When the Qureish, King Hussein's private jet, touched down at Amman airport, the Jordanian monarch was not at his usual place in the pilot's seat. He lay instead on a bed in the back of the plane, racked by fever, exhausted by the long flight. Accompanied by his American-born wife, Queen Noor, and other family members, he had travelled all the way from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., compelled by an urgent desire to die in his own land. For Hussein - patriarch of the 800-year-old Hashemite dynasty, 42nd direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, battle-worn survivor of close to half a century of Middle Eastern intrigue - had lost his final contest. On Saturday, with the King unconscious and kept alive only by life support, the cabinet transferred limited authority to Hussein's eldest son, 37-year-old Crown Prince Abdullah, a prelude to his becoming king as his father decreed last month.
Hussein, 63, had fought lymphatic cancer for much of the past year. He is going to be missed, not only by the 4.6 million residents of the desert kingdom he ruled for the past 46 years, but by Jordan's fractious Mideast neighbours and scores of friends and allies abroad. He had become a symbol of stability in a notoriously volatile region almost from the moment he ascended the throne, not long after his grandfather, King Abdullah, was assassinated on a Jerusalem street in 1951. During his reign, Hussein guided Jordan, an artificial colonial creation with a bitterly divided population and few natural resources, along a path that has seen the country grow into a unified, reasonably prosperous, efficiently governed state. At the same time, he managed to keep the kingdom's neighbours at bay, no mean feat for a place sandwiched between Israel, on the one hand, and Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia on the other. "He was forever walking the tightrope," said Fred Halliday, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. "The big question now is whether Hussein's son, Abdullah, is going to be as good a tightrope walker as his father."
On that score, there are few answers, largely because until late last month the 37-year-old Abdullah, Hussein's eldest son by his second wife, British-born Princess Muna, was not part of the succession picture. For the past 34 years, Hussein's younger brother Hassan, 51, has been Jordan's crown prince, carefully groomed to succeed to the throne. That suddenly changed on Jan. 25, when Hussein, apparently irked by feuding within the royal family, stunned his subjects by dumping Hassan in favour of Abdullah. Hours later, the King compounded the surprise by announcing that he was returning to the Mayo Clinic for more cancer treatment following the failure of the six-month course of chemotherapy he had just completed. "It's all been happening so fast," said Said K. Aburish, a Jordanian-born, London-based Palestinian writer. "I think everybody in the country is still in a state of shock."
Not least, perhaps, the man who is about to become Jordan's new king. Until Abdullah's selection as crown prince, the army had been his life. A graduate, like his father, of Sandhurst, the British military academy, he was a major-general in charge of the kingdom's elite Special Forces. He is known as a good soldier, an efficient leader and is as popular with the troops as he is with the high command. It will serve him well in Jordan, where the armed forces, along with the Islamic movement, is one of the two pillars of political power. "It's not a country with an army," said Aburish. "It's an army with a country."
But there is no record of Abdullah's ability to deal with either domestic politics or international affairs. That is especially disturbing to the Israelis, for whom Hussein was one of the few Arab leaders who could be viewed as a reliable ally, even a friend. Hassan, too, was someone the Israelis felt they could trust - intelligent, industrious, Oxford-educated. "But Abdullah is an unknown quantity," said Shimon Shamir, a former Israeli ambassador to Amman. "There is reason to be concerned. The royal household's prestige has been weakened by the way Hassan was dismissed."
Last week, Abdullah sought to reassure Jordan's allies when he told reporters that he will remain committed to peace in the Middle East and to close relations with Washington. At the same time, he indicated his wariness about both Iran and Iraq. "I am an extension of His Majesty's outlook and His Majesty's beliefs," said the crown prince. From Israel's point of view, the worst that could happen in a post-Hussein Jordan would be a struggle for the succession. It would open the doors to all kinds of meddling by Jordan's neighbours, in particular Syria. Damascus has historically regarded Jordan as part of a greater Syria hived off by the British following the First World War. For the moment, there are no signs of such a struggle occurring. "He is not the kind to organize a faction or indulge in palace intrigues," argued Shamir.
Life after Hussein was clearly on the minds of Jordanians as well. Despite the winter chill, crowds kept vigil outside his hospital in Amman on the weekend. They piled flowers and wept for the only king most of them had ever known.
Maclean's February 15, 1999