Jordan's heir is courted by all

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The Independent Online
FROM ACROSS the Middle East, there has come an intriguing - not to say astonishing - chorus of approval for Crown Prince Abdullah of Jordan. In the pages of Babel - produced by the one editor you would never contradict, Saddam Hussein's son Oudai, readers have been told Abdullah's appointment is "one of the King's most intelligent political decisions since the start of the Sixties".

In the Gulf, the United States Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, talked of King Hussein's "magnificent job" in arranging for his succession.

In Jerusalem, a former Israeli defence ministry official, Alon Pinkas, said Abdullah was an "excellent student" in America. Mr Pinkas should know; he taught Jordan's future king at Georgetown university.

But when Saddam Hussein, Madeleine Albright and the Israelis all sing the same tune, something has to be wrong. If the Israelis were prepared to send a killer squad to Amman to assassinate a Palestinian leader after the peace treaty with Jordan, why should they be any more prepared to respect the integrity of Abdullah's kingdom?

Indeed, one of the first meetings that the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, held to discuss Abdullah's succession included Ephraim Halevy, head of the Mossad intelligence service. Israeli officials were quoted as saying they would be behind the Crown Prince "in the short term".

And if Saddam Hussein was prepared to send his killer squads to knock off the Iraqi opposition in Amman, why should his son suddenly wish to improve relations with the Hashemite dynasty that gave political asylum to President Saddam's son-in-laws? Could it be that the Iraqis have suddenly remembered King Hussein's former friendship with Saddam? Or are they anxious to ensure Abdullah does not allow the United States to use Amman as a base to overthrow Saddam's regime?

Closer study of Mrs Albright's tribute shows she hoped the transition to Abdullah was "one that does not cause problems". What sort of problems, one wonders, was she expecting? Resistance to his leadership from Palestinian Jordanians? Or resistance by Crown Prince Abdullah to pressure from Washington? It is one thing to be a "friend" of America - another to be obedient to the wishes of an American president. What if Abdullah shows as much independence of spirit as his father did in 1991, when he refused to support the West's military campaign against Iraq?

There is, in fact, a disturbing irony in the fact that while British aircraft fly the skies of Iraq's "no-fly" zones, a half-British prince is preparing to rule Iraq's closest Arab neighbour. The colonial history of Jordan can only be re-emphasised by Abdullah's succession. It is not just his English accent - after all, the British put his grandfather on the throne, propped up his father with military leaders (until King Hussein grew tired of them) and can now claim a half-share in the next king's blood-line. It's as well for the Palestinians of Jordan - perhaps 65 per cent of the country - that Abdullah's wife, Rania al-Yassine, is Palestinian.

Most Arabs, it should be said, have accepted the new crown prince's appointment, not with enthusiasm but with the kind of weariness born of knowing that they will never have a say in the appointment of their leaders (and only occasionally in their overthrow). "America decided it should be Abdullah," one of Lebanon's more cynical politicians said yesterday. "Without Washington's approval, he would never have been appointed."

Of course it is true that American fighter-bombers are based - albeit with less publicity than in the Gulf - on at least one big Jordanian airstrip.

It is also true that before King Hussein's original journey to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota last year, the Americans were trying to persuade him to allow the principal Iraqi opposition groups to use Amman as their headquarters for the future overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

At the time, there was much talk in Jordan of a move eastwards by the Jordanian army into the Iraqi desert, where the Jordanians (sponsored by the Americans) would set up a "sanctuary" to which Saddam's dissident legions would supposedly flock before setting out on a crusade to destroy the Iraqi tyrant.

Crown Prince Abdullah knows all about dissent - and how to suppress it. His special forces units were used to quell riots in several Jordanian towns last year. Is he then the man the Americans might now choose to open up a corridor into Iraq?

No wonder Babel lavished praise on Abdullah's appointment. This is not the time for Saddam Hussein's son to offend the son of King Hussein.

And no wonder Mr Netanyahu - while claiming to pray for the "miracle" of King Hussein's return to health - described his country's peace with Jordan as "one of the cornerstones of Israel's national security". He knew when King Hussein's anger would break - Netanyahu was lucky to get his would-be assassins back from Jordan without a show-trial in Amman - but cannot guess when Abdullah's patience might become exhausted.