liberal policies. He called out the army against protesters, and hundreds of people were arrested. There were large riots in Amman and in many other Arab capitals. Underground groups even attempted to remove Hussein from power in unsuccessful coups. Hussein finally had to declare martial law (a state where civil laws are suspended and the military enforces all rules).

In July 1958 King Hussein's cousin, King Faisal of Iraq, was murdered and replaced by a revolutionary Baathist nationalist group (see sidebar on page 146). Fearing a similar uprising in Jordan, Hussein called on the British army to help him. British troops flooded back into the country, securing Hussein's rule but costing him a great deal of the popularity he had won among his own people earlier in his reign.

Sides with Arabs

In the early 1960s the conflicts between Israel and its Arab neighbors continued. As Israel's closest neighbor, Jordan bore the brunt of the fighting and absorbed many of the resulting refugees, especially from the hotly contested West Bank area. In an attempt to make peace with President Nasser and calm the civil unrest in his own country, in the mid-1960s King Hussein flew to Cairo and signed a defense pact with the Egyptians. Then, in 1967, Hussein sided with the Egyptians and Syrians as they prepared to wage war against Israel, ignoring all Israeli pleas for Jordan to remain neutral.

These allied Arab armies gathered on Israel's borders in 1967, determined to carry out a full-scale war in the hope of regaining land for the Palestinians that was claimed by the Jews in 1948. Despite being outnumbered, Israeli troops triumphed, capturing the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria within just six days. All had been Palestinian territories. The outcome of this war, known as the Six-Day War, was a devastating and humiliating blow to the Arab armies. Thousands of Palestinian refugees spilled over the border into Jordan, increasing the country's population by about half. Faced with this crisis, King Hussein offered the refugees citizenship and passports.

Yasser Arafat (1929–2004; see entry), the leader of the Palestinian people who created a base in Amman after being expelled from Palestine, blamed the Arab regimes for failing to help his people. Arafat was vocal about his dislike of King Hussein, even though the king was the only Arab leader who welcomed the Palestinians and gave them citizenship. The king knew that taking the side of Egypt and Syria in the Six-Day War had been risky. But he had worried about the anger of the Palestinian people within his own borders if he did not fight against Israel. Now it seemed that even fighting against Israel would not gain him the support of the Palestinians within his borders.

By the end of 1970 King Hussein had had enough of internal fighting. He did not want to be drawn into another war with Israel, and above all he wanted stability within his own borders. He was finished with the civil unrest Yasser Arafat and his men were causing. He ordered his Bedouin soldiers to drive Arafat and his Palestinian fighters from the country. He showed little mercy and many died during this period, which became known as Black September. The Palestinian found it hard to forgive the king for his actions, and as a result Jordan became the first Arab target of Palestinian terrorist organizations. However, Hussein did succeed in bringing stability to his country by refusing to provide a home base for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the political body of the Palestinians.

Evicting the PLO from his country and refusing to join other Arab nations in more fighting against Israel finally brought stability to Jordan from the 1970s through the 1990s. Hussein ushered in many improvements in his country, changes that improved the living standards of the people. Unlike many of its neighbors, Jordan did not possess great oil reserves, but this did not hinder its progress. It made gains in improving its roads, schools, and health care system, and Jordan became known throughout the Middle East for its admirable human rights record and for its relatively open political institutions.

Enemies Within: Nasserism and Baathism

King Hussein of Jordan had shown astute political awareness from an early age. But in letting political parties operate freely during his early years as king, he drastically weakened his grip on the country. The two main dissenting political parties in Jordan, and across the Middle East, were two powerful political movements known as Nasserism and Baathism. Both of these parties had originated in different parts of the Middle East, and neither of them looked favorably on monarchies, especially ones given power by Great Britain.

Nasserism was a secular Pan-Arab nationalist movement, which means it was not religious and attempted to unite all Arabs based on their common cultural heritage. The highest aspiration of the Pan-Arabists was that all Arab countries would unite in a single nation. Nasserism arose in the 1950s under Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser had overthrown the king of Egypt, King Farouk (1921–1965; reigned 1936–1952), just a month before King Hussein took power in Jordan. Hussein found it difficult to hold onto his power when Arab nationalism was sweeping the region and so many looked to Egypt as a symbol of what Arab countries might become. Baathism was a similar nationalist movement originating in Syria and later in Iraq. It differed from Nasserism in that it was based on socialism, the belief that the government should control all economic production. However, both Nasserism and Baathism were opposed to cooperation with the West and to acknowledging the existence of Israel.

Though it took many years, Hussein finally succeeded at driving these political movements from his country. Rid of these internal challenges to his rule, Hussein was able to make peace with neighboring Israel and to maintain good relations with Western countries such as the United States.

Pursued peace in the Middle East

When it came to peace between the Israelis and their Arab neighbors, King Hussein was considered by many to be a visionary. His ideas about reconciliation between the Jews and the Palestinians came long before other Arab leaders were willing to consider a peace. He often held secret peace talks with Israeli leaders. Ironically, despite all of the protests from the Egyptian government and its aggression towards Israel, Egypt and Israel were the first to sign a peace treaty in 1979.

Although King Hussein had made some very difficult decisions during his long reign, perhaps one of the most difficult was the decision not to join the U.S.-led coalition to remove Iraq's Baathist president Saddam Hussein (1937–; see entry) from Kuwait, which Iraq's armies invaded in 1991. The move ostracized him from the West and closed the door to much of the financial support that the country desperately needed. Again, however, Hussein was able to rebound from this misstep and regained his stature as a respected figure in Middle Eastern politics.

There is no doubt that King Hussein's crowning achievement, and the one for which he will be most remembered, was the signing of a peace treaty between Jordan and Israel in 1994. Hussein stood on the White House lawn with Yitzhak Rabin (1922–1995; see entry), the prime minister of Israel, and signed a document that officially ended the state of war between the two countries. This was not a popular move in Jordan, where many Arabs still wished for the destruction of Israel, and the peace treaty with Israel did not bring the economic gains Hussein had hoped for. The economy did not flourish despite increased trade with Israel. In fact, the Jordanian economy entered a period of recession (economic hardship), and opposition political parties seized on these issues while turning against Hussein. The king's popularity went into sharp decline, and it took several years for many to see the value of Hussein's decision.

It was not until the late 1990s that King Hussein was finally accepted by most Jordanians, but by then the king's reign was nearing an end. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1998 and began intensive chemotherapy treatments in Jordan. He flew to the Mayo clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for improved care, but the chemotherapy failed. On Hussein's return to Amman he knew he did not have much longer to live. When the plane touched down at the airport, more than one-third of Jordan's total population came out to greet him in a spontaneous display of emotion, affection, and respect. Never before had such a reception been seen in the Middle East, and it was proof that his people recognized how hard Hussein had worked to keep Jordan stable during four tumultuous decades.

King Hussein died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma on February 7, 1999, at a military hospital on the outskirts of Amman. A lavish funeral was held shortly afterwards, as is the custom in Islam. It was attended by heads of state and dignitaries from around the world, including former U.S. president Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001) and former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Hussein was buried in a simple grave in the Royal Palace in Amman.

During his nearly forty years on the throne, Hussein married four times and had eleven children. His last and best-known wife was a wealthy American named Lisa Halaby (1951–), who became known around the world as Queen Noor. Hussein is remembered as one of the great Arab statesmen of the twentieth century.

For More Information


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

Dallas, Roland. King Hussein: A Life on the Edge. London: Profile Books, 1998.

Hussein, King. Uneasy Lies the Head: An Autobiography. London: Heinemann, 1962.

Lunt, James D. Hussein of Jordan: A Political Biography. London: Macmillan, 1989.

Snow, Peter. Hussein: A Biography. Washington, D.C.: R. B. Luce, 1972.

Web Sites

"King Hussein: A Man of Peace." PBS. (accessed on January 3, 2005).

A Living Tribute to the Legacy of King Hussein. (accessed on January 3, 2005).