It is not that King Hussein, who is still only 62, is dying. Despite the loss of his hair the chemotherapy appears to have cured the lymphoma from which he suffered. But his illness has focused the attention of Jordanians - 90 per cent of whom were born since he became king - on the future of their country after his reign.
In theory this was settled a long time ago. Crown Prince Hassan, the king's younger brother, has been his designated successor since 1965. He ruled the country as regent while the king was being treated in the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. But in a speech on Jordanian television broadcast from London at the weekend King Hussein made no reference to his future role.
"Either he has to say now that the Crown Prince is his successor or not," said one Jordanian analyst yesterday, adding: "I don't see how he can let Hassan become king. He isn't popular with the people or the army and whoever rules Jordan must have good relations with the army. His speeches are too intellectual. He speaks as if he was the UN Secretary-General."
This is harsh on Crown Prince Hassan. A burly, hard-working, intelligent administrator, he has inevitably stood in the king's shadow, and is often accused of lacking the common touch.
He is conscious of the difficulties of his own position. "Prince Charles once said we should form an association of crown princes. Or perhaps clown princes' association would be more appropriate."
Even during his six months as regent the Crown Prince's power was far from absolute. The king never wholly relaxed his grip. He sent open letters from his hospital bed, one criticising Jordanian inefficiency as two jumbo jets almost crashed over Amman airport when all the flight controllers went to pray at the same time. As he recovered he frequently saw President Clinton and helped to orchestrate the Wye Agreement between Israel and the Palestinians in October.
Ostensibly, the only question in dispute revolves around the succession to the throne after Crown Prince Hassan. Should it be his son Rashid or one of King Hussein's sons such as Hamza,19, by his present wife Queen Noor?
The Jordanian constitution was altered in 1965 to allow Crown Prince Hassan to become heir to the throne, because his eldest son, Abdullah, was only three and the king was in constant danger of assassination.
But in practice any decision on Crown Prince Hassan's successor could be reversed by him once he became king. Therefore the present dynastic dispute revolves directly around who will succeed King Hussein.
If Crown Prince Hassan is passed over then the most likely heir to the throne is Hamza. His half-brother Abdullah, whose mother was English, is commander of the royal guard, but primarily a military commander with limited interest in politics. Though popular with the army he speaks poor Arabic, while Hamza is fluent.
The danger from King Hussein's point of view is that Jordan cannot afford a weak ruler. It is squeezed between Israel to the west and Iraq to the east, and its relations with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have been cool since Jordan took a neutral stance in the Gulf War. It has few natural resources and no oil, leaving it heavily dependent on foreign aid.
King Hussein knows his dynasty cannot afford to make too many mistakes. "The King has in mind major changes relating to the succession," a palace official was quoted as saying yesterday but would not elaborate.Reuse content