Hussein bin Talal (Jordan)
King Hussein bin Talal ruled Jordan from 1953 until his death in 1999. By that time he was the world’s longest serving executive head of state. Drawn from the Hashemite dynasty, he is believed by devout Muslims to have been the 42nd generation direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad. Throughout his reign, in one of the most volatile and dangerous regions of the world, he managed to safeguard both his throne and the stability of his country.
Hussein was born in Amman on 14 Nov. 1935 to Prince Talal bin Abdullah and Princess Zein al-Sharaf bint Jamil. At that time the intercommunal struggle between Arabs and Zionists for control of Palestine (then, with Transjordan, under the British Mandate) was approaching a decisive phase that was to lead to the creation of the Jewish state of Israel in May 1948. Following his elementary education in Amman, he studied at Victoria College in Alexandria, Egypt, and Harrow School in England. Later he received his military training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, also in England.
The most traumatic moment of his early life was the assassination in July 1951 of his grandfather, King Abdullah, outside the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The young prince witnessed the event and was fortunate to escape unharmed. The following year (on 11 Aug.), Hussein was proclaimed King and head of state. He replaced his father, who had succeeded briefly before abdicating owing to mental illness. A Regency Council was appointed until Hussein’s formal accession on 2 May 1953. Having by then reached the age of 18, he assumed full constitutional powers. The new King was to strengthen and professionalize (with Western help) the Jordanian military establishment, asserting the authority of the crown.
Domestically, King Hussein is credited with developing Jordan’s economic and industrial infrastructure, and with helping to raise living standards generally. But it was his political preoccupation with the Palestinian question, and relations with Israel, that defined his long reign. While keenly aware of Arab sensitivities towards Israeli regional domination and the Palestinian cause, he maintained a readiness to compromise and to accommodate his powerful neighbour. However, it was 1994 (in the wake of Israeli-Palestinian accords) before he agreed to a formal peace treaty. Jordan’s alignment with the Western powers, meanwhile, often made the King the target of criticism by more radical Arab regimes.
In 1967 the already large, displaced Palestinian population in Jordan further increased following the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War. The Arab defeat resulted in the loss of the West Bank and East Jerusalem to Israel (territories that Jordan had annexed in 1950). After the conflict, Palestinian resistance guerrillas based in Jordan grew in strength and threatened to destabilise Hussein’s regime. In Sept. 1970, the King turned his army on the militant Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO were expelled the following year.
Over the next two decades he continued to walk a fine diplomatic line—avoiding direct confrontation with Israel, fostering relations with the Palestinians and moderate Arab states, and maintaining links with the Western powers. In 1988 he disclaimed any ambition to restore Jordanian rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and endorsed the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. His subsequent neutrality—or perceived support for President Saddam Hussein of Iraq—during the 1990–91 Gulf crisis over Kuwait was less well received by Western and Gulf Arab states.
King Hussein died of cancer on 7 Feb. 1999. His funeral was attended by over 50 heads of state, including close allies, friends and some of his outspoken opponents (particularly the then President of Syria, Hafiz al-Assad). Several Arab countries declared a state of mourning. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Abdullah II, one of 12 children from his four marriages.