When Hussein began his long reign, Jordan was in desperate need of modernization and economic revitalization. In the early 1950s, only 10 percent of Jordan's population had access to running water, modern sanitation, or electricity. By the late 1990s, 99 percent of the population enjoyed these amenities. From the start of his reign, Hussein worked diligently to build a modern economy and industrial infrastructure. In the 1960s a modern highway system was constructed as were many of Jordan's major industries, including phosphate, cement, and potash. Not content with economic advancements alone, Hussein sought to improve the everyday lives of his subjects. The literacy rate increased dramatically beginning in the 1960s, while the infant mortality rate plummeted. Hussein managed to achieve stability and a modicum of prosperity at home without resorting to repression or heavy-handed rule. Indeed, Jordan under Hussein was one of the freest nations in the region and is still considered a model for human rights throughout the Middle East.
In the international area, Hussein was a moderating force in Middle Eastern politics. He had the uncanny ability to maintain generally cordial relations with fellow Arab leaders while at the same time keeping strong ties to most Western nations. Jordanian-American relations were quite cordial for much of the Cold War. Hussein's politics were not without controversy, however. In 1970 he ordered the Jordanian Army to forcefully expel the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from Jordan, where it had set up its headquarters some years earlier. This resulted in considerable violence and the killing of scores of Palestinians. Hussein's aggressive actions against the PLO were deemed necessary because it had begun to cause significant disruptions in the country. Nevertheless, some Arab leaders took a dim view of the forced expulsion.
Hussein hesitated to get involved in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and the Israelis sent word that they themselves had no wish to open another front. But emotions swept pragmatism aside. The opening of Jordanian artillery and mortar fire into the Jewish areas of Jerusalem with heavy loss of life and the use of long-range artillery fire that reached the suburbs of Tel Aviv brought Israeli air strikes and the seizure from Jordan of the entire West Bank of the Jordan River and all of Jerusalem.
Hussein was, however, a proponent of a permanent Arab-Israeli peace settlement. After the 1967 War, he played a significant role in the drafting of United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 242. It essentially called upon the Israelis to withdraw from the occupied territories in exchange for peace. The resolution and Hussein's vision became the basis for all future Arab-Israeli peace negotiations.
During the 1990–1991 Gulf Crisis, Hussein worked tirelessly to avoid war and persuade Iraq's Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait. The king's efforts ultimately failed, however, and he defied both the West and many Arab states by staying out of the Persian Gulf War and essentially backing Saddam Hussein. This obviously put Jordanian-Americans relations on ice. But the freeze was short-lived. In 1994, King Hussein had signed the landmark Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace. This made Jordan only the second Arab nation (Egypt was the first) to normalize relations with Israel. Throughout the 1990s, Hussein worked to broker the ever-elusive peace between the Palestinians and Israelis. He was stricken with lymphatic cancer and died in Amman on 7 February 1999. He was succeeded by his eldest son Abdullah.
Paul G. Pierpaoli Jr.
Matusky, Gregory, and John P. Hayes. King Hussein. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.