After King Hussein

The death of Hussein bin Talal, the estimable King of Hashemite Jordan, is a deeply saddening event. He was a rare man in political life in that he was both very rich in deeds and even richer in decency. The swirl of events surrounding his last illness bequeaths to the present moment not only the solemn appreciation for the man and his losing battle with cancer, but a sense of Shakespearean drama over what is left in his wake.

And what is that? A new king, his eldest son Abdullah, who learned of his new role in life only a few weeks ago.

Indeed, there are so many pressing questions about the accession of the 37-year old Abdullah to the Hashemite throne that we barely have time to mourn his predecessor. These questions fall into two categories: the implications for Jordanian domestic politics and the implications for regional politics. First things first.

King Abdullah will have the fealty of the great majority of Jordanians; unless he messes up mightily, he will not have a legitimacy problem. This is because King Hussein transferred his mantle to him in a manner so dramatic and clear that, despite its being late in the game as these things go, former Crown Prince Hassan, the king’s loyal brother, would not and really could not put that legitimacy in doubt.

Moreover, Abdullah has seven male brothers, half-brothers and cousins: his full brother Faisal; his half brother Ali from Hussein’s marriage to Queen Alia; his half-brothers Hamzeh and Hashem from the King’s marriage to his widow, Queen Noor; two cousins, Talal and Ghazi, who are the sons of his uncle Mohammed; and Hassan’s son, Rashid. Of these, several of whom occupy important posts in government, all except Rashid— quite naturally, given the circumstances— will support him unequivocally.

Additionally, Abdullah is not otherwise alone. Queen Noor’s stature will rise, and she will guard her late husband’s decision, as well. Beyond that are Jordan’s powerful political families, men who have served King Hussein, who will also serve his son. There is the current prime minister, the able Fayez al-Tarawneh; there are the Majali, Rifai, Keilani, and several other families whose own peace of mind rests heavily on the security and stability of the royal crown. They will circle the wagons if need be; they will do their job both in their own interest and in the interest of their country.

Nor is Abdullah himself a totally unknown quantity. He was crown prince from his birth in 1962 to his displacement in 1965, but far more important, he has been Jordan’s commander of special forces for the last several years, a post in which he excelled. His achievements were said to have put him in line to be the next army chief-of-staff. He has developed excellent relationships with both Israeli and American military and intelligence colleagues, as well as with the younger generation of royalty throughout the Persian Gulf.

Also in the domestic arena, Abdullah has an advantage that even Hassan, though experienced as Crown Prince since April 1, 1965, did not have: the benefit of the doubt from Jordan’s Palestinian population. This is because Abdullah’s wife is from a Palestinian family (Hassan’s wife is Pakistani), and unlike Hassan, Abdullah is not the possessor of an anti-Palestinian image.

In the long run, too, Abdullah is likely to have an advantage over both his father and his uncle Hassan. As to the former, he is more likely to be an institution builder than was his father— and institution building is something Jordan could use more of. As to the latter, Abdullah’s ties— and, very helpfully, his brother Faisal’s, too— are strong with the constituencies that matter most in Jordan: the tribal leadership, and the army and intelligence services whose key members are recruited therefrom. Hassan did not have particularly close associations here, but rather with the technocratic, economic, and intellectual elite. Abdullah will have to work to gain the trust of these groups, who are also important as Jordan suffers hard economic times.

As to the region, there is no question that a young, untested, and diplomatically untutored king raises a great deal of uncertainty. And in the Middle East, uncertainty generally translates into fear. But, once again, a close look suggests that things will not be so bad.

Abdullah has the strong support of both the United States and Israel, and is liable, too, to have a useful seal of approval from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. All that helps a lot. As noted, he also has a leg up on improved relations with the Gulf states; Kuwait seems ready to restore diplomatic relations broken in 1991, and Saudi Arabia to restore some subsidies and oil supplies.

It is also possible that Abdullah will toughen Jordan’s attitude toward Iraq. One of his jobs in recent months was to deal with fairly massive surreptitious Iraqi violations of the Jordanian border. That he did well. Abdullah is under no illusions about Saddam Hussein, and may be even more eager than was his father to help the United States in its belated and still rather confused effort to have done with the Iraqi dictator.

But there are dangers. It would not be surprising if Iraqi agents in Jordan were ordered to assassinate the young king— even as his namesake, his great-grandfather, was assassinated in 1951 by thugs hired by Haj Amin al-Hussein, the Palestinian national leader of that day. Clearly, Abdullah has to be very, very careful, and Iraq is not his only potential problem. Syria’s Hafiz al-Asad might test him, too. So, in the fullness of time, might Yasir Arafat, for there is and has ever been a fundamental conflict of interests between Palestinian nationalism and those of the Hashemite throne. How Abdullah responds to any such initial tests will be crucial; they will establish a reputation in a region where the personal trumps all else in politics.

How will he do? Given that every expert on Jordan, bar none, was virtually certain only a month ago that Hassan would succeed his brother to the throne, we should all be cautious about predictions. But chances are that he will do fine, for he is said to take after his father in both temperament and character. He could not have a greater advantage than that.