- Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace
Avi Shlaim’s study of King Hussein works as both a biography and a political history of Jordan. Shlaim’s critical, chronological narrative neatly weaves Hussein’s life into the tumultuous times through which he lived, covering in the process the Cold War in the Middle East, intra-Arab relations, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The volume under review bears comparison to Shlaim’s well-received study of the Arab-Israeli conflict published in 2000, The Iron Wall, much of which revolved around David Ben Gurion’s heavy presence in the early life of Israel. (Indeed, not only is there is some overlap between the two books but Shlaim’s assessment of Hussein accords roughly with the one he gives of the moderate Israeli foreign minister, Moshe Sharett, in The Iron Wall.) While Ben Gurion eventually faded from power, Hussein dominated Jordanian politics from 1953—when, at the age of 18, he took the oath of office—to his death from cancer in 1999. In charge of a country in an exposed geopolitical position with a weak economy and political structures, Hussein never had the impact of, say, Egyptian President Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser, but he was Jordan, appointing and dissolving cabinets and prime ministers and becoming in the process one of the region’s longest-serving rulers and the CEO of Jordan—taking his place on the world stage.
Shlaim comments briefly on Hussein’s “playboy” lifestyle and his four (separate) wives, but his interest is in Hussein’s political life. That said, Shlaim touches on Hussein’s relationship to his powerful mother, Queen Zain, and he explores the psychological impact of Hussein having witnessed the assassination of his grandfather, King ‘Abdullah at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in 1951, a stark reminder of Hussein’s precarious position as Jordan’s leader. Abdullah’s legacy was also a realistic assessment of the power of Israel and of the need to engage with rather than reject Zionism, something that strongly influenced Hussein’s diplomacy after 1953. Hussein was surrounded by violence all of his adult life, not least by those who felt that dialogue with Israel would achieve nothing.
Shlaim mines a rich vein of archival material on his subject, notably records of a remarkable set of secret interviews that Hussein had with various Israeli officials, starting in 1963 and continuing to 1993. Shlaim supplements this record with personal interviews with key Jordanian and Israeli participants, providing nuance and new insight on Hussein. Considering Hussein’s interest in military affairs, this account of his life emphasizes politics, military power, and diplomacy. Hussein was beset by military threats, especially in the first 20 years of his reign: externally from Israel and the “radical” Arab states of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq and internally, from Jordan’s Palestinian population and political opponents. What is remarkable is not just how Hussein, at the head of a weak state with few natural resources and a faltering economy, survived, but how he emerged as a respected international figure. His physical survival forms a key thread tying together the first part of Shlaim’s volume, certainly up to 1970.
A willingness to engage in dialogue emerges as one of Hussein’s key characteristics, alongside an opportunist streak, resulting in contradictory policies. As Hussein stumbled from one attempt to topple him to the next coup—especially in the 1950s and early 1960s—he was necessarily pragmatic. The conflict between the urge to engage in peaceful long-term dialogue and the need to do whatever was necessary to stay in power sets up a useful tension in Shlaim’s study. While Jordan’s Arab neighbors—especially Syria, but also Egypt before 1967—did as much, if not more than Israel to destabilize the country, Israel emerges with little credit from this study. At times, Israel’s actions made Hussein’s position almost impossible, a...