Obituary: Queen Zein of Jordan (CORRECTED)


Zein bint Jamil, queen consort: born 2 August 1915; married 1934 Emir Talal ibn Hussein (succeeded 1951 as King of Jordan, abdicated 1952, died 1972; three sons, one daughter, and one son and one daughter deceased); died Lausanne, Switzerland 26 April 1994.

KING HUSSEIN of Jordan's mother, Queen Zein bint Jamil, was one of the strongest pillars of the Jordanian monarchy and a highly intelligent woman who really was, as one admiring ambassador wrote to Selwyn Lloyd, 'the Metternich of the Arab world'. The broad public will remember her elegance and sophistication and her charitable works and support for women's rights. But those in high places will more readily recall her subtle political instinct and courage and the crises in which her decisive backstage intervention shaped the course of Jordanian and, indeed, Middle Eastern history.

As a Hashemite princess by birth, she belonged to the family that, on the basis of its alleged descent from Hashim, great-grandfather of the Prophet Muhammad, ruled the Hijaz as Grand Sharifs of Mecca from the 12th century until 1926, when the region was invaded and incorporated into the nascent Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Born and brought up in Egypt, she moved to what was then Transjordan in 1934 when she married her cousin, Emir Talal. Her father- in-law, Abdullah, who was then the ruling Emir, was a man of dignity and charm but far from easy to cope with at close quarters; and it was often Zein's misfortune to have to mediate between father and son. There were constant financial difficulties deriving from the extremely limited subsidies provided by the British government, which had established the emirate in the aftermath of the First World War and on which the ruling family was then almost entirely dependent. Old-timers recall that Queen Zein's first home in Amman was a modest affair - far smaller than many other residences in Amman and at quite the opposite extreme from the splendid palace in which she passed her later years. There were also political disagreements dividing father and son. But more serious was the harmful psychological impact on the highly sensitive Talal of his harsh military training and of his father's unconcealed conviction that he lacked the attributes of a worthy successor.

Endowed with a keen sense of history and an unwavering commitment to Jordan and the Hashemite dynasty, Zein stood firmly behind her husband, in order to ensure not only his birthright but also her own role as a queen.

At the start of the Second World War Talal's heavy drinking and German sympathies led to temporary house arrest and a secret edict excluding him from the succession. Though the edict was rescinded in 1947 when he was appointed Crown Prince, his position remained under challenge from his ebullient younger brother, Naif. The situation soon became yet more tangled. As Talal began to experience uncontrollable rages interspersed with moments of clarity and remorse, it became clear that he was mentally ill; and, in a manner closely resembling the situation of the English sovereign George III, this 'madness of the king' was soon exploited in the varying interests of Jordan's neighbouring states of Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

For Zein, the problem was never more critical than in the spring of 1951. Having just delivered a baby daughter, Basmah, she had been visited in the hospital by her husband, who was in a calm and relaxed state. That night however she awoke to find him back at her bedside holding a dagger. According to Sir Alec Kirkbride, the British Resident in Amman, it was an Italian nun who snatched the dagger from his hand. Recalling the event, a patient in a neighbouring ward, the Apostolic Delegate in Jerusalem, later remarked: 'We priests see some funny things but I would never have believed that I would be awakened in the middle of the night by a nun running into my bedroom waving a bare knife.'

By now it was obvious that Talal would not make a satisfactory king. Yet Zein remained determined that he should succeed. For, if he did not, the throne would pass to her brother-in-law, Naif - a development that would almost certainly prevent the accession of the greatest treasure in her life, her son Hussein, who, though only a boy, was already demonstrating his leadership qualities. Thus it was that, after Abdullah's assassination in July 1951, Talal was released from a Swiss clinic, sent back to Jordan and declared sane.

After a period of intense deliberation and intrigue in which the throne lay vacant, Talal was proclaimed king on 5 September. Within five days Hussein had been designated Crown Prince. Naif, in despair, retreated to Beirut. As for Zein, she quietly rejoiced, for she was now a queen with the possibility of wielding immense power on behalf of her ailing consort. Moreover, should he crack under the strain, as proved the case, she knew that this would only accelerate the rise of her son Hussein, who, by virtue of his youth, would also have to rely on her.

In the event this was what happened. Even after her husband's brief reign and abdication the following August, Queen Zein continued to dominate the government as the mother of a king who had to wait a year before he could assume the royal prerogative. Further, even after King Hussein attained his majority and returned to Jordan, she remained a dominant figure. Just as the head of the Arab Legion, Glubb Pasha, had to be dismissed in order to prove the young monarch's independence, so too Zein was also occasionally defied, particularly over Hussein's passion for stunt flying. Yet her intelligence and experience remained indispensable and ensured a continuing influence over the king's policies and decisions.

In general her interventions acted as a brake on King Hussein's recklessness and love of adventure and as a force favouring caution. Thus it was her influence that led to the formation in 1956 of a Royal Bodyguard under the command of her brother, Sharif Nasir, who was made to swear on oath his willingness to sacrifice his life, if necessary, to protect the king. Likewise it was her warnings that alerted Hussein to the dangers which Communism and President Nasser of Egypt's propaganda machine represented to Jordan and the throne. As a greater royalist than her son, it was she who hoped to counter leftist forces by establishing a monarchist federation. Though she would never admit it herself, her royalist views may also have encouraged King Hussein's decison to wed Sharifa Dina Abdul Hamid, who as a beautiful and intelligent Hashemite princess was a younger version of Zein herself. If so, this marriage, which quickly broke down in 1957, must be counted as one of Queen Zein's rare failures.

A moment of special outrage to Queen Zein came in 1958 when, in reaction to the union of Syria and Egypt, negotiations were initiated that led to the formation of the Arab Union of Iraq and Jordan. According to one respected ambassador, Sir Charles Johnston, 'King Hussein would not have hesitated to give up his throne if that would facilitate the cause of Arab unity.' This notion filled his mother and her brother Sharif Nasir with horror; and it was not long before Queen Zein was reported, in April 1958, to be threatening 'to remove Hussein from the throne and to put his brother, the Emir Mohammed, in his place'.

Inevitably, as King Hussein gained maturity and experience, so Queen Zein's involvement in state affairs declined. Her weakening health and in particular a tendency to diabetes and high blood pressure also reduced her ability to play an active role; thus she was content to spend her final years enjoying her seniority in the ranks of the royal family and presiding over, like Queen Victoria, over increasing numbers of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

(Photograph omitted)

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