Profile: Chasing the family dream: King Hussein of Jordan, blue-blooded peace broker

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The Independent Online
THEY really did look like the best of friends. When King Hussein of Jordan and the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, made their first public appearances in Washington, the barely suppressed joy, the sense of relief that finally after all the years of clandestine contact they could meet in the open, was there for all to see. It was like coming out of the closet.

Neither President Bill Clinton nor Mr Rabin are tall men, but they towered above Hussein - a small king of a small country, who for four decades has found himself often squeezed between mighty forces. For all the historic aspirations of the Hashemite dynasty, Jordan is hardly a major Arab country like Egypt, Syria or Iraq. It is a classic buffer state, a small, poor country wedged between larger or more powerful neighbours: Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq. King Hussein's foreign policy, and the key to the survival of his kingdom and throne, has been to seek a suitable protector: first Britain, then the United States. There have been times when he had little to rely on but guile and charm.

His is an old-fashioned courtesy, addressing reporters at press conferences as though they still were gentlemen and ladies of the press, calling them Sir or Madam with natural grace. Perhaps it is a hangover from the his schooling at Harrow and Sandhurst, which gave him, too, the taste to imitate aspects of the British monarchy. So Jordan has its Royal Cultural Centre, its Royal Geographical Centre and its Queen Alia hospital and Queen Noor foundation - all institutions to give the impression of solidity to a kingdom carved out of the desert in the early years of this century.

In less than a fortnight, he is due to celebrate his 42nd anniversary on the throne. He has ruled as well as reigned. He was thrust on to the world scene while still a schoolboy, when his grandfather, Abdullah, was assassinated in front of him after Friday prayers at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque. The succession passed to Hussein's father, Talal, a schizophrenic, who was rapidly brought out of his Swiss sanatorium. Talal, however, was unfit to rule. He was forced to abdicate and on 11 August 1952 Hussein bin Talal was proclaimed King of the Hashemite Kingdom.

It was a turbulent time in Arab politics. The previous month, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser had carried out a coup d'etat that unleashed popular forces of Arab nationalism throughout the region against the old colonial powers and feudal sheikdoms. Jordan itself had been flooded with refugees from the new state of Israel, which had been declared four years previously. King Abdullah had annexed the West Bank of the Jordan - that part of the former mandate of Palestine which the 1947 United Nations partition plan had laid down as the future Palestinian state - to his kingdom on the east bank.

The young king quickly asserted himself. In the early years he put down several revolts with a combination of courage and charisma, showing mercy to the conspirators in a manner almost without equal in the Arab world.

He has survived countless assassination attempts, once taking the controls of his own plane after his pilot was killed. He survived, too, the loss of half his kingdom, including Jerusalem, when during the brief but decisive 1967 Arab-Israeli war he was foolishly seduced by Nasser into attacking Israel.

Every speech, every address that King Hussein makes, is imbued with the historical sense of a bloodline that combines Arab nobility with impeccable Islamic credentials. The king's great grandfather was Hussein bin Ali, grand sharif of Mecca, the holiest site in Islam. He it was who fired the first shot in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks during the First World War, immortalised by Omar Sharif in the epic Lawrence of Arabia. He could trace his ancestry from the Prophet's daughter, Fatima. Her husband, Ali, was the fourth caliph, combining political and religious rulership, and head of the house of Hashem. This conferred on his descendants the title Sharif, the honorific indicating descent from the prophet Mohamed. Being 37th in line from the prophet made Sharif Hussein guardian of the Holy Places of the Hejaz in western Arabia - a position since usurped by the upstart House of Al-Saud.

The old Hashemite aspirations to overlordship over a single Arab nation belong to another era. King Hussein's modified concept of Arabism reserves for himself a more circumscribed role as champion of Arab unity through the mediation of inter-Arab disputes. He supports the preservation of existing states in boundaries often drawn by colonial cartographers, until such time as they can by common consent achieve some closer union. Not only does he believe in settling disputes within the Arab family; he feels that is his raison d'etre.

But he will probably best be remembered for his most unfortunate search for an Arab solution to the crisis provoked by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990, which brought down on him the opprobrium of his friends in the West and among the Gulf Arab states. He was called 'King Rat' by one of the British tabloids, and 'that oily little runt' by Alan Clark.

King Hussein is still paying for that miscalculation today. The Saudis will not speak to him, nor give him the subsidies he once so desperately relied on. When earlier this year he went on pilgrimage to Mecca, he was not received by King Fahd, in what was seen by all but the most loyal Jordanians as a deliberate and continuing snub.

Hussein's has been a reign of internal as well as external challenge, the Palestinian question being for him literally a matter of life and death. In September 1970 he faced the greatest internal challenge of all: a bloody civil war. He despatched his army, made up mainly of loyal Bedu troops, to suppress once and for all the independent armed presence which the Palestinians had established in the refugee camps in direct challenge to his authority.

Black September was the darkest moment in the history of Jordanian- Palestinian relations, and up to 20,000 people were said to have been killed. It is both a cause and a symptom of the mutual mistrust between indigenous Jordanians and Palestinians, who make up over half the population.

For his part, King Hussein sees himself as father to all his subjects, whatever their origin: Bedu tribesmen, townsmen, Syrians, Circassians, Armenians, Palestinians or, of course, from the Hijaz, like himself. It was a measure of the popular esteem in which his people held him that when two years ago he returned from a successful operation in the United States for cancer, over a million of his subjects, almost the entire population of the capital, spilt on to the streets in an unprecedented emotional outpouring of joy and relief at his safe homecoming.

Hussein has made Jordan, with his experiment in democratisation and granting considerable freedom of expression, a far less repressive place to live in than most of the police states in the Arab world.

For the Jordanian monarch, the Washington reception this week was more than a rehabilitation after so many knocks to his pride, so much humiliating treatment handed out by Western and Arab leaders over the years, which a less resilient man could not have borne.

The Washington meeting and the joint declaration were the fulfilment of a dream - a dream initiated by his remarkable grandfather, Abdullah, 70 years before: to seek an accommodation between the Hashemites and the Zionists. There are those who say that it is his recent brush with mortality that has impelled King Hussein to make peace at this time. More likely, the arrival of Mr Rabin in office in Israel in 1992 created propitious circumstances for Jordan to formalise the understandings that have been for so long covert across the Jordan valley.

For the king, the Washington ceremonials were a vindication. For years he had been expressing, in his low, barely modulated voice and hang-dog mien, his view that this was the last last chance for peace. Time marched on, no peace was reached, and a just and comprehensive settlement seemed further away.

Now the historic compromise has been formalised. Many in the Middle East, however, fear that King Hussein has allowed himself to be seduced by vanity into accepting stewardship of the holy places in Jerusalem against the wishes of the Palestinians. A paragraph in the joint declaration reads: 'Israel respects the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem. When negotiations on the permanent status will take place, Israel will give high priority to the Jordanian historic role in these shrines.'

Strictly speaking, Jordan has for the past half century administered the shrines, and King Hussein insists that sovereignty is held by the Almighty. Palestinians, however, doubt his motives. And till his last day there will be those who will try to dispatch him, as they did his grandfather, with a bullet from a pistol held to the ear.