The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan made headlines in early April, due to a political quarrel between King Abdullah II and his half-brother, former Crown Prince Emir Hamza. The dispute has since been settled and world leaders have come out, one-after-another, showering the Hashemite family with praise and support. So, who exactly are the Hashemites and why are they so important for the Arab World?
It should be noted that international support for the Hashemites is not new. In fact, it is as old as the kingdom itself. Twenty-one years ago, in 1999, this support could be witnessed at the state funeral of King Hussein, father of both Abdullah II and Hamza. It was the largest gathering of royalty and world leaders since the 1995 funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Four US presidents showed up for the event in addition to French leaders, the crown prince of both Japan and Great Britain, along with archenemies like Syria’s Hafez al-Assad and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu.
Hussein had been in power for 47 years, surviving two wars with Israel, an attempted coup in 1956, a civil war in 1970, and a handful of assassination attempts. He emerged unscathed, signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1994 before losing an uphill battle with cancer in February 1999. The career of his son, King Abdullah II, has not been half as eventful. Yet, he too has survived the wave of popular protests known as the Arab Spring, and managed to stay in power despite the dramatic fall of his colleagues, ranging from Husni Mubarak of Egypt to Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi.
“For 100 years Jordan’s Hashemite kings have punched above their weight,” Joshua Landis, Director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told Inside Arabia, adding: “They have catapulted their small and underdeveloped part of the Middle East into the successful and envied country that it is today. Most of its neighbors used to look down on Jordanians as country bumpkins and backwards. They were the laughingstock of the Middle East. Today, both Palestinians and Syrians wish they were Jordanians and could live under the protection of its successful government. This happy transformation can be attributed, in no small part, to the wisdom and judiciousness of its Hashemite rulers.”
“For 100 years Jordan’s Hashemite kings have punched above their weight.”
Part of that wisdom was hereditary, passed down from one generation of Hashemite royals to another. And part of it was born out of experience and necessity. To better understand how it was formed, we need to go back to the kingdom’s founder and namesake of the present monarch, King Abdullah I.
The Founding Monarch
Early into World War II, Great Britain reached out to Abdullah’s father, Sharif Hussein Ibn Ali, to help bring down Ottoman rule in the Arab World. Sharif Hussein had plenty of religious legitimacy, enabling him to lead an uprising against the Ottoman Sultan, who happened to be caliph of the Muslim World. In theory, Hussein was well positioned to legitimately replace him as caliph himself.
An agreement was reached with the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, stipulating that in reward for helping dismantle the Ottoman Empire, Sharif Hussein and his male children would be given a hereditary throne in liberated Arab territory. Hussein would become King of the Hejaz, with a capital in Mecca, the birthplace of Islam, while his sons Abdullah and Faisal would be enthroned in Iraq and Syria.
Part of that agreement was fulfilled with Hussein’s crowning in Mecca and the enthronement of Faisal as King of Syria on March 8, 1920. Since the future of Iraq was uncertain due to a brewing rebellion against the British, its fate was postponed until a later and unspecified date, leaving Abdullah with the job of Foreign Minister in the kingdom of the Hejaz. But pretty soon, that Hashemite kingdom fell apart. Faisal was dethroned by the French, who established mandatory rule in Syria in the summer of 1920. He was sent into exile, only to return as King of Iraq in August 1921. Sharif Hussein was toppled by King Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud who established the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Furious at how his family members were being treated—and fearing that he would be left with nothing—Abdullah raised a small army of Arab tribesmen to overrun Syria. Ostensibly he wanted to save his brother’s crown from the French, but in reality, Abdullah wanted to secure one for himself. The British asked to hold ground in Amman, granting him the small and ungratifying Emirate of Transjordan, which was no match for his political ambition. It was poor in terms of natural resources and too small in terms of size.
Transjordan paled in comparison to great Arab cities like Cairo, Damascus, or Jerusalem.
With its 2,000 inhabitants, who were neither culturally sophisticated nor economically powerful, Transjordan paled in comparison to great Arab cities like Cairo, Damascus, or Jerusalem. His British associate from World War II, Captain T E Lawrence (better known to the West as Lawrence of Arabia) described him as a “canary in a lion’s cage.” Their readiness to abide by what was offered to them by the British made the Hashemite royals all the more valuable for Great Britain’s Middle East policy. They were loyal, compliant, and both powerful and legitimate among their Muslim constituencies.
Abdullah created the kingdom of Jordan, literarily from scratch. He surrounded himself with a handful of British officers, the most famous of whom was John Baggot Glubb, (better known as Glubb Pasha) who founded and led the Jordanian Army until 1956. Yet, Abdullah never abandoned his ambition of ruling Syria and never missed an opportunity to promote himself as a king-in-waiting. He made Greater Syria the cornerstone of Jordan’s foreign policy, with the aim of uniting Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon under the Hashemite crown.
In 1947, as the British mandate in Palestine was approaching its end, Abdullah proposed annexing parts of Palestine to Jordan, rather than going to war against the Zionists, stipulating that the Jewish population would enjoy full minority rights under his crown. When Arab leaders decided to go to war in the mid-1948, Abdullah agreed—but not for the purpose of liberating Palestine or expelling the Zionists. His aim was to invade, occupy, and annex the cities of Ramallah, Nablus, and Hebron. Abdullah committed 4,500 troops to the war effort and appointed his trusted friend, Glubb Pasha, as commander of the Arab Command in Palestine.
Every one of Abdullah’s attempts at expanding his territory to date, had been thwarted, either by Arab nationalists or by the Great Powers. He argued it was time for him to be rewarded for his staunch opposition to the Nazis during World War II. He didn’t envision partition between Palestinian Arabs and Jews, but rather, between Jews and himself ruling an Arab Palestine.
His first option, devised in August 1946, was to occupy all of Palestine and give the Jews an autonomous pocket. In October 1947, British Ambassador to Amman Alec Kirkbride told a visiting journalist that the king wanted to rule Nablus and Hebron and was keen on taking over a large part of the Negev Desert. On February 7, 1948, Jordanian Prime Minister Tawfiq Abu al-Huda met with British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin in London. Abu al-Huda told his British counterpart that the Jordanian Army would only enter Arab areas of Palestine, having pledged not to venture into territory allocated to the Jews in the UN Partition Plan of 1947.
The First Brigade of the Jordanian Army, which included the 1st and 2nd regiments, headed northwest for Nablus. The Third Brigade embarked from Jericho and by nightfall had camped outside Ramallah. They had strict orders not to cross the partition lines.
The war ended with Palestine being torn out of the map of the world. In total, 6,000 Jews were killed in 1948, along with nearly 5,000 Arabs. Over 400 Palestinian villages were razed to the ground, and three quarters of one million people were stripped of their belongings and ordered out of their homes at gunpoint. The Arabs grieved but King Abdullah was satisfied, having expanded the territory of his rule and now controlling the historically important city of Jerusalem. It remained under Jordanian rule until his grandson, King Hussein, lost the Six-Day War against Israel in 1967.
Abdullah himself was gunned down in that very same city in July 1951. His assassin was a Palestinian militant who accused him of treason against the Palestinians.
The Abdullah Burden
Why King Hussein went to war in 1967 remains a topic of debate for Middle East historians. He had been very close to his grandfather and knew that Jerusalem was a reward for what Abdullah had done in 1948. There was no chemistry between him and Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, who led the Arabs in 1967. Hussein, however, was caught in a dilemma. If he allowed Jordan to be dragged into war he would face losing parts of his kingdom to Israel. If he remained neutral, he faced full-scale revolution among his own people. Army Commander-in-Chief General Sharif Zaid Ben Shaker warned in a press conference at the end of May 1967: “If Jordan does not join the war, a civil war will erupt in Jordan.”
Thanks to the fog of war and erroneous reports from Nasser of Egyptian victories, King Hussein probably believed that Israel was about to be defeated. He took the gamble—lost—and spent the remaining years of his reign trying to recapture what the war of 1967 had done to him and his kingdom.