Al Jazeera World

King Hussein of Jordan: Survival of a dynasty

The life and struggles of King Hussein of Jordan, from the assassination of his grandfather to the rise of the PLO.

Filmmaker: Suhaib Abu Doulah 

King Hussein of Jordan: Survival Of A Dynasty is the first in a two-part series telling the story of Jordan’s monarch from 1952 to his death in 1999.

Hussein was just 15 when, in July 1951, his grandfather, King Abdullah I, the founder of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, was shot dead by a Palestinian gunman at the gate of al-Aqsa Mosque in eastern Jerusalem.

Hussein witnessed the assassination, and in a radio interview later in his life described how it impacted him and his understanding of the dangers – as well as the responsibilities – facing a monarch.

The young king

With Abdullah’s death, Hussein’s father, Talal, became king. But, after just a year in power, he was forced to abdicate for mental health reasons in August 1952. Hussein, the 17-year-old Crown Prince, acceded to the throne under a Regency Council until he turned 18.

But, having taken over the country at a time of huge uncertainty, the young king faced a series of political crises, domestically and in his dealings with Israel. He inherited the Anglo-Jordanian Treaty with the British from his grandfather; but also had to deal with the fallout from the foundation of Israel in the 1948 war, in which Jordan annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem, along with their Palestinian populations. 

King Hussein of Jordan’s succession to the throne

A year after he came to power, in October 1953, Israeli troops led by Ariel Sharon overran the village of Qibya in the West Bank. Israel claimed that the village was a gathering point for Palestinian infiltrators or “fedayeen” who had carried out operations inside Israel. At least 69 civilians were killed, including women and children.

Some say that while Hussein saw himself as the representative of the Palestinians and protector of the holy sites, he was resented for not being tough on Israel and for prioritising the protection of his dynasty.

For Palestinians, “the Jordanian regime or the Hashemite family mainly in the east of the Jordan, were supportive of the Zionist movement,” explains Abdul Sattar Kassem, a Palestinian writer and political analyst. “The Jordanian army during that time was protecting Israel against Palestinians. The Jordanian National Guard was tracking Palestinians, whether they were militants or smugglers.”

Arab nationalism

Opposition to Hussein and the monarchy gradually grew, at home and abroad. His relationship with Egypt was tense. President Gamal Abdel Nasser had only recently overthrown King Farouk and believed what he called “reactionary regimes” and Arab monarchies should be toppled.

Hussein’s continued relationship with Britain also began to embarrass him. The principal British military figure in Jordan for more than a decade had been Sir John Bagot Glubb, known locally as Glubb Pasha. He commanded and trained the Jordanian army but Hussein’s relationship with him was difficult. Glubb was much older, and the two disagreed about the absence of Jordanians in high-ranking positions in the army.

On February 28, 1956, the Hussein dismissed Glubb and expelled him from Jordan. Israeli historian Avi Shlaim of St Antony’s College, Oxford, says he did so because “he realised that if he didn’t, with these nationalist elements in the army, they would topple him”.

The reaction to Glubb’s dismissal in Jordan was mixed. Some supported the move while others feared possible British retaliation.

Egypt’s Nasser initially believed it was just an American-British trick, while the British thought that Nasser had masterminded it and considered Glubb’s expulsion an insult.

“The problem wasn’t only Glubb, it was much deeper,” says Nadir Rashid, a former member of the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate. “Arabisation was necessary for Jordan to appear as a sovereign, anti-imperialist country. This resulted in the cancellation of the Anglo-Jordanian Treaty.”

1956: A momentous year

Hussein decided in 1956 that the time was right to hold parliamentary elections. Despite concerns about the outcome among his closest advisers, they went ahead on October 20. Arab nationalist and socialist parties won a majority of seats.

Sulayman al-Nabulsi, leader of the National Socialist Party, became prime minister of Jordan’s first elected government. It competed with the king in political decision-making and tried gradually to undermine him. Opposition to Hussein even extended to the army and there were reports of a military coup against him.

Fearing he would be overthrown, in 1957 he dissolved parliament, ended multi-party rule, declared martial law and imprisoned or exiled his opponents. Security was tightened and Jordan became a totalitarian state.

“There were no laws or regulations and the prisons were full. Those who managed to flee the country went to Syria, Egypt or Iraq,” explained the late Yacoub Zayadin, the former secretary-general of the Jordanian Community Party who was imprisoned for 15 years. “Because of this tyranny nobody stayed there. Hunger and poverty prevailed. Theft, corruption and fraud became common.”

The Palestinian issue

When Hussein had dealt with his internal problems, larger and more complex international challenges confronted him. First, in 1958, Nasser announced the union of Egypt and Syria in the United Arab Republic with himself as president. Although it lasted for only three years, it posed a constant threat to Hussein.

“Nasser … saw Jordan as too pro-Western and not tough enough on Israel,” says Asher Susser, an Israeli expert on Hashemite history. “For him, monarchies should be eradicated from the Arab world … they were backward political entities, hindering the unification of the Arab world and the liberation of Palestine.”

Then in January 1964, Nasser convened the first Arab Conference in Cairo. One of its two main resolutions was to create a new body to represent the Palestinians.

“Ahmed Shukairy was entrusted with forming the committee,” says Abdul Sattar Kassem. But “Ahmed Shukairy and Nasser didn’t abide by the resolutions of the Arab Summit. Together, they founded the Palestine Liberation Organisation [PLO].” Hussein was shocked because it touched directly upon Jordan’s sovereignty over the West Bank – and half of the Jordanian population would be under PLO control.

“After that, the relationship between the PLO, led by Ahmed Shukairy, and King Hussein remained tense,” says Kassem. “None of them adopted a policy to confront Israel or build a force to free Palestine. Their struggle was about power and prestige in the Arab arena. Nasser wanted to prove himself through the Ahmed Shukairy group and King Hussein wanted to prove himself by representing the Palestinians. The result was that the Palestinians paid the price.”

Then on January 1, 1965, a military communique was issued by Fatah, the Palestinian liberation movement led by Yasser Arafat, announcing the start of the Palestinian “armed struggle”.  Fatah and Arafat would go on to play a key role in the rest of Hussein’s life and career – and the Middle East as a whole – for the next four decades.