Amid much bloodshed, he tried to make peace; King's 46-year reign saw Israel accord stability at home


AMMAN, Jordan -- King Hussein of Jordan, the eloquent, British-educated monarch whose 46-year reign delivered this desert kingdom from years of war to a fragile peace, died yesterday in this city where mourners from every walk of life joined his family in waiting for the end.

He was 63. The king's eldest son, 37-year-old Abdullah, was sworn in as king. Prince Hamzah, the 18-year-old son of Hussein's fourth and last wife, American-born Queen Noor, was named crown prince. Setting out the line of succession was one of King Hussein's last official acts before returning Jan. 27 to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

King Hussein was known as the great survivor in the blood-soaked Middle East. He survived numerous assassination attempts, several aborted coups, four Arab-Israeli wars and a Palestinian uprising in his homeland.

The ruler of a kingdom created by the British Foreign Office in 1921 and heavily dependent on money from the West and from Arab neighbors throughout its history, King Hussein nevertheless became a significant and honored influence in his region, seeing his once tribal nation prosper and make peace with its Jewish neighbor.

The cancer that attacked a kidney and his urethra in 1992 resurfaced last summer. He spent six months at the Mayo Clinic undergoing chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Proclaiming himself cured in January, he returned to Jordan and a hero's welcome as thousands stood in a driving rain to greet his motorcade.

In an interview with CNN, King Hussein talked about his plans for the country. His words were prescient.

"First of all, I have always been a fatalist, and I have always felt that there is a beginning to life and an end to life and I feel that probably more than at any time in the past," the king said, as though he was preparing his subjects for a future without him.

"Therefore, my concern is not for me. It has never been for me anyway. It has been for Jordan, its stability, its progress, its democracy, its people."

Within a week of that interview, the king suffered a relapse and rushed back to the Mayo Clinic to undergo a second bone marrow transplant. Before he left, he issued a royal decree that will affect the future of his country for decades. The king removed his brother Hassan as his successor, a post that the intellectual, reform-minded prince had held for 33 years.

Marwan Muasher, a confidant of the king and Jordan's ambassador to the United States, spoke with the king last week during his treatment at the Mayo Clinic. "He told me that he was very comfortable with the decision he took on the succession, that his conscience was clear and that he did the right thing for Jordan," the ambassador said. The diminutive king piloted his own plane, raced cars and married four times -- the last to the present Queen Noor, the former Lisa Halaby, an American 16 years younger.

Over the years, his reputation grew from ridiculed playboy and failed warrior to one of the most dependable statesmen in the region. The pursuers of peace came to rely on his counsel.

Last fall, when President Clinton tried to negotiate an end to the monthslong stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, he found himself wedged between an intransigent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Despite his illness, King Hussein flew to Washington to intervene. When the Wye River Memorandum was signed Oct. 23, the king was at the table. The chemotherapy had left him gaunt and hairless, making his participation in the talks even more poignant.

"Many in our part of the world and different parts of the world have written me off," the king said in his mellifluous baritone voice. "But I have a lot of faith in God and I believe that one lives one's destiny."

He was candid about the strained relations of the peace partners, but emphasized the implications of their work for future generations.

"We have no right to dictate through irresponsible action or narrow-mindedness the future of our children and their children's children," said the king. "There has been enough destruction. Enough death. Enough waste. And it's time that, together, we occupy a place beyond ourselves, our peoples, that is worthy of them under the sun, the descendants of the children of Abraham."

With the king's death, Jordan loses not only a respected statesman, but a beloved and benevolent monarch. He opened his heart to paupers and presidents. His gracious manner touched even those who opposed his policies.

"The king has a special unique charisma. He has a large capacity of forgiveness. Whether you agree with him or disagree with him at the end of the day, he can accept your point of view," said Ahmad Obeidat, a former prime minister of Jordan who clashed with the king over the 1994 peace treaty with Israel.

"He will let you leave satisfied. He won't let you leave any room for animosity. It's very difficult to hate him."

But when internal forces threatened his hold on power, the king reacted forcefully. His government imposed martial law, jailed opposition figures, confiscated passports and more recently, supported a tough, anti-press law that prohibited any disparaging reports about the king and royal family, the military and friendly allies.

King Hussein ascended to the throne at the age of 18. In the nearly half century of his reign, Jordan evolved from a nation of Bedouin tribes and family clans to a Western-style country of Muslim Arabs, the majority of whom are of Palestinian ancestry. Jordan has among the best education and health systems in the Arab world. A country with few natural resources, it has increased its citizens' standard of living.

A key ally of Washington, Jordan has benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid. The king has even been accused of being on the payroll of the Central Intelligence Agency.

But that didn't stop the king from occasionally criticizing U.S. foreign policy for being too pro-Israeli.

While the rise of Islamic fundamentalism threatened the stability of secular Arab countries, Jordan managed to coexist with its Muslim fundamentalists. They are but one of the forces that might have polarized the country under a less politically savvy ruler.

In recent years, King Hussein became acutely aware of the sway he held over his people. He recalled the crowd of 1 million well-wishers who turned out to greet him in 1992 when he returned from his first cancer surgery in the United States.

He was overwhelmed. "But then I felt an element of fear -- of insecurity -- about what would happen if I was not there," he said in an interview with the New York Times. "So I knew that I had to do everything I could, in whatever time I had left to achieve peace and make it work."

He viewed the peace treaty with Israel as "his legacy."

"He understands the value of being a buffer state, that weakness could be a commodity and he played that very well," said Robert B. Satloff, author of "From Abdullah to Hussein: Jordan in Transition."

As comfortable in the tribal robes of his ancestors as in the designer suits of Saville Row, King Hussein deftly maneuvered between the clannish Arab world and the modern West. He wore blue jeans at home in his palace and surfed the Internet. He traced his family's descent from the prophet Mohammed, and he dined with presidents in the White House and shared platters of lamb in the goat-hair tents of his Bedouin subjects.

He sought peace and a homeland for his Palestinian brethren, but crushed the Palestine Liberation Organization in Jordan when it sought to overthrow him.

And yet, he was not a vengeful man. He pardoned political enemies and would-be assassins -- including a palace cook who practiced on the royal cats.

An absolute monarch, he was a proponent of democratic reforms and he was benevolent. It wasn't unusual for the king, upon hearing of a sick child who couldn't afford an operation, to pay for it himself. To show his appreciation to a loyalist, the king financed construction of an opulent, walled villa for his army chief of staff.

Several years ago, the king reflected on the future of his country and the Hashemite monarchy.

"There is one thing that I want to concentrate on," he told Newsweek magazine. "That is to ensure that this country is not known in the future as a country that began with me and ended with me. I want to consolidate the foundations for it to continue by giving people a right to rule themselves, for the monarchy to be just a symbol and the unifying factor."

Since its founding in 1921, Jordan [known as Trans-Jordan until 1948) has been ruled by one family -- the Hashemites, once designated as the guardians of Islam's holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

The king's grandfather, Abdullah, was the first monarch. But King Hussein is the only monarch most Jordanians have known.

Born Nov. 14, 1935, he was the oldest of Crown Prince Talal's four children. The family lived in Amman, in a five-room house where young Hussein learned to sew so he could mend his own clothes. The family sold his bicycle to help bolster the household finances, the king recounted in his autobiography, "Uneasy Lies the Head."

King Abdullah oversaw his grandson's education. Schooled in Arabic and English, at a time when Jordan was effectively a protectorate of Britain, the young Hussein often accompanied his grandfather on official business.

During a visit to the El Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, the 15-year-old Hussein witnessed the assassination of his grandfather -- and survived the first attempt on his own life. The year was 1951.

A Palestinian extremist, apparently upset over King Abdullah's relationship with Israel, shot the monarch as he entered the mosque to pray. The young Hussein reached for the gunman, who then fired at the teen-ager. A medal on Hussein's uniform deflected the bullet, according to the palace biography of the king.

After Abdullah's death, his son, Crown Prince Talal, succeeded him. But his reign was short-lived. Incapacitated by mental illness, Talal abdicated in the summer of 1952. Hussein, a student at the Harrow in England, was summoned home.

An interim council was appointed to rule until Hussein turned 18 according to the Muslim calendar. Meanwhile, the teen-ager enrolled in an intensive six-month training course at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, England. On May 2, 1953, he was crowned king.

The young monarch was tested at nearly every turn.

In the first five years of his reign, he moved to sever the British grasp on his kingdom by firing Sir John Glubb -- known as Glubb Pasha -- as British commander of the Jordanian army and installed Jordanians at the helm. By personally appealing to the infantry, he derailed a coup attempt by left-wing Arab officers. And in 1958, the king, an accomplished pilot, dodged an ambush by two Syrian fighter jets.

He had to contend with Islamic activists and Palestinian refugees, who flooded into his country in the wake of the 1948 and 1967 wars against Israel -- both constituencies with their own designs on the kingdom. King Hussein courted and confounded them. Unlike other leaders in the region, King Hussein granted full citizenship to the Palestinian refugees.

But three years after the 1967 war, when the PLO was threatening to take over his country, he drove Arafat and his followers out of his kingdom.

Jordan and its king suffered a severe beating in the 1967 war. King Hussein was tested on two fronts. The then-32-year-old king felt compelled to back his Arab brothers, despite warnings at home and abroad to remain neutral. His Jordanian army was no match for the better-equipped Israelis. He stood with Egypt and Syria, but lost the West Bank and East Jerusalem -- a calamity for the Arabs that still marks the geopolitical landscape.

Sultan Hattab, a Jordanian journalist who knew the king well, recalled a January 1990 plane trip on which he accompanied the monarch.

"I asked him about Jerusalem. He looked out the window of the plane. His face changed. His eyes filled with tears," said Mr. Hattab. " 'Sultan,' he said to me, 'I will say to you Jerusalem was lost when I was king. What will history say? I hope to see it one day before I die not under occupation.' "

As his grandfather had tried before him, King Hussein spent years secretly trying to negotiate a regional peace with the Israelis. But the Arab nations put an end to his ambitions in 1974 when they designated the PLO as the "sole legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people.

A cautious decision-maker who favored consensus, King Hussein usually kept his own counsel.

"History has misread King Hussein," said Mr. Satloff, executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who knew the king. "He has this image of being the risk taker, the guy who pilots his own plane. But I think he's fundamentally one of the most conservative leaders of the Middle East and that's been the key to his success."

The king's mistakes have been pivotal for his country.

Although King Hussein's alliance with Egypt in the 1967 war cost Jordan territory and prominence, Mr. Satloff believes the decision also helped save the monarchy and rid the kingdom of the intractable Palestinian problem.

King Hussein stood alone among the Arab leaders when he sided with Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf war of 1991. The country lost precious oil from Saudi Arabia, and the move pitted the king against the United States and its allies.

But King Hussein had to deal with a constituency -- predominantly Palestinian -- that was vocal in its support for Saddam Hussein and opposed America's intervention in the war. If his decision ostracized him in the international community, it was cheered at home.

The problems of the Palestinian people, the hostility between Arab and Jew, preoccupied King Hussein throughout much of his life.

After the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords were secretly negotiated in Oslo, Norway in 1993, the king made peace with the Israelis.

During the 1995 funeral of slain Israeli Prime Minster Yitzhak Rabin, King Hussein spoke of his commitment to peace. He recalled his grandfather and Mr. Rabin, the soldier-turned-peacemaker killed by an opponent to the Oslo accords.

"When my time comes," he said in his eulogy, "I hope it will be like my grandfather's and like Yitzhak Rabin's."

During King Hussein's rule, Jordan prospered. In 1950, only 10 percent of Jordanians had access to water, sewage and electricity. Now, those services are available to nearly all Jordanians. The literacy rate has climbed from 33 percent in 1966 to 85.5 percent in 1996.

"It's been quite an achievement -- to create a semblance of a new nationalism in a country that never historically existed," said Mr. Satloff.

But the Jordan of today is fraught with problems. Its economy is depressed. Unemployment is high. Democratic reforms have not fully materialized. His decision last month to remove his brother, Prince Hassan, as heir to the throne after 33 years in the post shocked many Jordanians and caused concern about Jordan's stability.

The succession change occurred amid an unusually public family feud in which the king accused those around his brother of slandering Queen Noor and their four children.

"I always prayed that maybe long after I'm gone the generations that came would say, 'This guy did his best within his lifetime,' and the judgment for me would be for me, not against me," the king said in an interview in 1992.

Besides Queen Noor, King Hussein is survived by twelve children and eight grandchildren; his brothers, Princes Mohammed and Hassan; and a sister, Princess Basma.

A king's life

Key dates in the life of Jordan's King Hussein:

1935: Born in Jordan's capital, Amman, on Nov. 14 to Prince Talal bin Abdullah and Princess Zein al-Sharaf bint Jamil.

1951: Witnesses the assassination of his grandfather, King Abdullah, at the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem by a Palestinian nationalist.

1952: At age 16, he is proclaimed king after his father abdicates because of mental illness. He assumes full constitutional rule in May 1953.

1956: Survives coup attempt led by senior army officals loyal to Egyptian nationalists.

1967: Jordan loses West Bank and Jerusalem to Israel during the Six-Day War.

1970: In what became know as "Black September," army troops loyal to the king drive Palestinian guerrillas from Jordan.

1974: Arab summit decides Hussein is no longer the spokesman for the Palestinians. It names the Palestine Liberation Organization, headed by Yasser Arafat, as the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

1994: Realizes a long-sought goal as Jordan and Israel sign a peace treaty.

1998: Begins six months of chemotherapy for non-Hodgkins lymphoma at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

1999: Returns to Jordan in mid-January long enough to change the line of succession, naming his eldest son, Abdullah, now 37, as crown prince to replace his brother, Hassan, 51, who held the post for 34 years. Returns to Mayo Clinic.

Feb. 4, 1999: Bone marrow transplant fails, and King Hussein flies back to Jordan.

Pub Date: 2/08/99

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