Royal-Politic In Jordan
By Amir Oren
When Jordan’s King Hussein wrote his autobiography – in midlife, as it turned out – the English-educated Monarch found its title in a line authored by an accomplished expert on Royalty: Shakespeare. “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” says Henry the Fourth in a play bearing his name. Hussein used the first half of this melancholy observation.
During his almost five decades on the Hashemite throne, Hussein was in constant danger of having his head seperated from more than the crown. He took over a Kingdom in governmental disarray, following the assassination of his grandfather, King Abdullah the First, founder of the independent state of Transjordan (the name was changed when Jordan ruled the West Bank, too, but was not changed back when it was lost in the 1967 War). Hussein’s father, Tallal, was mentally unfit to take over, so teen-ager Hussein was groomed to succeed. Once installed, he was constantly targeted by conspirators, Palestinians, Egyptians, Syrians, military officers. Only the British, the Americans and the Israelis – at least some of them – tried to protect him and hoped he would survive a series of coups and clashes.
Hussein’s brother, Prince Hassan, was his heir-appatent until the King’s son were approaching maturity. Then he was sidelined, as is virtually inevitable in such dynasties. The line of succession always goes down, not sideways. There is even a democratic parallel of sorts, with the old President or Prime Minister aiming at handing over power to a young protégé, rather than to a veteran colleague. The result is a backlash, usually won by the old-timers. Case in point: Ben-Gurion laying the ground to leaping over Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir and other 60-somethings to the Yadin-Dayan age group, 20 years younger. Eshkol and Golda resisted and ruled for the next decade.
Monarchies have survived the turbulence in the Middle East quite well, especially in Asia. In North Africa, Egypt and Libya lost their Kings to revolts by junior officers, but Morocco held on. Though Iraq and Yemen became Republics, Saudi Arabia, various Emirates and Sheikdoms, as well as Jordan, kept their Royal houses.
The choice of one Prince over others, whether by virtue of seniority or because of political considerations, is always difficult for the father, who has to weigh regime versus family. It can get Biblical, or literary – Shakespearian or “East of Eden”, where Cain and Abel were transported by John Steinbeck to California.
East of the River Jordan, Abdullah II has to contend with the Hashemite King’s lot of walking a vigilant tightrope between neighbours (Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel), other regional actors (Egypt, Iran) and world powers (the British having been supplanted by the Americans); Jihadi cells; Bedouins and Palestinians; taking care of the population while hosting refugees from strife-torn “sisters” across the borders. He has to project strength and stability, a military manner and security stance, to discourage any ideas of rebellion – or palace coup. Between the dangerous poles of complacency and paranoia, uneasy lies the head.
Frequent reshuffles of cabinets and intelligence chiefs are inevitable. By accepting a senior appointment, an official recognizes that by either succeeding or failing, he will in due course be sacked, to prevent him from accumulating too much power or to provide the public with a scapegoat. The unusual feature of this week’s events is that rather than encompassing only a Prime Minister or a General, they penetrated the veneer of the Royal family.
For Israel, who has been struggling with systemic problems having to do with the deadlock arising between a Premier in legal trouble and a Parliament reluctant to send him packing, a regime change in an Arab country – plus Iran, and the Palestinian Authority – is the most important indicator of the war and peace spectrum. A Nasser, a Sadat, A (Hafez) Assad, a Saddam; a Shah, a Khomeini; an Arafat, an Abbas; a Bashir Gemayel; a Morsi, a Sisi; and a Hussein, an Abdullah – it can make all the difference.
Because of its apparent stability for the last 50 years or so, ever since the 1970 “Black September” when Hussein pushed Arafat out and into Lebanon, Jordan has been Israel’s best security – and later peace – partner. Hussein was probably the regional leader most esteemed by Israelis, most of whom are only dimly aware of the never-ending efforts on both banks of the river to secure Israel’s Eastern frontier and to foil terror plots.
Israel has a stake in the Hashemites’ political – and physical – survival. It is safe to assume that if MOSSAD or Aman, Military Intelligence, get wind of a conspiracy to bring down the King, an alert would be flashed from Aman to Amman. “An internal Jordanian matter”, the Abdullah-Hamza spat was declared by the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, but of course it is also a concern for externals, especially Israel.
One-man regimes, in nations with traditional or tribal institutions and only partial representation mechanisms, are inherently fragile, yet as the years go by can stay in power much longer than insurance companies would have forecast. The most intriguing part is a succession process, which in Monarchies cam only be supervised by the outgoing Royal if he (or she) abdicates in favour of a son, daughter or in rare cases a brother.
In Jordan, except for the short episode of Tallal’s mental incapacity – when a Regency was backed up by the British, still in command of the Arab Legion – is has been Abdullah to Hussein to Abdullah and on to Hussein, eldest son and Crown Prince to Abdullah II. He is dutifully following in the footsteps of his father, who trained as a helicopter gunship pilot and Special Forces commander. Personal military experience and intimate familiarity with officers and units are always handy for Hashemite rulers, present and future.
The capital city on the hills, Amman, used to be – a mere couple of millenia ago – the original Philadelphia, City of Brotherly Love. Or as the main actors in the current drama of sibling rivalry among Hussein’s progeny would agree, Half-brotherly. The Crown may pass from one head to the next, but they are cursed with never being able to wear it with ease.