King Hussein of Jordan is said to have survived at least seven military coups and 12 assassination attempts. In his 1962 autobiography, Uneasy Lies the Head, he wrote: “sometimes I feel like the central character in a detective novel.” He weathered the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War and the Persian Gulf War. Not bad for a British-installed monarch who ruled throughout Nasser’s Arab nationalist sentiment and who shares a border with Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Israel.
Survival, then, is one of Hussein’s key legacies and something he practiced from a young age. In 1951 the young Prince accompanied his grandfather, King Abdullah I, for Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem when a Palestinian gunman shot, and killed, the monarch of Jordan. According to the story, a medal on Hussein’s uniform saved him from the same fate when a bullet ricocheted off it. Hussein’s father abdicated 13 months later and Hussein was appointed King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan on 11 August 1952, aged 16.
Accounts say that the Palestinian who fired at Abdullah was adamantly opposed to the King making peace with Israel and for acting in the interests of Jordan, not Palestine. Hussein’s grandfather hoped to take control of the Arab part of Palestine, in exchange for smoothing the creation of Israel. The consequence of these aspirations – the tragic incident at the mosque – was one of many altercations King Hussein would have with the Palestinians during his 46-year reign. As Avi Shlaim puts it in his autobiography, The Lion of Jordan: “no problem that Hussein had to confront during his reign was more taxing or more persistent than the problem of Palestine.”
One of the darkest points in the Jordanian-Palestinian relationship is known as Black September. After the Six-Day War, when Hussein lost the West Bank and East Jerusalem to Israel, Jordan became the centre of a struggle to reclaim Palestine and was used as a platform from which to launch wars against Israel, thus undermining the King’s rule. In September 1970, King Hussein ordered the forcible expulsion of the PLO, during which around 4,000 Palestinian civilians and 950 fighters were killed.
In the period following this, both Hussein and the PLO strived to represent Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, with the former trying to establish an independent Arab state and the latter trying to affirm Jordan’s authority in the West Bank. But the PLO was recognised as the sole representative of the Palestinians by the Palestinians themselves, and the entire Arab world remained hostile towards Hussein for the next decade.
Antagonism from the Arab world was nothing new for the King, particularly given his historic relationship with the West. The Jordanian Royal family was, after all, installed by the British to rule over a country they fashioned out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Hashemite ties to Britain go all the way back to the creation of Jordan and beyond.
Hussein’s great grandfather and King of Hijaz, Hussein bin Ali, led the uprising against Ottoman rule on the side of the British. At the time, the Hashemite family were seen to be the guardians of the holy cities Makkah and Medina and had ruled over the Hijaz region for seven centuries. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, Hussein bin Ali’s son Faisal was given Iraq and Abdullah was given Transjordan, which became Jordan. The Hashemite family has traced their ancestry back to the Prophet Mohammed.
In keeping with family tradition, British values – and contacts – were instilled in Hussein from a young age. He attended the prestigious public school Harrow in England, and went on to study at Sandhurst. Prince William and Prince Harry both trained at the military academy and so did a number of other royals from the Middle East, in particular the Gulf, where Britain was also a key colonial power. Sandhurst’s alumni list features the King of Bahrain, the former Emir of Kuwait, the Sultan of Oman, the Emir of Qatar and a number of Princes from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
In March 1956, Nasser’s Arab nationalism was in the air and Hussein’s relationship with Britain was causing problems. Britain was paying several million pounds worth of subsidies to Jordan each year. Hussein replaced senior British officers in the army with Jordanians, dismissed Sir John Bagot Glubb, the British General in charge of the Arab legion and rescinded the Anglo-Jordanian treaty. But with so few natural resources, and no oil, Jordan has always needed to be bank-rolled by someone richer and more powerful, and so turned to the US. The King had little talent when it came to building a Jordanian economy that didn’t rely on international hand outs.
In some ways, Hussein’s private life mirrored his political allegiances. Hussein’s first wife, Dina, had a degree from Cambridge; his second was the daughter of a British colonel, Antoinette Gardiner, who converted and changed her name to Muna. Their eldest son, Abdullah, is the current King of Jordan. Hussein’s fourth, and final wife, was Arab-American. During his time as monarch Hussein had four wives (though not at the same time), and 12 children.
In 1994, Jordan became the second Arab state, after Egypt, to sign a peace treaty with Israel. The pact considered land and water disputes, co-operation on tourism, trade, transport links, water resources, and environmental protection and pledged that neither country would be used as a platform for military strikes against the other. For the palace, it was the crowning moment of the King’s reign; across the river in Hebron, Palestinians burnt pictures of the King in protest.
In some aspects, the King has been credited with looking out for Palestinian rights. Many Palestinians have sought refuge in Jordan, particularly after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and the Six-Day war, and Jordan is historically considered the most welcoming of refugees compared to other Arab countries. Most have full citizenship.
Accounts of King Hussein describe him as courteous, unpretentious and tolerant. He lived a fast life and liked to parachute, race cars across the desert and chain-smoke cigarettes. Avi Shlaim recognises that he gave Jordan “political weight” in regional and global affairs “a long way beyond its small population, limited economy and proud but modest army.” Hussein considered himself a man of peace, the accord he signed with Israel his finest trophy. But some believe this was his finest failure, and continue to oppose it to this day. At many protests hosted in downtown Amman, demonstrators have gathered to burn the Israeli flag and demand an end to Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel.