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King Hussein’s Health Problems Raise Doubt About Jordan’s Future

The hot gossip in the Middle East for the past several months has been the supposed affair between King Hussein and Rina Najam, a Jordanian citizen of Palestinian origin.

Najam, a correspondent for the Cable News Network in Amman during the Persian Gulf War, reported on the massive popular support Hussein enjoyed for his pro- Iraq policy.

The rumors last spring were that relations between the king and the reporter had turned intimate: The king would divorce Queen Noor, the former Lisa Halabi, his wife for the past 14 years, and wed Najam. However, for reasons unknown, the marriage did not take place.

Last week, Hussein himself may have provided the answer when he told his nation for the first time that his health was deteriorating and he needed medical care.

On state television, he delivered an unusually emotional and personal 50-minute speech, telling his people he would be absent from time to time to get medical treatment.

Immediately, speculation arose that Hussein, whose kidney and cancerous ureter had been removed, had concluded that he was suffering from a terminal disease and consequently had thought better of beginning a new marriage.

The Cairo newspaper Akhbar Al Yawm reported last Saturday that Hussein’s resignation was imminent. Political analysts went to work summing up the Hussein era in the Middle East.

However, judging from his speech, the reports of his vacating the throne were premature.

Hussein was not bidding farewell in his nationwide address. He was just signaling that a farewell might be in the offing at some point in the future. He was marking the beginning of a gradual transfer of power to his brother, Crown Prince Hassan, who is heir to the throne.

Just how long that transition period will take is unclear, since it depends on the state of Hussein’s health. If his American doctors find that he can continue business as usual, he will do so. If not, he may yield the throne sooner.

But perhaps reflecting concern about the future of the country in the aftermath of his reign, Hussein focused much of his speech on the need to improve the process of democratization now under way in the kingdom.

The king spoke of the opportunity to introduce democracy in all spheres of life. He stressed that all Arab regimes should depart from their authoritarian ways.

Hussein faces tough internal challenges, mostly from a Moslem fundamentalist opposition that is growing stronger every day. This week, an Amman court sentenced two Moslem fundamentalists charged with treason to 20 years in prison, while the prosecution demanded the death sentence.

The relatively light sentence was seen as a signal by the Jordanian government that it cannot confront the fundamentalists with full force.

The continued stability of the Hashemite kingdom depends on three major factors: the continued support of the military, the continued existence of a strong civil nucleus to take care of the government, even if the king is too ill to do so, and paceful relations within the royal family.

So far, all three factors have played in the king’s favor. Hussein’s brother, the 45-year-old crown prince, who is 12 years the king’s junior, is known as the strongman in the kingdom, after Hussein. There is little doubt that once Hussein can no longer fulfill his duty as king, Hassan will take over.

Hassan, now responsible for internal affairs, has acquired a reputation as a talented and self-confident politician. He is also known for his animosity toward Israel. Prior to the resumption of the peace talks, he often expressed the view that Israel is an expansionist and aggressive state.

Although the king and his brother have not always seen eye to eye on state matters, they maintain good relations, and the two function well together as a royal team.

However, if it were only up to him, Hussein would probably hand down the throne to his beloved son, Abdullah. The problem is that the 30-year-old is the son of Hussein’s second wife, Queen Muna, originally the British Tony Gardner. Since he is only half Arab, his chances to succeed his father are considered slim.

Once Hassan presumably becomes king, the new crown prince will be Hussein’s younger son, Ali, 17, from his previous wife, Alia, a Moslem of Palestinian origin who was killed in a helicopter accident in 1977.

But Hussein is not leaving yet. As long as his health allows him, he will continue to run the affairs of the Hashemite kingdom.

Israeli observers hope that the knowledge that his time is limited will convince Hussein to speed up the peace negotiations with Israel, so that he can see the results before it is too late to enjoy them.

This may very well be at least part of the reason for the recent Jordanian flexibility in the peace talks, which was expressed in an agreement over the framework for the negotiations that resumed this week in Washington.

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