A member of the Arab League when the state of Israel was created in 1948, Abdullah was obliged to fight alongside his Arab neighbors against the Israelis. Like most Arabs, he flatly rejected Zionist ambitions. In 1949 he gained control of the West Bank as a result of the war, and he officially changed his country's name to Jordan to reflect the newfound territories west of the Jordan River. That same year, Jordan signed an armistice agreement with Israel. Months later, Abdullah moved to permanently annex the West Bank, which deeply troubled Arab leaders who believed the territory should be reserved for the Palestinians. In 1951 a Palestinian assassinated Abdullah in Jerusalem, and the following year he was succeeded by his grandson, King Hussein I. Hussein ruled Jordan for the next forty-seven years.
A series of anti-Western uprisings in Jordan combined with the Suez Crisis in 1956 compelled Hussein to sever military ties to Britain. In February 1958 he formed the Arab Federation with Iraq. The king saw this as a countermeasure to the newly formed United Arab Republic (UAR), dominated by Egypt's Pan-Arab nationalist President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Arab Federation fell apart by autumn 1958, however, after the Iraqi king was overthrown in a coup. Later that same year, leaders of the UAR called for the overthrow of governments in Beirut and Amman. Hussein fought back by requesting help from the British, who dispatched troops to Jordan to quell antigovernment protests. The Americans had simultaneously sent troops to Lebanon to bolster its besieged Christianled government. Jordan's relations with the UAR remained tense. Indeed, in 1963 when a rival Jordanian government-in-exile was set up in Damascus, Hussein declared a state of emergency. The crisis subsided when the Americans and British publicly endorsed Hussein's rule. For good measure, the United States placed its Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean on alert.
After the mid-1960s and more than a decade of crises and regional conflicts, Hussein turned his attention to domestic issues. He was devoted to improving the welfare of his people, so he launched major programs to improve literacy rates (which were very low), increase educational opportunities, bolster public health initiatives, and lower infant mortality rates. In these endeavors he was quite successful. By the late 1980s, literacy rates approached 100 percent, and infant deaths were down dramatically. Jordan's economy also began to expand as the nation engaged in more trade with the outside world and as its relations with Egypt improved. Hussein also began to erect a modern and reliable transportation system and moved to modernize the country's infrastructure. Notable in all of this was that Hussein accomplished much without resorting to overly repressive tactics. Indeed, throughout the Cold War Jordanians enjoyed a level of freedom virtually unrivaled in the Middle East.
By the late 1960s, another Arab-Israeli conflict was in the making. After Egypt blockaded Israeli shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba in 1967, Hussein signed a mutual defense pact with Egypt. Normally a moderating force in volatile Middle East politics, Hussein sided with Egypt—even as Tel Aviv was imploring him to remain out of the impending war. When the fighting ended, Jordan and the other Arab nations came out on the losing end. Israel took the entire West Bank from Jordan along with all of Jerusalem.
Also as a result of the war, thousands of Palestinians fled to Jordan. By 1970 Palestinian guerrilla groups and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were in open warfare with Jordanian forces, who had unsuccessfully tried to prevent Palestinian attacks on Israel from taking place on Jordanian soil. Hussein also opposed the Palestinian aims of creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank, which he hoped to regain in the future. In September 1970, after ten days of bloody conflict, thousands of Palestinians fled Jordan for Syria and Lebanon.
The early 1970s saw continued unrest. In 1972 Hussein tried to create a new Arab federation, which would have included the West Bank as Jordanian territory. The idea was rejected by Israel and most of the Arab states. In December 1972 Hussein was nearly assassinated by a Palestinian. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Hussein played only a small role, ordering a limited troop deployment to fight in Syria. In 1974, he finally agreed to recognize the Arab League's position that the PLO was the sole representative of the Palestinian people.
Hussein strengthened relations with neighboring Syria beginning in the late 1970s, and he vigorously opposed the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Jordan backed Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988). The 1980s was a period of economic chaos for the Jordanian people. This led Hussein to seek U.S. financial aid. When he chose to back Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, U.S. aid was curtailed. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait also withheld financial assistance. The economy went from bad to worse. When some 700,000 Jordanians returned to Jordan because they were unwelcome in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the economic situation became truly dire. Not until 2001 did the economy begin to regain its footing. King Hussein died in February 1999 and was succeeded by his son, King Abdullah II. Paul G. Pierpaoli Jr.
Salibi, Kamal S. The History of Modern Jordan. New York: William Morrow, 1993.; Satloff, Robert B. From Abdullah to Hussein: Jordan in Transition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Paul G. Pierpaoli Jr.