Our Last Best Chance by King Abdullah: Review

While the Middle East erupts in protests, King Abdullah II of Jordan is publishing a new memoir that Karen Elliot House says shows that his true political test is still to come.

King Abdullah of Jordan has the good—or perhaps bad—fortune to have his prosaic memoirs published just as the Middle East is engulfed in momentous changes that began in Tunis a month ago, spread to Cairo, and now reverberate in other capitals, including, in a still-small way, his own.

The Hashemite dynasty, of which Abdullah is the latest leader in a line stretching back to the Prophet Muhammad, once played leading roles in the Mideast drama, though these days King Abdullah has been reduced to a modest supporting actor. As he recounts at the opening of his book, Our Last Best Chance, his great-great-grandfather, Sherif Hussein of Mecca, launched the Arab revolt of 1916 with dreams of ruling a vast nation stretching from Arabia across the whole Middle East. Instead, Sherif Hussein lost Arabia to the fiercer al-Saud family while the British and French carved up the rest of the Middle East between them, giving the consolation prize of Transjordan to one of Sherif’s sons, Abdullah. That Abdullah, in turn, was assassinated in Jerusalem by an Arab militant.

This left the little kingdom to be ruled by Abdullah’s grandson, the diminutive, teenage Hussein, often referred to as the “Little King.” While small of stature, Hussein managed to play an outsize role in events that followed his coronation in 1952. During the course of a 47-year reign, he fought two wars with Israel and multiple battles with Palestinians who sought to unseat him; made numerous secret trips to Israel, culminating in a peace agreement in 1994; and was a loyal ally to successive American administrations from Eisenhower to Clinton seeking ever-elusive stability in the Middle East.

I was privileged to know King Hussein well and to accompany him during one of his most intensive peace efforts—working with the Reagan administration to seek a solution to the Palestinian issue. That 1983 effort, like so many others, foundered on the lack of seriousness of Yasir Arafat, who insisted on speaking for the Palestinians and refused to support Hussein’s efforts. The king’s courage and persistence over nearly five decades in the face of mind-boggling intransigence and shortsightedness by both Arabs and Israelis—and his determination to keep pushing for peace when everyone he trusted, from U.S. presidents to Israeli and Arab leaders, disappointed him repeatedly—made Hussein an endearing leader to his people. Regardless of poor treatment by Arab allies and his former Israeli adversary, he worked until the final days of his life to promote a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, rising from his bed in the Mayo Clinic, emaciated and weak from cancer, to go to the Wye plantation near Washington to try to help President Clinton nudge Arafat and Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Barak to the closest the two sides ever came before or since to an agreement. But, again, it was not to be. Not long after, he succumbed to lymphoma.

If Arabs have at last discovered they can force change on their rulers, then Abdullah—and his namesake in Saudi Arabia, as well as other autocratic Arab rulers—will have to learn to listen to their people.

King Abdullah so far has not faced any tests such as those his father had to confront. There are currently some public protests in Amman, but they are still small and aimed more at improving government efficiency than at deposing the monarchy. It appears that Abdullah can still count on the support of at least the half of his population composed of Bedouin tribes whose loyalty to the Hashemite monarchy was cemented by his father and who still dominate the Army. That said, Abdullah doubtless will have to demonstrate more skills at leadership than he has been called upon to display in his first decade on the throne.

There is good reason most leaders wait until late in life to write their memoirs. That way, they have more to say. The 49-year-old king probably should have waited another decade or two before setting pen to paper, for his memoir is little more than a bland chronology of events in the Middle East during his first decade as monarch, padded out with a rather more interesting history of his family. Almost surely, however, the next years are going to be more dramatic ones, and if he survives, which is likely, he will have a more absorbing second volume of memoirs to write.

As it is, the book gives little indication of how Abdullah will defuse the challenges Jordan faces. He focuses instead on external issues, even though Jordan already has a peace treaty with Israel and his nation no longer plays much of a role in wider Arab disputes with the Jewish state. He also writes about his education as a young man at America’s elite Deerfield Academy, where he took turns clearing cafeteria tables, and about how he, like his father, disguises himself inside Jordan to hear what his people are saying. But the book gives short shrift to Jordan’s economic problems, which he turned over to his friend, the Harvard-educated Prime Minister Samir Rifai, whose plan, the king notes, he “will be judged” upon. That judgment came last month from the people whose protests led Abdullah to remove Rifai in hopes that the appointment of a new prime minister will be enough to quiet Jordanian protesters.

As the book makes clear, Abdullah seeks to emulate his father in every way. Like his father, he chose military training in Britain. Like his father, he loves riding motorcycles at top speed and driving important visitors through Amman with himself at the wheel. Like his father, Abdullah wrote his memoirs after his first decade of rule. Hussein’s memoir Uneasy Lies the Head indeed was written in what proved to be the most tranquil years of his reign—before the 1967 war with the devastating loss to Israel of the West Bank and East Jerusalem; or the 1973 war, which the Arabs also lost; or the 1978 Egyptian peace with Israel; or the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Hussein’s ruthless neighbor and sometime friend Saddam Hussein. All proved enormous tests of King Hussein’s courage and diplomatic creativity.

Almost surely, Abdullah, presuming he survives this latest wave of liberalism sweeping across the Middle East, will find that his greatest tests are yet to come. If Arabs have at last discovered they can force change on their rulers, then Abdullah—and his namesake in Saudi Arabia, as well as other autocratic Arab rulers—will have to learn to listen to their people. Because truth tellers can land in prison in most Arab countries, rulers rarely know what their people really think. The Internet, however, is giving young Arabs the opportunity to express themselves more openly, so rulers will need to preempt the demands of the young rather than take comfort in the sycophancy of their parents.

As Abdullah writes, “My military training had prepared me for being shot at. What it had not prepared me for was a life in politics. When people shoot at you it is evident who the enemy is. This is not so clear when they are smiling and paying compliments.” If he can truly adapt that bit of wisdom to current events, King Abdullah should be able to make the changes that would allow for the survival of the Hashemite dynasty, though perhaps more as a constitutional monarchy that reigns but does not rule.

Karen Elliot House, a former publisher of The Wall Street Journal and 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for her coverage of the Middle East, is researching a book on Saudi society.