Learning How To Be King
By JEFFREY GOLDBERGFEB. 6, 2000
''THE THING IS,'' says His Majesty Abdullah II, the 38-year-old king of Jordan and 43rd-generation direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad, ''is that I've become a bit like Elvis.''
People see him where he ain't, in other words.
''There are sightings all over the place,'' he says. Since ascending the Hashemite throne last February, Abdullah has made it a habit to inspect his kingdom in mufti. ''The bureaucrats are terrified. It's great.''
Today, Elvis is flying to Zarqa, outside of Amman, in one of the Royal Squadron Black Hawk helicopters -- like his father, the late King Hussein, he is his own pilot. Once in Zarqa, he will execute a quick costume change and then pay surprise visits to the city's public hospital and to the local offices of the finance ministry.
We land at a paratrooper base outside the city. Prince Ali, the king's 24-year-old half brother and chief bodyguard, jumps out first. A second Black Hawk, filled with more bodyguards, lands a minute later. King Abdullah waves to the paratroopers who watch as he steps out of the helicopter. When his father was king, Abdullah, then a general, commanded these men.
We enter the office of the brigade commander, Maj. Gen. Ahmed Sirhan, who has become only semi-accustomed to the scene now unfolding. Before our eyes, the vibrant young king of Jordan transforms himself -- no point in mincing words here -- into a fat, old, one-eyed gimp in beat-up New Balance sneakers and a red-checkered kaffiyeh. The king first reaches into a gym bag and pulls out a pillow. ''Excuse me for a minute,'' he says. ''I have to put my padding on.'' He steps out of a bathroom a moment later with a tire of fake fat ringing his abdomen. Out of another bag he takes a plastic-foam head that keeps his wig properly stretched. He holds up the wig, which has been styled into a sort of Bedouin Jheri curl. ''Kind of gives me the Qaddafi look,'' the king says. Before the wig goes on, though, he pulls out a tray of fake mustaches and picks one. Then he takes out a beard extension. The long beard gives him the appearance of a Hamas sheik, which I mention to him with some trepidation, since he and Hamas are fighting a cold war at the moment.
''Wait till you see you me with the wig,'' he says. He pulls the wig over his short-cropped hair. Before me stands neither a Hamas sheik nor a Libyan strongman, but Samuel L. Jackson in ''Pulp Fiction.''
Then come the glasses, thick plastic glasses with one lens completely blackened out. An aide hands him a cane, and then His Majesty steps into the sunshine. The soldiers are not sure where to direct their salutes. Prince Ali, too, is in mufti -- fake beard, sunglasses, a kaffiyeh. Very 70's, I say. ''Like a terrorist?'' Prince Ali asks, smiling.
This is the plan: the king and Prince Ali will travel by taxi to the local offices of the finance ministry. I will follow in a second car with two of the king's aides. A Nissan pickup will carry the bodyguards. The king cautions me not to blow his cover by staring at him too overtly; he suggests, rightly, that a pale-faced American in khakis will draw more attention in Zarqa than a half-blind Arab, even a half-blind Arab wearing New Balance sneakers.
A rust-bucket yellow taxi pulls up, and the king of Jordan hops into the back seat. By the obsessive security standards of Middle Eastern royalty, he is quite alone. But Abdullah, like his father before him, is one of a handful of Middle Eastern leaders who are unafraid of their own people.
He has no particular reason to fear them. One year after ascending the throne, the king has reached a level of popularity no one in Jordan could have reasonably expected. After all, his father was revered the world over as ''the plucky little king'' who reigned for nearly 47 years and, by the standards of the region, gave his country a remarkable degree of peace, stability and modernity. Abdullah, though, was an unknown. King Hussein named his oldest son crown prince only two weeks before his death. The next king was supposed to be Crown Prince Hassan, youngest brother of King Hussein. Prince Abdullah had a reputation as a bit of a lightweight, a Prince Hal with a vaguely Falstaffian cast of friends who drove fast cars and enjoyed the company of women. A friend of Abdullah's from his Massachusetts prep-school days, Perry Vella, told me: ''Right at the beginning, Abdullah said, 'You know, everybody's underestimating me.' But he said: 'I can do this job. I was born to do this job.' ''
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who has been paying close attention, is impressed by the job he's doing. ''I have to tell you, it's been quite amazing to watch him,'' she says. ''I hate to sound patronizing about a king, but he has quickly understood the possibilities of his role.''
The possibilities are endless, and so are the challenges. He faces longstanding problems on the political front. Thirty years after the civil war known as Black September (White September to Jordanian nationalists), Palestinians, who make up 60 percent of Jordan's population, are still politically disenfranchised, grossly underrepresented in Parliament, the government and the army. It will be up to Abdullah -- and his wife, the 29-year-old Queen Rania, who is of Palestinian descent -- to define who is a Jordanian.
There is also the matter of Islamic fundamentalists, at home and abroad, who opposed his father's brand of moderate, outward-looking Islam and now oppose his. But the king's most pressing challenge -- at least if you accept his list of priorities -- is reviving Jordan's comatose economy. ''We're not concerned about threats on our borders,'' he told a group of American high-tech executives in October. Queen Rania, who worked for Apple Computer before marrying the king, sat by his side -- a bold spot for the wife of an Arab potentate -- and whispered suggestions in his ear. ''The only problem Jordan has ahead of it is its economy,'' the king continued. ''We produce thousands of computer graduates, but we don't have the jobs to give them.''
Then there is the quandary of how to honor his father's legacy while casting aside his method of governance. King Hussein built modern Jordan, but modern Jordan isn't modern enough, as the new king sees it, to survive. King Hussein, his obvious attributes notwithstanding, played tribe against tribe, showered cronies with duty-free Mercedeses and allowed state enterprises to be run like fiefs. The question is whether King Abdullah can convert his kingdom into a modern meritocracy.
The king has spent a good deal of time on matters of Middle East peace; he was instrumental in brokering the talks between Syria and Israel, Albright says, and he has spoken regularly with President Clinton on the subject. And he has repaired his country's strained relations with its Arab neighbors, visiting every Arab country except Iraq. He is regularly on the phone with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, one of his father's traditional rivals. Abdullah's energetic diplomatic efforts took the Egyptians by surprise. But to Abdullah, Mubarak, along with Yasir Arafat and the aging Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad, are yesterday's news. Steve Case and Bill Gates -- these are the friends he wants.
And so Abdullah is moving to reform the economy and make real his vision of the kingdom as the Internet capital of the Arab Middle East. But privatization is moving slowly, the king's own advisers have been warring with one
another and Jordan's bureaucracy is famously sclerotic and resistant to change.
Which is why we are in Zarqa today.
The taxi pulls up to the front gate of the finance offices, and the king and Prince Ali alight. They blend in with crowds of obviously frustrated taxpayers, who wait in line for clerks who aren't there or who, when they are there, do not seem all that interested in assisting the public. The king and Prince Ali spend five minutes banging on the closed door of the land-assessment office, which should have been open at this hour. Not a soul at the finance ministry even guesses he's here. At one point, the king, leaning on his cane, stands directly under his official portrait, the one that graces all government buildings in Jordan.
He spends an entirely unnoticed hour at the finance ministry before we move on to the government hospital. There, a fake television crew, sent by the royal court to stir up the crowd, interviews angry patients. The king's idea is simply to stand in a corner and listen to the complaints elicited by the crew. This works for quite a while. ''The doctors are O.K., but the CAT scan never works!'' one old man yells over the din.
Then something happens. Maybe it's the large number of very fit, very serious men in a sick ward, or maybe it's the presence of the television crew, but a ripple of excitement moves through the crowd. ''I think the king of Jordan is here,'' a teenage boy tells me. The bodyguards get antsy. The king walks down a hallway, followed by an increasingly sizable, increasingly confused crowd. No one knows precisely what to say. Finally an old woman yells out, ''May God grant you long life!'' and the jig is up. Elvis leaves the building, and we drive back to base.
Later, in General Sirhan's office, I ask the king if the bureaucrats of Zarqa are by now aware of their unannounced visitor.
''Yes, I think so.''
What should they be feeling about now?
''Panic,'' he says dryly.
How bad was it?
''You saw how people were being treated,'' he says. ''There was a complete lack of organization. There was one old man who was complaining that his form hadn't been dated, and he was getting sent to one office and then another. They should be sweating, because a report is going to go to the prime minister and then on to the relevant ministers about the problems.''
What he saw in Zarqa, he wants me to know, is not unique. ''You get this in a lot of bureaucracies, all over the place,'' he says. ''I was just watching 'Dharma and Greg' the other day and she was being sent up and down somewhere -- I think it was a registrar's office, and she wanted to solve a problem on a street she lived on. It's not unique.''
'' 'Dharma and Greg'?''
''It's a sitcom,'' he explains.
Utterly casual, disdainful of sycophancy and steeped in american culture, King Abdullah II is one of the Three Kings of what optimists might call the new Arab progressivism. Like King Mohammed VI of Morocco and the emir of Bahrain, Sheik Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, he ascended his country's throne in 1999, promising economic reform and modernization. Like growing numbers of young Arab technocrats, he is Western-educated. And like his peers, he is frustrated that the West's power brokers haven't yet paid sufficient attention.
''We're at a very interesting crossroads,'' the king says. ''Madeleine Albright asks, 'What can we expect of the younger generation in the Middle East?' And I always return by saying: 'Well, the younger generation was all educated in the West. We understand the West, so all of us are saying, what can we expect from the West?' ''
In 10 or 15 years -- when Mubarak and Arafat and Assad and Qaddafi are all gone -- Abdullah may well be the senior Arab statesman, and already there is talk that he could emerge as a kind of ''king of the Arabs'' (which was, in fact, the self-proclaimed title of his great-great-grandfather, Sharif Hussein, the ruler of Mecca).
When I ask him if he seeks such a role, he chastens me (not aggressively, because Abdullah is too polite to administer an enthusiastic chastening), denying any pretensions of pan-Arab leadership. He does, however, offer up his hope that Jordan could emerge as a yardstick other Arabs use to measure their own level of freedom.
''What I keep asking my friends in the States is, 'The U.S. had a long-term approach in Europe, a doctrine that worked in Europe, so how can we do the same thing again for these modern, progressive countries in the Middle East?''' the king says. ''You have to strengthen them, invest in them. We can be symbols for someone sitting in Yemen, who can say: 'I don't want my country to be like it is now. I want to be like the Jordanian model or the Bahraini model or the Moroccan model.' ''
''People in Baghdad,'' he notes, could also ''benefit from seeing this. How did the wall fall? East Germans looked into West Germany and said, 'Enough is enough.' We're trying to say the same thing.''
Though he has been king for only 12 months, Washington views him as an emerging heavyweight. He played a major role in bringing the Syrians and Israelis together, carrying messages between Assad and Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister, whom he talks to regularly. ''I told the Americans, 'Look, Assad is sincere, he wants to have peace and he wants you to know that,' ''the king recalled. ''They were very skeptical throughout the summer. They thought that I was new, maybe I was being nave. But if there's anything I know, I have at least some understanding of people, and the guy came across as genuine.'' A short time later, the Syrians and Israelis were sitting face to face in West Virginia.
But unlike his father, whose great game was the Middle East peace process, King Abdullah is more interested in what comes after the peace. ''The U.S. needs a doctrine for this region,'' he says. ''The U.S. could come in and, say, get Bahrain, the U.A.E., Qatar, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia. . . . Give us incentives to come together.'' The benefits to the United States are obvious: an alliance of modernist, outward-looking Muslim Arab states would counter the forces of anti-Americanism rampant in the region. Madeleine Albright thinks the king is on to something. Referring to the new kings, she said, ''He turned me on to looking at them as a group.''
What is unusual about this nascent reform movement is that in the main it comprises men who inherited their countries from Daddy. It is not the usual place for hereditary kings to push for reform, reform that could ultimately undermine the power of their own thrones. But this is the Middle East, and everything is inverted.
Many of the monarchies are, all things considered, benign; and the republics -- places like Iraq and Syria -- are run by despots desperate to see their sons follow them onto their jerry-built thrones. The king of Jordan, to be sure, is not Spain's King Juan Carlos, and he is certainly not Vaclav Havel. Abdullah seems genuinely interested in economic reform, but his taste for political reform so far seems limited. His regular undercover visits to hospitals and ministries, though motivated by a desire for change, owe more to populism than they do to ideals of a civil, democratic society.
Press freedom in Jordan is spotty: on the subject of the royal family, and its budget, the newspapers print what the royal court tells them to print. Then there is the persecution of Mustafa Hamarneh, the director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. Hamarneh was forced out of his job after publishing poll results that angered the prime minister. One poll found that most Jordanians feared criticizing their government.
The prime minister, Abdel Rauf Rawabdeh, is a traditional Jordanian pol, and he recently won -- or appeared to -- a nasty power struggle with the former chief of the royal court, Abdel Karim Kabariti, himself a former prime minister who is known to be a politically liberal advocate for Palestinian enfranchisement. (The prime minister and the chief of the royal court are, in theory, the king's two most important advisers.)
When I raised the matter with the king, he told me, ''Competition is good, but in this particular setup, it took a destructive turn. The chief of the royal court was more on his own agenda. I think he thought, There's a new guy running the show, I'll do my own thing.
''This was not a victory for the traditionalists,'' the king continued, slightly defensively. ''I think now the prime minister understands more than ever that if I've removed the head of the royal court, I'm quite prepared to remove the prime minister if he doesn't implement social reforms.''
That the king can remove the prime minister at will underscores the fact Jordan is, of course, no democracy: ultimate power rests with the king and the king alone. King Hussein fired prime ministers once every 11 months, on average, and the king has it within his power to dissolve the popularly elected Parliament.
As in much of the Arab world (see Algeria), the most strident agitators for democracy in Jordan are found among the Islamists. Still, even the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party, the Islamic Action Front, are loyal to the Hashemites. King Abdullah is himself not an excessively zealous Muslim. He fasts on Ramadan and prays, he says, every day. But like most of the Hashemites, he is the Muslim equivalent of high Episcopal.
Not long after becoming king, Abdullah did have to make sure that the Muslim Brotherhood stayed loyal in the face of wholesale infiltration of the group by Hamas. The brotherhood, like Hamas, is allied with the so-called anti-normalization forces opposed to King Hussein's peace treaty with Israel, but the Islamists, the king said, have always known where to stop.
''I told the Muslim Brotherhood, 'I have no animosities to anybody in Jordan, but I'm concerned that there are elements in society that are beginning to cross the line, and terrorism is a red line for me,' ''he said. ''I told them I hoped they weren't going to allow outside influences to affect an organization that was part of Jordanian society.''
They didn't listen. Intelligence sources say that, with Iran's backing, Hamas continued its plotting. ''They were warned 22 times,'' the king said. '' 'We know what you're doing, stop it, we know what you're doing, stop it.' Eventually, it got to the point where the government had to take the issue in hand.'' Which it did last fall, expelling several key Hamas activists from the country and shutting down Hamas offices in Jordan. Turning Hamas into his enemy does not come without danger for King Abdullah. Anti-Israel feeling runs deep in Jordan.
Queen Rania, somewhat surprisingly, is turning into a force for normalized relations with Israel. She is Palestinian -- her father is from Tulkarm and her mother from Nablus, both in the northern West Bank, and when she spoke to me about Israel, she was quite withering about people who are removed from the conflict but who counsel against peace.
''I'm close to the issue,'' she says. ''I have a higher appreciation for peace because I've seen what goes on there. It's very easy for people outside, Jews and Palestinians, to say they're against the peace process. They're not the ones who are suffering, both on the Israeli side and on the Palestinian side.''
As a child, she said, she would visit the West Bank, and she would also visit Israel proper. ''I used to visit Netanya, I'd visit all these Israeli cities, and I'd see how much pressure the Israelis were under because of security threats, and I'd see how much pressure Palestinians were under. I just don't have high regard for people who are very far away but make these judgments without knowing the true dimensions of the problem.''
King Abdullah has not yet visited Israel, and the Israelis, at least for public consumption, have expressed annoyance at his hesitancy. Some Israeli pundits have suggested that Abdullah seems more interested in developing a relationship with Qaddafi than with his next-door neighbor Barak. Asked about this, the king said: ''I had to establish my relationship with the Arab world first. What I'm doing will benefit Israel. If Arab countries look at Jordan with respect and Jordan has peace with Israel -- my friends in Israel have to understand that what I was doing was in their best interests.
''You know,'' the king says, mindful that his adversaries, even his friends, still underestimate him, ''I understand the game.''
One day in Amman, while reading some of the endless literature on the king's storied family, I came across this description, written by an English visitor to the region: ''His eyes had a confirmed twinkle; and though only 35, he was putting on flesh. It might be due to too much laughter. Life seemed very merry for Abdullah. He was short, strong, fair-skinned, with a carefully trimmed brown beard, masking his round smooth face and short lips. In manner he was open, or affected openness, and was charming on acquaintance. He stood not on ceremony, but jested with all comers in most easy fashion: yet, when we fell into serious talk, the veil of humor seemed to fade away. He then chose his words, and argued shrewdly.''
This passage is a dead-on sketch of Abdullah II, except that the Abdullah in question is King Abdullah I, the current king's great-grandfather and namesake, who was awarded the territory that became Jordan by the British after World War I. T. E. Lawrence wrote this 74 years ago, in his masterwork on the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks, ''Seven Pillars of Wisdom.'' Abdullah plotted the revolt; his father, Sharif Hussein, ruler of Mecca, was its inspiration.
I was so taken by my little literary discovery that I immediately mentioned it to the king. He seemed unimpressed, and reminded me that Lawrence did not particularly care for Abdullah I. (Lawrence was partial to Abdullah's younger brother, Feisal, the military leader of the revolt and the future king of Iraq.) He is acutely conscious of his lineage. After our discussion of T. E. Lawrence, he gestured to the wall before him, which was lined with portraits of his Hashemite ancestors. There were his father, Hussein; his grandfather, Talal, who was briefly king before mental illness forced him to abdicate; his great-grandfather, Abdullah I, and his great-great-grandfather, Sharif Hussein.
''One day,'' King Abdullah II said, ''I hope my picture is up there, and people say I continued the tradition of my forefathers.''
The Hashemites are perhaps the most noble family in Islam. For hundreds of years, they ruled -- in a comparatively enlightened manner -- the Hejaz, the strip of western Arabia that is home to Mecca and Medina. Only in the last hundred years did they lose control of Mecca, to the more fundamentalist House of Saud, which gave its name, and its particular brand of desert conservatism, to Saudi Arabia.
The Hashemites trace their lineage directly back to the prophet Muhammad through his daughter, Fatima, and beyond, to the tribe of Quraish. Hashem, who gave the dynasty his name, was Muhammad's great-grandfather.
If this sounds as if it could be burdensome to the computer-game playing, New Economy-minded king now running Jordan, he doesn't mind letting you know it is. ''It's a corny slogan,'' he said, ''but our purpose -- my great-grandfather's purpose, my father's purpose -- is to serve the people. It's a tremendous responsibility to be direct descendants of the prophet Muhammad. This family has had the burden of leadership on its shoulders for 1,400 years. I'm not going to drop the ball on my shift.''
Fealty to the memory of King Hussein and to the ideals of the Hashemite dynasty may explain why the whole house didn't come crashing down, taking Jordan with it, when King Hussein died last year.
''Other Middle Eastern families would have found themselves at each other's throats, literally, over the events of the past 12 months,'' says Robert Satloff, an expert on Jordan who runs the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. ''It's to the King's credit -- and Prince Hassan's, too -- that the family has stayed together.''
Seated in his grand office on the grounds of the Raghadan Palace, Prince Hassan, Abdullah's uncle who was in line to become king, has at least retained his sense of humor. When I tell him that I want to talk about two very different things -- I want to hear about his work fostering dialogue among the three Abrahamic faiths, but first I want to talk about the events of last January -- he laughs and asks, ''Do I really have to have the medicine?''
I ask him why he made no trouble when his own brother removed him from the line of succession. ''There are two taboos in my existence,'' the prince says. ''I don't mean to sound noble or conceited. One, once you've taken an oath of loyalty, there is no way around it. The other taboo is, I don't steal money. These are my guiding lights.''
No one better than Prince Hassan knows the price Hashemites pay for loyalty. His staff, which once stood at 80, has been halved. On his wall there is a poster that reads, ''Even Superman Is Clark Kent Most of the Time.''
Though Hassan's allies suggest his brother's change of heart was sudden, in retrospect it was never entirely clear that Hussein meant for Hassan to be king. Abdullah was crown prince for the first three years of his life. King Hussein gave Hassan the title only in 1965 -- altering the constitution to allow himself to name a brother, not just an eldest son, crown prince. King Hussein, according to his confidants, made the decision reluctantly, only after realizing that should he be assassinated, a real possibility at the time, with anti-Hussein feelings running high in the Arab world, it would be quite dangerous to make king a boy barely out of diapers. King Hussein is said to have never stopped contemplating restoring the crown princeship to Abdullah. Robert Satloff recalls a conversation he had with King Hussein in 1993, shortly before the time he proposed convening a council of Hashemites to discuss issues of succession.
''He didn't say specifically that he was going to remove his brother,'' Satloff told me, ''but he said he felt a heavy responsibility to right one of the great wrongs he committed in his life, which was the wrong he committed against his son Abdullah.''
Prince Hassan didn't help himself by opposing his brother's wish to convene the Hashemite men to debate the rules of succession. King Hussein worried, apparently, that as king, Hassan would appoint his own son, Rashid, his successor, rather than one of Hussein's sons.
It seems fairly clear that King Hussein seriously weighed changing succession long before his first bout with cancer, in 1992. But Abdullah, who has always maintained that he didn't want the job, says he picked up on rumors that he would be replacing Prince Hassan only in late 1998. And it wasn't until his father returned to Jordan in January 1999 from an extended stay at the Mayo Clinic, he says, that he knew the change in succession was imminent. His father, a master of discretion and surprise, communicated the change in typically unorthodox fashion, according to his son.
''I had pretty much known I was going to be crown prince for a couple of months. I had a heard from members of my family, 'The king is very proud of you and your achievements.' That was a message. But it was confirmed to me by the way my father had received me at the airport when he arrived home. He stepped off the plane and completely ignored me. In His Majesty's absence, some people had been bad and some people had been good. And you watched how he shook hands with people who had been bad, and how he walked straight past me, and I knew.''
There was, Queen Rania says, no joy in her house the day Abdullah learned definitively that he would soon be king.
''I was upstairs organizing some photographs when my husband came in and said, 'I'm going to be the crown prince,' ''Queen Rania recalled. ''I looked up at him and said, 'O.K.,' and then I continued organizing photographs. That was denial. I had an hour to let the implication sink in and see the positive side, but then, after an hour, we heard that His Majesty wasn't doing very well. We thought we were over the cancer, and everything would go back to normal.'' Two weeks later, her husband was king.
King Abdullah moved quickly to let the Hashemites know that he was in charge, and that family unity was paramount. His first act was to issue a decree -- as King Hussein wished -- naming Hamzeh, Hussein's elder son by Queen Noor, crown prince. A month later he elevated Rania from princess to queen.
The family, Abdullah says, quickly rallied around the new team. This is not as easy as it seems, because King Hussein had what might delicately be termed a complex personal life. He was married four times, and had children by all four wives. With his first wife, Dina, he had a daughter, Alia. After divorcing, he then married an Englishwoman, Toni Gardiner, who took the name Muna and bore four children: Abdullah; his younger brother, Faisal; and twin girls, Aisha and Zein. After divorcing Princess Muna -- who still lives in the royal compound, near Abdullah's palace -- Hussein married a Palestinian woman named Alia Toukan, who bore a son, Ali, and a daughter, Haya, before she was killed in a helicopter crash. Then came Noor (nee Lisa Halaby), an American-born graduate of Princeton who is the mother of Hamzeh, the 19-year-old named the crown prince; his brother, Hashem, 18; and two girls, Iman, 16, and Rayah, 13.
The siblings are, they say, unified. ''The five brothers are like the five fingers of a hand,'' Prince Ali says. ''If you're nice to us, it's an open hand. If you don't want to be nice to us, we become a fist.'' The king said: ''Jordan's got to survive, and it's going to survive with the brothers sticking together.''
Despite the apparent unity among the sons of Hussein, these are still uneasy days in the palaces of the Hashemites: prominent family members have been eclipsed, most obviously Prince Hassan and Queen Noor.
''Noor has a good role in Jordan and internationally,'' the king said, referring to his stepmother's energetic charity work. ''But things have changed. There's been a shift. The team is now Abdullah, his wife, Rania, and Crown Prince Hamzeh. That's the team.''
It is up to Rania, the brainy and also quite stunning new queen, to apply a little diplomatic finesse to an awkward situation. ''There's so much work to be done here,'' Rania says.
Amman is in many ways a small town -- the elite tend to live in one neighborhood, Abdoun, and the Abdoun chatterers are quite busy parsing the relationship between the two queens.
''People are going to look for negatives,'' Rania says. ''The idea of two queens is intriguing, but we have a very good relationship.''
Queen Noor has retained her title, but she seems conscious that her influence is diminished. ''I see us all being in transition,'' she told me as we sat in Bab-al-Salam (''the Gate of Peace''), the palace she shared with King Hussein. (''Palace'' is actually too grandiose a word for the houses of the Hashemites; they live well, but there are people in Amman who live better.) ''Abdullah and Rania and the new people coming in need to make an independent way for themselves. I'm trying to maintain a low profile.''
The king is similarly blunt on the subject of his once-powerful uncle.
''I give the ex-crown prince all the support I can, but he's not part of the executive team anymore,'' Abdullah told me. ''The difficulty he has is coming to terms with the fact that he's no longer No. 2.''
King Abdullah says the dysfunction between his father and his uncle extended well beyond issues of succession.
''In the old system, His Majesty had his policy and the crown prince tried to create his own policy,'' the king said. ''So, the system effectively created two bosses. His Majesty would give one directive and the crown prince would give totally different directives. It confused everybody.''
The ultimate question asked in palace circles, of course, is this: Why won't Abdullah one day do to his younger half brother Hamzeh what Hussein did to his younger brother Hassan? Won't he arrange to be succeeded by his own son?
Right now, all sides profess harmony. ''There's no byzantine quality here,'' Abdullah says of his relationship with Hamzeh. ''We're very close and we think the same way. My father maybe favored the two of us because I think we're both very much like him.''
On the other hand, Abdullah and Rania have a 5-year-old son, Prince Hussein, along with a 3-year-old daughter, Princess Iman. Hussein is a typically Americanized kid : when I last saw him, he was battling his uncle Hamzeh with a ''Star Wars'' light saber. But one day, he will be old enough to be crown prince, and that's when things could get interesting.
''You know, Satloff wrote a very interesting article about this,'' the king said, referring to Robert Satloff, the Jordan expert. ''I showed Hamzeh this paper. Satloff says that whatever Abdullah does and says will not convince the skeptics that what King Hussein did with Hassan would not happen again with Abdullah and Hamzeh. I told Hamzeh that I wanted him to read this. I've told Hamzeh: 'Look, I've got to make this work, you've got to make this work, we know what happened between Hassan and Hussein and why it didn't work. Let's use them as a model in a way, to make sure that you, Hamzeh, succeed.' ''
It is probably a relief to Abdullah that Hamzeh purports not to care at all about issues of succession. Hamzeh, who is easily the most earnest 19-year-old in the history of 19-year-olds, is known in Jordan to be the son who was closest to his father. He became fascinated early on in the workings of the royal court, and seldom left his father's side. In Amman, it is often said that, had King Hussein lived a few years longer, he would have made Hamzeh, not Abdullah, his successor.
''I was always trying to balance the time he was spending with his father by encouraging his father to encourage him to involve himself in a range of other activities with people his own age,'' Queen Noor remembers.
In an interview in the Basman Palace, near his father's grave, Hamzeh says he happily leaves his future in the hands of his oldest brother:
''Well, sir, His Majesty is my king. He is my older brother. I love him dearly, sir, and I would follow him anywhere. Whatever he chooses will be for the best of the country,'' he says, unrelentingly serious and completely, refreshingly archaic. Like his father, he addresses everyone as sir.
You don't care about being king at all?
''It doesn't matter at all.''
This is not, his mother says, public relations. ''Believe me,'' Queen Noor says, ''he doesn't know about spin. He really means what he says.''
When I ask Hamzeh if it ever crossed his mind simply to hang out for a while, like other 19-year-olds, his eyes grow wide. ''Hang out?'' he asks, astonished. ''Sir, by privilege of birth you are born into a responsibility and a duty, and it's an honor for me to be my father's son and to be born with a heritage that goes back over 1,000 years. It is a great responsibility to serve God Almighty and serve one's country and one's people with every ounce of energy -- and I pray to God Almighty that I will be able to serve them well.''
No hanging out, then.
This might change, though, if his brother gets a say. Next year, the plan calls for Hamzeh to begin his career as a college freshman. ''Harvard or Princeton, I hope,'' King Abdullah says. ''He needs to fall in love, get into a bar fight, that sort of thing. It'll be good for him.''
All Hashemites, it seems, find their way to America. The American influence in Jordan cannot be overstated. The United States is Jordan's biggest benefactor and most important ally. They agree about almost everything, except Iraq; Jordan, which broke with the U.S. during the Persian Gulf war, today supports an end to the United Nation sanctions. The level of intelligence cooperation between the two countries is extraordinary: the effective and, by Middle Eastern standards, elegant Jordanian intelligence service has become perhaps the C.I.A.'s most important partner in the fight against Islamic terrorism, far more important than the Israelis. Last year, sources in Jordan say, the Mukhabarat, the intelligence service, alerted the C.I.A. to at least three plots by Bosnia-based Islamic terrorists to attack U.S. targets in Europe. In December, the Jordanians also arrested 13 people associated with Osama bin Laden in connection with a suspected plot to attack Christian and American targets in Jordan. The C.I.A., these sources say, declares all of its agents in Jordan to the Mukhabarat, not even bothering to develop cover stories, as it usually does in closely allied countries.
Most of the Jordanian Army's top commanders have trained with the American military. (In 1983, King Abdullah spent six months at Fort Knox, where, his instructor, a Capt. Gary McFadden, wrote in a fitness report that ''Captain Abdullah is a great credit to the Jordanian Armed Forces and to the country of Jordan.'') In the royal court, searching for someone who did not spend time at Georgetown University can be a frustrating task.
But even in the highly Americanized royal court, Abdullah stands out as the most Americanized of them all. His English has a slight British accent, a product of his early English public-school education, but his vocabulary is idiomatically American, as are his cultural references. He is fluent in the language of American pop culture; he has well-formed opinions of dozens of new movies. ''I'm easily entertained,'' he says. ''I'll sit through just about anything.''
He is also very American in his distaste for excessive protocol. One time, while talking to him in his living room, I began a sentence with either the word ''yo'' or the word ''hey,'' for once catching myself midsentence. I told him I forgot for a moment he was king. ''Thank God,'' he said.
The great benefit of his seven years of American prep school, he says, was that his teachers and friends didn't particularly care he was a prince.
In fact, at his first prep school, the Eaglebrook School in Massachusetts, he was treated quite poorly by some students precisely because he was who he was.
''I had a slight problem because there was some prejudice,'' the king said. ''I never learned to fight in my life, but I had to learn quickly at Eaglebrook. In the first month, the two proctors came in and picked a student from my year and said, 'This guy is going to beat you up and we're going to watch.' The proctors said, 'You know, you're an A-rab.' The majority of students were Jewish. A lot of the Jewish students were very nice, but some of them had extremist views toward Arabs. So I didn't know how to fight, but I took a chance and jumped off the bed and I knocked the guy off his feet, and he knocked his head against the wall. Pure chance.''
There were others at Eaglebrook who picked on this diminutive Arab. As we talk in his office -- his dagger-carrying Circassian guards standing just outside -- the king momentarily loses himself in unhappy memories of his first New England prep school.
''There was a guy who was much bigger than me,'' he says. ''I still dream of the time I could find this guy. I'm sure he's a lot bigger than me, but I'm quite capable of handling myself now and I'd like to remind him of some of the things he did to me in school.''
One time, his father came visiting and saw evidence of his son's difficulties. ''I had this huge black eye,'' Abdullah recalls. ''He said, 'How did you get that?' I said I ran into a wall. He didn't believe me.'' (A few minutes after this interview concluded, the king's cousin, Princess Ghida, found me to say the king was worried I might think his views of Jews or of Israel have been colored by ancient prep-school unpleasantness. She was too clever, though, to say that some of the king's best friends are Jews, though he does, in fact, have Jewish friends. Most of the king's best friends are in fact Christian, which is something in this part of the world.)
By the time he began 10th grade at nearby Deerfield Academy, he was an expert wrestler, and his troubles had long since receded. ''The three best years of my life,'' he says of Deerfield.
In its 200-year history, Deerfield has always been most interested in character building, says one teacher, Jim Marksbury, a close friend of Abdullah's. At Deerfield, he was known simply as ''Ab.'' Abdullah, Marksbury says, fit in well: he was uninterested in receiving any special privileges. People knew who he was, but they didn't care.
''I remember meeting him for the first time,'' his classmate Perry Vella remembers. ''They said, 'This is Prince Abdullah of Jordan,' and I said, 'I'm Perry Vella of Queens.' And that was it.''
Deerfield, his former teachers say, shaped Abdullah into a bit of a Yankee.
''Good manners, sportsmanship -- knock a man over, you help him up -- the New England work ethic, these are the things that inform the school,'' Marksbury said. ''He didn't like ostentation.''
He willingly took his turn in the dining hall waiting tables, recalls the school's former head football coach and dining-hall manager, Jim Smith. ''People treated him like one of the guys,'' Smith says. ''He became really Americanized.'' The only duty Abdullah actively shirked, Smith remembers, was his weekly Arabic lesson, arranged for him by his father, who worried -- rightly, it would turn out -- that Abdullah's Arabic was inferior to his fluent, idiomatic English.
''This instructor, his name was Muhammad, would come over from U. Mass., and Abdullah would always hide from him,'' Smith says. ''After he left, Abdullah would appear out of a closet somewhere.''
When he went home to Amman for vacations, Abdullah became something of a Massachusetts Yankee in King Hussein's court, sharing with his father some of the ideas he had picked up.
''I had a lot of crazy and wild ideas that I wouldn't want to blame the American system for,'' he says, laughing. ''My father was always saying, 'Well, maybe you should think about that.' ''
When I pressed him, though, he wouldn't specify which ideas he took from America. He didn't mention press freedom or the separation of church and state. Which raises the question: Was the Americanization of Abdullah more a matter of style than of substance?
Here, he retreats into circumspection. ''I've benefited from the best of both societies and both cultures, East and West,'' he says. I realized later that I might have been expecting the impossible from him: after all, his business is the monarchy, which is the most un-American business of all.
So how does a man learn how to be a king?
''There's no Kingship 101,'' King Abdullah told me one day. ''But there are teachers. Usually your father or your grandfather. The best teacher I ever had was H. M.'' -- by which he means His Majesty, King Hussein.
Abdullah's full brother, Prince Faisal, a general in the Jordanian Air Force (and a 1985 graduate of Brown University), says: ''My brother would have loved a couple of years as crown prince. But he was better prepared than his father was for the throne.''
True, his father was only a teenager when he was crowned. But by the time King Hussein reached the age of 38 -- the age Abdullah is now -- he had watched his grandfather's assassination at the Al Aksa mosque in Jerusalem; he had fought, and lost, the Six-Day War; he had survived the murder of his cousin, the king of Iraq, which spelled the end of Hashemite rule in Baghdad; he had himself survived numerous assassination attempts; and he brought his country through Black September in one piece.
Abdullah has never been through tests like these. But he has been tested.
In 1987, when he was a 25-year-old armored corps officer, stuck out in Jordan's eastern desert, the army's commanders, never keen to have the king's son among them -- competition,'' Abdullah says today -- began a campaign of intense harassment designed to drive him into early retirement. ''Mine was the only company that would constantly be inspected,'' the king, who spent 18 years in uniform, recalled. ''In the middle of the night, they'd come in and inspect my unit, check my stores. I was the only one -- this was real harassment, but my soldiers were very loyal to me. After six months, the soldiers were paying the price. The final day of this, they came in to inspect my company. The battalion commander was in on this. They tipped the beds over, they stepped on my soldiers' shoes and then they went and struck one of my senior sergeants.
''I waited until the delegation went out -- this is the only time I've ever done this -- I went to my battalion commander and I pulled a gun out and stuck it to his head and said, 'Anybody comes to my company like that again I swear to God I'll shoot him.' They wouldn't come near me. They probably thought I was crazy. I was out there alone for the next three or four months.''
I told him his story sounded improbable -- how could the son of the supreme commander be treated this way?
''They knew that I wouldn't run to Daddy and complain,'' he said. ''I never did that in my life, and I wasn't about to start.''
King Hussein, it turned out, knew of his son's problems. Two of the late king's confidants said King Hussein was made aware of the harassment. ''It pained him, but he let it happen,'' one of the confidants, a high-ranking official in the current government, said. ''He wasn't going to intervene if his son didn't want him to.''
This incident, the confidant said, sealed Abdullah's reputation with his father: ''This was the test, and Prince Abdullah passed.''
Just hours after King Hussein died, on Feb. 7 of last year, Abdullah was standing before the Jordanian Parliament. Stone-faced, he swore an oath and became Jordan's fourth king. The next days were a whirlwind: his father's funeral, televised worldwide, was attended by dozens of kings, presidents and prime ministers, each of whom took time to meet with the new, young king. He says he never got a chance to mourn for his father. He told me this matter-of-factly, as if to say: this is the price you pay.
He did go on to tell me that, every so often, his father visits him in his dreams and brings him a message of comfort. ''I'm not a person who's really into spirituality, but I've had a couple of dreams that have been so unique,'' the king said. ''One of the times His Majesty came to me was the day I went to the Baqa camp, the Palestinian camp. I went just to tell Hamas: 'Oh, yeah, you think you have support here? Well, I have support, too.' That night, I had a dream that H. M. stepped off an airplane -- we were in Tanzania or something, I don't know why, you know how dreams are -- and he just came and gave me a big hug and said, 'I'm so proud of you.'''
When I first spent time with King Abdullah early last fall, it was clear that the work didn't intimidate him. But the title seemed to. ''There's still this thought in my mind that I'm holding the fort until His Majesty comes back,'' he said at one point. That thought seems to have dissipated. He is now very much the king.
Being king, however, is likely to become a more difficult job. The world made it rather easy for him during his first year. His father's old rivals, Arafat and Assad and the rest, kissed him on both cheeks and promised him their friendship. President Clinton made him feel at ease in the corridors of Washington power. The titans of the New Economy, perhaps intrigued by the exoticism of it all -- the Arab king of Deerfield, his beautiful wife with high-tech skills -- gave him a most respectful hearing.
And at home, he had the warm sympathies of his people.
But sympathy has a way of drying up in stagnant, corrupt places like Zarqa, and the region in which he rules remains tough and volatile, and the international businessmen he has met have so far extended him only their attention, not their money. The honeymoon will end, and the memory of King Hussein will grow more faint. Only then will the world see for sure if that king's final decision was the right one.
Room for Debate
Art & Design
N.Y.C. Events Guide
Fashion & Style
N.Y.C. Events Guide
Weddings & Celebrations
LISTINGS & MORE
Tools & Services
N.Y.C. Events Guide
Manage My Account