By David Gardner
Uneasy Lies the Head was the perhaps inevitable title of the autobiography of the late King Hussein of Jordan, the West’s favourite benign Arab despot. He was the improbable survivor of innumerable plots, coups and uprisings, of three Arab-Israeli wars, two Gulf wars and a civil war with the Palestinians, as well as around a dozen assassination attempts in the 46 years he wore the heavy crown of his improbable desert kingdom.
The Hashemite monarch, descended from the family of the Prophet Mohammed and the Sharifs of Mecca, exuded total confidence in his legitimacy. Yet, this most open of Arab autocrats, this elegant and charming authoritarian, relied on the military and the Mukhabarat, his ubiquitous secret police, to stay in power, no less than in any other Arab state. To underline this truth is not necessarily to disparage King Hussein’s often liberal instincts. What it reveals is that even a leader willing to experiment with change, a regal populist who could utter the word “democracy” with a more or less straight face, a monarch who was once prepared to share (a bit of his) power with Islamists, was in the end no different from his peers.