It might surprise readers of this blog to know that I did not in fact major in European history or take any classes on the British monarchy or formally study anything to do with what we have discussed so far on ULTC. Now doesn’t that instill confidence to keep reading?! In reality I was actually a Foreign Affairs/History major with a concentration in the Middle East. So, this month we are going back to my educational roots! But don’t quiz me because college was a longer time ago than I would care to admit…
It Runs In The Family
The history of the Middle East is arguably the most complex of anything we have covered to date – just the last century alone has marked significant shifts in its geographical landscape and stoked tensions thousands of years in the making. It is hard to remember a day in my lifetime when a country in the Middle East wasn’t mentioned on the front page of the news. And to best understand the impact of this month’s subject, King Talal of Jordan, it is imperative that we take a step back and understand the history of his family – the Hashemites.
The Hashemite family is (and I use present tense because there are still many members of the family alive today) originally from the Hijaz (the Western part of Saudi Arabia) and claims to be descended from the prophet Muhammad. Their name is taken “from Hashem, the great-grandfather of the prophet” (Shlaim). So yes, we are taking this time machine wayyy back. But our story really starts in the early 20th century, on the eve of World War I when the Ottoman Empire ruled the majority of what we now call the Middle East. The United Kingdom and its allies were eager to see this empire’s demise and the leader of the Hashemite family, Hussein bin Ali, saw an opportunity to increase his family’s influence by emerging as a leader in the Arab fight for independence against the Ottomans. The British viewed this as a chance to defeat the Ottomans and install allies in the Middle East and so the two sides became allies of sorts in 1916. As in most alliances, promises were made and promises were broken, something that would be a point of contention following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire as a result of World War I. The problem is that alliances and decisions were made by people who had no business making them, and these decisions continue to have dire consequences for this region and those that call it home today.
Three’s A Crowd
In the wise words of one of the most iconic Housewives, Dorinda Medley, “Say it, forget it. Write it, regret it.” This is something that would have behooved the leaders of the western world to remember as they conspired to create territories in the Middle East in the beginning of the 20th century that were firmly under their control. Beginning in 1915, during World War I, the Hashemite leader Hussein exchanged a number of letters with Sir Henry McMahon, a British diplomat who was living in Egypt. The letters discussed the alliance between Arabs and the British against the Ottoman Empire, where McMahon effectively promised the creation of an independent Arab state if they revolted against the Ottoman Empire – a state that Hussein assumed he would reign over as the leader in the fight for independence. What these letters did not do was specify exactly what land this Arab nation or nations would include. To make matters worse, at the same time these letters were exchanging hands, the British and French were having secret talks of their own on how they would divide the Middle Eastern land they were soon to inherit. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 “led to the division of Turkish-held Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine into various French-and British-administered areas” (Britannica). Finally, to tie a bow on this cluster, in 1917, British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour issued a letter that declared British support for a Jewish home in Palestine.
So let’s recap – in the span of two years, land that Hussein planned to use to create an independent Arab nation was promised to 1. Hussein and his family, 2. The British and the French, and 3. The Jewish nation. You don’t need to understand the complicated and deep rooted history of those involved to understand the gigantic issues these declarations and agreements created. From the wreckage of this mess, Hussein was eventually granted the title of King of the Hijaz by the British, or what today would be western Saudi Arabia. But the Hashemites were not satisfied – in their eyes, their people were owed and entitled to much more. Hussein’s sons Faisal and Abdullah had been heavily involved in the Arab bid for independence and as members of the influential Hashemite family, they had their sights set on nations of their own. In 1921, Winston Churchill granted Faisal the Kingdom of Iraq and in 1923, Churchill bestowed the kingdom of Transjordan on Abdullah. The catch was that both kingdoms were still in reality run by the British – they had the funds and the military, and now they had rulers who were loyal to the British crown.
And That’s The (British) Tea
The stage is now set for us to turn our attention to the man of the hour. That man, Talal, was born on February 26, 1909 to Abdullah, King of Transjordan. As Abdullah’s oldest son, he was also heir to the throne. Prince Talal spent his childhood years at a military school in England and when he graduated, he returned to Jordan and served in the Jordanian Army (which was actually run by the British). The Arab people’s dependence on the British was something that Talal could never reconcile, so it was perhaps not surprising that the Jordanian heir did not have the warm and fuzzies for the leaders of the country where he had spent his formative years. Talal eventually left the Army and in 1934 he married his cousin Sharifa Zain bint Jamil. Together they had four children, including their oldest Hussein (great-grandson of Hussein bin Ali from the beginning of our story) who will feature prominently in this series.
In July 1951, young Hussein was with Abdullah at a state ceremony where he witnessed at close range the assassination of his grandfather by a Palestinian man. Abdullah’s sudden death was a point of concern for multiple reasons. The first was the fact that Abdullah had been a loyal ally to the British, whereas his son and heir, Talal, was notoriously anti-British. The second reason for concern was perhaps more pressing – when the prince received news of his father’s murder, he was in Switzerland and he wasn’t on a glamorous vacation. Talal had been sent to Switzerland to receive medical treatment for what was reported to be schizophrenia. So now the king was dead and his heir was out of the country and medically unable to fulfill his duties. You know what that means….it’s regency time!!
What Time Is It?? It’s Regency Time!
It wouldn’t be Uneasy Lies the Crown without a classic regency debacle, and Prince Talal was no exception. And to add on to the drama, there was a question of who was to succeed Talal if he was unable to competently rule. The issue lay in the Jordanian Constitution:
“The “The Jordanian constitution of December 7, 1946, in its English version, unambiguously designated Talal, the first-born son of the founder of the dynasty, as successor. But an error in the Arabic translation made it possible to argue that if Talal did not succeed to the throne, his half-brother Naif would be next in line of succession” (Shlaim)
So what was essentially a typo opened the door for debate of the future of the throne, and because Talal’s son Hussein was underage, it also created a path for his half-brother Naif to be named regent by the Jordanian government. However, it was the briefest of stints, as his regency only lasted for two months and a half-hearted attempt to take the crown permanently ended in Naif’s departure from Jordan. The Jordanians and British calling the shots in the government made the decision to bring Talal back from Switzerland and crown him king, but not because they were big Talal fans. The end game was to get his son Hussein on the throne, something that became quite evident by the fact that Talal was King of Jordan for just one year. He was crowned in July of 1951 and “abdicated” in August of 1952. I use quotes there because it is unclear how much say Talal had in the decision. Judging by the treatment he received following the abdication, it doesn’t seem like much. He was swiftly sent to live out the remainder of his life alone in Turkey, where he died in 1972 at the age of 63.
What exactly was wrong with Talal is something that is up for debate and that we will explore next. Unfortunately, much like my experience with researching Emperor Taishō of Japan, there is a frustrating lack of biographical information available on Talal. There may be several reasons for this, one being the fact that Talal was king for only one year. Another is the theory that Talal’s illness was made up or exaggerated so that he could be easily passed over in favor of his son, who was much more British-friendly. Was Talal actually suffering from a debilitating mental illness that warranted specialized treatment and rendered him unable to rule, or was he the victim of a political game that he couldn’t win?
“Balfour Declaration.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/event/Balfour-Declaration.
“Hussein-McMahon Correspondence.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/topic/Husayn-McMahon-correspondence.
Shlaim, Avi. Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace. Vintage Books, 2009.
Simon, Reeva S. “The Hashemite ‘Conspiracy’: Hashemite Unity Attempts, 1921–1958.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 5, no. 3, 1974, pp. 314–327., https://doi.org/10.1017/s0020743800034966.
“Sykes-Picot Agreement.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/event/Sykes-Picot-Agreement.
Aileen Ribeiro | Published in History Today Volume 27 Issue 6 June 1977. “The King of Denmark’s Masquerade.” History Today, https://www.historytoday.com/archive/king-denmark%E2%80%99s-masquerade.
Caroline Mathilde, Queen. “The Queen of Denmark’s Account of the Late Revolution in Denmark [Electronic Resource] : Written While Her Majesty Was a Prisoner in the Castle of Cronenburgh; and Now First Published from the Original Manuscript, Sent to a Noble Earl.” In SearchWorks Catalog, http://searchworks.stanford.edu/view/8034055.
“Frederick VI.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/biography/Frederick-VI.
MUNCK, THOMAS. “Absolute Monarchy in Later Eighteenth-Century Denmark: Centralized Reform, Public Expectations, and the Copenhagen Press.” The Historical Journal, vol. 41, no. 1, 1998, pp. 201–224., https://doi.org/10.1017/s0018246x9700770x.
REDDAWAY, W. F. “King Christian VII.” The English Historical Review, XXXI, no. CXXI, 1916, pp. 59–84., https://doi.org/10.1093/ehr/xxxi.cxxi.59.
S.M. Toyne | Published in History Today Volume 1 Issue 1 January 1951. “Dr. Struensee: Dictator of Denmark.” History Today, https://www.historytoday.com/archive/dr-struensee-dictator-denmark.
Schioldann, Johan. “‘Struensée’s Memoir on the Situation of the King’ (1772): Christian VII of Denmark.” History of Psychiatry, vol. 24, no. 2, 2013, pp. 227–247., https://doi.org/10.1177/0957154×13476199.