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

<i> Michael Emery is a professor of journalism at Cal State, Northridge. He interviewed King Hussein at the royal palace</i>

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?

A: I never heard any of that directly. But I heard from many (Western) friends who passed through the area, and they were told by various leaders of Arab Gulf states--even the Saudis--that they were worried about Iraq’s strength, that Iraq was a possible threat to them. But I went and brought this question up with every single one of them: . . . “Look, had this country not defended you (from Iran) these last many years, the whole situation would be different. Their strength is for you. Why this attitude? If you have any doubts or suspicions, why not bring them out in the open?” . . . Unfortunately, the seeds were there.

Q: Who planted those seeds of suspicion?

A: Later we discovered there was a theory of a Jordanian-Iraqi-Yemeni conspiracy to divide the spoils, which are Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Nonsense. . . . My conviction is they (Arab leaders) wouldn’t have believed (these stories) unless there was a foreign input. I am sure there are some foreign intelligence agencies that must have given them the impressions.


Q: When did you first become alarmed about the Iraqi-Kuwaiti problem?

A: At the Arab Summit meeting in the spring of 1990. That was the first time in a closed meeting (that) President Saddam Hussein spoke very, very frankly about the very serious situation developing between Iraq, Kuwait and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) over the selling of oil: Dumping it onto the market was causing them (Iraqis) enormous difficulties. They were barely able to produce a budget that year . . . . The Iraqi people could not understand why, after years of war, their condition continued to deteriorate . . . and that the drop of every dollar in the price of oil was causing them a billion-dollar loss (per year).

Q: What happened next?

A: There was this buildup. The attitude of the president (Saddam Hussein) was one of extreme anger and that, “Well, we’re going to have to resolve this (oil) problem. We can’t explain to our people what their condition is and what causes it. But we believe there is a conspiracy against us.” . . . So everything was hinging on the meeting that was to take place in Jiddah (July 31, 1990).


Q: Did you have a feeling that Saddam eventually might invade?

A: I honestly didn’t imagine that he’d do that, against the background of his position at the summit in Morocco. He reiterated that no Arab state should pose a threat to another, that no Arab state should interfere with the internal affairs of another.

Q: You seem convinced that this war resulted from a long-range U.S.-British policy to weaken Iraq and Iran economically and allow a U.S.-organized Gulf security force to control events in the region for decades. Is that a fair representation and, if so, why?

A: Yes. I believe it is. Unfortunately, I’ve been convinced for a while that there was no effort to dialogue, no effort to reach a diplomatic solution and that there was preparation, from the word “go,” for war.


Q: It has been reported that on July 28, the White House showed little concern over a CIA briefing that Iraq might be ready to invade Kuwait. A few days later, Saddam Hussein was equated with Adolf Hitler. Did someone seize the opportunity?

A: Thatcher was very influential . . . . (After the king’s refusal to vote to condemn Iraq’s invasion), I received a very strong message from Thatcher, speaking of the President’s disappointment . . . with the kind of language that I wasn’t used to from anybody. (Later) we had one of the rowdiest discussions that I ever have had with anybody. She was very strong on her side and so was I . . . very strong language . . . . But one thing came out. She said U.S. troops were halfway to their destination before the request arrived.

Q: What was Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s role?

A: Mubarak broke a confidence given him by Saddam Hussein. He (Saddam) said, “I told him (Mubarak) in complete confidence that I was hoping their (the Iraqi troops) presence there (on the Kuwaiti border) would act as a source of pressure on the Kuwaitis to help resolve this problem and that we were hoping for the Jiddah meeting to succeed . . . . Please don’t tell the Kuwaitis.”


So Mubarak went and told the Kuwaitis about the troops--that there was no danger about their being used. I believe he told the Saudis, and he told the media, and he told President Bush. At best, it could have been a terrible miscommunication; at worst--it went beyond that because . . . he was told by Saddam Hussein not to tell anyone . . . . He created the wrong impression . . . . Mubarak said Saddam Hussein lied and he abused a confidence . . . . This was the “big lie” (of Hussein) that had worldwide effect.

Q: How did you find out about the invasion? And why didn’t Saddam Hussein withdraw in a few days--as expected?

A: King Fahd (of Saudi Arabia) called about 5 a.m. He said “Have you heard what happened? . . . Can you reach Saddam and tell him to stop? Tell him to get back to the disputed area and stay there.” Fahd was strong in his language, not only about the Iraqi move but also about the Kuwaiti leadership (for) their intransigence. After Saddam said, “We had to go in,” I told him it was serious. He said, “Please, you know us very well. You know the best way to deal with us is neither through threats nor intimidation . . . . We are committed to withdrawal from Kuwait . . . . It will begin in the next few days and end up in a period of weeks and we are ready for a dialogue.”

I told Mubarak to please let no resolution (of condemnation) come up at the meeting (of Arab foreign ministers on Aug. 3). I went to Baghdad . . . got a date for withdrawal (Aug. 5) . . . . I landed here and had the media waiting for me. I said I’d achieved a breakthrough . . . . Then I (got) a call from our foreign minister in Cairo . . . . (He said:) “Unfortunately, Mubarak himself had been telling this statement against Iraq and furthermore the Arab League is about to pass a resolution condemning Iraq.”


Q: This has been called the first American-Arab war--but that term implies racism. How do you see this?

A: I believe it is most unfortunate that this has happened, and I believe it will leave a very bitter taste that is going to be there for a long time . . . . People of great responsibility in the Arab World have allowed this to happen . . . . Relations should be based on mutual respect and the will and general desire to cooperate, (but) that hasn’t been the case in the recent past.

Q: Some Americans fault you for not condemning Iraq’s use of your air space for missile attacks on Israel. How do you respond to this?

A: In the first place, the missiles are not used in our air space or in any area that we can get at. Missiles are used above the normal air space . . . . They are well beyond our reach, but in the same way we have to make it clear to the Iraqis that they can’t expect us to permit them to use their air force against Israel.


Q: What’s Jordan’s position on the occupation of Kuwait?

A: We were against the occupation of Kuwait and the annexation of Kuwait, just as we were against the occupations and annexations of the West Bank and Gaza, the Golan Heights, southern Lebanon--as we have been against the occupation of a part of Cyprus, as we’ve been against occupation of part of the Falklands. On principle, our side has never changed in any of these instances . . . . This is what the United Nations was intended to be . . . . The people of this region have to live together in peace . . . . That is not easily achievable by destroying a country, by further abuse . . . . We are very worried and concerned that we are entering an area of instability, general instability in the entire region . . . with regard to the people who permitted this to happen . . . . The destruction of the links and ties between Arab peoples that have lasted longer than the last span of leaders and hopefully will last way beyond this one.

Q: Many Americans don’t know of Daniel Ortega’s role in the peace process. Could you assess his contributions over the past three months?

A: I met him at the nonaligned conference in Belgrade and found him to be genuinely concerned (about) peace in this region. He tried his utmost, together with so many other people from different parts of the world, including the United States . . . .


Q: You and Yasser Arafat have had an off-again, on-again relationship for years. Do you think he can emerge from this with the credibility to represent the Palestinian people at a Middle East peace conference?

A: Only the Palestinians can determine that . . . . I believe the Palestinians must be involved with the solving of the Palestinian-Israeli dimension of the problem . . . . The peace conference will involve all of the participants in the region . . . . I believe this will happen.

Q: Various Arab leaders have been defenders of the Palestinian cause at different times--Nasser, Assad, Saddam Hussein. What are the chances that after this war King Hussein of Jordan will emerge as the chief advocate for the Palestinians?

A: I feel that I always have been for them, sir.


Q: You and your associates continue to trust the United States right up to the last minute, even though, through all of your years, you had worries about conflicting U.S. motives in the Middle East?

A: Well, there may be doubts but you don’t just stop there. Our friendship (with the United States) started in the 1950s . . . . We tried to do what was possible to influence events in a positive way. I think one of the basic problems, with regard to American policies, is an attempt at crisis management. What is lacking is . . . long-range policies to deal with problems.

Q: It seems clear that Jordan is being punished from pillar to post for its position, including the bombing of trucks on the Baghdad-to-Amman highway. This pressure may continue in the postwar period. Is the stand worth the sacrifice?

A: Well, the casualties (that) were sustained . . . the embargo, a state of siege that we have faced, is a social blow of obvious pain. (But) regarding the United States, the advice we have given and positions we have tried to adopt will eventually prove to be in the interests of the United States in the long term--and I hope to be associated with it.