Never had I felt so gloomy about the Middle East as I did recently after I spent an evening with King Hussein. The King probably knows the region, and certainly the Arabs, as well as anyone else, and he carries the burden of being conceivably the last of the Hashemite rulers. Until the Saudis took over the Hijaz, the region that includes Mecca and Medina, the King’s clan was custodian of the Islamic holy places there for hundreds of years. His great-grandfather was the sharif of Mecca. Abdullah, his grandfather, helped lead the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire and was rewarded by Britain with a new kingdom east of the Jordan River. Hussein, as a teen-ager, was at Abdullah’s side when he was assassinated in 1951 at the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem by a disaffected Palestinian. In 1958, a cousin, King Faisal of Iraq, was overthrown and murdered.
The King, who has led Jordan through many shaky periods for nearly forty years, is doing nothing to discourage the feeling that the entire region is headed for something dreadful. A week after American planes began bombing Iraq, Fouad Ayoub, a palace press officer I have known for many years, telephoned me at the Intercontinental Hotel in Amman. The King and Queen Noor, he said, would be giving an informal dinner that evening for a few cabinet ministers and some foreign journalists. Although the King is unhappy with much of the press coverage he receives, no other Arab leader makes as great an effort to deal with reporters personally, especially during times of crisis.
Hussein’s palace is a collection of ordinary cream-colored villas and office buildings on top of one of Amman’s many steep hills. Inside, in a reception room with old Damascene mashrabiyah panelling, we were offered fresh fruit juices, served in Hebron blown-glass tumblers. The King, when he finally appeared with his wife, was wearing a blazer over a dark turtleneck sweater. As we entered the dining room, we were told of reports that Iraqi Scud missiles were flying over Jordan on their way to Tel Aviv.
After a simple supper of Arabic mezze, the King invited us to ask questions. He looked sad and frustrated, although he never lost his temper as he gave us his long and measured replies. He expected a long war, he told us. He assumed that the might of the allied forces was capable of dislodging Iraqi troops from Kuwait, but at a terrible cost. He was concerned about what Israel might do, but he seemed equally worried about an eruption of political unrest that would bring down Arab governments. When a British journalist pointed out that he had said nothing hopeful the entire evening, the King seemed to wince.
Saddam Hussein’s confrontation with the US, which is how many Arabs view Operation Desert Storm, is tearing violently at the connections among nations and groups in the Arab world. Saddam has proved himself to be …