The Hashemite monarch was a brave, decent man. His efforts to end strife in the Middle East should be an inspiration for today's peacemakers
Westerners talked of him as a bridge between the Arab world and theirs. True, with his British education and manners, his British and American wives and his several foreign homes, he could speak to westerners in their own language. They felt safe and at ease with him. But basically he was an Arab tribal leader, concerned to keep his extended tribe together. Jordanians are now extravagantly mourning his death as the passing of a tribal father.
He had the authoritarianism, cunning and generosity of a tribal leader. Those who offended him were punished, but then forgiven: his ever-changing circle of advisers would include, most usefully, old enemies. He was approachable. He remained simple: there is a tale of Libya’s Colonel Qaddafi descending unexpectedly on him for dinner when Hussein had sent all his servants to bed for the night.
His manliness—his courage, closeness to his soldiers, his piloting skills, his motor-bikes—appealed to his followers. So did other macho qualities. His tribe had no trouble with him taking (one at a time) four wives: the first an intellectual whom he quickly packed off; the second, the English mother of the new king, Abdullah, a nice Betjeman girl whom he eventually grew out of; the third who died in a helicopter crash; his widow, Queen Noor, an American of Lebanese extraction, powerful and beautiful. Nor did they object to his roving eye for, say, pretty journalists, so long as such matters were conducted with decorum. There would be no Clinton saga for him...
The dangerous times continued. Egypt, under Nasser, tried to knock the young king off his throne. So, continually, did Syria, under Hafez Assad, now a gaunt mourner at the funeral. In 1967 Hussein made his one colossal mistake, joining Egypt and Syria in their war on Israel and, in the process, losing the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Some may consider his verbal support of Saddam Hussein in 1990-91 a second blunder. But was it? True, for a time Jordan lost its American and Gulf aid. But if Hussein had condemned Saddam, against the wishes of his tribe, he might have lost his kingdom.
He was not to repeat his 1967 bloomer. From then on, he remained in close, conspiratorial contact with almost all of Israel’s leaders. Before the 1973 war, he even warned Golda Meir, then Israel’s prime minister, of the Syrian-Egyptian plans of attack—but was not believed. In 1994 he signed an official peace with Israel. Israel claimed him as a friend and, in the interests of his kingdom, he was. But he was no friend to Binyamin Netanyahu, one of the publicity-conscious mourners. He has spoken out passionately against Mr Netanyahu’s Palestinian policy.