This Week in History: Jordan’s surprise kings

Two kings that were peaceful neighbors to Israel, Hussein and Abdullah II, both rose to the throne in less-than-ordinary circumstances.

King Abdullah (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
King Abdullah
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
On February 7, 1999, exactly two weeks after his father named him crown prince on his deathbed, King Abdullah II ascended to the throne of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan; the last minute appointment to the throne came as a surprise to Jordanians and to the world alike. It is unknown exactly why King Hussein made a last minute change to the order of royal secession, but his legacy and that of the generations of monarchs that preceded them, all playing significant roles in the modern history of the Middle East and specifically with Israel, live on through King Abdullah II.
King Abdullah I, the current king’s great grandfather, had held contacts with Israel, even in the years before the state’s establishment. Because of and through those contacts, it was thought that he was interested in making peace with the newly-formed Jewish state, an assumption that would ultimately cost the king his life. In 1952, Abdullah I traveled to Jerusalem with his grandson to attend Friday prayers at the Al Aksa mosque, the third holiest site for Muslims. A young Palestinian man, convinced that the king intended to make peace with Israel, assassinated him in front of his grandson at the entrance of the mosque. It is not clear whether King Abdullah I actually intended to or was even in the motions of making peace with Israel, but one of the two Hashemite monarchs there that day would eventually accomplish it, albeit some 40 years later.
Less than one year after witnessing his grandfather’s assassination, King Hussein was crowned - following his own father’s diagnosis with schizophrenia. The new king thrust his army into the Arab wars against Israel, but he also closely cooperated with the Jewish state. Sharing Israel’s longest border, relations with Jordan – both official and behind the scenes – have always been immensely important to Israeli political and military leaders. Realizing the strategic importance for his own country as well, it was King Hussein, possibly following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who made peace with Israel in 1994.
The firstborn son
King Hussein’s firstborn son, Abdullah, was the product of the king’s second marriage, to a Christian Englishwoman named Toni Gardner (renamed Muna upon being married). Abdullah spent much of his childhood and early adult life being educated in England, the United States and later as a British army officer before returning to serve as commander of the Jordanian army’s special forces. From the age of three, however, Abdullah was never placed in line to succeed his father as king.
When King Hussein was diagnosed with cancer near the end of the 21st century, he began the process of selecting an heir to the throne. His fourth wife, Queen Noor, lobbied strongly for her son Hamza to be selected; a special committee commissioned by the king chose another of his sons, Ali. However, after failed cancer treatments in the United States, the king returned to Jordan to die in his homeland and unexpectedly named his eldest son Abdullah as crown prince. King Hussein succumbed to his cancer on February 7, 1999 and that day, King Abdullah II ascended to the thrown.
A 43rd generation direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammed and the latest in a long line of Hashemite monarchs that once ruled over Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah II has been a liberalizing and modernizing force in Jordan. He has not however, ruled without controversy. His wife, Queen Rania, is a Kuwaiti-born Palestinian. Due to tensions caused by the country’s unrivaled absorption of Palestinians and the ensuing demographic changes, the Queen’s ethnic heritage has become a point of contention in Jordan. The Hashemite kingdom, which traditionally had a Beduin majority, now has a nearly 80 percent majority of Palestinians, something the Beduin tribespeople have grown to resent.
However, King Abdullah II has overseen unprecedented economic and social progress in the last standing Hashemite kingdom. One of, if not Israel’s strongest ally in region, the Jordanian king has played a key role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and economic cooperation between Amman and Jerusalem. Although it sits in one of the more unstable corners of an already volatile region, Jordan under Kings Hussein and Abdullah II has become one of the most progressive, forward-looking, adaptive and tolerant countries in the Arab world. From his initiative to provide modern housing for all his country’s citizens, to programs advancing technology-based education, to its place as the only Arab state that ever granted full citizen to Palestinian refugees, its warm relations with Israel and relatively progressive social and civil rights advances, the royal father and son represent a different type of leadership than has existed historically in the Middle East.