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Jordan: The History of Modern Jordan

by Mitchell G. Bard

In 1921, Winston Churchill severed Transjordan from Palestine to separate it from the British mandate for Palestine and the area intended for a Jewish national home. For the next 25 years, Britain dominated the nation’s affairs. Britain also created, trained, and led one of the region’s most effective armies, the Arab Legion. This force captured the eastern half of Jerusalem in the 1948 war, and much of what the United Nations had partitioned to be the Arab state.

In 1946, Transjordan formally became independent, and Abdullah, who the British had installed as the nation’s ruler, assumed the title of king. One of Abdullah’s goals was to create a Greater Syria. Toward that end, he annexed the area of Palestine he controlled and shortly thereafter renamed his country the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. One consequence of this action was to more than double the country’s population, which now included about 400,000 Palestinian refugees.

Abdullah was essentially a tribal ruler, having come from that tradition in Arabia, and increasingly was faced with the political complexities of ruling a nation where Palestinians made up the majority of the population and where his territorial ambitions clashed with those of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Ironically, his relations with Israel were better than those with the other Arabs. The Israelis believed it might be possible to reach a peace agreement with Abdullah; however, those hopes were dashed when the king was assassinated on July 20, 1951, in front of a mosque on the Temple Mount by one of the Mufti of Jerusalem’s followers.

Hussein Takes the Reigns

The death of the king created a crisis because the expected heir, Crown Prince Talal, was being treated for a nervous breakdown in Switzerland at the time. Talal returned to rule the country, but his mental condition made him unable to govern, and he was deposed in 1952 in favor of his son Hussein. A few months later, when he turned 18, Hussein became king.

For more than 40 years, Hussein, who had witnessed his grandfather’s murder, artfully ruled his nation, overcoming numerous assassination attempts and navigating the sensitive politics of the Arab world. Internally, the principal problem was the restive Palestinian population, which hated Israel for displacing them, and Jordan’s allies, Britain and the United States for their support of Israel. The Palestinians also tended to look down on the natives who were not as well educated and viewed as less sophisticated. This resentment would fester for years and, to some degree, is still a problem.

Hussein continued his grandfather’s close relationship with Britain and also developed strong ties with the United States, culminating in an economic aid agreement in 1954 — the first negotiated with any Arab government. This close relationship with the Western powers did not sit well with much of the population, which was particularly bitter about Britain’s influence. In 1956, Hussein took the dramatic step of dismissing the British general who commanded the Arab Legion and expelling him from the country — a move that made him popular with the masses in his country and throughout the Arab world. Although it angered the British and suggested a change in Jordanian policy, the reality was that Hussein remained closely allied with the West and all British troops did not leave the country until the following year.

Jordan Becomes Vital

Other Arab states hoped to wean Jordan away from the “imperialists” and offered to replace the aid given by Great Britain. Jordan abrogated its longstanding treaty with the British in 1957, and Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia began to provide financial aid to Hussein’s regime. Although he was now on better terms with these nations, some elements within Jordan did not believe Hussein was revolutionary enough, plotting to overthrow him and replace the monarchy with a republic that would be part of Nasser’s Pan-Arab vision and under his control. Hussein put down a series of revolts in April 1957 — the last of which prompted the United States to send the Sixth Fleet to the coast of Lebanon and to announce that America considered Jordan’s integrity of its vital interests and would provide financial aid to the government. This angered the Arab states, which discontinued their aid payments to Jordan. These were soon replaced by American funds, and from that point on the United States became Jordan’s principal ally.

A year later, after the 1958 revolution in Iraq, militants in Jordan again tried to revolt. Hussein asked the British for help, and they deployed a paratroop battalion. American forces had also moved into Lebanon to quell disturbances there and made clear that they were prepared to help in Jordan if necessary. Hussein’s own forces also contributed to putting down the rebellion.

Jordan continued to have testy relations with other Arab nations. As a conservative monarchy, it did not get along well with the revolutionary regimes in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, which all were allied with the Soviet Union and pursued socialist, anti-Western, Pan-Arab agendas. Hussein also had trouble, however, with the other monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia, because of his close ties with the West and relatively moderate approach to Islam.

Losing to Israel

Although Hussein did not maintain the publicly belligerent attitude toward Israel that most of the other Arab leaders expressed, relations were still often tense. They had disputes over the use of the Jordan River, which Israelis wanted to divert for their use and the Arabs wanted to deny to them. Also, Palestinian terrorists often attacked Israel from bases in Jordan and provoked counterattacks.

In 1967, King Hussein ignored the Israeli warning to stay out of the fighting and attacked Israel. Although his army fought well, it was forced to retreat from Jerusalem and the West Bank. Thousands of Palestinians fled to the East bank to avoid coming under Israeli rule.

Although Palestinian terrorists continued to complicate relations between Israel and Jordan, the two countries settled into a mostly peaceful relationship. Secret contacts were common, and Hussein chose not to repeat his mistake of 1967 and opted out of the 1973 surprise attack on Israel by Egypt and Syria.

The PLO Attempts a Coup

The greater threat to Jordan was internal, from the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which had gradually built up what amounted to their own state within the kingdom. They controlled the refugee camps themselves, smuggled in weapons that they openly brandished, ignored officials of the Jordanian government, and undermined Hussein’s authority. The king attempted to negotiate an understanding with the Palestinians, but they flouted his authority.

The final straw for Hussein occurred when Palestinian terrorists flew two hijacked planes to Jordan in September 1970, which would become known as Black September, and blew them up. From that point on, Hussein’s forces increasingly clashed with the Palestinians, who now were openly trying to depose him. Syria sent tanks in to support the Palestinians. At Jordan’s request — via the United States — Israel prepared to intervene on the king’s behalf. Hussein’s army repulsed the Syrians and defeated the Palestinians, however, without the need for Israel’s help. Most of the Palestinian leadership, including Yasser Arafat, fled to Syria and later Lebanon where they soon set about undermining the central government of that country.

Hussein Survives Again

One of the few Arab leaders who was probably better off in the mid-70s than he was before this time of turmoil was King Hussein. He had beaten back the challenge of the Syrians and the PLO, managed to stay out of the war with Israel, and improved relations with just about everyone except the Palestinians.

Although Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Syrian President Hafez Assad were angry that Hussein had not joined their attack on Israel, neither shared their predecessors' interest in undermining his regime. More important, perhaps, Hussein's ties with the United States improved dramatically.

In 1974, President Nixon became the first American president to visit Jordan. The following year, the United States sold Hussein a HAWK missile defense system. From then until his death in early 1999, Hussein was viewed as the most moderate Arab leader and America's most reliable friend in the Islamic world.


In June 1978, King Hussein wed Lisa Najeeb Halaby, a nearly 27-year-old Arab-American who had come to Jordan to do research on aviation training facilities. Because of her beauty, grace, and articulateness, Queen Noor became a popular figure in the United States. She and the King had two sons, Prince Hamzah and Prince Hashim, and two daughters, Princess Iman and Princess Raiyah. Their family also included two children from Hussein's previous marriage. After the king died, it was rumored that she had tried to engineer the ascension of her 18-year-old son Hamzah over the King's brother Hassan. Abdullah, the King's eldest son from his first marriage, ultimately assumed the throne, and Hamzah was named crown prince.

Jordan Loses the West Bank Again

With the threat of the PLO out of the way, Hussein hoped to assert his claim to speak for the Palestinians and to press for the inclusion of the West Bank in Jordan or as some form of federation. The Arab League rejected Hussein’s effort to speak for the Palestinians and, in 1974, declared the PLO the sole representative of the Palestinian people.

For much of the next 20 years, Israel hoped to strike a deal with Hussein that would involve him taking over most of the West Bank in exchange for peace. The Israelis viewed him as moderate, prepared to coexist with them, and wanted to preempt any effort to create a Palestinian state, which was almost universally viewed as dangerous.

Many Israelis insisted that the Palestinians did not need a state because Jordan was their state; however, neither the Jordanians nor the Palestinians accepted this political formulation. Strategically, the argument also made little sense for Israel because it meant the creation of a large, strong Palestinian state on its border instead of a small, weak, fragmented state wedged between Israel and Jordan — both of which had an interest in keeping the state small and weak.

Hussein also hoped for some time to regain the territory for Jordan, but finally gave up in the wake of the violence during the first intifada. In July 1988, he formally renounced his claim to the West Bank. This marked the end of Israeli hopes to avoid negotiating with the Palestinians or preventing the creation of a separate Palestinian state; though most Israeli leaders remained opposed to the idea. Israel still hoped to sign a peace treaty with Jordan, but Hussein made it clear that he would not do so until some agreement was reached with the Palestinians because he knew that he could not afford to make a separate peace, as Sadat had done — given the Palestinian majority in his country and the hostility toward Israel of the Arab states other than Egypt.

The king had no sooner cleared this land mine with the Palestinians when he stepped on a new one by refusing to join the coalition against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War and allowing Saddam Hussein to partially circumvent the embargo against him by bringing goods in through Jordan. As a weak neighbor with a long history of ties to the Baghdad regime, Hussein felt he had little choice but to do what he had often done to survive, try to straddle the fence. In the short-run he alienated the United States and other coalition members, but his position as a pro-American moderate allowed him to regain his favored position in the United States among the Arabs after a brief chill in relations.

The opportunity to redeem himself came after the Palestinians signed the Oslo accords and paved the way for him to negotiate a separate agreement with Israel. Once it was clear that he would not be viewed as betraying the Palestinian cause (though some Arabs still said this) and would not provoke an upheaval within Jordan, he quickly negotiated a treaty with Israel, which was signed in 1994. Since that time, Jordan and Israel have enjoyed good relations though, as was the case in Egypt, the grand vision of most Israelis for large-scale trade, tourism, and other joint ventures has yet to materialize.

In January 1999, King Hussein, fighting a losing battle with cancer, announced that his oldest son, 37-year-old Prince Abdullah, would succeed him on the throne. He died the following month. King Hussein's decision to name his son as his successor came as a surprise because Hussein's brother, Prince Hassan, had been designated as his heir for more than three decades. The king is said to have changed his mind in part because of his brother's behavior while Hussein was in the United States for medical treatment, notably acting as though he were about to become king. Other analysts speculate that the king wanted to ensure that his sons continue the succession of the Hashemite family.

Abdullah has pursued an identical course to that of his father, keeping the peace with Israel (but not expanding relations), maintaining strong ties with the other Arab states, and aggressively cultivating the friendship of the United States.

Sources: Mitchell G. Bard,The Complete Idiot's Guide to Middle East Conflict. 4th Edition. NY: Alpha Books, 2008.