Obituary: Queen Zein of Jordan (CORRECTED)

CORRECTION (PUBLISHED 29 APRIL 1994) INCORPORATED INTO THIS ARTICLE

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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering