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King Hussein : The Man in the Middle Is Now the Man in Deep Water

March 03, 1991|Michael Emery | Michael Emery is a professor of journalism at Cal State, Northridge. He interviewed King Hussein at the royal palace

AMMAN, JORDAN — For nearly seven months, King Hussein of Jordan has been severely criticized by numerous Western and Arab leaders for his decision to remain neutral in the Gulf War and his refusal to condemn Saddam Hussein. Coalition leaders--particularly the Bush Administration, which had regarded him as a special friend in the Middle East--expected the king to dissociate himself from Saddam Hussein. The Iraqis--Jordan's biggest trading partner--expected the king to emphasize Arab unity. Meanwhile, the Palestinians, both in the occupied territories and in Jordan, where they make up 42.5% of the population, expected the king to side with Iraq.

Throughout this period, King Hussein somehow managed to hold the middle ground, as he has for most of his 38-year reign--but not without experiencing considerable emotional stress. His has been a long-running political high-wire act.

The king is adamant that the Gulf War could have been prevented had Western governments cooperated with an Arab-arranged peace effort a few days prior to Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait. In fact, he discussed documents, now circulating in the Arab world, purporting to show that U.S. and British officials, assisted by the Egyptians and Kuwaitis, sabotaged the effort.

Despite the criticism, the king insists he is comfortable with his decision to oppose the coalition's actions and give sympathy to the Iraqi people. In the long run, he insists, his advice and diplomatic efforts will be proven correct.

Matching expectations with actions has long been a problem for King Hussein. Encircled by Israel, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Jordan has been in the middle of the never-ending dilemma of how Jews and Arabs can live together in peace. In 1967, his decision to enter the Six-Day War cost him the West Bank territory. In 1970, he enraged Palestinians by ousting the Palestine Liberation Organization from Jordan in a bloody confrontation. Today, he is applauded by Palestinians, but is on Washington's black list.

King Hussein assumed leadership of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1953, at age 17, when his father was disabled by illness. Two years before, his grandfather, King Abdullah, had been assassinated in Jerusalem, his favorite grandson at his side. That day, a bullet bounced off the young Hussein's chest medal, and he has survived at least 11 assassination attempts.

The king has suffered a number of personal tragedies, including the death of his third wife, Alia, in an plane crash. Now married to the former Lisa Halaby, a Princeton graduate and the daughter of a U.S. businessman, Hussein spends his free moments with Queen Noor and their four children. Along with flying and his interest in sports, this allows him time to escape the pressure of his political tightrope walk.

Question: Many Americans are angry and disappointed in you. What do you think they expect of you?

Answer: Well, I'm sure they probably feel that we have been friends for so many years and therefore they can't understand my position and attitude . . . going along . . . with no regard to their past, their heritage, their interests. . . . I believe every attempt that I made, that any of us made, in this region to eliminate this blood bath, this destruction, was unfortunately blocked . . . . I found a new situation that developed over the last few years. And that is an attitude I don't believe is becoming of the United States . . . . It is something along the lines of: You are either for us or you are against us.

Q: What efforts were made to solve problems between Iraq and Kuwait before the crisis of summer, 1990?

A: Over a long period of time--before the end of the war between Iraq and Iran--I had tried my very best to see what could be done . . . . He (Saddam Hussein) told me how anxious he was to ensure that the (border dispute) situation was resolved as soon as possible. So he initiated the contacts with the Kuwaitis . . . . Apparently, this didn't work from the beginning. There were meetings but nothing happened . . . . To my way of thinking this was really puzzling . . . . It was in Kuwait's interest to solve the problem. I know how there wasn't a definite border, how there was always a feeling that Kuwait was a part of Iraq.

. . . Apparently, during the Iraq-Iran War, the Kuwaitis crept up into Iraq. The Iraqis claimed that they went up to 60 to 70 kilometers inside Iraq and began to exploit oil wells, as well as to create farms and settlements. The Iraqis did not want to create a problem at that time . . . . So the question of the border--where is the border? It is something that has never been defined.

Q: At the end of the Iran-Iraq War, were you given any indications that Saddam Hussein had territorial aspirations?

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