The Political Elite

Jordan Table of Contents

In 1989 Hussein remained the single most important person in Jordan's politics. His political preeminence derived in part from his skill in dealing with various domestic and external problems. He has traveled frequently to keep in touch with cross sections of the population and to establish rapport with his troops, with university students, and with members of tribes. Hussein's personalized approach has tended to counterbalance the virtual lack of independent, institutionalized channels that could serve as barometers of popular sentiments and attitudes toward the government. Also, Hussein's frequent visits to foreign capitals have enabled him to keep abreast of external developments and to obtain needed financial and technical assistance for his kingdom. His ability to maintain generally cordial relations with foreign states has been a critical asset for Jordan, in view of the country's heavy dependence on external aid.

Hussein has relied upon various political options to consolidate his power. He has used his constitutional authority to appoint principal government officials as a critical lever with which to reward loyalty and performance, neutralize detractors, and weed out incompetent elements. The Hussein-centered power structure comprised the cabinet ministers, members of the royal family, the palace staff, senior army officers, tribal shaykhs, and ranking civil servants. King Hussein has filled most of the sensitive government posts with loyal Transjordanians. Since the early 1950s, he also has appointed to responsible positions Palestinians supportive of the Hashimites. Beginning in the 1970s, he permitted an increasing number of Palestinians from families not traditionally aligned with the Hashimites to be co-opted into government service.

The Hashimites, the royal family headed by Hussein, form an extended kinship group related through marriage to several prominent Transjordanian families. The Hashimite family traces its ancestry back to the family of the Prophet, and for centuries it had been politically prominent in what is now Saudi Arabia. Abdullah ibn Hussein Al Hashimi (1882-1951), a son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca (1851-1931), established the Jordanian branch of the family in 1921 after Britain had created the Mandate of Transjordan and confirmed him as amir. London also permitted Abdullah's younger brother, Faisal (1885-1933), to assume the kingship of Iraq, another future state set up after World War I as a British-administered mandate. Abdullah changed his title from amir to king in 1946, when Transjordan was granted independence. Following his assassination in 1951, Abdullah's son Talal (1909- 1972) ruled briefly.

Hussein was Talal's oldest son. Before succeeding his father as king in 1953, Hussein was educated at Victoria College in Alexandria, Egypt and at Harrow School and the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, both in Britain. In 1955, Hussein married his first wife, Dina Abdul Hamid al Aun, an Egyptian of Hashimite ancestry. They had one daughter before their marriage ended in divorce. His second wife, Antoinette Gardiner of Britain, converted to Islam and took the name Muna al Hussein. She and Hussein had four children, two sons and twin daughters. Hussein divorced Princess Muna in 1973 and married his third wife, Palestinian Alia Tukan. Hussein and Queen Alia had one daughter and one son before her February 1977 death in a helicopter crash. In June 1978 Hussein married his fourth wife, Elizabeth Halaby, an American of Arab and Swiss descent. He proclaimed her Queen Nur al Hussein (light of Hussein). Hussein and Queen Nur have four children, two sons and two daughters. Throughout the 1980s, Queen Nur had a visible and active role promoting educational, cultural, social welfare, architectural, and urban planning projects in Jordan.

Hussein has two younger brothers and one sister. His brothers Muhammad and Hasan had significant political roles in 1989. The most important Hashimite after Hussein was Hasan, whom the king had designated as crown prince through royal decree in 1965. Muhammad was a businessman and was active politically behind the scenes. Families that were related to the Hashimites included the politically prominent Sharaf and Shakir families. Hussein's cousin, Sharif Abdul Hamid Sharaf, was a close political adviser throughout the 1970s and served briefly as prime minister before his death in 1980. Another member of the family, Layla Sharaf, was Jordan's first woman cabinet officer, serving as minister of culture and information in 1984-85. A third cousin, Field Marshal Ash Sharif Zaid ibn Shakir, was a longtime political confidant who served the king in many sensitive positions. In December 1988, Hussein appointed Shakir chief of the royal court and director of the secret police (Mukhabarat); beginning in late April 1989 he served for seven months as prime minister.

Hussein has been supported throughout his reign by the original Transjordanian population, particularly the beduin tribes who revered him as a descendant of the family of the Prophet Muhammad and as a ruler imbued with those qualities of leadership they valued most--courage, self-reliance, valor, and honesty. The beduin have formed a prominent segment within the army, especially among the senior ranks of the officer corps. Their loyalty helped Hussein survive a number of crises and thereby served as a stabilizing force within the country. Nevertheless, since the mid-1980s there has been evidence of erosion of beduin and Transjordanian support for Hussein's regime. Significantly, it was primarily East Bankers, rather than Palestinians, who participated in widespread antigovernment riots that swept several towns of Jordan in 1989.

Other politically influential individuals were affiliated with the old East Bank families. For example, Zaid ar Rifai, appointed prime minister in 1985, was the son of Samir ar Rifai, a politician who had served several terms as prime minister under the rule of Abdullah during the 1930s and 1940s and subsequently was a prime minister for Hussein. Many members of the Abdul Huda, Majali, Badran, Hashim, Tal, and Qassim families also served the Hashimites loyally.

Another element of the political elite were the non-Arab Circassians, the descendants of Muslim immigrants who came from the Caucasus Mountains in the late nineteenth century and settled in Amman and its environs. The Circassians allied with the Hashimites in the 1920s, and since that time leading Circassian politicians have held important and sensitive positions in the government and military. The Al Mufti family has been one of the most politically prominent Circassian families, and one of its members, Said al Mufti, served as prime minister.

In the 1980s, the influential scions of traditional and aristocratic Palestinian families known for their Hashimite sympathies were outnumbered by Transjordanians in almost all top government posts. The distinction between Transjordanians and Palestinians tended to be played down, however, because officially the Palestinians of the East Bank have been accepted as Jordanian citizens. Palestinians continued to hold an important place in society as leading merchants, financiers, professionals, educators, and technocrats.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress