The passing of King Hussein: The prince-in-waiting with shaky Arabic

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"I DOUBT if Crown Prince Abdullah will ever have the agility as king to dance between the political raindrops as well as his father, but it will be a smooth transition," said one Jordanian observer. "He is the regent and he has the support of the army commanders and the security services."

Former crown prince Hassan, 51, displaced after 34 years as heir to the throne less than two weeks ago, is staying in the country for the moment. If the dying king's brother had remained heir there would be little change in Jordan's balancing act between Iraq, Israel and the US. With Abdullah, 37, on the throne the changes may go deeper. He is close to Abdul-Karim al-Kabariti, the strongly anti-Iraqi former prime mini- ster, and to Samih Battikhi, the powerful head of the Jordanian intelligence service.

It may be that Prince Hassan's fall from favour with King Hussein had as much to do with his premature attempt to make serious changes in the army and the security forces as it did with any palace intrigue. Mr Battikhi, a former career army officer, appointed head of intel- ligence in 1996, paid at least two trips to Hussein in Minnesota to report on how Crown Prince Hassan was ruling during the king's illness.

The future king's own background is military. A parachutist who once belonged to a British armoured regiment, he has commanded the Jordanian special forces brigade since 1990.

His knowledge of Arabic is uncertain. The son of Hussein's British second wife, Toni Gardiner, he was educated partly at Sandhurst and in the US. Confidants say his British upbringing helps him share his father's liberal outlook. His political ideas remain unclear, though he is known to back Jordan's 1994 peace treaty with Israel.

His shaky Arabic will not count against him in his relations with the Palestinians, who make up more than half Jordan's population. His wife Princess Rania, 27, is Palestinian. They have a son, Prince Hussein, four, and a two-year-old daughter, Princess Iman.

Former crown prince Hassan was seen as hostile to Palestinian interests. This is important economically as well as politically, because much private business in Jordan is in Palestinian hands.

The US is also pleased. Prince Hassan had made anti-American statements during the Gulf War crisis. The Washington Post said: "The influential CIA station in Amman has made its unease with Hassan quasi-public in recent years to the Jordanian power elite." It noted that the anti-Hassan camp in the Jordanian royal family has hired a former CIA Middle East section chief as a "public relations consultant". The US will put more pressure on Prince Abdullah to fall into line in supporting opposition to Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader. But the last time Jordan and the CIA supported a plot against the Iraqi regime in 1996 it was bloodily crushed, with humiliating ease.

Abdul-Karim al-Kabariti, then prime minister, believes it was penetrated by Iraqi intelligence from the start. Even a government more amenable to American influence will be chary of going down the same road again.