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King of the Beni Hashem

By Eric Margolis,
Feb. 14, 1999


New York - King Hussein of Jordan was a splendid king, and a true man's man, a graceful, accomplished ruler whose noble yet unassuming character deeply impressed all who knew him. His death last week marks the end of an era of post-colonial Mideast history.

Hussein ibn Talal personified both what is good about the Arabs, and, sadly, much of what is wrong with the Mideast. Hussein lifted up his tribe, the Beni Hashem, and left them a well-run, decent, humane country that stands in sharp contrast to the other dreary despotism's of the Arab World. He inherited a poor, unstable, artificial kingdom created by British imperialism, yet managed to build it into a remarkably successful nation while under almost constant siege from Syria, Israel, Egypt, and the Palestinians.

Yet during the four decades of his long reign, Hussein's priority always remained his own royal dynasty, and his desert tribe. Hussein was the last of the generation of Arab "brown Englishmen" who ruled his nation as a surrogate, or overseer, for western interests.

Hussein was put onto the throne of his tiny kingdom by the British, and kept in power by British, American, and, later, Israeli military protection. He became a CIA "asset" in 1952 and continued to receive secret US stipends until his death. The dashing king and his crack Bedouin army - created as the famed Arab Legion by Glubb Pasha - became one of the west's most useful allies in the Arab World.

At the same time, Hussein played a murky, many-sided role in the long Arab-Israeli dispute that few outside the Mideast understood. Hussein's grandfather, King Abdullah, secretly colluded in 1947-1948 with Israel's leader, David Ben Gurion, to divided between them the Palestinian state mandated by the United Nations when it partitioned Palestine between Arabs and Jews. As a result, Jordan became a covert ally of Israel in suppressing the Palestinians, and denying them a state.

Two-thirds of Jordan's people are Palestinians. Hussein ruled the kingdom through his US-supported Bedouin army and security forces, using them to crush attempts by Palestinians to oust the monarchy. In 1970, Hussein unleashed his tanks against Palestinians in Amman, killing over 3,000. All attempts by Jordan's Palestinian majority to gain any political voice were put down ruthlessly.

While pretending to join the Arab crusade against Israel, Hussein more often than not secretly sided with the Jewish state. In 1973, for example, when Egypt and Israel were planning a surprise attack on Israel to regain lands they had lost in the 1967 War, their "ally," Hussein, actually went secretly to Israel to warn Golda Meir of the impending attack. Jordan was long used by the United States and Britain to thwart the pan-Arabist ambitions of Egypt and Syria and to combat Arab nationalism.

Since the early 1980's, Jordan has been a de facto Israeli protectorate. In the long struggle between Syria and Israel for regional domination, Israel got Jordan, while Syria ended controlling Lebanon. This fact was underlined last week. Tellingly, one of the largest delegation at Hussein's funeral came from Israel. It included Gen. Ariel Sharon, who oversaw the massacre of thousands of Palestinians at the Shatilla and Sabra Camps in Lebanon, and the head of Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, which had only recently tried to assassinate a Palestinian Hamas leader in downtown Amman. The obvious lack of concern by the Jordanian government for the feelings of the majority of its citizens, who are Palestinians, went unnoticed by the western media.

Amid the outpouring of tributes to King Hussein, not once was the word "democracy" ever heard. The king was dead, but Jordan would remain a feudal monarchy, in which the majority had no political rights or legitimate expression. Hussein's son, Abdullah, an army general, would rule as his father did, at least for the time being.

The US and Britain, who so vociferously denounce denial of democracy in China and Burma, rushed to show total support of the new Jordanian monarchy. Democracy may be fine for nations in which the west has no strategic interests; but in the Mideast, the kings of Arabia, the Gulf, Morocco, and Jordan remain the chosen instrument of western influence and domination. If free elections were ever held in these kingdoms, including Jordan, their western-supported regimes would likely fall. This will not be allowed to happen. "Stability," the current code word for the western oil Raj in the Mideast, must be maintained at all costs.

Arab rulers eagerly cooperate with the west in denying their people political and human rights in return for immense personal wealth, annual stipends, and protection from their citizens or neighbors. Hussein, for all his greatness as a king, and his personal decency, was a leading example of this old school of western surrogate rulers: to the west, he was "the good Arab." In fact, he spent as much effort undermining fellow Arabs as he did uplifting his own tribe.

The Mideast's people deserve better. Alas, the few Arab regimes not controlled by the west - Syria, Iraq, Libya - have proven even more brutal, anti-democratic, and repressive than their feudal neighbors. The only choice in the Mideast seems between medieval monarchs and generals: the Arab World remains in the political Dark Ages.

The Arab nations, as the Economist said so aptly, are still "tribes with flags." Hussein of the Beni Hashem was a magnificent tribal chieftain, but not, sadly, a great leader the long-suffering, backward, bitterly divided Arab people so badly need.



Copyright: Eric Margolis, 1999

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