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Jordan’s new king
Without King Hussein, Jordan will be cut down to size. This will still leave King Abdullah with plenty to do
Feb 11th 1999 | AMMAN
A heavy legacy for Abdullah and his heir, Hamzeh
IN DEATH, as in life, King Hussein dominates Jordan. Even at the swearing-in of his son and successor, Abdullah, on February 7th, he remained the focus of attention. Before the ceremony, a workman, busy dusting the podium on which the new king was to take his oath of office, was called away to the more important task of wiping clean a nearby portrait of Hussein. King Abdullah himself lingered longer in silent tribute to his father's picture than over the oath itself. The wailing from the gallery at every mention of the old king outdid the applause at the inauguration of the new.
Jordanians seem consumed with genuine grief at the death of the man who had been their king for nearly half a century. During the three days he lay dying in an Amman hospital, thousands waited outside the gates. With the news of his death, crowds of young men surged through the streets chanting, “There is no god but Allah and Hussein is beloved by Allah.” The next day, perhaps a quarter of the population turned out for the king's funeral, plus an array of foreign dignitaries (see article).
How can the huge void left by the king's death be filled? Quite smoothly, at least to begin with. King Abdullah has been quick to affirm the policies of his father, including peace with Israel and a gradual (very gradual) process of democratisation. Although he was promoted only two weeks before he took over and has no political experience, he scarcely set a foot wrong during the very public diplomatic encounters at the funeral.
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Feb 11th 1999
King Hussein
Feb 11th 1999
His uncle and rival, Prince Hassan, who served as crown prince for 34 years before being unceremoniously sacked last month, both stood by his elbow and generously sent him an open letter of submission and support. Prince Hamzeh, his 18-year-old half-brother and the elder son of Hussein's widow, Queen Noor, was appointed crown prince. For the sake of stability, and out of respect for the dead king, the royal family, local politicians, ordinary Jordanians and a panoply of world leaders have rallied behind King Abdullah.
The support is not only moral. The United States has announced an extra $300m in aid to Jordan over the next three years. The United Arab Emirates has promised to deposit money in the Central Bank, and Saudi Arabia, which fell out with Jordan during the Gulf war over its forgiving stance towards Iraq, has promised to resume its once-huge handouts. Amman's stockmarket barely budged in the face of King Hussein's imminent death, and the Central Bank had little trouble defending the Jordanian dinar. Jordan has not missed a beat, either economically or politically.
In the long run, however, change is inevitable. Although Jordan is theoretically a constitutional monarchy, its parliament has always acted on the initiative of the king. During King Hussein's recent seven-month absence in America for cancer treatment, an air of paralysis hung over the country. The government of the day lost popularity over a scandal about contaminated water, but Jordan's political institutions were unable to cope with the crisis. King Hussein had to intervene from his sickbed to sack the prime minister and appoint a replacement.
Given the new king's lesser experience and stature, he will find it hard to rule in such a hands-on manner. Already some liberal members of parliament are calling for a revision of the restrictive press and electoral laws, both of which were linchpins of King Hussein's system of limited democracy. Although King Abdullah seems to share his father's suspicion of political freedom, the role of future governments and parliaments is likely to expand in the face of his inexperience.
Nor can the new king hope to exert anything like the influence his father had on the world stage. In the past 18 months, King Hussein forced Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, to release the spiritual leader of Hamas in exchange for captured Israeli spies, faced down Syria's iron-willed President Hafez Assad in a vitriolic propaganda war, persuaded both Bill Clinton and his Iraqi counterpart, Saddam Hussein, to give Jordan financial aid, and intervened personally to secure the agreement at Wye between Yasser Arafat and sceptical Israeli negotiators. It is hard to imagine King Abdullah holding his own against such seasoned politicians, let alone wringing concessions from them.
President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, epitomising the faint air of condescension exuded by many of the Arab leaders at the funeral, called the 37-year-old king “a very good young man”. In short, Jordan, bereft of its famous ruler, will be cut down to size. King Abdullah will have to concentrate on domestic affairs, attempting to improve the faltering economy of a small, poor, desert country with few natural resources. Unemployment has reached fully 15%, and economic growth is non-existent. Various privatisation schemes have stalled, along with IMF-inspired liberalisation—and the present cabinet is closely associated with the sidelined Prince Hassan.
King Hussein won the affection of most Jordanians not through his labours as an international statesman but as someone who cared about and, over the course of his reign, improved the living standards of his subjects. The fate of his dynasty rests on the new king's ability to provide for the masses who flocked to his father's funeral.
This article appeared in the International section of the print edition
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