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Middle East: Jordan's New Ruler Has Little Political Experience

Prague, 5 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The imminent death of Jordan's King Hussein, the longest-serving Middle East ruler, has focused speculation on how his politically inexperienced successor will manage the country's affairs.

During his 47-year reign, King Hussein learned to balance complex and delicate relations with Syria, Iraq, Israel, the United States and Britain, as well as placating Palestinians who now comprise more than half of Jordan's population.

King Hussein appointed his heir, 37-year-old Crown Prince Abdullah, just ten days ago. Prince Abdullah has extensive military experience and the support of Jordan's armed forces. But he has no experience in government or international affairs.

Analysts say there will initially be a massive amount of support from Jordanians for the next King. But the future of the peace process between the Palestinian Authority and Israel will put great domestic pressure on Abdullah. Economic conditions in both Jordan and the West Bank could also cause domestic dissent.

Sir John Moberly, a former British ambassador to both Jordan and Iraq, told RFE/RL today that Jordan's continued reliance on Iraqi oil will make Amman anxious to keep its trade links with Baghdad. Moberly said Abdullah must learn to deal with his volatile Arab neighbor Syria, and still attract military aid from Britain and Washington.

"The new King, Abdullah, has good experience in the armed forces. He's a major general and he's very well liked in the armed forces, which are important in terms of internal stability in Jordan, but he lacks experience of government and political affairs generally, and foreign policy."

Moberly says King Hussein, who was 63, will be remembered as a peacemaker and a force of stability who helped balance a turbulent region. He was seen as a traditional friend of the West, but also was the strongest ally of Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath regime during its 1980-1988 war with Iran.

King Hussein maintained positive relations with both Baghdad and Washington through the last decade, and commanded the respect of both Arabs and Jews. He helped push the U.S.-led search for Arab-Israeli peace through some of its most difficult stumbling blocks. But he also refused to support international military action against Iraq following Baghdad's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Jordan still relies on Iraqi oil shipments to fuel its economy, and relations with Baghdad remain one of the most important factors in Amman's policies.

King Hussein's 47-year reign was marked by conflicts with Egypt, Syria, Israel and Palestinian nationalists. He lost half his kingdom to war with Israel, survived numerous assassination attempts backed by some of his Arab neighbors, and retained his throne through a brutal civil war.

Hussein bin Talal was born in Amman in 1935 to a Hashemite dynasty that traces descent from the Prophet Mohammad. Hussein's great-grandfather, Sharif Hussein bin Ali of Mecca, led the 1916 British-backed Arab revolt against Ottoman rule. His grandfather, Emir Abdullah, was declared King when Britain's mandate over the Emirate of Transjordan expired in 1946. The would-be King was barely a teenager when the state of Israel was created in British-mandated Palestine in 1948 and when Jordan annexed the West Bank in early 1950. At the age of 15, Hussein was thrust into international politics when a Palestinian gunman shot his grandfather dead at the entrance to Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque. The assassin was angry about what he perceived as collusion between Jordan and Israel in the division of Palestine.

Hussein had been standing at his grandfather's side at the time of the shooting. He was proclaimed King 13-months later after his father, Talal, was declared mentally unfit to rule. But the young King Hussein didn't assume constitutional powers until his 18th birthday on May 2, 1953.

Hussein survived a coup by Jordanian army officers sympathetic to Egypt and Syria in April 1957. Those officers, led by Army chief of staff Major General Sadek Sheraa, considered King Hussein to be a Western puppet. Their coup failed largely because of Bedouin troops who stayed loyal to the throne. General Sheraa was later sentenced to death.

Early 1958 saw closer links between the kingdoms of Jordan and Iraq through the "Hashemite Union." But that union lasted only five months. It was shattered later that year when Hussein's cousin, King Faisal of Iraq, was killed in a Baghdad coup.

The event that had the most profound impact on the geopolitics of the Middle East during the rest of the century came in June 1967 when Israeli troops captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the Six Day War.

Hussein retained nominal administrative links over West Bank Palestinians until 1974 when he reluctantly accepted a decision by Arab leaders proclaiming the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as "sole legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people. Amman's final disengagement from the West Bank came in 1988 when Hussein ended financial support and cut Jordan's last administrative ties.

King Hussein played a pivotal role in the convening of the Madrid Middle East Peace Conference in October 1991. His involvement in those talks allowed the Palestinian people to negotiate their future as part of a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation. He also oversaw the signing of the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty in 1994.

His major health problems began apparent in 1992 when he began treatment for his cancer in the United States.