Someone called King Hussein of Jordan died earlier this week. The newspapers mention, but do not emphasize, that the Jordanian monarchy is all of 52 years old. This century has seen the end of some once-glorious monarchies (e.g. China, Japan, Russia, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman), but what’s this about a kingdom forming in 1946?
No international agency certifies monarchies. The title “King” is available to anyone who can pull it off. The universally accepted “royalty” of Hussein and his family may represent the outer limits of plausibility. Not only is it recent, but both the monarchy and the country it rules over were invented by a Western power. The Jordanian royal family, the Hashemites, didn’t live within 700 miles of Jordan until the British put them there.
The story begins during World War I. The Ottoman Empire–which had weak dominion over the Middle East–was at war with Britain. British officers, including the famed Lawrence of Arabia, hit upon the idea of fomenting an Arab rebellion while no one was watching and installing a friendly monarch in the region. They picked King Hussein’s great-grandfather for the job. Before his selection as England’s stooge, Hussein’s great grandfather was a local nobleman called Sharif of Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia.
The Sharif and the British defeated the Ottomans, and the Sharif expected to become leader of all Arabia. But, after a series of double-crosses, another local family (the Ibn Sauds) grabbed what is now Saudi Arabia, while the French occupied what is now Syria. One of the Sharif’s sons ended up with Iraq (until a coup in 1958), while his other son, Abdullah, was made head of a new British territory called Transjordan as a consolation prize. The British gave Transjordan limited independence in 1923 and named Abdullah its “Emir” (or “Prince”). Two decades later, just after World War II, the Brits granted Transjordan complete independence and Abdullah named himself “King.” (The country’s name was shortened to “Jordan” in 1948.)
Transjordan was created out of the so-called Palestine Mandate (the former Ottoman territories in the Mideast, administered by the British under a “mandate” from the League of Nations). Churchill, then the Colonial Secretary, was reportedly fond of saying that he created the nation “in an afternoon.” The other half of the mandate was ruled directly by the British until it became the nation of Israel in 1948. Transjordan was barely populated when Churchill created it. Today two thirds of Jordan’s population consists of people who fled the Jewish-Arab wars in the other half of the mandate and their descendants. (That is why some opponents of a Palestinian state say there already is one, called Jordan.)
King Abdullah was assassinated just five years later, and the kingship fell to his 18-year-old grandson Hussein. The crown skipped Hussein’s father because he was a schizophrenic.