Plucky king was a true family man

May 31, 2002

On the eve of the Queen's golden jubilee celebrations, THES writers examine why European monarchies endure and look at royal dynasties around the world.

King Hussein's power lay in his ability to make everyone feel at home in Jordan, says Nermeen Murad Garlick.

From the early 1960s, the concept of monarchy in Jordan was synonymous with King Hussein. The "Plucky Little King" he may have been, but in the 30-odd years that he ruled Jordan, he succeeded in making most of his subjects accept - albeit begrudgingly - that they were all part of one family.

The national identity or make-up of that family was not seriously questioned or challenged. One outspoken critic of the Hashemite monarchy once accused the regime of feeding off and sustaining itself by sometimes presenting Jordanians as a noble tribe (in reference to the regime's political play on the Hashemite lineage to the Prophet Mohammad), and at other times exaggerating their numbers, expanding their roots and birthplaces when it saw fit - in order to allow itself a larger role in determining the future of the Palestinians.

Hussein was the Provident father. His prodigal sons were the East Bank Jordanians and the Jordanians of Palestinian origin. He played them off against each other, but at the same time allowed them privileges that ensured their allegiance and, more important, membership of the Hashemite family. Some would argue that he did not allow for the development of any singular identity for fear that it would define itself against his family's claim to power.

Except for a Palestinian insurgency in the early 1970s that was brutally quashed by Hussein's predominantly Bedouin army, this unique claim to legitimacy that juggled Islamic hierarchy with Jordanian and Palestinian political representation was not seriously challenged. Any internal opposition largely amounted to a squabble for power by small factions without enough popular support to topple the monarchy. The largest organised political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, was contained and coopted by the regime, ensuring in turn that it never turned against the Hashemites. Any external threat was foiled by a combination of effective intelligence and the support of the western world.

The country miraculously survived the death of Hussein three years ago. Social scientists may have proposed justifiably that Jordan's survival is testament to the stability of the monarchy and the strength of civil society. Some may even argue optimistically that the democratisation process, introduced by Hussein in the mid 1980s and again in the early 1990s, has succeeded in weaving a strong social fabric and relaxing political restrictions enough to protect the country from collapse. All these views may have some truth. Yet the real secret behind the regime's endurance is the population's absolute need for stability in an otherwise turbulent region. The mixed make-up of the population is a source not only of insecurity but paradoxically also of stability. The mostly Palestinian and now Iraqi refugees will not rock the boat. Their original countries are embroiled in endless conflicts. The indigenous East Jordanians continue to control the seats of power, and the moderate Hashemite monarchy continues to rule the country with the support of its friends in the West. The young king Abdullah may not be as subtle or as ingenious as his Machiavellian father, but he has a few aces up his sleeve. His queen is a glamorous and well-spoken Palestinian refugee whose family fled Kuwait in the aftermath of Iraq's occupation. His military background has gained him the respect of his army. His English mother facilitated the continuation of good relations with the West.

His vision for Jordan, unlike Hussein, is based on economic rather than political viability, and his success in attracting foreign investment into the country and making it economically sound is not guaranteed. But even if the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan were to successfully turn into a Royal Jordan dotcom, the population of this small kingdom, even when doubting its exact identity, would be happy to claim it as "national".

Nermeen Murad Garlick is writing a PhD at Durham University on The Hashemite Monarchy and National Identity .

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