profile; Intrigue at the palace; The Jordanian Royal Family

Robert Fisk on why the history of the Hashemite dynasty has always been a turbulent one
Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHEN KING Hussein began his initial six months of cancer treatment at the Mayo Clinic last year, his younger brother Hassan should have cast his mind back to the day, 43 years earlier, when another trusted servant of the monarchy believed he was secure in his job. Hussein was only 21 but had already argued brusquely with Lieutenant General Sir John Bagot Glubb, commander of his Arab Legion and principal military adviser to his majesty. Glubb had disagreed with Hussein over military strategy - the young king wanted to retaliate against the Israelis for raids on his border - and Glubb also presented Hussein with a list of Arab Legion officers whom he claimed were "subversives" and should be dismissed.

Persuaded by his own confidants that Glubb Pasha should be dismissed, and convinced that the British were trying to control Jordan's armed forces, the king fired the 59-year old British general. Glubb Pasha was taken to the airport next morning in Hussein's own car.

Ignoring this historical precedent, Crown Prince Hassan used his regency last year to boost his own image, to project his rule in the Jordanian press and to demand the firing of Hussein's chief of staff. To the sick king in Minnesota, his brother Hassan was trying to take over the army - just as Glubb was trying to do in 1956.

But Hassan could not be packed off to Amman airport. Instead, the king came home, disgraced his brother and picked another Sandhurst graduate as regent - a man, ironically, of whom Glubb Pasha would have approved, Hussein's eldest son, Abdullah. In retrospect, however, it is fair to ask why we were surprised by the suddenness of last week's upheaval in Amman. The Hashemites have always lived on the edge, provoking disaster and recovery with a drama and nerve that astonishes other Arab leaders. They have a tendency to move rapidly between rage and contemplation, political folly and eternal friendship that might be a characteristic of the Gulf Arabs rather than the Levant. But Hussein's family does, indeed, come from the Gulf, from the province of Hejaz, and it was his great- grandfather (also Hussein) whom the Ottomans named as emir, sheriff of the holy Muslim city of Mecca.

An austere religious group faithful to the al-Saud family - the "Islamic fundamentalists" of their time - were to drive the Hashemites from what was to become Saudi Arabia, and Winston Churchill was to appoint King Hussein's grandfather Abdullah as emir of Transjordan. Abdullah had wanted to be King of Palestine (for which the British had other plans). Abdullah's brother, Feisel, would become King of Iraq - a consolation prize for losing the monarchy of Syria (for which the French had other plans). King Abdullah tried to make peace with the Zionists who were planning their new state on Palestinian land - and after the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948, the monarch's life was forfeit.

He had annexed the West Bank of the Jordan river; almost all the rest of Palestine had become Israel. The 18-year old Hussein personally witnessed his assassination in Jerusalem, a killing organised by Palestinians, but involving one of the Arab Legion's most trusted officers - the very man who had signed the ceasefire agreement for Jordan in 1948. The Hashemites were thus a family of loss, a dynasty used to suspicion as well as resolution. They lost the Hejaz, lost the west of Palestine. In Baghdad 10 years later, King Feisel the Second (grandson of old Abdullah's brother, who had been appointed by the British) was assassinated in a Baathist coup which, 20 years on, would bring Saddam Hussein to power.

In 1967, King Hussein - in the greatest disaster of his career - chose to join Egypt and Syria in their war against Israel, and was driven out of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In less than half a century, therefore, the Hashemites had lost the Hejaz, Iraq and all of Palestine.

Inevitably, the story of the Hashemites has become the story of the Plucky Little King, who now lies dying in the Mayo Clinic. His English schooling naturally endeared him to the British who admire courage in adversity. When he married Antoinette Avril Gardiner, daughter of a Royal Engineers lieutenant colonel, in 1961, it felt as though Jordan had become a British protectorate once again. "Toni", who became Princess Muna, gave birth to two sons, Abdullah - now the crown prince - and Feisel. She was the second of four wives for a king whose marriages could be as dramatic and turbulent as his nation's politics.

He had divorced his first, older wife Dina within 18 months (the Jordanian ambassador to Egypt delivered the king's goodbye letter to the queen when she was visiting a sick relative in Cairo). The marriage to Toni foundered when his roving eye settled upon the beautiful Alia Toucan, an employee of Royal Jordanian Airlines, whose love for the king may have given him lasting peace of mind - they married in 1972 - had she not been killed in a helicopter crash five years later.

In 1978, he married Lisa Halabi, who became Queen Noor, an equally beautiful but forceful woman who physically towered over the king and who developed a strong, and well-founded, distrust of his introverted, over-intellectualising brother Hassan (if he had become king, it was said in Amman, she would have left Jordan).

Having lost the West Bank, the king had to face the consequences: Palestinian contempt, and what amounted to an attempted coup d'etat by Palestinian guerrillas. With a ruthlessness that has still not been fully acknowledged, Hussein's Bedouin troops slaughtered their way through the Palestinian camps of Jordan and crushed guerrilla power. Having learned from his rash decision to go to war in 1967, he sat out the 1973 Middle East conflict in near-silence, maintaining semi-secret contacts with Israeli leaders, just as his grandfather had done. What he had, he would hold. The Plucky Little King would be a friend of the West. When a Washington newspaper claimed that the king had received millions from the CIA, the stories were suppressed in Amman.

If the middle brother Prince Mohamed seemed a little unstable in his early years - there was talk of mental illness - he has settled into the role of loyal servant, a bookish chess-player who has often represented the king. Hassan, the youngest brother, married a Pakistani wife, and devoted himself to Jordan's development before ambition took control of his loyalty. A friend of the king once dangerously compared him to Cecil Rhodes. Until he heard the news of his brother's attempt to control the army, Hussein never doubted that Hassan would succeed him.

Long regarded as a pliable "friend" of the west, King Hussein astonished his American allies by embracing Saddam Hussein - quite literally - after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Did he really believe Saddam would "liberate" Jerusalem? Or that Jordan could survive without the Gulf Arabs? He grew a beard; in Amman, he was called "Sheriff of Mecca". The Saudis were enraged. He appeared to be looking towards lost lands. He knew the Palestinians would support Iraq. He became the most popular monarch in the Arab world at the very moment he became the most unpopular monarch in the west.

In 1991, the Americans were ready to roll up the Hashemite carpet. US newspapers were predicting the end of his rule. But then - stunned by Yasser Arafat's secret "peace" deal with Israel and himself now politically and economically weakened (an essential ingredient for any nation wishing to make peace with the Israelis), the king made his own peace with Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres. And overnight, the treacherous ally of the beastly Saddam became again the Plucky Little King.

His appointment of Crown Prince Abdullah as regent may safeguard the Hashemite inheritance. But the pressures will grow greater in the coming months and years. The Americans would like Abdullah to host the anti- Saddam Iraqi opposition in Amman, and encourage him to make a military foray into western Iraq to create a "safe haven" for Saddam's Iraqi enemies.

And the Jordanians, as usual, have been given no role in the succession. The Hashemites may claim their ancestry back to the Prophet Muhamed - as they do - but they are Tudors rather than democrats, an oligarchy rather than a modern monarchy, however liberal and decent they are as individuals. Abdullah is a tank commander, a proven general of Hussein's Praetorian Guard. In Amman, they tell you not to be fooled by the soft smile, that Abdullah is a tough guy. He needs to be if he is going to inherit the PLK's mantle.

Comments