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Jordan: A Moderate's Role
Jordan's King Hussein, cautious protector of more than a million Palestinian refugees, nonetheless clings to his strong ties with the West and with Israel

by Milton Viorst

THE capital of Jordan is a mountain-top oasis in what geographers call the Syrian desert. It is a city of open spaces and well-washed streets, of soaring high-rises and superhighways that leap across ravines, of nightclubs and flower gardens and neon signs. Occasionally a hooded woman glides by, the hem of her robe brushing the sidewalk. Now and then the perfume of Oriental spices enriches a breeze. But a more common sight is a teenager in blue jeans on a motorbike, and exhaust fumes are a more pervasive odor. As Middle Eastern cities are measured, Amman is far from exotic, and decidedly bourgeois.

When Amman emerged from historical oblivion after World War I, it was a village like others in the desert, save for a glorious Roman amphitheater around which were clustered the squalid homes of its 3000 inhabitants. In biblical times, it had been the seat of Israel's rivals, the Ammonites, about whom a testy God once said to Moses (Deut. 23:6), "You shall never seek their welfare or their good will all your life long." During the Roman era it became a wealthy market town, and with the coming of Christianity it served as the seat of influential bishops. Then, in 635, Amman passed to the conquering Arabs, under whom it receded into obscurity.
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  • The Hashemite dynasty rediscovered Amman. A noble Arabian family claiming descent from the Prophet, the Hashemites led a cavalry column that joined up with Britain's army to defeat the Ottoman Turks in 1917. On the establishment of the British mandate in the region, they were rewarded with an emirate for the Hashemite prince, Abdullah. Abdullah named his domain, a desert expanse east of the Jordan River, "Transjordan," and fixed its capital at Amman. When the mandate was dissolved in 1946, he took the title of king.

    Alone among the Arab rulers of the region, Abdullah showed some sympathy for the Jews who, following a biblical injunction, were resettling across the Jordan in Palestine. Never secure on his throne, he saw them as potential allies -- a view presently shared by his grandson Hussein -- against the Arab neighbors who threatened him. His regard for the Jews did not stop him from attacking during Israel's war of independence, or from seizing the land set aside in 1948 under the UN partition plan for Palestinian rule. Having added the West Bank's fertile fields to the East Bank's desert, he renamed his kingdom "Jordan." Then, to the dismay of his Arab peers, he hinted that he was ready for peace (though he never realized the dream) with the new Jewish state.

    By now Amman, having pushed its boundaries out from the Romans' amphitheater, was a thriving city of 400,000. The Hashemites, though pious Moslems, had proved to be modern and Westernized in their style of rule. With British help, they saw to it that municipal services kept pace with population. Today the city numbers nearly a million, but, if downtown Amman shows a dignified shabbiness from age, little of it qualifies as a slum. Amman is one of those rare cities, East or West, that convey a sense of being well governed.

    Amman became a boomtown, however, only after petrodollars began pouring into the Arab world. Even the minarets on today's skyline are new, and steel scaffolds continue to intrude unattractively upon the landscape. The shops bulge with food, fashions, and imported gadgets. Peugeots and Mercedes race for space in the traffic circles. Amman has no unemployment. In fact, short of labor, it has become the host to Egyptians who tend the gardens, to Koreans who raise the skyscrapers, to Filipinos and Pakistanis who wait on the tables and clean the rooms in the Intercontinental and the Holiday Inn.

    The message of this often frenetic pursuit of wealth, as King Hussein makes clear, is that Jordan is not interested in war. Its cities are a few minutes from Israel's bomber bases. Its new potash works on the Dead Sea are within range of Israel's artillery, and its new dam on the Yarmuk is an easy target for Israel's rockets. As an Arab, Hussein cannot forget the Palestinians, but, as Abdullah's disciple, neither can he dismiss the Jews. "Palestinians should recognize the rights of Israel to exist," he told a group of reporters recently. "And shouldn't Israel also recognize the rights of the Palestinians on the soil of their homeland?'' Hussein would like nothing more than an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that would relieve him of the worry of fighting on his western flank.

    Born in 1935, Hussein was crowned twenty-eight years ago, at the age of eighteen. To foreigners, he is perhaps best known as the diminutive king who flies his own plane and has survived repeated assassination attempts. Inside the kingdom, he is respected for intelligence, piety, and courage. In his years as king, he has never been touched by scandal, and his government is probably as free of corruption as any in the Third World. He is no democrat, but he has also shown no taste for tyranny or conquest. Twice divorced, once widowed, he is currently married to the former Lisa Halaby, an American who recently gave birth to his eighth child, a son. If his rule has any overriding purpose, it is surely to pass on his throne intact to his Hashemite heirs.

    Until Ali, his five-year-old son, comes of age, the heir apparent is Hussein's thirty-four-year-old brother, Oxford-educated Crown Prince Hassan. The king has deputized Hassan with increasing powers in the crucial areas of security, the economy, and foreign affairs. Hussein has such love and esteem for his brother, some say, that if the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is settled to Jordan's satisfaction, he may one day abdicate to him. I met with Hassan in the royal palace, a complex of low-lying, neatly tended, closely guarded buildings spread over a forested hillside in central Amman. Instead of the forbidding man I had expected from the fierce eyes and dark beard of his photograph, I found him quite relaxed, even jovial, given to broad pronouncements softened with wit.

    Hassan, though critical of Israel, scrupulously avoided the strident language common to so many Arab leaders. He refrained from denouncing the Camp David agreement while deploring its "inadequacy" for achieving Arab objectives. What stands in the way of Jordan's participation in the peace process, he said, is not the negotiating framework but Israel's persistent refusal to yield anything to Palestinian aspirations.

    "It is not in our interest to see instability anywhere in the region," Hassan said. "But centrism has a difficult time ahead. Not only is there a polarization between left and right and a growing ethnocentrism among those who live here in the Middle East, there is also the possibility of a confrontation between the superpowers, especially with oil as an igniting element. That's why, to Jordan, the major threat is conflict proceeding from the absence of a comprehensive political settlement."

    King Hussein, like Hassan, recognizes of course that Jordan, surrounded on all sides by more powerful rival states, is too small to survive in political isolation. From the start, Jordan has been a client state, maneuvering for room within a framework of dependence. Beholden first to Great Britain, it became the recipient, after the British retreat from the Middle East, of America's philanthropy. Its status shifted again after OPEC's price revolution in 1973, when its oil-producing neighbors, most notably Saudi Arabia, began furnishing subsidies far in excess of those ever bestowed by the West. Under an agreement that extends into the late 1980s, Jordan now receives from the treasures of the Gulf $1.25 billion a year, which is nearly half the national income. Without oil, Hussein has thus succeeded in becoming a beneficiary of the Arab oil bonanza.

    The quid pro quo for these benefits is, according to a declaration of the Arab summit, Jordan's services as a "confrontation state." In the past, Hussein has been a reluctant soldier in the wars with Israel. Jordan sat out the Sinai campaign of 1956. In the Six-Day War of 1967, Hussein came late to the battlefield, and proceeded to lose his West Bank provinces. In the Yom Kippur war, six years later, Jordan's participation was limited to a small force sent in support of Syria on the Golan Heights. Yet, despite its unimpressive record against the Israelis, Jordan's army is considered one of the toughest in the Arab world.

    In reality, Jordan's chief obligation to its benefactors consists of confrontation not with Israel but with its Arab neighbors, Syria and Iraq. Like Jordan, the oil autocracies of the Persian Gulf -- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates -- see a more immediate threat to their security from these two maverick Arab states than from Israel. The Gulf States pay Jordan for an armed force whose mission is less to do battle with the Jews than to safeguard an uneasy peace among the Arabs.

    Fundamental to this peace is the stability of the Hashemite throne itself, which Hussein is astute enough to understand cannot be preserved by arms alone. Throughout most of his reign he had to contend with a social turbulence that was, in part, the consequence of widespread poverty. When the petrodollars started rolling in, he decided to invest the bulk of them in a program of economic growth.

    HUSSEIN'S preoccupation, then and now, was the million or more Palestinians, half the population of the kingdom, who crossed the Jordan in the wars of 1948 and 1967. These refugees greatly reduce his freedom to maneuver. They are different from the desert dwellers of the East Bank, mostly Bedouin in origin, the native constituents of the Hashemites. The Palestinians come from the fertile side of the river and, long exposed to Western culture, their traditions are not only agrarian but also commercial and intellectual. With no intrinsic loyalty to Hussein, they tend to measure the monarchy by its effort in helping them regain the homeland from which they fled.

    From the start, Jordan treated Palestinian refugees more generously than did other Arab states in which they found refuge. Hussein chose not to isolate them in sordid camps, perpetuating their dependency. He invited them to take posts in the civil service and in teaching, to establish businesses, to own land and attend the universities, to live where they liked. He granted them citizenship, and allowed them to travel around the world on Jordanian passports to plead the Palestinian cause. He excluded them only from positions of political power, by retaining the major governmental posts, along with control of the army and the police, in faithful Jordanian hands.

    Early indications suggested that his generosity was a mistake. Palestinians gravitated not into Jordanian society, as Hussein had hoped, but into their own state-within-a-state, a menace to his throne. The Palestine Liberation Organization seized control of the refugee camps and segments of the countryside, while its commandos roamed the cities at will. Hussein's army finally challenged the PLO in "Black September," 1970. While Israel's army, mobilized at the frontier, kept the Syrians at bay -- vindicating Abdullah's strategy -- Hussein defeated the PLO forces in bloody battle and drove them out of the country. Still, Hussein desisted from a policy of repression, and when the Gulf states offered to shore up his monarchy with their newly acquired wealth, he used the money to divert the Palestinians to work.

    Hussein's investments are the fuel for Jordan's economic acceleration. The state has put huge sums into heavy and light industry, irrigation to open new land, railroads, power plants, telephones, a new international airport, and expansion of Jordan's only port, Aqaba, on the Red Sea. Jordanian television, particularly popular in Israel, is beamed throughout the Middle East. New waterworks slake Amman's ever growing thirst, and caravans of trucks cross the desert on newly paved roads to Damascus, Baghdad, and the Arab cities of the Persian Gulf.

    Still, as experience throughout the Third World has shown, public investment has limited value without hardworking and efficient manpower. "The loss of land by a predominantly agricultural society," a prominent Palestinian intellectual explained to me, "drove it to compensate by searching for more secure and reliable ways to earn a living." Palestinian exiles are the engine of Jordan's economic boom.

    Most Palestinians are graduates of the excellent network of schools established for the refugees by the UN, and Palestinian families are renowned for saving money to send their sons to universities. The ratio of university degrees among Palestinians is triple that of the Arab world. Palestinians tend to combine good education with ambition and industry and an aptitude for business and management. Their services are in demand not only in Jordan but in every oil-rich Arab country.

    As the economies of the oil states have developed, in fact, the migration of Palestinians from Jordan has quickened. Today, an estimated half-million Palestinians with Jordanian passports work abroad, more than in Jordan itself, at salaries that would have seemed incredible before the petrodollar deluge. All of these newly rich countries, sensing a loosening of tradition and political power, seem apprehensive of Palestinian dynamism. Even now, Jordan alone has extended the privileges of citizenship to the Palestinians, and some countries, by such measures as forbidding the company of wives and children, make life for them extremely austere. Few Palestinians are likely to remain permanently in these OPEC lands, but as long as the boom lasts, a great many of them will continue to find jobs.

    Each year, these expatriates send back about $800 million to stoke Jordan's prosperity. The government has little control over this money, too much of which goes into real estate speculation and imported consumer items such as cars and TV sets. Yet the economy appears sound: inflation is 14 percent, modest by worldwide standards, and the currency is stable. Most important, despite the level of speculation and consumption, Jordan's banks are so awash with cash that they have plenty left over for productive investments.

    The investors, big and small, are overwhelmingly Palestinians. Whether clothing factories or machine shops or grocery stores, their establishments have enlarged the Palestinian stake in Jordan. The consequence has been an increasing identification of the Palestinian community with Hussein, imparting to the regime a kind of practical legitimacy. Within the past two or three years there has been much less talk among the Palestinians of crossing the river to go home.

    SLOWLY, with hardly anyone's noticing, Jordan's prosperity has transformed the problem of the Palestinian refugees. The prospect of several million Palestinians migrating back across the Jordan to reclaim old homes has, since independence in 1948, paralyzed the Israelis. The 100,000 Palestinians still living in sordid camps in Lebanon, along with the 25,000 or so encamped in Syria, may continue to dream of the world as it once was. But most refugees -- the million or more who fled to Jordan -- have established roots where they live, and few are likely to go back.

    The refugee problem has not vanished, but new conditions require that it be redefined. The Palestinians believe as strongly as ever that their lands were snatched from them inhumanly and illegally. Through the United Nations, the world still recognizes their rights as refugees, which they will not give up. Although the UN's camps have been largely depopulated, few Palestinians have allowed themselves to be scratched from the refugee rolls. To most of them, the UN's refugee card is an IOU from the international community, legitimizing a right of indemnity, if not of repatriation. But the fact that more Palestinians seem ready to accept indemnity in place of repatriation today makes the refugee problem less intractable than it once appeared.

    To Hussein, this change among the Palestinians seems, logically, to have moved peace with Israel a giant step closer, yet peace remains distant. I occasionally heard in Amman that the king wants to consummate a mission conveyed to him by his grandfather Abdullah. But he cannot make peace with Israel without first finding a formula acceptable to the Palestinians living in his kingdom, and so far he and the Israelis have not come close to agreeing on one.

    The Carter administration seemed to forget Hussein's Palestinian dilemma when it assumed he would join the Camp David peace talks in 1978. American negotiators believed that Camp David provided a reasonable framework for the attainment of Palestinian goals. But to the Palestinians, Camp David was a devils' bargain by which Israel restored Sinai to Egypt in return for legitimation of its own rule on the West Bank and in Gaza.

    Hussein's advisers in Amman told me that the king was at first intrigued by Camp David's promise of "full autonomy" and, within five years, the establishment of a regime that would "recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people." The phrase was the same one the Palestinians themselves used. But when Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin announced that the vows made at Camp David excluded any prospect of real autonomy, much less the progression to a sovereign Palestinian state, Hussein rejected all participation. Plausibly, he reasoned that a million angry Palestinians would never acquiesce in his sanctioning a process that seemed likely to prolong Israeli rule.

    Though Hussein has spurned repeated pleas from Washington to reconsider, he has taken pains to maintain relations on a cordial level. Since Camp David he has twice visited the United States. He regularly consults with the American ambassador in Amman, a shrewd and engaging professional named Nicholas Veliotes. The embassy staff finds Jordanian officials accessible, the post useful for monitoring the Palestinian community and much of the Arab world, Amman a trifle dull but very friendly. After Camp David, the Carter administration continued a program of $60 million in aid to Jordan, and last year promised to deliver new tanks to the Jordanian army. But compared to the petrodollar infusion, American bounty is small, and Camp David simply confirmed Hussein's attachment to the Arab camp.

    When Iraq attacked Iran, then, Hussein's first priority was to safeguard his Arab flank. Though he had nothing to gain by going to war for Iraq, he had much to lose if Arabs started warring against one another. Perverse as ever, Syria sided with Iran. But Jordan's other Arab neighbors, irritated by the shrill cries of Iran's ayatollahs, took the more natural course and rallied around Iraq.

    By assuming a leadership role, Hussein enhanced his credentials and acquired, among his Arab peers, room to maneuver. In the process he provoked Syria, which replied -- chiefly as a diversion from its own internal problems -- with a dubious threat of invasion. Yet Hussein never considered sending troops or arms to Iraq. He cheered enthusiastically for Iraq and stepped up the flow of supplies along the Aqaba-to-Baghdad road, which had been built with Iraqi money anyway. He exhorted the Arab world to unity, hardly a risk. Otherwise, Hussein did nothing.

    AFTER Camp David, Hussein had argued that, in the interests of credibility, the Arab states must undertake a peace initiative of their own. He thought he had achieved something of a victory in Baghdad several months later, when the Arab summit went on record for the first time in favor of "the Arab nation's commitment to a just peace," based on separate Israeli and Palestinian states. But the United States paid no attention, and Israel cited the statement's conditions rather than its concessions. As for the Arab governments themselves, they later denied any suggestion of a retreat, and so the attempt at initiative died.

    Like Israel, Hussein looks upon the prospect of a Palestinian state with trepidation. He cannot forget that, but for "Black September," the PLO would have driven him from power, and he recognizes that an aggressively nationalistic Palestinian state could turn east as well as west in search of adventure. On orders from the Arab summit of 1974, he accepted the preeminence of the PLO as Palestinian spokesman, and he conspicuously refrains from criticizing the organization for fear of offending the Palestinians in his kingdom. But he has had no dealings with the PLO since 1970, and only in the past year or so, in the interests of Arab solidarity, has he consented to restore even the facade of a formal relationship.

    Meanwhile, Hussein has quietly begun to challenge the PLO on the West Bank, from which his army ignominiously retreated fourteen years ago. Prince Hassan assured me that the king had always recognized his "ongoing de jure responsibilities" toward the West Bank, but only since the PLO's decline has he started exercising them again. Palestinians recognize that the PLO's guerrilla campaign, though bloody, has been no more than a nuisance to Israel. The PLO's diplomatic displays have led nowhere. Increasingly under Syrian patronage, the PLO has joined Damascus since the start of the Iraq-Iran war in becoming alienated from the Arabs' political mainstream. Under the curious rules by which Israel's army occupies the West Bank, Jordanian officials have begun to return. No doubt with the tacit approval of his oil-rich patrons, and of Israel, Hussein has thus signaled an intention to reassert a claim to speak for the Palestinians in any peace deliberations.

    The men around Hussein insist that, though Jordan's perceptions are different from Israel's, its interests are not. What Hussein sees is that the Palestinians cannot be denied the right to their own state, and the PLO cannot be excluded from it. But he also believes that Palestinians living in a state of their own would, ultimately, prove to be as bourgeois in their outlook as those within his kingdom. As Hassan said to me, whatever the dangers of a Palestinian state, they are less than the dangers that derive from the instability of not having one. Most of the men around Hussein believe that the Palestinians would be quick to accept a moderating association with Jordan and that, once Israel conceded the principle of withdrawal, guarantees assuring the security of both the Hashemite kingdom and the Jewish state could be easily negotiated.


    Copyright © 1981 by Milton Viorst. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; March 1981; Jordan: A Moderate's Role; Volume 247, No. 3; pages 4-11.

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