Monarch who steered his kingdom
through the treacherous politics of the
HIS MAJESTY KING HUSSEIN OF JORDAN, who has
died aged 63, ruled his country for 46 years, surviving the
upheavals of the Middle East through a combination of
courage, political acumen, a sometimes shaky base of
domestic loyalty, and the strategic support of foreign
From his assumption of
the throne until his
death, there were many
moments when it would
preposterous to predict
such political longevity.
Yet through force of
character Hussein made
himself the sole
protagonist in the
post-war history of
Having ascended the throne as a teenager, he was as a
young king the target of numerous attempted coups and
assassinations. Later, two Arab-Israeli wars and a civil
war threatened the existence of his throne and the state
itself. He was under threat as much from political enemies
among his Arab neighbours as from a militarily superior
The result of King Hussein's determination to safeguard
his position is a country which enjoys a degree of
openness, stability and prosperity not widely achieved by
other Arab states. The King also secured the prize that had
eluded his predecessors: a peace treaty with Israel.
King Hussein was motivated by a strongly mystical, if
sentimental, belief in his own destiny as the only
remaining Hashemite king. His dynasty traced its ancestry
back to the Prophet Mohammed and beyond, and had ruled
Mecca for seven centuries until it was seized by Saudi
forces in 1925.
In 1916 King Hussein's great-grandfather, Sharif Hussein
of Mecca, led the Arab Uprising against Ottoman rule,
which began the Arab nationalist movement. The
European settlement that followed the First World War
dealt a blow to this, by carving up the region into separate
countries, with the British establishing dependent
Hashemite monarchies in Transjordan and Iraq.
But in King Hussein's mind the ideal of a universal
Hashemite monarchy persisted, taking the form of a benign
authoritarianism that drew legitimacy from Islam and the
traditional values of the desert Arab.
Hussein ibn Talal was born on November 14 1935, in his
parents' villa in Amman, in what was then the Emirate of
His family's circumstances were modest. Though heir to
the throne, his father, Talal ibn Abdallah, supported his
family of three sons and a daughter on an allowance of
£1,000 a year. Hussein received his primary education at
schools in Amman and then at 13 was sent to Victoria
College, Alexandria, an Egyptian boarding school on the
British model. He recalled repairing his school uniform
with a needle and thread to spare his parents the expense
of replacing it.
In 1946, Transjordan was granted independence from
Britain, partly in recognition of the contribution of the
country's British-led army, the Arab Legion, towards the
Allied war effort. Abdallah's title was changed from Emir
King Abdallah was disappointed by Talal (who suffered
from schizophrenia) and pinned his hopes instead on his
favourite grandson. He took charge of Hussein's education
and instructed him in statecraft.
One of the principles that Hussein learned from his
grandfather was that the state of Israel, which had come
into being in 1948, was determined to survive at all costs.
Rather than imagine - as did most Arab leaders - that
Israel would be wiped off the map in due course, King
Abdallah believed that Jordan had to come to terms with
it. The same principle guided Hussein throughout his
Abdallah had made a secret deal with the leaders of the
incipient state of Israel, by which Jordan would take
possession of the part of Palestine to be granted to the
Arabs under the partition scheme when British rule in
Palestine came to an end in 1948. The plan was realised
after the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, which followed
British withdrawal from Palestine. Jordan claimed the
West Bank of the River Jordan.
Although the combined armies of the Arab states
bordering Israel were defeated, Jordan now held both
banks of the river. Accordingly, the country changed its
name from Transjordan to Jordan. For the next 19 years,
Israel and Jordan co-existed in a state of armed détente.
Three years after annexing the West Bank, King Abdallah
was assassinated as he entered al-Aqsa mosque in
Jerusalem. He had aroused widespread opposition from
Arab nationalists for taking the West Bank in a manoeuvre
seen as being exclusively in the interests of Jordan.
Hussein was standing only a few feet away when his
grandfather was murdered, and saw the king's
bloodstained turban roll across the floor in front of him.
The 16-year-old only escaped death himself by what
seemed a miracle: a bullet aimed at him struck a medal on
his uniform. He was thrown backwards but otherwise
unhurt; his grandfather had given him the medal only the
Much of the public criticism of Abdallah had come from
Egypt. So Hussein continued his education in England, at
Harrow, where his cousin, the future King Faisal II of
Iraq, was also a pupil. In the meantime, Hussein's father,
Talal, had become king, although his mental condition had
But after Hussein, now Crown Prince, had been at Harrow
for a year, the Jordanian establishment resolved that he
should replace Talal. It was a decision in which Talal
quietly acquiesced. In August 1952, while Hussein was
staying with his mother at Lausanne, a page brought in a
telegram addressed to "His Majesty King Hussein". "I did
not need to open it to know that my days as a schoolboy
were over," he wrote. He returned home to a rapturous
Hussein was still only 17, so a three-man regency council
ruled until he reached 18. In the meantime, he returned to
England to take an accelerated military course at
Sandhurst, arranged by the Commander of the Arab
Legion, General John Bagot Glubb. Hussein was an
enthusiastic cadet, enduring with good humour the
discipline, drill, and the bellowing of drill-sergeants who
called him "Mr King Hussein, sir!"
At the time of his coronation, on May 2 1953, Hussein
was just 18 (by the Islamic calendar). His cousin Faisal
was crowned King of Iraq on the same day.
King Hussein quickly showed that he would be nobody's
puppet. He appointed as prime minister Fawzi al-Mulki,
who had been Jordan's ambassador to London during
Hussein's studies in England, and had befriended him.
But al-Mulki's liberal policies had a dangerously
destabilising effect. Since the war in 1948, Jordan's
population had been swollen by Palestinian refugees, who
now outnumbered the indigenous population of East Bank
Jordanians. Palestinian guerrillas were determined to
carry out raids into Israel, and these provoked heavy
Israeli retaliation on Jordan.
In one of these raids, led by a young Israeli officer named
Ariel Sharon, 66 people were killed in the village of
Qibya, which was reduced to rubble. Opposition
politicians in Jordan complained that the Arab Legion, led
by British officers, was unwilling to fight the Israelis.
Demagogic speeches by the new Egyptian leader Jamal
Abd al-Nasser called for pan-Arab independence from
Western powers. Realising that al-Mulki's government
was losing its grip, the King, now 19, dismissed him and
appointed in his place Tawfik Abul Huda, a staunch
Hussein supported Abul Huda's risky strategy of seeking
to consolidate the King's power by holding elections to a
new parliament in October 1954. With the country's
political parties in disarray, Abul Huda's nominees won a
majority of seats. The result was achieved through clumsy
vote-rigging, provoking street protests. Hussein salvaged
the situation temporarily by asking the prime minister to
rule at the head of a coalition.
For the next 12 years, the fiery Nasser posed the greatest
threat to Hussein's rule. Time and again, the King tried to
accommodate the powerful popular appeal of Nasser's
rhetoric, but without success.
In 1955, Britain put pressure on Hussein to join the
Baghdad Pact, a defence coalition formed by Turkey and
Hashemite Iraq, designed to counter Soviet influence in
the Middle East and the might of Egypt. But Hussein
hesitated to do this.
Nasser's influence in Jordan was so strong that the
proposal to join the Baghdad Pact caused the worst riots
since the beginning of Hussein's reign. The Arab Legion
was sent into the streets and a curfew was imposed to
restore order. The crisis lasted for the whole of 1955;
three prime ministers came and went. The King was
compelled to announce new elections that December, but
MPs who feared losing their seats questioned the legality
of parliament's dissolution. There was still more rioting.
Hussein appointed yet another prime minister, who
promised that Jordan would not join the Baghdad Pact.
The country pulled back from the brink, only for a new
threat to present itself. In January 1956, Saudi forces
massed at the border, threatening Jordan's Red Sea port at
Aqaba. They only withdrew after the British envoy to
Saudi Arabia warned that Britain would defend Jordan if
it was attacked.
It became clear to Hussein that the prevailing nationalist
trend in the Arab world made his own country's obvious
dependence on Britain a liability. British subsidies to
Jordan - several million pounds a year - were paid
directly to the Arab Legion, which had been led for three
decades by General Glubb. It was said that Glubb Pasha,
as he was known, ruled the Arab Legion, and that the Arab
Legion ruled Jordan.
In March 1956, Hussein abruptly dismissed Glubb and the
Arab Legion's senior British officers. At first he gave
Glubb two hours to leave the country, later relenting and
allowing him until the next morning. Hussein then
abrogated the Anglo-Jordanian treaty and sought
replacement funds from the United States and richer Arab
Glubb retired to England. When he died in 1986, King
Hussein delivered a tribute to him at his memorial service
In 1955 Hussein made the first of his four marriages: he
wed a distant Hashemite cousin, Dina Abd al-Hamid
al-Awn, who was seven years his senior. Queen Dina was
an urbane Egyptian intellectual, with a degree in English
from Girton College, Cambridge; King Hussein preferred
fast cars. When, after only 18 months of marriage, Dina
travelled to Cairo to visit a cousin, Hussein wrote from
Amman to tell her that the marriage was over. They had
one daughter, Alia, whom Hussein kept with him in
Amman. Dina was not permitted to see her until she was
In early 1957, Nasser was once again stirring up trouble
for King Hussein: an ambitious royal adviser, Ali Abu
Nuwar, attempted a military coup d'état, with financial
backing from Egypt.
Hussein survived the coup because of his sheer physical
courage. Intelligence reached him that army units were
surrounding the capital. When a Bedouin unit in the town
of Zerqa defied orders from subversive officers, a battle
began between loyalist and pro-Nasser units. Abu Nuwar
was in the King's office when word of the confrontation
reached him. Hussein cunningly ordered Abu Nuwar to
accompany him in a drive to Zerqa, where the royal
presence restored order. He was mobbed by loyal
soldiers, while Abu Nuwar sat cowering in the car beside
Without Abu Nuwar's leadership, the coup evaporated.
When Abu Nuwar pleaded for his life, the King
magnanimously allowed him to leave the country. Within a
few years he was permitted to return - and was appointed
ambassador to France. This was not the last time Hussein
disarmed his domestic political adversaries by co-opting
After Abu Nuwar's coup attempt, Hussein dropped all
pretence of parliamentary government and consolidated
power in his hands. Hundreds of people were arrested,
newspapers were closed, and political parties banned.
The last restriction was never fully lifted. Thereafter,
Jordanian governments were answerable only to the King.
The army was put in charge of keeping public order and
its intelligence arm was strengthened. These domestic
controls remained in place, until controlled experiments in
limited parliamentary democracy resumed in the Eighties.
But even with such arrangements, Hussein was still at
risk. In July 1958, the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq was
overthrown in a bloody military coup. The royal family,
including Hussein's friend and cousin King Faisal, were
massacred. The revolt threatened to spread to Jordan.
Uncertain of his army's loyalty, Hussein turned in
desperation to Britain and America. Three days after the
Iraqi coup, Britain sent two battalions of paratroops to
By October 1958, it seemed safe to withdraw the
paratroops, though a few weeks later Hussein had yet
another narrow escape. He decided to take a holiday in
Switzerland, and chose to fly his own aeroplane,
accompanied as co-pilot by his flying teacher, Wing
Commander Jock Dalgliesh, formerly head of the
Jordanian air force.
While flying over Syria, their aircraft was intercepted by
two Syrian Mig-17 fighters, and ordered to land at
Damascus. Hussein disregarded the order, and
outmanoeuvred the Syrian jets, which had tried to force
Over the next 18 months, Hussein survived two
assassination attempts and a further attempted military
coup. His prime minister was killed by a bomb in his
office. One assassination attempt against Hussein was
foiled because the cook who was to have been carried it
out unwisely tested his potion on cats in the palace
grounds. Another plot involved putting powerful acid into
the king's bottle of nose drops.
In 1961, King Hussein was married for the second time, to
Antoinette ("Toni") Gardiner, a 19-year-old English girl
from a military family. Unlike Dina, Toni Gardiner was
sporty and informal. "It was the Amman Go-Kart Club that
really brought us together," Hussein wrote later.
His new queen became a Muslim, and took the name
Muna. They had two sons - the eldest of whom, Abdullah,
was named heir to the throne this year - and twin girls.
However, their marriage ended in 1972, when Hussein
divorced her to marry Alia Toukan, a vivacious
She bore a son and a daughter, and was an active and
popular queen until she was killed in a helicopter crash in
As Nasser, belligerent and over-confident, led his Arab
allies (Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia) towards the
disastrous Six Day War with Israel in 1967, Hussein took
the extraordinary step of agreeing to place Jordanian
forces under Egyptian command. His aim was to bring
Jordan back into the Arab mainstream by making a gesture
of solidarity, even though he knew that the Arabs had no
hope of winning the conflict with Israel.
When war broke out, the decision cost Jor dan the West
Bank and East Jerusalem, seized by a victorious Israel.
The Arab war effort had been a military fiasco, not least
because Nasser's blustery promise of air cover never
"I saw all the years I had spent since 1953 trying to build
up the country - all the pride, all the hopes - destroyed,"
said Hussein. "I have never received a more crushing
blow." He lived with the consequences for years to come.
Despite numerous secret meetings with a series of Israeli
prime ministers, the King failed to secure a peace
agreement with Israel whereby the West Bank and the
Arab sector of Jerusalem would be returned to Jordan.
The Six Day War brought a new influx of about 200,000
Palestinian refugees into the East Bank. By now the
Palestinians had a credible political leadership in the
newly-formed Palestine Liberation Organisation, led after
1967 by Yasser Arafat. A relationship of enduring mutual
distrust between Hussein and Arafat began at this time.
Not only were Palestinian guerrillas making raids into
Israel from Jordan, bringing severe Israeli reprisals, but
under PLO leadership the Palestinian refugee population
was becoming a state within a state, threatening Jordan's
delicate political equilibrium.
PLO officials disregarded Jordanian laws; armed
commandos swaggered through the streets; and Palestinian
factions were calling for the overthrow of the Jordanian
monarchy as a first step in the liberation of Palestine.
When the King went to investigate an outbreak of fighting,
his Jeep was caught in intense machine-gun fire. His
bodyguards threw him into a ditch, but as they then ran
back to the Jeep, Hussein realised he had left his beret
behind. He calmly walked back to recover it, and then
advised his terrified driver that the stalled vehicle would
move more quickly if he engaged the gears.
By this time the royalist core of the Jordanian army, the
Bedouin units, were growing impatient and were spoiling
for a fight with the Palestinians. After some hesitation, the
King formed a military government and on September 16
1970 began the attack on the PLO bases that became
infamous among Palestinians as Black September.
The civil war lasted 10 days, and 3,400 people were
killed. Hussein once again consolidated power around
himself, and the PLO in Jordan ceased to exist.
For many years thereafter, Hussein and the PLO contended
for the political representation of the Palestinians living
under Israeli occupation. The PLO sought an independent
Palestinian state, while Hussein continued to assert
Jordan's claim to the West Bank.
This state of affairs persisted until Hussein renounced his
claim to the West Bank after the outbreak of the intifada,
the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza.
Stable relations with Israel remained a Jordanian priority
throughout the Seventies. Jordan's participation in the
Arab-Israeli war of 1973 was minimal, though Hussein
made a secret visit to Golda Meir to warn her that an
attack was imminent. But in 1977, the rise to power in
Israel of the Likud Party, led by Menachem Begin,
dramatically reduced Hussein's chances of achieving a
settlement with Israel.
When Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, the President of
Egypt, signed the Camp David Agreement in 1978 -
Israel's first peace treaty with an Arab state - King
Hussein was furious to have been excluded.
As a Western-oriented monarch without the security of oil
wealth, and with a large Palestinian population whose
views had always to be taken seriously, Hussein was in a
weak position whenever an Arab leader called for
defiance of the West. Having for years been troubled by
the influence of Nasser, Hussein had then to weather the
Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
There was a side of Hussein that admired these populist
Arab strongmen, though it was an attraction which always
proved disastrous for Jordan. The King's reluctance to
condemn Saddam Hussein's seizure of Kuwait in 1990
brought heavy retribution from the Arab states of the Gulf,
which ended their subsidies to Jordan. Furthermore,
Kuwait expelled its large Palestinian population, many of
whom came to Jordan, adding to the strains on its
The United States then submitted a political invoice.
Seizing the moment, the American Secretary of State,
James Baker, demanded that Hussein send a joint
Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to a peace conference
with Israel. It was a debt that Hussein was more than
willing to pay, and it began the elaborate process that led
to the Israel-PLO peace agreement of September 1993.
This was followed the next year by the first formal treaty
between Israel and Jordan.
King Hussein signed the treaty with Yitzhak Rabin. Early
on in his clandestine contacts with Israel, Hussein had
marked Rabin down as a man with whom he might do
business. After Rabin's assassination in 1995, Hussein
delivered a eulogy at his funeral.
Hussein ibn Talal lived unpretentiously for a king. He was
happiest when with his family in their small but
comfortable compound in Aqaba, where he could
water-ski and take meals when he chose.
He charmed all who met him with his courtesy, and had a
disarming habit of addressing men as "Sir", regardless of
their rank. He was never a man to spend more time than he
had to behind a desk, and the daily routine around him
followed an informal pattern.
He rose late in the morning, and continued work until late
into the night, often keeping visitors awake long past their
usual bedtimes by screening films at midnight.
He married, in 1978, as his fourth wife, Lisa Halabi.
Queen Noor, as she became, was the daughter of the
Arab-American president of Pan American Airways. She
quickly assumed a high profile in Jordanian affairs and
worked hard to gain the affection of her husband's people.
They had two sons and two daughters.
King Hussein's successor is Crown Prince Abdullah, who
was born in 1962.