Soldier prince inherits troubled throne

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The Independent Online
THROUGH THE fog, you could hear the voices from half a mile away. "With our blood, with our soul, we sacrifice ourselves for you."

And as the mist swept around me - such wind, such very thick fog - I could see tiny squares above the thousands of shrouded figures outside the hospital. Their posters portrayed the dead king who lay only a few hundred metres from us; fighter pilot Hussein, Bedouin warrior Hussein, Field Marshal Hussein. But not a single photograph of the king and his son together. The new King Abdullah - how strange that name sounds - was not in the thoughts of the screaming men or of the old woman who prostrated herself in the torrent of freezing water streaming down the roadway.

Of course, he was part of the protocol. He wore his father's red keffiyeh headdress to the assembly building to be sworn in by its obedient parliamentarians, saluting for the last time before his father's portrait. And the kings and presidents are preparing to fly into Amman for a state funeral that will be replete with the kind of rhetoric King Hussein loathed. And we shall all watch his son.

King Abdullah. It has a strange resonance; of another king almost half a century ago at the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, Abdullah's great- grandfather, with a bullet in his head and his turban rolling away from him, while a teenage boy - now the bald corpse inside the hospital behind us - collapses in horror. Jerusalem still lay only 60 miles away through the suffocating, frozen fog, as lost to the Jordanians today as it was when King Hussein's army retreated almost three decades ago.

So now this odd, fragile, brave, often infuriating little land has another British military graduate to run its affairs. Sandhurst, Oxford, Georgetown, tank commander and general with his very own Praetorian Guard. His special forces - one of those supposedly "crack" units which breed all over the Middle East - have put down a riot or two over the past few years, and you couldn't help wondering how Abdullah would have dealt with the crowds outside the King Hussein Medical Centre yesterday.

They pushed at the police lines, they sobbed into their hands , they collapsed fainting on to the mud outside the gates. I thought one of the policemen was just mouthing something he'd heard on the television when he told me that King Hussein had been a father to him. And then I realised that behind his thin-framed spectacles he was crying.

You only had to watch these people - and the uncontrollable nature of their grief - to understand how heavy will be the burden for King Abdullah. To a Westerner, to a tourist, Jordan is a friendly little sandpit of Roman ruins, rock palaces, camels and an old railway blown up by another English officer, Colonel Lawrence.

But these are also a wounded people, 65 per cent of whom can count their Palestinian dispossession in their family tree. Abdullah has inherited from his father a Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty which many of his people - and a good few in the fog outside the hospital, I dare say - would like to tear to pieces.

Already the new king is receiving the dangerous praises of Jordan's friends - from Iraq, from Syria, from Israel, from President Clinton. How they love the new young king, how they honour him and wish him well. "The life and soul of any party," a friend of the family put it to me last week, "Abdullah's a great man for jokes." True, Abdullah will need a sense of humour. But he will also have to learn to be hated and despised. Like King Hussein.

His dead father, after all, was repudiated for his disastrous participation in the 1967 war and for his support for Saddam Hussein after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. How we hated him then. Then the King made peace with Israel and incurred the wrath of many of his own people. How we loved him then.

What did Abdullah think when he heard those easy television cliches about his brave but often misunderstood (and oft-betrayed) father yesterday, words - these are authentic quotations - that in some cases came from the very reporters who cheerfully predicted his demise in 1991? "Unassailable moral authority", "a visionary for peace", "a man of great charisma" with an "unquestioned" legacy, a man who "always wanted to give his people the rights that they deserved".

What was that legacy again? Unquestioned? And what political rights did his people receive, save for a vote for a rubber-stamp parliament and the knowledge that the secret police would not call at three in the morning. Yet if any of the Jordanian "men-in-the-street" talking to the news networks about King Abdullah here yesterday had strayed from the permitted path - just like his father, a soldier-king, a chip off the old block in fact - then they would have been taken off to His Majesty's constabulary for a thumping.

Just before the King's death, Abdullah had invited Washington and New York journalists to meet him for an off-the-record chat about the future, an amiable occasion, since American journalists tend to write and talk like State Department spokesmen. Faith in the "peace process", trust in the West, anxious for good relations with all his neighbours, sympathy for the Iraqi people but no love for Saddam; it was predictable stuff.

But the real world is not that simple. Jordanians don't hate Saddam and many of them have regained their old hostility and distrust of an Israel that goes on building West Bank Jewish settlements on land which many Jordanians own.

I didn't like that fog outside the hospital yesterday evening, and I walked back through the sleet to find a car that would take me to Amman. It was a Palestinian in a rusty Peugeot who stopped for me. A Jordanian radio news broadcast was blasting from his transistor. "They say Abdullah is just like his father," Nidal shouted above the radio. "They say the country is unified, that everything will go on as before." Then he gave his right hand a little twist, the way Arabs do when they want to indicate an open question. "Maybe," he said.