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King Hussein of Jordan and the troubled Middle East

Posted in Historical articles, Politics, Religion, Royalty, War on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

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This edited article about King Hussein of Jordan originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1047 published on 3 April 1982.

King Hussein, picture, image, illustration

King Hussein is no stranger to the front line in troubled Middle Eastern conflicts, by Angus McBride

The shadow of the assassin has often stalked King Hussein, ruler of the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. Yet threats to his life and the dangers of war have never changed the quiet philosophy of this quite fearless man.

“I am a Jordanian Arab. I do not know fear. My destiny is the destiny of my country,” he once told his people in a broadcast. And of death itself, he has said: “When it comes, it comes, if it does come.”

The monarch, who has walked a tight-rope between the intrigue of Arab neighbours and the hostility of the Israeli nation, will enter the pages of Jordanian history as one of the greatest leaders of its turbulent land.

He was indeed only 16 when he saw his grandfather, King Abdullah, murdered by a gunman on the steps of a Jerusalem mosque on 20th July, 1952. Seven years later his cousin, King Faisal of Iraq, was assassinated.

As a pilot, King Hussein was once himself ambushed in the Middle Eastern skies by a group of Syrian fighters. He dived, weaving and jinking through border valleys with the pursuing planes trying to get on to his tail. He escaped without a scratch.

His own capital of Amman has survived Israeli shells and bombs and civil war caused by Palestinian rebels crusading for a homeland of their own.

Hussein has met with noble equanimity all the attempts on his life and the political challenges that only the uncertain Middle East can create, as befits a royal Bedouin who is descended from the Prophet Mohammed through the powerful Qoraish tribe.

He is a quiet, charming man whose honesty and warmth have won him many friends in the Western world. Yet his early life was marked by tragedy.

When he was born, on 14th November, 1935, his father, Crown Prince Talal, lived in a small house in Amman, barred by King Abdullah from entering public life. The crown prince and his wife, Zain, had both planned an English public school education for their son, but the old king refused to approve the idea. So the young Hussein was packed off to school in Alexandria.

After the death of King Abdullah, the crown prince became the new monarch and immediately sent his son to Harrow School. The boy was there for a year and then went to Sandhurst for military training. But by this time his father had become ill and was quietly deposed. His son was proclaimed king in August, 1952.

The first years of his reign were marked with political trouble. A British proposal that Jordan should join a defence pact led by Iraq sparked off riots in Amman. King Hussein subsequently dismissed the British commander of the Arab Legion, Lt.-Gen. Sir John Glubb, and switched his allegiance to Egypt and Syria in a joint military command. He also backed the Egyptian nationalisation of the British-administered Suez Canal in 1956.

But in 1958 King Faisal of Iraq was murdered. King Hussein suspected that he also was in danger, and claimed that a similar coup was being plotted against him, and he appealed to Britain for help. British forces were sent to Jordan and the threat of overthrowing King Hussein faded.

Yet as military and political alliances emerged and cracked in the aftermath, the Jordanian leader rose above it all. King Hussein negotiated considerable improvements in his relations with the dynamic leader of Egypt, President Nasser. But these relations soon deteriorated again – as has happened with many a political pact in the uneasy state of Arab affairs.

And all the while, Israel, hedged by hostile Arab borders, waited her time. She had, during the 1956 Suez debacle, in which British and French forces occupied the canal area for a time, delivered heavy blows against Egypt.

The Middle East exploded into full-scale war on 5th June, 1967, when without warning Israeli bombers and fighters destroyed the air forces of Jordan, Egypt and Syria in a few hours. It took her six days to neutralise their armies, occupy all Sinai to the banks of the Suez Canal, the west bank of the River Jordan which had been Jordanian sovereign territory, and the Syrian hills overlooking Lake Galilee – the Golan Heights. Some 300,000 refugees fled from the occupied territories.

Despite this defeat, King Hussein lost none of his popularity: he was cheered when he walked openly in the streets of Amman after the fighting had stopped. But out of the maelstrom came the Palestinian guerrillas with their raids into Israel, which were answered with counter-attacks into Jordan.

King Hussein was trying in the capitals of the West to promote a peace plan for the Middle East and the activities of the guerrillas, led by Yasser Arafat, were no help to him. There was repeated strife in Jordan as King Hussein tried to restrict the power of the Palestinian fighters: in the summer of 1970, there was a brief, bloody civil war.

The king himself was ambushed as he was driving through the city. He escaped yet again, but the rebels rose and battled openly with the Jordanian army in the streets of Amman. Shells and mortars exploded all over the city. Yet within a month the outbreak was over and a peace treaty of sorts was signed by the king and the guerrillas. It did not prevent them, however, from again trying unsuccessfully to ambush his car as he drove to Amman airport in September.

The fighting spluttered on, finally ending in another agreement between the king and Arafat, which they formally signed in Cairo – just before President Nasser died, an event that threw the Middle East into greater uncertainty.

During the past decade, despite the assassination of his prime minister, Mr Wasfi Tell, and a vain attempt to kill his London ambassador in 1971, King Hussein has produced plan after plan to bring peace to the Middle East with the creation of a homeland for displaced Palestinians. He has repeatedly condemned the terrorist actions of the guerrillas such as the massacre of Israelis at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972.

In his private life he has raced cars, flown jet planes and operated a radio station as a “ham” from his villa just outside Amman. He has been married and divorced. His second wife was Princess Muna, formerly Miss Toni Avril Gardiner of Ipswich, daughter of a British officer. They had two sons and twin daughters. After the king divorced her in 1972, she decided to remain in Jordan.

Today, Jordan remains quiet as Israel concentrates its forces against threats from Lebanon and Syria. And although Israel now has friendlier relations with Egypt, the simmering cauldron of Middle Eastern politics could easily boil over and threaten the Hashemite king again.

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