Birthday celebration for ill King Hussein tempered by fear for Jordan's future

November 15, 1992|By Mark Fineman | Mark Fineman,Los Angeles Times

AMMAN, Jordan -- Every day for a week now, dozens o towering and colorful hot-air balloons have been drifting into this Arab kingdom, touching down at a remote desert site in southern Jordan for a lavish celebration of King Hussein's 57th birthday.

From miles around, Bedouin camel herders have driven the pride of their flocks to the site in ancient Wadi Rum, where the king's forebears fought a decisive battle alongside Lawrence of Arabia, eight decades ago when the dream of a single great Arab nation was still alive.

Jordanian workers have spent weeks erecting more than 100 tents here, grandstands and accommodations for 40,000.

HTC By all accounts, the celebration that formally began yesterday and is scheduled to continue well into this week is the most majestic and sentimental of all the birthdays King Hussein has marked during his four decades on the Hashemite throne.

But it is also a celebration that many Jordanians fear may be their monarch's last.

The festival, which has come to be known simply as "The Party," comes on the heels of King Hussein's first major speech since returning from cancer surgery in the United States.

The speech was a national address heavily steeped in poetic nuance and, ominously, with a hint that one of the most durable rulers in the Middle East may be dying.

Although insiders -- indeed, the king himself -- dispute the rumor, the speech and its subtext have sent shock waves through the Arab countries, which returned to the peace table with Israel in Washington this past week. The address has fueled the fears of Palestinians both in Jordan and in the Israeli-occupied territories that Jordan may abandon the broad Arab front and cut its own deal with Israel.

And it inspired leaders throughout the Middle East to begin thinking seriously for the first time of life after King Hussein.

To some of his listeners, King Hussein's 45-minute speech on Nov. 5 sounded like a valedictory in which he pointedly reminded his subjects and the region's leaders that a nation and its people are more important than a single man.

His words had an impact in the regime to the east. Without naming Iraq or its authoritarian President Saddam Hussein, the king made it clear, both in his speech and in a blitz of subsequent interviews, that the same logic must apply throughout the Middle East.

The message was clear: It is time for the Iraqi people to act to save their nation and the stability of the region at a time when Saddam Hussein's stubborn adherence to absolute power threatens Iraq's very existence.

The signal won praise from Washington, which had frozen all aid to Jordan when the king sympathized with the Iraqis during the Persian Gulf War.

As the king put it in an interview during the past week: "Iraq is important. Its unity is important. Its integrity is important." He expressed concern "for the suffering of the people of Iraq and for the possibility of fragmentation of Iraq.

"I'm concerned that Iraq is slipping backward into a pre-industrial state, and that the needs of the people there are such that if they are not met before too long, real dangers exist that that country might disintegrate," he continued during the interview with CBS television.

The king underwent radical surgery three months ago at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where a cancerous kidney and ureter were removed. And he is due to return to the United States next month for further tests.

Most Jordanians are convinced that their king is trying to put the best face on an impending national tragedy that, until this year, ,, had been unthinkable.

Jordanian political analysts say that the king, who has played a key role in Middle East politics for more than four decades, appears to have begun a campaign to use his illness as a !B political tool, in an effort to transform sympathy into support for a critical role that he hopes to play in finding compromise solutions to the many conflicts of the Middle East during the months to come.

King Hussein has talked about leaving as his personal legacy "a comprehensive, permanent peace for future generations" in the region. But his true goal, according to some Jordanian analysts, may lie closer to home.

"I think the king's real mission in his speech and in the months ahead is a domestic one -- to give Jordan itself a mission and to place the nation's ship of state on a true course toward democracy that will lead other nations in the region in the same direction," said one prominent Jordanian who asked not to be named.

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