Illness leads Jordanian king down path of pragmatism; Son designated heir not Hussein's 1st choice


AMMAN, Jordan -- In the end, the future of Jordan's monarchy turned not on a father's love for a favored son, but a king's recognition of his own mortality.

The succession saga that has preoccupied this desert kingdom climaxed with a surprising announcement made by King Hussein upon his return from a six-month stay in an American hospital for treatment of lymphatic cancer.

The ailing Hussein removed his brother as heir and appointed his first son to succeed him on the throne. In most royal dramas that would seem logical enough. But Crown Prince Abdullah was not the king's first choice. The 37-year-old army major general was the expedient choice; Prince Hamzah, 18, the king's favorite son, was the preferred choice.

The king has returned to the United States for the latest round in the battle for his life. His decision to change his successor drew international attention to the Middle East's longest-reigning monarch and his desire to see the throne of a 19th-century dynasty returned to his direct line.

The royal family feud pitted the popular, revered Hussein against his scholarly, technocrat brother Hassan, who had served as crown prince for 33 years. It featured the king's elegant American-born queen, the shrill Pakistani wife of Hassan and their princely sons. Hanging in the balance was a crown and the stability of a country considered a hedge against contentious neighbors in a volatile region of the world.

"It's a kind of tragedy, a kind of King Lear tragedy," said an associate of the king who spent eight years in the palace. "If I was a playwright, I would write it that way."

In the end, family intrigue gave way to the personal struggle of a man many Jordanians call Father.

With his health deteriorating rapidly, the gaunt and hairless king realized he had neither the time nor the stamina to carry out his intended wish. Since his return to Jordan on Jan. 19, he had been to the hospital several times.

To name Hamzah, the son from his marriage to the American-born Queen Noor, as crown prince would have required changing Jordan's constitutional requirement that the throne pass from father to oldest son. Time was running out. He had to decide.

On his last night in Jordan, the king retired to a room in his palace and hand-wrote the lengthy letter that would explain his decision.

In a one-paragraph decree, Hussein replaced his brother as crown prince with Abdullah, his eldest by his British-born second wife. The letter was rambling and emotional. It was read aloud by a Jordanian television broadcaster shortly before 1 a.m. last Tuesday.

A few hours later, the king, a fur hat covering his bald head and a cane in his hand, boarded a plane bound for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He completed chemotherapy yesterday and will undergo a second bone marrow transplant Tuesday or Wednesday to overcome a relapse of his non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Hussein, 63, was in stable condition, Gen. Dr. Samir Farraj said in a statement released by the clinic.

Details about the king's decision, a royal decree that will have a lasting impact on the future of Jordan and the region as a whole, are only now emerging.

"His illness was the main reason," said Ahmad Obeidat, a former prime minister and a member of a prominent Jordanian clan in the north who visited the king during his six-month hospital stay.

"He wanted to make sure his son was [in place]. The king was willing to put Hamzah [in power, but] the deterioration of his personal situation escalated. Nobody even thought about Abdullah. Constitutionally it was easy to give it to Abdullah. Plus Abdullah is more knowledgeable than Hamzah and he's more experienced."

Interviews with other associates of the king, as well as former government and palace officials, provide a better understanding of the succession change and the forces at play in the Hashemite family, which traces its lineage to the Prophet Mohammed.

During Hussein's stay at the Mayo Clinic, the king's brother Hassan was in charge. The king learned of several actions taken by his brother and his wife, Princess Sarvath, including her redecoration of palace offices. Another was a controversy over an opulent villa built by Hussein for the army chief of staff. Hassan proposed converting the house to a military headquarters to address public complaints about corruption.

The incidents seemed insignificant to some political observers, but the king saw them as an attempt to grab power while he was ill. Individually, none of the incidents warranted removing Hassan as crown prince, said a former palace official.

But Hussein saw the matter differently. Here was a man facing his own mortality who wants to be king "until the last moment of his life," said the official.

"It's a clash of sentimentality and rationality," said the former royal court official. "There's a lot of psychology about this and very little politics."

Fearing that the king who raised him from boyhood would soon die, Hassan sought to position himself and the country for an easy transition, said the official, who also is close to the former crown prince.

"I don't think what he did was wrong or right," added Obeidat, the Jordanian lawmaker who recently met with Hassan. "But his timing wasn't right."

Hussein has been debating the question of succession for some time. In 1965, when his sons were toddlers, Hussein sought a constitutional amendment to name his brother as crown prince. With enemies at home and abroad gunning for the king, Hussein wanted an adult in position to assume power in case of an emergency.

Now married four times, the king has five sons. As they grew, he considered returning the mantle of crown prince to one of them.

But his brother had served him well. Hussein sought a compromise -- he wanted assurances that if Hassan ascended to the throne that his brother would name one of the king's sons as his heir. But Hassan wouldn't commit.

In the official English translation of the letter that accompanied the king's royal decree, he rebuked "the climbers" surrounding his brother. He blamed them for a campaign of slander and falsehoods against his American-born wife and children.

The Arabic version of the letter attacks those same people as "parasites." The king defended Noor -- the youngest and longest-lasting of his wives -- who had been accused of lobbying him to chose their son Hamzah as his heir.

Before Hussein returned to Jordan from the Mayo Clinic, "there was a clear message that Prince Hassan was out," said a former Jordanian diplomat who has known the king for decades. "The depth of the feelings created did not allow Prince Hassan to stay. It became clear that he just came [to Jordan] to remove Prince Hassan."

But as soon as the king returned, it became just as clear that his desire to name Hamzah to the Hashemite throne would be difficult. Although Hamzah is the age his father was when he ascended to the throne, Jordan is a vastly different country than it was then -- basically a a kingdom created and controlled by Britain.

The kingdom whose first citizens belonged to Bedouin tribes and family clans now numbers about 4.4 million, the majority of whom are Palestinians. But its economy is depressed, many of its people are out of work, and democratic reforms are slow in coming.

There was speculation the king might name Hamzah crown prince and appoint his brother regent so he could run the country until the teen came of age. But the king's health wouldn't permit him to mount the campaign to change the constitution.

And in a society where men are respectfully referred to as the fathers of their oldest son, how could the king, known as Abu Abdullah, pass over his own?

Within a week, the king issued his decree, and the brother who spent his lifetime training to be king was ousted. In his place today stands Abdullah, an affable career soldier whom the king was grooming to be head of the military.

In the succession letter, the king barely mentions Abdullah. But he praises Hamzah, who he says "has been envied since childhood because he was close to me."

The king thanked Hamzah for his attentiveness during his illness and ordered him back to school. Hamzah attends Britain's Sandhurst military academy, the alma mater of the king and crown prince.

Since the king flew back to the Mayo Clinic, the new crown prince has received thousands of visitors, from Bedouin chiefs to Persian Gulf princes, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and his ousted uncle, Hassan. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Friday; Jordan's peace treaty with the Jewish state, signed by Hussein, remains a contentious subject in Jordan.

Obeidat says that when he visited the deposed crown prince, he beseeched him to to look toward the future for the benefit of the country. The scholarly prince, who oversaw economic reforms in the country, said he was a "soldier" and would remain here. What role he will play is unclear.

"It's not easy for a man after 33 years in a post to be out of it completely," added Obeidat.

Abdullah, who is chief of Jordan's elite Special Forces, is aligned with the country's military, an important factor in maintaining Jordan's security. But the prince is untested in the broader issues that he will face as Jordan's king. But he apparently understands the nuances of family diplomacy. In a letter to his father, Abdullah referred to the rift in the family over succession.

"I am but one member of this family and they are my family and the source of my pride," Abdullah wrote. "I will act in a manner that will ensure the continued primacy of the spirit of affection, altruism and selflessness in this family."

Married to a Palestinian and the father of two children, Abdullah has accompanied his father in his travels and represented him at functions. When people refer to Hussein as "Abu Abdullah," the crown prince feels proud.

"It is not easy to walk in the footsteps of such a great character," Abdullah said in an Oct. 19 interview with Al Wasat magazine. "If I am able to accomplish a small portion of what father did, I will die happy."

Pub Date: 1/31/99

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