I just returned home from a Fulbright conference in Jordan. Throughout the trip, I was fascinated by the pictures, hung in nearly every public space, of this teenager who will one day rule the country.
Crown Prince Hussein Bin Al Abdullah is 17 years old and the heir to the Jordanian throne. He was 15 when his father proclaimed him next in line. In most photos, he looks about 13.
In Jordan, pictures of his father, King Abdullah II and his predecessor King Hussein are everywhere, hung in restaurants, hotels, cafes and every place where people might gather, or, like police stations, where they wouldn’t. In the Landmark Amman Hotel, where I stayed, the two kings are every conference room smiling confidently under trendy mustaches. The young prince only has one picture, in the lobby. An American Jewish friend commented that it looked like his Bar Mitzvah picture.
I asked a Palestinian man waiting in line to pay for our meals of hummus and falafel about the prince’s name. He had to pause and think, and then he said "Hussein." He seemed to be guessing, though he was correct.
The cult of personality is a tried and true method of monarchs and presidents in much of the world. The effect is triple, reminding those gathered under the leader's picture of their power to be everywhere at once, making them feel a little bit watched all of the time, and generally serving the purpose of making the people feel like their leader cares about them. Prince Hussein has a long way to go. The various Facebook pages under his name claim a little over 2,500 "likes" (though the number of repeats is impossible to figure out). The Facebook group called "I Love Crown Prince Hussein bin Al Abdullah of Jordan" only has 251 members.
It is illegal to criticize the royal family, the press is state-owned, much of the population works as government informants, and recently a blogger critical of the government was stabbed. It's a country of soft dictatorship, but Jordan is also a close ally to the U.S. and its relationship with Israel is healthy. As we walked the streets of downtown, I chatted with a Palestinian university student. We noticed that in addition to streetlights, downtown is dotted with poles, which feature little bright blue lights about fifteen feet in the air. Once you notice one of these, you suddenly see hundreds.
“In the U.S.,” Emily told him, “that kind of thing would indicate that there is a telephone, where you can call the police if you are in trouble.”
The student laughed, and said “I doubt that is what they are for here. I bet they’re secret cameras.”
Prince Hussein’s mother, Queen Rania, is a very fashionable woman of Palestinian origin. She has campaigned widely and famously for education rights for children, cross-cultural dialogue, “community empowerment,” and other Important Causes that steer clear of the obvious contradictions of a monarchy which preaches, as does the Queen’s slick website, that “we are all born equal.” At least Mubarak did not go in for the cloying feel-good stuff.
At dinner one night, an American diplomat explained to several Fulbright students that in Jordan the King really is beloved by the people, and that perhaps this is preferable to democracy. One of the students was amazed that someone officially representing the U.S. would say this, and recounting the conversation later he steamed: “The King isn’t beloved if his picture is everywhere and it is illegal to say he is not beloved. That is the opposite of beloved!”
The Jordanian government has had a far easier time than other Arab countries with protests and calls for the overthrow of their regime. The King is still in his prime and there will be a long time before his young son inherits the leadership. I wonder if, by that time, many years after the beginning of the Arab revolts, he will have thought about whether the inheritance is really his to take.