AMMAN, Jordan — In his debut this week as crown prince, Abdullah ibn Hussein seemed at ease as he smiled warmly and clasped hands with the hundreds of politicians, Bedouin tribal leaders and clerics who paraded across the marble floors of Raghadan Palace.
"We should talk--soon," he whispered to one former prime minister.
"Let's get together once all these formalities are over," he told a senator.
The next day, a representative of the world's only remaining superpower, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, made a detour during her overseas trip to show support for the future king of Jordan.
Abdullah again beamed, puffed up his chest and, after nearly colliding with Albright's car door, took her hand and smoothly guided her up a red carpet and into the palace.
"How was your trip?" he asked solicitously.
The eldest son of a seriously ill King Hussein, Abdullah has unexpectedly found himself in charge of this small, strategic country at a time of historic crisis and uncertainty.
Abdullah, who turns 37 today, is a career army officer who is described by those who know him as charming and affable--as his debut demonstrated--but whose political philosophy, viewpoints and abilities are a question mark.
How he will rule, where he will focus his priorities and whether he has the diplomatic skills and intellectual acumen to hold his own against Middle Eastern strongmen--these are only a few of the unknowns swirling around the stocky, light-eyed crown prince who serves as commander of the Jordanian army's Special Forces.
Born to a British mother, Abdullah was schooled in England and the United States, displays a passion for high-energy sports and--as his first speech to the public showed Friday--speaks better English than Arabic.
In a rare interview published three months ago, Abdullah spoke of growing up in his father's household and the pressures his family faces, and he alluded only faintly to his own future.
"It is not easy to walk in the footsteps of such a great character," he told the Arabic-language Al Wasat magazine, which is based in Paris. "If I'm able to accomplish a small portion of what my father did, I will die happy."
Part of the mystery around Abdullah stems from the fact that few Jordanians ever expected to see him in the role apparently thrust upon him.
In a head-twirling chain of events steeped in palace intrigue and political maneuvering, Hussein, 63, came home from six months of cancer treatment last week and abruptly removed his long-standing heir, younger brother Hassan, 51. In his place, the king appointed his eldest son, then just as abruptly departed Jordan again with an announcement from doctors that the cancer had recurred.
He is fighting for his life at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Hussein's death will send shock waves through Jordan, where most citizens have known no other monarch, and throughout the region, where the king and the stability of his country are considered crucial to peace.
As long as a decade ago, Hussein told confidants of his desire to change the line of succession to include his sons. But the wide belief was that Hassan would assume the throne and then, later, one of Hussein's sons--probably the favored Hamzah, by his current, American-born wife--would succeed Hassan.
Abdullah's name rarely came up. He, instead, was being groomed to become commander of the Royal Jordanian Armed Forces, associates say. With the king's health taking a sudden turn for the worse, and Hassan reportedly resisting changes to the succession, Abdullah was elevated to crown prince and acting regent.
Associates say King Hussein sees a lot of himself in Abdullah. Unlike the bookish Hassan, Abdullah shares Hussein's military training and passion for fast cars, motorcycles and skydiving. He also shared his father's earlier reputation for enjoying the good life, although care has been taken in recent years to tone down that image.
"When I was young I used to like dangerous sports," Abdullah told the magazine. "But then these sports became difficult for me, as for any athlete who gets older. And don't forget: I got married and had children. I don't have the enthusiasm that was in my heart when I was in my 20s."
In 1993, Abdullah married Rania Yassin, a striking Jordanian woman of Palestinian origin whose family was living in Kuwait at the time of the 1991 Persian Gulf War but had to leave when the Palestinians were expelled.
Abdullah and Rania have two children--4-year-old son Hussein and 2-year-old daughter Iman.
Abdullah's mother was the daughter of a British army officer working in Jordan. Toni Gardiner converted to Islam, took the name Muna and, in 1961, at age 19, became King Hussein's second wife. Apparently as part of their divorce agreement a decade later, she does not speak publicly about those years or the royal family but continues to live in Amman.