Amman, Jordan — He was a king at 17. At the age most Americans learn how to drive a car, King Hussein of Jordan was learning how to run a country.
Jordan in the 1950s was a kingdom with few natural resources, a chronic shortage of water, and the misfortune of being located in the midst of the explosive Middle East with long borders with powerful - often hostile - neighbors. There have been more than a few predictions over the years of King Hussein's downfall.
But in the 30 years since he took the throne, the King has demonstrated that he is, above all, a survivor.
Today, as the head of the Hashemite dynasty - which traces its lineage to the Muslim prophet Muhammad - the King at 48 is the longest-ruling Mideastern head of state.
In the 1950s and 1960s he managed to maintain moderate, often pro-West policies, despite frequent calls for reform or revolution by Arab nationalists and Baathists, urged on by Egypt and Syria. His reign has extended through four Israeli-Arab wars, several Jordanian coup attempts, a coup and massacre of his relatives in Iraq, a bitter Jordanian-Palestinian conflict in 1970-71, and a near invasion by Syria in 1980. There have been from 10 to 20 attempts on his life.
In his 1962 autobiography, aptly entitled ''Uneasy Lies the Head,'' Hussein wrote, ''So cunning and varied have been the plots against my person, and so constant, that sometimes I have felt like the central character in a detective novel.''
Perhaps his closest call came when he was 15. He was walking with his grandfather, King Abdullah, at the entrance of the Al-Akhsa mosque in Jerusalem when a lone gunman opened fire, killing the King. Immediately, the assassin turned his gun on Hussein and, the story goes, a bullet struck him but was deflected by a medal on his military uniform.
King Hussein later wrote: ''I saw from the corner of my eye that most of my grandfather's so-called friends were fleeing in every direction. I can see them now, those men of dignity and high estate, doubled up, cloaked figures scattering like bent old terrified women.
''That picture . . . has remained with me ever since as a constant reminder of the Drailty of political devotion.''
The King has attempted to steer a relatively independent, nonaligned, course within the Arab world. But Jordan's lack of resources and sizable Palestinian population have made the Hashemite Kingdom dependent on neighboring states for economic and political support. He has, whenever possible, avoided policy initiatives in favor of Arab consensus.
One notable exception was his decision in 1970 to move against the Palestinian fedayeen who were creating an anarchic ''state within a state'' in Jordan. In a bloody 10-day conflict the King's loyal Bedouin troops forced the guerrillas out. But Hussein is said to be deeply committed to resolving the Palestinian problem and regaining the West Bank from Israel, in part because of a strong sense of responsibility for losing it in 1967.
The King has been married four times and has 11 children. His first two marriages ended in divorce. His third wife, Queen Alia, died in a helicopter crash in 1977. In 1978 he married Lisa Halaby, a Princeton-educated American architect. In accord with Jordanian custom, she was renamed Nour al-Hussein, which means ''Light of Hussein.''