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THE COURT OF KING HUSSEIN.

When 63-year-old King Hussein of Jordan appeared at the White House to place his personal seal on the Palestinian-Israeli agreement, he won the longest round of applause of all the participants. It was a moment of pathos and pride for Jordanians everywhere.

His presence there acknowledged his prestige as a peacemaker and influential world statesman; his appearance, made spectral by chemotherapy, drove home to many how severely cancer has stricken him.

King Hussein's openness about his ailment, unprecedented among Arab rulers, has touched a cord with most of his four million subjects. But it has also intensified efforts to settle the sensitive issue of the succession and to quell family rivalries that threaten to divide his court. A Royal Council is to be established to resolve a palace intrigue Byzantine in its complexity.

In 1965 the King, who then had no son, named his younger brother, Crown Prince Hassan bin Talal, 42nd-generation descendant of Prophet Mohammed, as his heir. However, a line of the King's own sons, the youngest of whom, Hamze, is 18, the same age as the King when he first took the throne, are now pushing their case.

Queen Noor, the monarch's wife, and Queen Muna, his British-born former wife, are said by royal sources to be manoeuvring to secure favour for their sons. The son of the late Queen Alia is favoured in other circles as he is the only son of pure Arab extraction. Now the King has decided it is time for the speculation to stop.

A source close to the ailing monarch said the Royal Council's appointment would be at the top of the King's agenda when he returns from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where he has been undergoing a chemotherapy course for lymphatic cancer since falling ill in June.

The King wants his nation to continue its modernisation and liberalisation, not by following the example of traditional, autocratic rulers by hiding truth from the nation but by sharing with them the possibilities of a worst case scenario and preparing them -- after 45 years as their king -- for a transition.

Such positive messages have inspired those around him -- from his 51-year-old brother, Crown Prince Hassan, to the loyalists who make up the government -- to concentrate their efforts on promoting the idea that transition, when it does come, will be as seamless as the King intended.

In an interview with the New York Times, Prince Hassan repeatedly said that he had spent 33 years as his brother's closest confidant, understudy and frequent stand-in. "I think it would be fair if people were to make a study of three decades of public life, where we have complemented each other in rather a remarkable manner," he said.

He shares his brother's aspirations for regional peace and is clearly irritated by those who criticise his manner as overly erudite and intellectual.

Educated in the style of the British upper class, at Harrow then Oxford, Crown Prince Hassan is the most westernised crown prince in the region. Despite much talk of palace intrigue between princes from the King's and the Crown Prince's lines of succession, the King has not publicly wavered in his commitment to his brother as his heir and thus as the future custodian of the Hashemite line, which dates back to 1201.

Emblems of more recent claims on legitimacy, the banners of both the Jordanian state and the 1916 Arab revolt against the Ottomans, which was led by his great-grandfather Prince Faisal, who later became the first king of modern Syria and then Iraq in 1922, flank the Crown Prince's desk. Indeed, the key to Jordan's stability lies in the way the Hashemite dynasty balances not just regional pressures but also domestic tensions.

Last month Jordanians who spotted the Prince at the wheel of his silver Mercedes in Amman applauded and saluted him. But Prince Hassan lacks the popular touch that won his brother the loyalty of the Bedouin tribes that have run the military since the Hashemite family came to power in 1920. It was Bedouin soldiers who saved Jordan during the days of Black September in 1970, when armed Palestinian groups attempted to seize the Jordanian capital.

While people openly talk about the King's health, the issue of succession is so sensitive that public discussion of it is taboo. "It should be understood that the crown is what unites Jordan and gives it a sense of continuity," said a source close to the palace. "If disagreements within the royal family came out, it could destabilise the kingdom."

Jordan's stabilising role in the treacherous world of Middle East politics far exceeds its size and wealth. The stability of this small country has direct consequences for all of its neighbours, from Israel to Iraq. Western policy-makers, including the Americans, called King Hussein to the negotiations at the Wye Plantation in Maryland in October to aid them during the final fraught days before the Palestinian-Israeli agreement. Among the King's loyalists -- and some diplomats -- there is a clear desire to promote the notion that the Crown Prince has already passed some kind of unstated initial test. "Not to underestimate the enormous challenges, that the Crown Prince has demonstrated that he is well grounded, capable of working with the key players and governing effectively," noted one highly placed western observer. But despite the rhetoric, the terms of succession and the identity of the next heir remain unclear.

The hypothetical question of who would become Prince Hassan's heir should he take the throne, has the potential to further provoke royal infighting. Under the constitution, once Prince Hassan is king, his son Rashid should become crown prince. Rashid is being promoted by his mother, the Pakistani-born Princess Sarvath. However, King Hussein has made clear he would prefer one of his own sons to assume the title.

The King's complicated romantic life has left the court with no shortage of candidates, as he has had four different wives over the years. Queen Noor, an American of Lebanese extraction, is said to have great ambitions for Prince Hamze, her 18-year-old British educated elder son. She is well placed to advance his interests.

Hamze, on his mother's advice, has remained at his father's bedside in Minnesota. According to informed sources, he has been discussing political moves and issues, both domestic and regional, including the complicated Wye talks.

The Queen makes sure he accompanies his parents on official visits, and he appears popular at home. When, a few weeks ago, Hamze appeared as host of a school graduation ceremony, the entire country seemed to be talking about how he had inherited his father's charisma and looks.

But Hamze has a strong and older rival in the shape of his half brother Prince Abdullah, the King's first-born male child. He was born to Toni Gardiner, King Hussein's British-born second wife, who embraced Islam and took the name Queen Muna on her marriage in 1961. Although divorced in 1972, Muna has remained in Amman and is said to be pressing 26-year-old Abdullah's case.

Many palace insiders as well as some Bedouin tribal chiefs object because he is half-British. However, as a lieutenant-general in the army Abdullah has good credentials: popular with his men, he has built an impressive power base in the armed forces.

The 23-year-old Prince Ali also makes a strong candidate. Ali was born to Alia Toukan, the King's third wife, the daughter of a noble Palestinian family, who died in a helicopter crash in 1977.

A palace source informed The Middle East that several years ago the King sent a letter to Crown Prince Hassan stating his wish that Ali should be the next crown prince. However, he may have changed his mind as Prince Hamze's popularity soared while Prince Ali developed a reputation as something of a playboy. Meetings of the Royal Council could prove to be stormy affairs if, as one source believes, its members include Hassan and Hamze, Abdullah and Ali. Princes Ghazi and Talal, the two sons of the King's brother Mohammed, are also expected to become Council members. "As far as I can tell, the relationships among members of the royal family are very good," said a source close to the family. "But, of course, each one of the extremely gifted sons of the King sees himself as a suitable heir."

Indeed, throughout his regency, Hassan has been in close touch with the King, who is still seen as the real power as Jordan confronts crises on virtually every front.

Since the 1990 Gulf war, Jordan's economy has been in a mess. It lost its biggest market in Iraq, but secured none of the economic benefits that Hussein had hoped to gain from his 1994 peace with Israel. The peace is unpopular with many Jordanians. And a perilous economic gap has widened, further isolating a rich coterie of well-connected families from the grinding poverty of the majority.

The vista is no more cheerful along Jordan's frontiers. Syria and Iraq are both uneasy and potentially meddlesome neighbours, while the Gulf Arab states that once supported Jordan financially have still not forgiven the King for siding with Saddam Hussein in the Gulf war.

After the Wye interim agreements, any future Palestinian-Israeli manoeuvres toward a final settlement offer another potential minefield for Jordan, which is home to a staggering 1.4 million registered Palestinian refugees.
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Author:Darwish, Adel
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Dec 1, 1998
Words:1555
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