Illness leads Jordanian king down path of pragmatism

Son designated heir not Hussein's 1st choice

January 31, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AMMAN, Jordan -- In the end, the future of Jordan's monarchy turned not on a father's love for a favored son, but a king's recognition of his own mortality.

The succession saga that has preoccupied this desert kingdom climaxed with a surprising announcement made by King Hussein upon his return from a six-month stay in an American hospital for treatment of lymphatic cancer.

The ailing Hussein removed his brother as heir and appointed his first son to succeed him on the throne. In most royal dramas that would seem logical enough. But Crown Prince Abdullah was not the king's first choice. The 37-year-old army major general was the expedient choice; Prince Hamzah, 18, the king's favorite son, was the preferred choice.

The king has returned to the United States for the latest round in the battle for his life. His decision to change his successor drew international attention to the Middle East's longest-reigning monarch and his desire to see the throne of a 19th-century dynasty returned to his direct line.

The royal family feud pitted the popular, revered Hussein against his scholarly, technocrat brother Hassan, who had served as crown prince for 33 years. It featured the king's elegant American-born queen, the shrill Pakistani wife of Hassan and their princely sons. Hanging in the balance was a crown and the stability of a country considered a hedge against contentious neighbors in a volatile region of the world.

"It's a kind of tragedy, a kind of King Lear tragedy," said an associate of the king who spent eight years in the palace. "If I was a playwright, I would write it that way."

In the end, family intrigue gave way to the personal struggle of a man many Jordanians call Father.

With his health deteriorating rapidly, the gaunt and hairless king realized he had neither the time nor the stamina to carry out his intended wish. Since his return to Jordan on Jan. 19, he had been to the hospital several times.

To name Hamzah, the son from his marriage to the American-born Queen Noor, as crown prince would have required changing Jordan's constitutional requirement that the throne pass from father to oldest son. Time was running out. He had to decide.

On his last night in Jordan, the king retired to a room in his palace and hand-wrote the lengthy letter that would explain his decision.

In a one-paragraph decree, Hussein replaced his brother as crown prince with Abdullah, his eldest by his British-born second wife. The letter was rambling and emotional. It was read aloud by a Jordanian television broadcaster shortly before 1 a.m. last Tuesday.

A few hours later, the king, a fur hat covering his bald head and a cane in his hand, boarded a plane bound for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He completed chemotherapy yesterday and will undergo a second bone marrow transplant Tuesday or Wednesday to overcome a relapse of his non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Hussein, 63, was in stable condition, Gen. Dr. Samir Farraj said in a statement released by the clinic.

Details about the king's decision, a royal decree that will have a lasting impact on the future of Jordan and the region as a whole, are only now emerging.

"His illness was the main reason," said Ahmad Obeidat, a former prime minister and a member of a prominent Jordanian clan in the north who visited the king during his six-month hospital stay.

"He wanted to make sure his son was [in place]. The king was willing to put Hamzah [in power, but] the deterioration of his personal situation escalated. Nobody even thought about Abdullah. Constitutionally it was easy to give it to Abdullah. Plus Abdullah is more knowledgeable than Hamzah and he's more experienced."

Interviews with other associates of the king, as well as former government and palace officials, provide a better understanding of the succession change and the forces at play in the Hashemite family, which traces its lineage to the Prophet Mohammed.

During Hussein's stay at the Mayo Clinic, the king's brother Hassan was in charge. The king learned of several actions taken by his brother and his wife, Princess Sarvath, including her redecoration of palace offices. Another was a controversy over an opulent villa built by Hussein for the army chief of staff. Hassan proposed converting the house to a military headquarters to address public complaints about corruption.

The incidents seemed insignificant to some political observers, but the king saw them as an attempt to grab power while he was ill. Individually, none of the incidents warranted removing Hassan as crown prince, said a former palace official.

But Hussein saw the matter differently. Here was a man facing his own mortality who wants to be king "until the last moment of his life," said the official.

"It's a clash of sentimentality and rationality," said the former royal court official. "There's a lot of psychology about this and very little politics."

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