Playing a weak hand well

Jordan’s Hashemite kings and the United States
September 27 2021

The American interaction with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has revolved around two men, King Hussein, and his son King Abdallah. Both have ruled a Jordan that is surrounded by ambitious states, some with rapacious designs on Jordan’s territory over the years. Syria has longed to reunite Jordan with its traditional Syrian homeland. Iraq has had designs on the whole country. Saudi Arabia has sought to gain Aqaba and Ma’an in the south. Egypt sought for years to absorb Jordan into the United Arab Republic. Israel has taken the West Bank and contemplated taking the Jordanian Golan.

All of Jordan’s neighbors have stronger economies and bigger militaries. Jordan is bereft of natural resources aside from its fabulous archaeological sites in Jerash and Petra. It is very dependent on outside aid, first from Great Britain, then from America and the Gulf states. It still is dependent on outside assistance to maintain its small but effective army and air force and to keep the economy stable.

King Hussein

King Hussein in uniform in 1953. Source: King Hussein I Photo Bank.
King Hussein in uniform in 1953. Source: King Hussein I Photo Bank.

Hussein inherited the kingdom at the tender age of 17. No one expected him to last. But Hussein proved to be a survivor above all else. He literally survived multiple assassination attempts including by the Egyptians, Syrians, and Palestinians as well as his own military. He survived an Israeli air attack on his palace in June 1967. His personal courage was never in doubt from the moment he witnessed his grandfather Abdallah’s murder in Jerusalem in 1951. That bravery impressed every American president from Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton.

He could also be impulsive. His first marriage was a poor decision made recklessly against his mother’s advice. He almost went to war with Israel in 1956 and then did go to war in 1967 with disastrous consequences for the country. The legacy of his decision in 1967 to fly to Cairo, hand over control of the Jordanian army to Egypt and then fight a hopeless war remains with us to this day in the occupation of the West Bank. Fortunately, he was also a learner: a man who learned from his mistakes and did not usually repeat them. He wisely stayed out the 1973 war except for a token deployment to help the Syrians, and kept the Israelis sidelined in the civil war in 1970 known as Black September.

Hussein could also be blind to a friend’s failings. This was most apparent in his relationship with Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and up to 1995. Despite the advice of Crown Prince Hassan and probably Queen Noor, Hussein stood by Saddam throughout the Iran-Iraq War and the two years after. In August 1990, the king took an accommodating view towards the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, costing Jordan its relations with the United States, United Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia and gaining virtually nothing in return. His people supported Iraq enthusiastically, so he felt little choice. Hussein acknowledged his error after 1995 by supporting efforts to oust Saddam.

Black September

Some of the darkest days in Jordan’s history, Black September, also known as the Jordanian Civil War, was a conflict fought in September of 1970 between the Jordanian Armed Forces and Palestine Liberation Organisation, who had begun to openly call for the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy. The war would culminate in a cease-fire with favorable terms to King Hussein that were critical to the survival of the royal family.

Iraq was always a problematic neighbor. The February 1958 unification of the two Hashemite kingdoms was the happiest day in Hussein’s life; the coup that killed the Iraqi branch of the family in September 1958 was the worst day. Hussein nourished the hope throughout his life of bringing Iraq back under the Hashemite flag. It is easy to see why Hussein sought to turn the clock back to before July 14, 1958: Together, Iraq and Jordan would be a formidable power in the region; add Kuwait and it would be a superpower in the Middle East. But it was not to be.

Hussein also had a rocky relationship with another Arab strongman, Egypt’s Gamal Abd al Nasser. He first was entranced by Nasser’s anti-colonial posture, then he was the target of many Nasserist coup plots and assassination attempts. He rallied behind Nasser in May 1967 only to lose half his kingdom. But then Nasser supported him during Black September, the darkest days in Jordan’s history, convening a cease-fire on favorable terms to Hussein that was critical to the survival of the Hashemite monarchy.

The king was also his own intelligence chief. After sacking the British commander of his army known as Glubb Pasha in 1956, Hussein was literally the intelligence chief in the kingdom for years. When he finally did appoint chiefs, they became immensely powerful entities in their own right but always dependent on the king’s approval. Hussein supervised their behavior closely; most left under a cloud of suspicion. Hussein enjoyed the derring-do of intelligence; he was often closer to the Central Intelligence Agency’s representative in Amman than to the ambassador. In 1995, he made peace with Israel using the Mossad, pointedly excluding the Israeli foreign minister. The CIA helped Hussein survive in power more than once, starting with the intelligence in 1958 that foiled a coup attempt.

King Hussein liked Americans and America. Ever since his first visit to the United States in 1959 he enjoyed traveling in America. He owned a house outside Washington, called River House, that gave him a base for meeting with the most powerful and influential people in the nation’s capital. 

But he could also be a man of the people. In 1995, the CIA Near East Division Chief Frank Anderson invited the king to dinner at his modest suburban home in Maryland. As the national intelligence officer for the Near East, I was invited as well. The street was blocked off by the Secret Service outside, but in the family dining room it was just a home cooked meal served by Frank’s wife. The conversation was about the Middle East, American politics, and family. The king was relaxed and comfortable, and he made his fellow guests comfortable as well.

In short, Hussein was a genuinely nice man. He invariably made you feel at home even as you knew you were in the presence of royalty. Hussein often pardoned those convicted of treason and plotting against the throne, even hiring some for jobs after their sentences were commuted. In a region known for its cruelty and violence, Hussein’s Jordan was an outpost of compassion for the most part.  

Author Bruce Riedel shakes hands with King Hussein in the Oval Office. Between them is William Burns, then U.S. ambassador to Jordan and currently director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Source: Author’s personal photo collection.

King Abdallah II

King Abdallah II in a meeting at the Pentagon on April 5, 2001. Source: Helene C. Stikkel/U.S. Department of Defense.

His son, Abdallah II, is much like his father. He too is a survivor. In June 2000, al-Qaida plotted to assassinate Abdallah and Queen Rania. George Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, recalls that the Jordanians briefed the CIA on the threat, but the Agency kept the information very close hold as the Jordanians wanted to keep their assets in al-Qaida protected.

Abdallah learned from his father’s mistakes the danger of impulsive decisions. He is a more cautious and careful leader. He privately disagreed with George W. Bush on the wisdom of invading Iraq in 2003 but he kept his comments discrete and avoided a falling out with Washington. In the second Obama administration he was disappointed with Barack Obama’s failure to find a coherent Syria policy but again he mostly kept the disappointment out of the media, although he did tell it to visiting congressmen who promptly leaked it. The king consistently emphasized supporting the military-to-military and intelligence relationships to keep them protected from political disagreements.

The king sees himself as a soldier, the career he had prepared for. He likes to wear uniforms and be photographed with soldiers. He is much more comfortable with army officers than with politicians or civilian experts.

He also likes America. He was educated in the United States at Georgetown and took several military courses in Kentucky and Kansas. He travels often to the United States and has at least one residence here.

Both Hussein and Abdallah were dealt a weak hand in dealing with the United States. Israel and Saudi Arabia have far more to offer to American presidents than little Jordan. In some administrations, notably Donald Trump’s, this had meant Amman has been all but ignored by Washington. This is a source of frustration for the Hashemites. The worst episodes were in 1967 and 1991, both during times of war in the region.

More often the Hashemites play their weak hand well.

But more often the Hashemites play their weak hand well. They pay attention to the business of the relationship, working the White House, the Cabinet, and the Hill. Congressional delegations are frequent and welcome in Amman. The American media is courted, every queen since at least Alia has been featured in the American press. Noor came to Brookings in 1990 to give a speech when the public mood in America was very stacked against Jordan. Rania has written a popular children’s book.

Abdallah has succeeded in flattening the curve in the bilateral relationship.  He disagreed with Bush’s rush to war in 2003 but avoided a crisis with Washington. He has strongly disagreed with Trump’s reckless moves in the region, but the bilateral relationship has been kept intact, if largely ignored. He was quick to host Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in the fall of 2019 when regional tensions were spiking after Iran fired missiles at Saudi Arabia. 

Abdallah knows Joe Biden well. Biden was quick to offer the king public support and a phone call when a conspiracy was uncovered this spring to destabilize the kingdom, a conspiracy that had the support of Saudi Arabia. The two leaders had an excellent meeting together in July, with the president reaffirming America’s support for both Jordan and Abdallah. The king and queen toured the country to see friends across America.

Author Bruce Riedel converses with King Abdallah II. Source: Author’s personal photo collection.

Jordan and its future

Jordan has also been a success story. From its early beginnings as a “vacant lot,” as the British described it, the country has grown to include 10 million people, including a very large number of refugees. The economy has not thrived, but it has prospered. Literacy is high (98% today, up from 66% in 1979), health care is generally available. 

Most of all, the country is peaceful. With the important exception of Black September 50 years ago, Jordan has not been wracked by widespread domestic violence like most of its neighbors. It has not undergone two intifadas, a 10-year-old civil war like Syria, or a decades-long series of wars and terrorism like Iraq. When Jordanians look to their neighbors to the east, north, and west — Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq — they see troubled states. Their neighbor to the south, Saudi Arabia is now bogged down in a quagmire in Yemen. That is a source of stability for the Hashemites; few if any Jordanians want to import the violence around them. When terrorism does come to Jordan the nation has rallied around the monarchy. 

His Majesty King Abdullah II ibn Al Hussein, King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, speaks with U.S. President Joe Biden during a bilateral meeting inside the Oval Office at the White House in Washington.

Featuring: President Joe Biden, King Abdullah II ibn Al Hussein
Where: Washington, District Of Columbia, United States
When: 19 Jul 2021
Credit: POOL via CNP/INSTARimages/Cover Images
King Abdallah, joined by his son Prince Hussein, speaks with U.S. President Joe Biden during a bilateral meeting inside the Oval Office at the White House in Washington on July 19, 2021. Source: POOL via CNP/INSTARimages/Cover Images/Reuters.

Jordan is far from being either a democracy or a constitutional monarchy. Neither Hussein nor Abdallah has any intention of giving up power. But the country does have an elected legislature and the media does report corruption, always being careful not to criticize the court. Compared to its Arab neighbors Jordan is a relatively benign state. Hussein had a long history of letting prisoners free and giving political enemies another chance. Abdallah has followed that tradition. 

Abdallah has done much to prepare his son Hussein for the throne someday in the future. Born in June 1994, Hussein has studied at Georgetown University and the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, like his father, and he has served in the elite special forces battalion of the Jordanian army, again like his father. He became crown prince in 2009, five years after Abdallah removed his half-brother Hamzah from the line of succession (Hamzah was Noor’s favorite). He has acted as regent when Abdallah travels abroad. But little has been done to get Hussein the limelight that he needs to prepare for becoming king or for Americans and others to know him well enough when the moment comes. He is unmarried, leaving the line of succession unclear. In an era of coronavirus and violent terrorism, Jordan needs to have the needs to have the crown prince ready and fit to rule. 

Both Hussein and Abdallah have relentlessly told their American counterparts that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a root cause of tension in the region. Both have been frustrated that successive American presidents have either ignored them or failed badly when they sought to tackle the issue. There is little likelihood that will change in the decade ahead. The two-state solution is dead but few wish to admit it, especially Jordanians. The challenge for kings and presidents will be to try to find a path out of the desert.

About the Author

Bruce Riedel

Bruce Riedel

Senior Fellow – Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy, Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology

Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, part of the Brookings Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology. In addition, Riedel serves as a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy. He retired in 2006 after 30 years of service at the Central Intelligence Agency, including postings overseas. He was a senior advisor on South Asia and the Middle East to four presidents of the United States in the staff of the National Security Council at the White House.


Editorial: Ted Reinert

Design: Rachel Slattery