Philip Mansel reviews Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace by Avi Shlaim
On 2 May 1953 two 18-year-old cousins were enthroned as kings, in Baghdad and Amman respectively. Faisal II of Iraq, the intelligent ruler of a wealthy country, seemed destined for a great future. Hussein of Jordan, king of a penniless backwater, described by his housemaster as ‘not a success at Harrow’, seemed bound to fail. It was the former, however, who was murdered with his family in 1958. The latter survived countless assassination attempts and died a revered world statesman in 1999. The secret, as Avi Shlaim shows in this complex, readable, important biography, was luck, character, the charm of ‘exceptionally gracious manners’ — and a good army.
Avi Shlaim is the sort of historian every country needs. An exposer of national myths, the supreme scholar of Arab-Israeli negotiations, he has already shown how King Hussein’s grandfather King Abdullah planned the partition of Palestine with Zionist leaders before 1948. This biography is based on archives in London, Washington and Tel Aviv (British diplomatic despatches are the best). Shlaim has also interviewed many leading figures, including King Hussein himself, the present King, members of the royal family and General Ali Shukri, head of the King’s private office in 1976-99. For many years it will remain the standard work on King Hussein.
Shlaim does not hide the King’s faults. Though ready with phrases such as ‘the monarchy belongs to the people’, he was more interested in foreign affairs than in the state of the economy or the welfare of his subjects. Jordan’s lack of resources meant that he had to be a fundraiser-in-chief, helping Jordan obtain subsidies from, in turn, Britain, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The King himself received cash from the CIA ($3 million a year in the 1960s) and, later, from Saddam Hussein, as well as commissions on some contracts. At times there was an ‘air of complete financial unreality’ among corrupt officials in the palace. King Hussein was not averse to the ‘politics of zeal’. In 1967 Jordanian radio attacks on Nasser for ‘hiding behind the skirts’ of United Nations forces helped push Nasser towards war and thus helped lead to Jordan’s loss of the West Bank.
A professor of international relations at Oxford, Shlaim sees events through the prism of his discipline. He uses the phrases ‘the Israelis’ or ‘the Americans’ as shorthand for sections of those governments. Negotiations dominate the book: the Reagan Plan, the Rogers Mission, the Camp David Accords and other forgotten ‘turning-points’. The constitution gave the King wide powers over parliament and ministers. Yet the army was the key, as was shown on 20 July 1951 when Hussein’s beloved grandfather King Abdullah was murdered before his eyes by a Palestinian. As politicians scattered ‘like bent old terrified women’, as he described them, a medal on his uniform and loyal guards saved his life. There could have been more description of the King’s relations with his army, the organisation of his court and office, and his private life. We do learn that he liked Scottish dancing, was president of the Amman Go-Kart club, and, to the dismay of some of his passengers, piloted his own planes.
Brought up in Israel, Avi Shlaim is disappointed by Israeli governments. He shows how often, in his words, ‘Israeli brutality was thus fully matched by Israeli mendacity.’ When describing Israeli politicians, the word ‘intransigent’ recurs with depressing regularity. Eshkol, Eban and Rabin are the only Israeli politicians who emerge well. The Israeli policy of ‘an eye for an eyelash’, hyper-retaliation for guerrilla attacks, helped lead to future conflicts. The more secure Israel felt, wrote King Hussein after a lifetime of negotiation with its leaders, the more intransigent it became. ‘The only opinions Israelis had to listen to were internal ones’. Arab incompetence and mendacity during the wars of 1967 and 1973 are also fully described. Occasionally, for example over his belief that Saddam Hussein would have withdrawn from Kuwait in 1990, and in his trust in interviewees’ versions of events, Shlaim is too indulgent in his judgments.
Surrounded by zealots, King Hussein was, most of the time, an oasis of realism. His vulnerability led to a refreshing absence of self-righteousness. He advocated financial compensation for Palestinian refugees, most of whom, in his opinion, would not want to return. Far from Israel being surrounded by enemies, we find King Hussein initiating meetings with Israeli leaders, which took place in a caravan in the desert, at sea, or in the house of his London doctor. When his throne was threatened by the PLO in 1970, he asked for Israeli help. In that crisis, yet again, London and Washington felt that he would not survive. However, he was a master of timing, giving the PLO enough rope to hang itself (and try to murder him) before sending in his well-trained troops.
His vulnerability and love of pleasure may have increased his flexibility and his negotiating skills. He could stand up to Israel and the US because he knew them well. Coming from a cosmopolitan Arab dynasty, he was the first truly global leader, not just visiting, but maintaining multiple residences in England, Washington and Switzerland as well as in Jordan. His London residence was near the Israeli embassy. One Israeli report compared the King to a man trapped on a bridge burning at both ends, with crocodiles in the river beneath him.
Nevertheless the King’s warmth and humanity, the two words constantly applied to him, charmed those who met him: his own staff, American hospital workers, many Israelis. In 1992, during the first Gulf war, even Yitzhak Shamir, then Prime Minister of Israel, said that King Hussein’s word was enough for him. Among Middle East leaders at a White House meeting, Clinton thought him physically the weakest, but morally the strongest. The King’s ‘over-arching aim’, Shlaim writes, was the survival of his dynasty. To this end even his own brother, the loyal and competent Crown Prince Hassan, was dismissed and attacked by the King in a public letter. As an Arab proverb says, ‘there are no relationships in the families of kings’.
Thanks to King Hussein, Jordan, originally a dynastic accident, is perhaps even more of a miracle than Israel. Shlaim shows that a King with a love of cash and fast cars could do more for peace — therefore for the lives of ordinary people — than many incorruptible idealists. Many will hope that Israel, as well as Arab countries, will find leaders as unvengeful, unfanatical and capable of seeing other points of view, as King Hussein — and, what is perhaps less likely, that such a leader will survive fanatics’ bullets. Avi Shlaim is pessimistic. He describes the Balfour Declaration as ‘one of the worst mistakes in British foreign policy’ which ‘sowed the seeds of a never-ending conflict in the Middle East’. King Hussein was more optimistic.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 12, 2008