Jordan's popular king gets back to business in Mideast

King Hussein, key player in Mideast peace, returns after sixmonths and calls for domestic reforms.

For many Jordanians, the return of King Hussein Jan. 19 after six months of medical treatment in the United States was nearly as momentous as the dawn of a new millennium.

Upon touching down at an Amman airport, the king prayed on a mat while cannon fire sounded - a powerful combination that seemed to symbolize the dual military and spiritual traits of much of the Arab world. The crowds that flocked the king's rainswept route draped his convoy in roars of praise, with well-wishers sometimes crying as they were overcome with emotion.

"It's his show, it boosts his ego," says one Jordanian professional.

Few Arab leaders - and no Mideast monarch - can boast such genuine personal and popular support. But the return of the charismatic Hussein is heralded just as much because many Jordanians say that only he can solve their many problems.

On the agenda

Jordan would undergo "sweeping reforms" and "settle all the problems which are concerning us," the king said in a televised statement Jan. 16 in London, amid reports that there would also be new decisions regarding succession to his throne.

"People see a lot of promise in this call for reform, though they know the limitations," says Abdullah Hasanat, executive director of the English-language Jordan Times in Amman, noting deep economic problems and corruption that the current government began to clean up several months ago. "Still they are hopeful, because the king has delivered them many times before. He has the status to get people behind him."

The king has steered his country on a path of peace, and he played an important personal role in pushing Israeli and Palestinian leaders in October to agree to the US-brokered Wye peace accord.

But now Israel has frozen further handover of West Bank land as it prepares for May elections. And Jordan's own peace with Israel in 1994 has caused widespread unease among Jordanians, who so far have seen few benefits.

Hussein has ruled Jordan benevolently but sometimes very forcefully for 46 years. Most Jordanians know no other leader, and some say they can't imagine one.

"Some people are critical of the peace process, but all this has been washed away in this [homecoming]," says Mahmoud el-Sharif, the senior editor of Al-Dustour newspaper in Amman. The king has a "unique" bond that is a mixture of "sympathy and hero worship," he says. "This bond, this intimacy is the secret of Jordan, the binding force. King Hussein is Jordan."

"It is our Arab history that we look to heroes who would take us away from the daily misery. We are always looking for a Saladin," says Mr. Sharif, referring to the 12th-century Arab warrior-hero who repelled the Crusaders. When one with such characteristics as Hussein arrives, "people must be close to him."

Every arm of government was pulled into service to ensure that this homecoming was better than 1992, when the king was mobbed by tens of thousands of spontaneous well-wishers after surgery abroad.

But critics warn that such an outpouring of personal support should not be compared to 1992. Then the king garnered wide Jordanian support for his refusal to join the US-led anti-Iraq alliance during the Gulf War, and he had not yet embarked on Jordan's far less popular peace with Israel.

"That put him much closer to the people," says Leith Shbeilat, one of the monarchy's most vocal critics. "He shouldn't take this [street] support politically."

The king once had a unique bond with his people, Mr. Shbeilat says, "but he took the Israeli option. We work for the Zionist project now." Jordanians are aware of the wealth of the royal family, he says, while "we are all poor here."

Relations with the US

Jordan now has "special NATO ally" status, is again very close to the US, and has received some $225 million in US aid and military equipment each year. The Clinton administration has tried to sweeten the package and has vowed to ask Congress for a boost to $425 million - partly to reward Jordan for its peace deal with Israel and to help Jordan fill gaps that have led to unrest in the past.

On Jan. 17, the king denied Jordanian news reports alleging that reform plans and possibly its leadership had been worked out in concert with American officials in Washington.

The question of succession to the throne has risen repeatedly, and until now the king just as often stated that the choice of his brother Hassan ibn Talal - an intellectual named the crown prince 33 years ago - was irreversible.

But speculation has grown that the monarch would prefer one of his own sons, and Jordanians remember that Hassan was named when the king was still young and had already survived several assassination attempts. The king is expected to revive the Family Council, a small consultative body written into the royal family law.

Despite the monarch's absence, he was known to be in daily contact with the crown prince.

"The pioneer does not lie to his people," Hussein said in his London speech, "nor does he conceal from them that which he believes they need to know."

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