Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace

Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace

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by Avi Shlaim

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The first major account of the life of an extraordinary soldier and statesman, King Hussein of Jordan.

Throughout his long reign (1953—1999), Hussein remained a dominant figure in Middle Eastern politics and a consistent proponent of peace with Israel. For over forty years he walked a tightrope between Palestinians and Arab radicals on the one hand and…  See more details below


The first major account of the life of an extraordinary soldier and statesman, King Hussein of Jordan.

Throughout his long reign (1953—1999), Hussein remained a dominant figure in Middle Eastern politics and a consistent proponent of peace with Israel. For over forty years he walked a tightrope between Palestinians and Arab radicals on the one hand and Israel on the other. Avi Shlaim reveals that Hussein initiated a secret dialogue with Israel in 1963 and spent hundreds of hours in talks with countless Israeli officials. Shlaim expertly reconstructs this dialogue from previously untapped records and first-hand accounts, significantly rewriting the history of the Middle East over the past fifty years and shedding light on the far-reaching impact of Hussein’s leadership.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Sandra Mackey
In Lion of Jordan, Avi Shlaim brilliantly lays out Hussein's search for tranquillity for his country and his neighbors, and the obstacles his negotiating partners put in his way.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Ruler of a weak country surrounded by stronger powers in the cutthroat environs of the Middle East, financially dependent on foreign sponsors, precariously riding herd on the nationalist ambitions of Jordan's Palestinian majority, Hussein eked out a long reign (1953-1999) through very unleonine policies of caution and restraint. Historian Shlaim (War and Peace in the Middle East) finds much to admire in his subject's character and statecraft. Hussein was an "autocrat," the author allows, but a "benign" one, whose resolute crackdown on Palestinian extremists in the 1970 civil war was necessary to save Jordan from chaos. Much of the book is taken up with a detailed chronicle of the Middle East peace process, centering on Hussein's decadeslong negotiations, both secret and open, with Israel; in Shlaim's telling, Israel comes off badly, and Hussein emerges as the embodiment of Arab moderation, his sincere initiatives stymied by the alleged intransigence and perfidy of Israeli leaders who "preferred land to peace." Shlaim's stinging critique of Israel might stir controversy, but his comprehensive, nuanced account of Hussein's life illuminates the tragic complexities of Middle East politics. Photos. (Sept. 9)

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Library Journal

King Hussein bin Talal ruled the small kingdom of Jordan for 47 tumultuous years and became an influential figure in Middle Eastern and world politics. Ashton (senior lecturer, London Sch. of Economics and Political Science) and Shlaim (international politics, Oxford Univ.) have each produced substantial, well-researched studies praising King Hussein's efforts to bring peace and reconciliation to the Middle East. Both books demonstrate Hussein's skill at maintaining stability in Jordan, a country lacking natural resources, thus obliging its king to use intelligence, diplomatic skill, and personal charm to maintain its independence in the face of war and military incursions from Israel and political intrigue or threats from his Arab "allies." With a substantial Palestinian population, Jordan could not escape entanglement in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Hussein preserved the integrity of his kingdom by astute, often secret diplomacy with Israel and ongoing, mostly successful efforts to build regular communication and mutual respect with British and American leaders. His ability to sustain Jordanian independence was less than his lifelong dream, however, and he failed to achieve his vision of unifying the Arab world under the leadership of his family's dynastic rule. Both writers agree that although Hussein's resistance to joining the American-led coalition against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991 greatly undermined his favorable standing in the United States, his funeral in 1999 attracted mourners from all over the world, including four American presidents. Extensive interviews and archival research in Jordan and elsewhere enabled both authors to give us readable accounts of a fascinatingpolitical and diplomatic career, as well as an understanding of the thoughtfulness and personal graciousness that characterized the man. Libraries collecting in the history of the Middle East should have both these well-balanced and well-written studies, but if only one is possible, the Shlaim volume, with greater attention to the intricacies of Middle Eastern relations, would be most suitable for readers with a strong interest in the subject.-Elizabeth R. Hayford, formerly with Associated Colls. of the Midwest, Evanston, IL

Kirkus Reviews
A comprehensive, highly readable life of the well-known but much-overlooked Middle Eastern leader. Middle Eastern politics is endlessly complex. Born in Baghdad, raised in Israel, educated in Britain and now a resident of Germany, Shlaim (International Relations, Oxford; The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, 2000, etc.) is well equipped to comprehend and convey just how tortuous its routes can be. Modern Jordan began as a British-governed bulwark against Saudi expansionism, a defense against their "pristine and puritanical brand of Islam." By the time Hussein bin Talal (1935-99) ascended to the throne of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1953, his nation stood between Saudi Arabia and Iraq on one side and Israel on the other. In the greater scheme of the "Arabian Cold War" that would soon develop, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia were friendly with the West, while Syria, Egypt and Iraq favored the Soviets. All were to some degree hostile to Israel, though once Jordan tasted defeat in the 1967 war-a conflict, Shlaim writes, born of "Arab overconfidence and Arab overbidding" that proved largely that the Arab states "cannot act separately and they cannot act collectively"-Hussein became increasingly committed to seeking peace, not least because so many Jordanians were now dispossessed Palestinians opposed to his rule. Regrettably, Shlaim writes, Israeli intransigence worked against peace. Hussein was constantly underestimated and shoved aside, while American diplomats such as George Shultz and Henry Kissinger and presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton viewed him as a minor character in the larger drama of world politics. Sharper attention turned to King Hussein when it appeared hewas aligning Jordan with Iraq during the first Gulf War, though, Shlaim suggests, Hussein was not wrong to disdain the Kuwaiti ruling family. Hussein's legacy, Shlaim holds, is "the possibility, at least, of peace in the Middle East," toward which he contributed a share-indeed, a lion's share. A worthy biography.
From the Publisher
“A powerful, richly researched history. . . . Fascinating. . . . Passionately engaged. . . . Nuanced and human. . . . Shlaim’s blow-by-blow account of Hussein’s career reads as a somberly addictive saga. . . . King Hussein’s whole life was spent in foreign affairs, and his story becomes the story of the Middle East over half a century.”
New York Review of Books

“King Hussein was a leader of remarkable vision, commitment and humanity. . . . Shlaim brilliantly lays out Hussein’s search for tranquility for his country and his neighbors, and the obstacles his negotiating partners put in his way.”
The Washington Post

“An absorbing diplomatic chronicle. . . . [Shlaim’s] authority, and tenacity, are undeniable. . . . His narrative is gripping. . . . Shlaim details every move, much like a crime reporter covering an interminable gang war, marveling at the young boss’s ability to play for a draw or make his own luck. . . . Step by step, he guides us through the opportunities the players did not miss a chance to miss.”
The Nation

“Excellent. . . . A particularly valuable account of Hussein’s relations with Israel and the Palestinians.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Shlaim is an Iraqi-born academic, reared in Israel and long resident in Britain, who writes about the Middle East with exceptional wisdom and insight. . . . [He] tells the story extremely well.”
—Max Hastings, Sunday Times (London)

“The most authoritative biography of [King Hussein]. . . . He emerges from under Shlaim’s microscope as honest, fundamentally decent and, in a region noted for its brutality and treachery, notably merciful and kind. In his personal dealings, most strikingly with the Israelis, he was especially gracious. . . . Without his relentless diplomacy (conducted often along those secret channels), the region might be even bloodier than it is already.”
The Economist

“A thrilling, masterful biography.”
—Simon Sebag Montefiore, Sunday Telegraph (London), Book of the Year

“Riveting. . . . Artful. . . . Thoroughly informed.”
Wall Street Journal

“A highly readable account of the courageous, astute and sometimes impulsive leader of ‘an impecunious and insignificant desert kingdom.’”
Financial Times

“Remarkable. . . . Shlaim tells [this story], for all its complicated scholarship and historical allusion, with genuine compassion. . . . He has worried his way through subterfuge and mendacity, terrorist threat and open warfare, to establish Hussein’s credentials as a genuine champion of peace.”
—Jan Morris, Guardian (London)

“All would-be Middle East peacemakers should read [Lion of Jordan]. For Shlaim shows not only how attempts at peacemaking in the region have failed, but also why.”
Sunday Telegraph (London)

“Shlaim is the sort of historian every country needs. An exposer of national myths, [he is] the supreme scholar of Arab-Israeli negotiations. . . . For many years [Lion of Jordan] will remain the standard work on King Hussein.”
The Spectator

“Superb. . . . [Shlaim] not only has the twists and turns of the Arab-Israeli conflict at his fingertips but understands better than most why it has twisted or turned.”
New Statesman
“If one wishes to personalise the political history of the Middle East in the second half of the 20th century, there is no better choice of subject than Hussein bin Talal. . . . [Lion of Jordan] captures well the noble aspirations of its subject.”
Daily Telegraph (London)

“Shlaim’s stinging critique of Israel might stir controversy, but his comprehensive, nuanced account of Hussein’s life illuminates the tragic complexities of Middle Eastern politics.”
Publishers Weekly

“Wide-ranging and well-documented. . . . Shlaim’s book gives us a better understanding of a major politician.”
The Observer (London)

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1. The Hashemite Heritage  

King Hussein of Jordan was a man of slight build who possessed a powerful personality and immense political stature. He was in every respect except the physical a towering figure whose courage helped to earn him the popular title "Lion of Jordan." Hussein bin Talal was born on 14 November 1935 in Amman. He ruled over Jordan as an absolute monarch from 1953, when he was only seventeen years old, until his death in 1999 at the age of sixty-three. Throughout his long reign Jordan was in the eye of the storm of Middle Eastern politics, constantly caught up in the turmoil and violence of the region, and Hussein himself emerged as a major player in regional and international politics. He was also a leading actor in the Arab-Israeli conflict, one of the most bitter, protracted and intractable of modern times. Hussein's cardinal objective was the stability and survival of the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan, and in this he was successful against all the odds. His other major objective was to find a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but in this his record is much more controversial. Hussein's supporters see him as a man who consistently pursued a strategy of peace and ultimately succeeded in bridging the historic gulf by concluding a peace treaty with Israel. His critics take a radically different view of his legacy of accommodation with Israel, seeing it as a surrender and a betrayal of the Palestinians. In a region where the past is so powerful and ever-present, the question of whether Jordan's rulers have betrayed or championed the Palestinians has been at the heart of a heated, ongoing dispute. It is one of the tasks of this book to explore the realities behind these two positions thoroughly for the first time.

Whatever opinion one takes of Hussein, the starting point for understanding his foreign policy is the Hashemite legacy. The Hashemites are an aristocratic Arab family whose ancestral home was in the Hijaz in the western part of the Arabian Peninsula, along the Red Sea littoral. They are descendants of the prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima, whose husband Ali was fourth of the caliphs. The family took its name from Hashem, the great-grandfather of the prophet and a prominent member of the Kureish tribe. The Hashemites were religious, rather than temporal, leaders, the guardians of the Muslim holy places in Mecca and Medina during the centuries of Ottoman rule. The title "sharif of Mecca" passed to the next in line within the family. In Arabic the adjective "sharif" means distinguished, eminent, illustrious or noble, and the title "sharif" is reserved for the descendants of the prophet.

In the early twentieth century, however, the Hashemites sought to translate their noble lineage into political power and gradually assumed the leadership of an Arab nationalist bid for freedom from the Ottoman Empire. The break between the Hashemites and their fellow Muslim overlords in Istanbul began with the Young Turks' Revolution of 1908. The Young Turks were a group of officers, officials and intellectuals who ruled the Ottoman Empire from the time of the revolution until the end of the First World War. The shift they brought about in the ideology of the ramshackle empire from Islam to Turkish nationalism displeased and disturbed the Hashemites. The decision of the Young Turks to join the war on the side of Germany then created an opportunity for a Hashemite alliance with Britain in accordance with the Arab adage "My enemy's enemy is my friend." This dramatic renversement des alliances transformed the Hashemites from Arab aristocracy into actors on the international stage.  

Hussein bin Ali (1852-1931) was an unlikely candidate to lead a nationalist Arab revolt against Ottoman rule. He was fifty-five by the time he was appointed sharif of Mecca in 1908. His main concern was to secure his own position and that of his family, and he was robust in resisting Ottoman attempts to encroach on their traditional authority. There is no evidence to suggest that he was attracted to the ideas of Arab nationalism before the war: on the contrary, by temperament and upbringing he was a conservative and inclined to view nationalist ideology as an unwelcome innovation, inconsistent with the principles of Islam. Nor was the Hijaz a particularly fertile ground for the growth of nationalism. A traditional society, bound by religious and tribal identities, it was short on the kind of intellectuals and radical army officers who are normally to be found in the vanguard of nationalist movements.  

Hussein bin Ali had four sons: Ali, Abdullah, Faisal and Zaid. The two middle sons were more politically ambitious than the other two and they played a major part in persuading their father to assume the leadership of the Arab Revolt. Faisal was the principal commander of the Arab Army, and his association with the legendary T. E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") helped to spread his fame beyond Arabia. Abdullah, however, was the chief architect, planner, schemer and driving force behind the revolt. As Faisal himself confided to Lawrence, his liaison officer and the most renowned chronicler of "the revolt in the desert," the idea of an Arab uprising against the Turks was first conceived by Abdullah. As a small boy Abdullah had acquired the nickname "Ajlan"-"the hurried one"-and he remained true to this name for the rest of his life.  

A profound faith that the Hashemites were destined to rule over the entire Arab world inspired Abdullah throughout a long and eventful political career that started in the Hijaz and later saw him amir of Transjordan and finally king of Jordan. Born in Mecca in 1880, Abdullah received his education and his military training in Istanbul and in the Hijaz. Between 1912 and 1914 he was the deputy for Mecca in the Ottoman parliament, where he promoted his father's interests with energy and enthusiasm. It was during this period that Abdullah was exposed to ideas of Arab nationalism and began to link his father's desire for autonomy in the Hijaz to the broader and more radical ideas of Arab emancipation from Ottoman rule. In February 1914 Abdullah returned to Mecca by way of Cairo, where he met Lord Kitchener, the British minister plenipotentiary, and tentatively explored the possibility of support in the event of an uprising against the Ottomans. Soon after his return home, Abdullah became his father's political adviser and foreign minister.  

It was only gradually, and under constant prodding from Abdullah, that the conservative sharif of Mecca raised his sights from the idea of home rule in his corner of Arabia inside the Ottoman Empire to complete independence for all its Arab provinces from Yemen to Syria. While Abdullah became convinced of the necessity to break up the empire at the beginning of 1914, Hussein would become a separatist only after he had tried and failed to attain his limited political objectives within the framework of the Ottoman Empire. A further difference, one of ideology, separated father from son: Hussein's idea of nationalism was based on the traditional concept of tribal and family unity whereas Abdullah's was based on the theory of Arab pre-eminence among Muslims. Whatever the source of their aspirations or their ultimate aims, the indigent rulers of the Hijaz province had to have the backing of a great power to have any chance of success in mounting an open rebellion against the mighty Ottoman Empire. That power could only be the British Empire, which had its own designs on Arabia. This posed a problem. The guardian of the Muslim holy places in Mecca could not easily bring himself to embrace a Christian power in his struggle against fellow Muslims. Divided counsels within his own family did nothing to ease his predicament. Faisal emphasized the risks and pleaded for caution; Abdullah wanted to play for high stakes and urged his father to raise the standard of an Arab revolt. Hussein warily plotted a middle course: he continued to negotiate with the Turks while making secret overtures to the British. Turkish rejection of his demands for a hereditary monarchy in the Hijaz made him tilt further in the direction of Britain. The outbreak of war in August 1914 made the British more receptive to these overtures, and to Abdullah fell the task of weaving together the threads of this unholy alliance against the Sublime Porte.  

Between July 1915 and March 1916 a number of letters were exchanged between Hussein and Sir Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner in Egypt, discussing the terms under which Hussein would ally himself with the British. In his first note Hussein, speaking in the name of "the Arab nation," demanded British recognition of Arab independence in all of the Arabian peninsula and the area covered by present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and part of Iraq. To this claim, which reflected Abdullah's grandiose territorial ambitions, was added a request for British approval of a proclamation of an Arab caliphate of Islam. Britain accepted these principles but could not agree with Hussein's definition of the area claimed for Arab independence. In his note of 24 October 1915 McMahon excluded certain areas: "The districts of Mersin and Alexandretta and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, cannot be said to be purely Arab, and must on that account be excepted from the proposed delimitation." After a year of desultory negotiations, Hussein undertook to join the Allies by mounting a rebellion against the Ottomans. The correspondence, conducted in Arabic, was shrouded in ambiguity, vagueness and deliberate obscurity. It reveals a continuous thread of evasive pledges by Britain and opaqueness, if not obtuseness, on the part of Hussein. It is difficult to tell how much Hussein was moved by dynastic interests and the desire to extend the power of his family and how much by the wish to represent the Arabs in their pursuit of independence. It is clear, however, that his dream was to found an independent Hashemite kingdom on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. The British failed to spell out the difference between Hussein's ambition and the extent of their commitments. In particular, the McMahon-Hussein correspondence was imprecise as to whether Palestine was to be included in the area designated by Britain for Arab independence. Conflicting interpretations of this omission were to plague Anglo-Arab relations after the war.  

In the spring of 1916 Hussein proclaimed what is often called the Great Arab Revolt, which holds pride of place in the chronicles of the Arab nationalist movement. It is seen as the dawn of a new age, as the first serious Arab bid for independence and unity. Some scholars, however, have questioned the link between the revolt and Arab nationalism. They point out that the original terms on which the revolt was launched had little to do with Arab nationalism. Islam, according to this view, featured much more prominently than nationalism in its original aims. All nationalist movements dwell on the past, and in the case of the Arabs the past was necessarily Islamic. William Cleveland has categorically asserted that the revolt "was proclaimed in the name of preserving Islam, not in the name of Arabism or the Arab nation."  

In diplomatic terms, however, as its origins make clear beyond doubt, the Arab Revolt was in essence an Anglo-Hashemite plot. Britain financed the revolt as well as supplying arms, provisions, direct artillery support and experts in desert warfare, among whom was T. E. Lawrence. Lawrence did more than any other man to glorify the revolt and to advertise its military successes. He also surrounded it with a romantic aura by portraying it as the product of a natural affinity between the British and the Arabs, or at least the "real" Arabs, the nomads of the Arabian Desert. The French, on the other hand, took a cynical view of the Arab Revolt from start to finish, dismissing it as British imperialism in Arab headgear.  

The Hashemites promised much more than they were able to deliver. After Hussein's proclamation, only a disappointingly small number of Syrian and Iraqi nationalists flocked to the sharifian banner. Many Syrian notables dissociated themselves from what they saw as treason. The Iraqis had their own leaders; and the Iraqi Shia were particularly apprehensive about the prospect of a Sunni sharif and an outsider taking over their country. (The Sunnis are the leading sect within Islam and strict followers of the teaching of the prophet Muhammad. They differ from the minority Shia sect in doctrine, ritual, law, theology and religious organization.) The Lebanese Christians saw no advantage in exchanging the old Islamic Empire based in Istanbul for a new Islamic Empire, or caliphate, based in the Hijaz. The Egyptians were more hostile than all the others to the idea of separation from the Ottoman Empire and to being ruled from the backward Hijaz. Even in Arabia itself, popular support for the rebellion was nowhere near as enthusiastic or widespread as the British had been led to expect. The Arabian Bedouin and tribesmen who made up the rank and file of the sharifian army were more attracted to British gold than they were to nationalist ideology.  

The usual grand narrative of the Arab Revolt, based on T. E. Lawrence's classic accounts, greatly exaggerates not only its spontaneity, size and scope but also its military value. The first phase was confined to the Hijaz, where Mecca, Taif and Jedda fell in rapid succession to the rebel forces consisting of Hijazi Bedouins commanded by the sharif's four sons, Ali, Abdullah, Faisal and Zaid. Three of these groups laid siege to Medina and were tied down there until the end of the war, contributing to the war effort largely by sabotaging the Hijaz Railway, the main Turkish supply route to Medina. Only Faisal's unit assisted the British offensive in Palestine and Syria, and, on 1 October 1918, entered Damascus first and hoisted the Arab flag.  

The entry of the Ottoman Empire into the First World War on the side of the Central Powers hastened its final dissolution, and by the time the war ended it had lost its Arab provinces. After the end of the war, the Hashemite princes who headed "the revolt in the desert" became the leading spokesmen for the Arab national cause at the 1919 Versailles peace conference and in the settlement following the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. For their contribution to the Allied war effort against the Turks, Britain had promised, or half promised, to support Arab independence. But the territorial limits governing this promise had been left so ineptly and obscurely defined in the McMahon-Hussein correspondence that a long and bitter wrangle ensued between the two sides-especially over the disposition of Palestine.   Another major uncertainty surrounded the regime and institutions to be installed in the Arab areas that were indisputably marked for independence. Should this independence take the form of a united kingdom, a federation or an alliance between independent states? Was Britain committed only to the recognition of Arab independence or also to Hashemite rule over these areas? One searches in vain for answers or even clues to these questions in the McMahon-Hussein correspondence.  

From the Hardcover edition.

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Meet the Author

Avi Shlaim was born in Baghdad in 1945, grew up in Israel, and studied at Cambridge University and the London School of Economics. He is a Fellow of St. Antony’s College and a professor of international relations at the University of Oxford. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2006. His books include Collusion Across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement, and the Partition of Palestine (winner of the Political Studies Association’s 1988 WJM Mackenzie Prize); The Politics of Partition; War and Peace in the Middle East: A Concise History; and The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. He lives in Oxford.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Lion of Jordan 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a big rip