King Hussein had four wives. The first, Queen Dina was was of impeccable Arab ancestry. Her Hashemite ancestry ( on her father’s side) could be traced to the Prophet Muhammed. On her mothers side her ancestry was Circassian, the ‘Slave kings” of Egypt who ruled it for hundreds of years. King Hussein’s mom, the tough Queen Zain, picked her out. She was an urban, sophisticated and well educated young woman of considerable charm and beauty. She studied at Cambridge and despite her Hijazi roots, she was a raised in Cairo. She was six years older than Hussein at the time of their marriage. They had one child, a daughter, who has remained out of the limelight, and as one might expect, the incompletely educated young king and his cosmopolitan wife had major problems in their short two year marriage. But most importantly the Queen mother began to dislike her and urged her son to dump her. He did so advising her of the intended divorce by phone while she was visiting Egypt.. A s one might imagine she has not been entirely silent about it and has written a number of very unflattering portraits of young King Hussein, mostly implying that he was stupid. She later married a high officer of the Palestinian Liberation Organization ( PLO) and as King Hussein’s most inveterate enemy, the Palestinian fedayeen, she proved to be a great embarrassment to the royal Hussein regime for a number of years.
Next the king married Pricess Muna , ( born Antoinette Avril Gardiner), the daughter of an English colonel serving in Jordan. I had the pleasure of meeting her several times. Unlike the other wives past and present, she was sort of a plain Jane ( but over the years she transformed greatly…underlining the fact that money may not buy happiness but goes a long way in buying beauty) . Neither beautiful or highly educated, She was however very athletic, and by all accounts a very nice person. They had four children, the present king Abdullah, Prince Feisel, and two twin girls. After a marriage of 11 years they divorced in 1972. Princess Muna, as far as I know, never got the Queen title but spends some time in Jordan, occasionally doing official functions, reportedly much to the displeasure of the last wife, Queen Noor, who apparently does not like any competition for the spotlight.
Princess Muna and future King Abdullah on right
King Hussein had spotted his next wife at the airport in Amman. She was working for the Royal Jordanian airlines and my wife and I met and knew her much better. Alia Toukan, was from a prominent Palestinian family and a very fun loving, animated young woman, sort of the life of the party type. She was attractive when we knew her and after her nose job, a fairly common operation among wealthy Arab, women, she achieved that Nordic look that so many aspire to. She was a very hard working queen and had a rather large fan club, doing a lot of charity work and visiting various hospitals. However her spirited former single life left the Royal House with many ugly rumors that had to be constantly refuted. Alas she died in a helicopter crash in 1977. They had two children, and one adopted daughter, Prince Ali and princess Haya, and adopted daughter, Abir. This in itself it remarkable because adoption is not a common occurrence in Arab society, with the emphasis on blood heritage.
Next and last was the “Princess Di” of the Arab world, Queen Noor, born Lisa Najeeb Halaby, Daughter of the CEO of Pan American airlines and a former high official in the Truman and Kennedy administration, Najeeb Halaby , a Christian Syrian American. She also acquired a career of note as an architect and urban planner. They married in 1978 and had four children, Prince Hamzah now 29 years old old, Princes Hashim, now 28, Princess Iman, and Princess Rayah . Queen Noor converted to Islam ( or reverted as the Muslims would say) prior to her marriage. As the Plucky Little King’s (as some diplomats called him) health deteriorated Queen Noor took on a very assertive role and was behind many of the King’s decisions.
One of her primary accomplishments was to influence the King to change the heir apparent to the throne at the last moment. Returning from the US after unsuccessful cancer treatment he unceremoniously dumped his brother Prince Hassan., and appointed his son Abdullah as his successor.There were a number of factors involved.\
When I was there during the Jordanian civil war, between the PLO and the Jordanian army, the conflict evolved into a Jordanian-Palestinian struggle. The bold and charismatic Plucky Little King was very cautious and somewhat indecisive in major crises, and often influenced by friends and relatives. In this case Prince Hassan was known as a proponent of a very tough stance against the PLO and gained a reputation as being anti-Palestinian. In that at least 50% of the population of Jordan is originally Palestinian, many of whom have never accepted Jordan as their country, the vision of Prince Hassan as ruler became problematic.
However a further and important reason was that Prince Hassan’s wife,Princess Harvath, a highly educated and impressive lady born in Calcutta of Muslim parents, who served as crown princess for 30 years and was always involved in all the royal functions was suddenly displaced. She and her husband, Prince Hassan took his demotion in amazingly good grace. And many, including me, believe that Queen Noor, never on very amicable relations with Princess Sarvath, joined others, particularly Palestinian advisors around the King, to urge the change of successor.They told the king, Hassan was too dogmatic, too disliked, also a bit too fervent in Islamic beliefs etc. One story, true or not, is widely held that in anticipation of the imminent death of Hussein, Sarvath ordered the renovation of the royal palace apartments to her taste, and Sarvath was rumored to be grooming her eldest son, Rashid as Prince Hassan’s heir apparent. Whether these stories are true or not, most believe Queen Noor took them seriously. Queen Noor, a strong personality, is not a person to be trifled with, and prevailed upon her husband ( in concert with others) to set aside Prince Hassan as heir apparent. No doubt she had her eye on installing her eldest son Hamzah, as the heir apparent. After all Hamzah was 75% Arab whereas Prince Abdullah, the eldest son of Princess Muna was only 50%. In the West these things are considered racist but not so in the Arab world, where ancestry is everything.
But installing Hamzah after all these years of Prince Hassan waiting in the wings would have roiled the Royal infrastructure too much. so the King wisely chose to reach back to the progeny of wife number two, Princess Muna, who wisely stayed out of the melee, and now we have King Abdullah. Abdullah despite his reputation of not being being the sharpest knife in the drawer, with little of his father’s finesse, has done fairly well, marrying a Palestinian, Rania, a beautiful and talented young women who is undoubtedly a competitor to Noor for unofficial first lady status. But she has had a couple of social misfires including a festival at Ajlun that went awry as needless ostentation and her expensive wardrobe. The king’s mom. Princess Muna stays out of the firing line, probably a very smart thing to do/
But wait …. there is more. Recently the would be queen for life Queen Noor sent out a twitter message sending her condolences on the death of Muhammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood poster boy and ex president of Egypt, lamenting the death of the only “democratically elected” ruler in the Middle East. That set off the social media rumor mill. The Muslim Brotherhood is strong in Jordan and one of the last elections King Abdullah thwarted their ambitions only be manipulating the election process forcing people to choose between Islam or tribe. Moreover much of the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood is in the Palestinian community. Once the choice was between the Hashemites and Arabism, and now it is between the Hashemites and Islam.
So the social media question is …was this a rather not so clever way to light the path for Hamzah to the future royal crown ,or simply a nice to do gesture to throw a sop to the Jordanian Islamists touching the Islamist base without doing it from the very top.
It would seem from the history of Queen Nour, and her excellent media visibility she is planning for the future.
Who says women are no consequence in the Arab world?
Pingback: The Intrigue in the Harem | Memories and Reflections