Hussein is on his throne, and it's all right with the US: Reviled by Washington during the Gulf war, Jordan is its ally once more, writes Robert Fisk in Amman

WHEN the CIA director Robert Gates met King Hussein this month, he emerged from the royal palace with honeyed words about the relationship between Jordan and the United States.

Forgotten were the days when the Plucky Little King appeared to have thrown in his lot with the Butcher of Baghdad, when the existence of his kingdom was privately questioned by President Bush. Today, in the upper- class Amman suburb of Abdoun, there stands evidence of Jordan's role in the new world order: a new US embassy complex on the edge of the desert, its concave interior shielded by Pentagon-style walls, its heli-pad protected by concrete terraces.

'What could this be for?' a local resident asked rhetorically this week, staring across the sand from her garden shrubbery to the moonlit embassy complex. 'It must be the new CIA centre in the Middle East.' And why not? The next American embassy east of here lies beyond the Khyber Pass. Is there a more convenient listening post just now?

And is there anywhere in the Arab world where an American is now safer than in Amman? Forget those US press reports which claimed the King received millions of dollars from the CIA. Jordan has most to gain and to lose (save for the Palestinians) from a Middle East peace. The road to the Allenby Bridge - and thence to Jerusalem - is being refurbished, with American funds. Jordan is once again 'a friend of the West'.

Even Saddam Hussein is said to have muttered his unhappiness with the King's new role - King Hussein denies all knowledge of such comments - and the Americans are pleased at the stringent controls Jordan has supposedly placed on its border with Iraq to prevent breaches in UN sanctions. Iraq is believed to be shipping 60,000 barrels of oil into Jordan every day - part payment for huge debts to Amman upon which Iraq defaulted in 1988 after the Iran-Iraq war. Fertilisers are said to be transhipped nightly by road from Iraq through Jordan to Syria and Lebanon, and then to Europe.

The US and its friends seem to ignore such reports. Despite its dollars 17bn (pounds 8.8bn) foreign debt, Jordan's recession is ending, and foreign aid agreements are announced daily. Amman this week arranged for dollars 25m commodity loans from Germany and will pay back dollars 750m in military debts to Russia in cash, pharmaceuticals, soap and cosmetics. Last month Coca-Cola - notionally banned because of its trade with Israel - went on sale in Amman for the first time. Only those twins of Baathist displeasure, Syria and Iraq, still forbid its sale.

But the real reason for the West's new confidence lies, paradoxically, in the immense popularity which King Hussein gained during what many Arabs now call the Second Gulf War. The more gullible US diplomats speculated that Jordan would collapse under the pressure of anti-Iraqi sanctions and the tide of Palestinian refugees who arrived in the spring of 1991 after their expulsion from Kuwait. In private those diplomats suggested the demise of Jordan would be poetic justice after King Hussein's refusal to support the West's campaign against President Saddam, and his soft condemnation of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

Yet the King's defiance of the West probably did more to ensure the security of his throne than any other single act of his reign. 'I know how you people felt at the time,' one of his circle said this week. 'We heard what you people thought on CNN. But His Majesty spoke for every Jordanian and every Palestinian when he refused to turn against Iraq. He taught us to have confidence in ourselves. He showed that it was possible to stand up against the West without being destroyed. In a way, I think we matured as a nation at that time. It was the first test of Jordan since the loss of Jerusalem in 1967. We proved we could come through it.'

This ultra-loyalism reflects an important truth: that whereas before the invasion of Kuwait, Jordan was beset with economic troubles and riots that sometimes bordered on civil insurrection, it is today one of the more stable Middle East regimes. So pivotal a figure has the King become that he last week praised the Jordanian parliament for endorsing a draft law on political parties, legislation which might have given greater power to the Muslim Brotherhood. But although the Brotherhood remains powerful, it has been politically divided and knows that the King remains the focus of public opinion.

This could change, especially if the US faced a breakdown in the Middle East talks and if King Hussein were to accept a separate Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty. No one knows how indebted the King is to the US - or why Mr Gates felt so pleased with the performance of the Arab leader who showed more sympathy than any other towards Saddam Hussein. The King noisily promotes democracy - of a kind - and talks about human rights. announced this week that after Yitzhak Rabin's election he had 'great hopes' for a Middle East peace. What more could Washington ask?

(Photograph omitted)

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