Fishing in the Dead Sea

Of all the Arab nations created out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the Emirate of Transjordan was the most ill-favored. A barren splinter of land tapering south to the Red Sea, its borders made no political or geographical sense. It was home to just 230,000 people, and had a single railway line and scarcely a road. Crucially, in later years—1948–1949, 1967—it would be drowned in waves of Palestinian refugees. Plagued by water scarcity, it had few industrial resources and no oil.

This roughcast nation was created by the British in a spirit of mixed expediency and guilt. In 1916 the Hashemite Sha-rif Hussein of Mecca, titular guardian of Arabia’s holy places, instigated the Great Arab Revolt against the Turks, with the fragile understanding that the British had promised him rule over a postwar Arab Middle East. Instead, the liberated lands were parceled up between the colonial powers, first in secret in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France, and then at the 1919 Paris peace conference. The embittered sharif remained king of the Arabian Hijaz (which he was to lose to Saudi rivals in 1924, when it became Saudi Arabia), while the British assumed control of Iraq and Palestine, and the French of Syria and Lebanon. Soon afterward, the sharif’s third son, Faisal, was handed Iraq as a consolation prize for losing Syria; and by a stroke of the pen, Churchill, then colonial secretary, accorded the sharif’s second son, the ambitious Abdullah, the makeshift Transjordan Emirate under British mandate—but (as the foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, commented) he was “much too big a cock for so small a dunghill.”

Abdullah was the grandfather, mentor, and model of the young King Hussein. As a Hashemite and descendant of the Prophet, Abdullah conceived his ancestral destiny as leader of the Arab peoples. With the outbreak of the Arab–Jewish war in 1948, he moved his British-trained Arab Legion into the Palestinian heartland, and the ensuing peace left him in control of territory a few miles from the Mediterranean, with the prize of East Jerusalem. So together with Israel—and perhaps in tacit collusion—Abdullah aborted Palestinian hopes for a state; and it was a Palestinian nationalist who shot him dead in 1951 outside the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem before the horrified eyes of his grandson. Hussein himself only survived the assassin’s second bullet because it ricocheted off the medal (for school fencing) that his grandfather had insisted he wear.

The enlarged but fragile kingdom became Hussein’s patrimony a year later, when his mentally ill father abdicated. Hussein was crowned king at the age of seventeen, and soon found himself on the political tightrope that he was to tread until his death forty-six years later. Few gave the boy-king long to reign, or even to live. A monarch in a republican age, legitimized by a British Empire that was fading, he found himself governing a country half …

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Letters

The Plucky Little King’ December 18, 2008