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Jordan’s King Abdullah I, The Man Who Would Be Peacemaker

Abdullah I bin al-Hussein  fought along side Lawrence of Arabia against the Ottoman Empire and became Emir of Transjordan and later, Jordan’s first King. He is the great-grandfather of the current King, Abdullah II. As a child, Abdullah I supported his father, a political leader, and maintained cordial relationships with British leaders. He joined the military and rose in leadership roles, ultimately gaining Transjordan’s independence from Great Britain on May 25, 1946.  Though convinced to join Palestine and other Arab nations in protesting the creation of Israel, Abdullah did not trust the other leaders and eventually entered into secret negotiations with Israel. Ultimately, the negotiations were fruitless and were cut off in 1950. However, Abdullah emphasized that he would continue to work on a treaty of some sort. He was held in high regard by the people of Transjordan as well as by the Foreign Service officers who worked with him, giving them a view into his royal lifestyle and cooperating often with Americans. 

However, his life tragically ended on July 20, 1951 when a disgruntled Palestinian passed through heavy security at evening prayer and shot King Abdullah in the head. In these excerpts, Wells Stabler, David Fritzlan and Edward Warren Holmes provide a rare perspective on this moderate Arab leader. Stabler was a young vice consul in Amman, who was often embarrassed by the kind of access he received (often more than his superiors). He eventually became Chargé d’Affaires when the assassination occurred and was a close friend of the King. A. Fritzlan was Stabler’s successor as Chargé. Holmes was a political adviser in Tel Aviv when the King was assassinated. All three were interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy, beginning in February 1991, May 1990 and March 1993, respectively. You can also read about Israel’s War for independence.


“My new friend, Emir Abdullah”

STABLER:  Abdullah, King Hussein’s grandfather was the Emir at the time. But he also had certain authority and we had an exequatur [an official authorization issued by a host country to a consular agent, permitting him to perform his official duties] from Transjordan signed by Abdullah, as distinguished from the exequatur signed by King George for Palestine. In 1946, Transjordan became independent.

In any event, the role of the Consulate General at that time was one of really tracking what was happening there. The Consul General, Mr. [Lowell] Pinkerton, was someone who played his cards quite close to his chest when it came to the substantive side of things. I really never did know to what extent he was turned to for advice as to what we should be doing about Palestine.

My role at that time was simply as vice consul in charge of visas. In addition, I handled cultural matters. I used to take films out to kibbutzims [farming communities] and to Arab groups and give little talks about American history, etc… The visa work was tremendous. Not so much the first year because no one went anywhere due to strict regulations and lack of transport, but when the war ended there was an overwhelming number of passports, etc. that had to be dealt with in terms of getting people back to the States. There were ships that came in to do this sort of thing — to take people back who had been stranded.

Shortly after I got to Jerusalem — I believe in very early 1945 — Mr. Pinkerton apparently had learned that the Emir of Transjordan was unhappy with him because, although he was accredited to Transjordan, he never went there. He decided that he better go down and see the Emir. Abdullah had winter quarters in Shuneh in the Jordan Valley, on the other side of the Jordan River, not very far from Jericho. The Emir was down there and Pinkerton decided he would go down, but he seemed to think he needed an excuse to go down. The excuse was to present me as a new vice consul. We went down on February 14, 1945. Again — to me, who was just 26 — it was pretty heady stuff seeing an Emir. Abdullah was very nice and it was very pleasant visit.

The following Sunday I decided that I would go back down…. I got down to Shuneh and was very much impressed by all these Arab Legion soldiers who would snap to attention and salute when they saw a consular license plate — actually I flew an American flag. When I got to the Winter Quarters I said to one of the guards, who came out to ask what I wanted, that I wanted to sign the book. He disappeared and came back a few minutes later and said, “I am terribly sorry the book is in Amman, but the Emir is here – would you like to see him?” I said that that would be splendid.

So I went in and had a nice chat with Abdullah through an interpreter — I spoke no Arabic then — and told him how impressed I had been by the Arab Legion that I had seen along the roads. He said, “Well, I am having a maneuver in about three weeks time and I would like you to come as my guest.” I said, “That is very kind of you, Your Highness. Of course, I would like to come.”

After three weeks I had still heard nothing at all. One morning I was in the file room of the Consulate hunting for some document and came across a letter from Glubb Pasha who was then the British Commander of Arab Legion, addressed to Pinkerton. Glubb wrote that the Emir was holding a maneuver on such and such a day and had commanded him to invite Pinkerton to come to the maneuver. I was crestfallen that I had been forgotten by my new friend, Emir Abdullah.

The appointed day for the maneuver came and I went quite early to my office in what used to be affectionately called “the turnip shed” of the Consulate General — a horrible little shed that was attached to the main building and heated by a big potbelly stove. I had been in my office not more than 15 or 20 minutes when the phone rang. It was Mr. Pinkerton down at the Winter Quarters saying, “You get on down here as quickly as you can. The Emir said that the invitation was for you and he won’t start the maneuver until you get here.”

I thought to myself, “That’s a lot of fun, but the end of my career.” I pulled myself together and drove down. As luck would have it I got a flat tire and got stuck in the sand somewhere. By the time I finally got to the maneuver it was over. The Emir was very nice and invited Mr. Pinkerton and me to lunch in his tent.

That was the beginning of a long relationship and friendship that I had with Abdullah and his son, Crown Prince Talal who reigned very briefly after Abdullah was assassinated, and his grandson…King Hussein. When Abdullah became King of the newly independent Transjordan in 1946, Pinkerton was invited to attend the ceremonies along with the other Consuls General in Jerusalem accredited to Transjordan.

I was the only vice consul invited personally by the Emir to come to his Independence Day celebrations, including the Palace function and the big parade at the airfield on May 25, 1946. By that time I was fully known in Jordan and was regarded really sort of the U.S. presence, if you will. I don’t think Pinkerton really resented it. If he did, he never said anything, nor did he try to curtail my activities.

I had lots of things that I did in Jerusalem. I had become by then a good friend of the new High Commissioner, General Sir Alan Cunningham, and his staff. I generally had a pretty good position in the Palestine government, although I didn’t really deal with the political side of it. When the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry came to Jerusalem in 1946, the British were already discussing what they should do with Palestine as it was becoming more and more of a burden for them. Violence was continuing and escalating.

There was the problem of Jews in Europe. They eventually said that something had to be done. They suggested a group go to Palestine, including Americans, to see what could be done about it. So the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry was appointed and the senior U.S. delegate was William Phillips, a former Under Secretary of State and Ambassador to Rome in the early part of the war before we went into it, and whose wife was my godmother. So Pinkerton assigned me to look after that Delegation. I also was given the responsibility for acting as escort for quite a few Congressional delegations that came to Palestine.

“He implored me to inform Washington that it must do everything to stop the fighting”

FRITZLAN: Wells Stabler was the first Chargé d’Affaires. He had a staff of one American, and about three locals. I’d been to Princeton for a year pursuing my Arabic and related studies, and I arrived in August of that year to take over from him. He came to the Department. The war between the Arabs and the Jews was over the summer before and they had signed armistice agreements. The war wasn’t over technically but there was an armistice so the fighting had ceased. Amman was then a small village-like place, everybody knew everybody. I immediately met King Abdullah, his ministers. I had access to any of them almost anytime. My Arabic was sufficient to carry on a normal, not technical, conversation. The King expected me to come and join him in a group that rotated, once a week for dinner; there were always two or three foreign representatives, three or four ministers; and then members of the court.

STABLER: In any event, in mid-July I packed myself and my dachshund into my car and headed off to Amman. Again I had to take a long route because the Allenby Bridge over the Jordan had been closed. After a long drive I arrived in Amman and immediately went to the Palace to see the King and to report to him that I would be in Amman permanently. I told him what my title would be.

As it turned out, when I arrived at the Palace, Abdullah was in conference with the Prince Regent of Iraq, Emir Abdulillah, and with the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri Said Pasha. These gentlemen had just returned from Cairo where the Arab League had decided to resume the war with Israel that very day.  Abdullah was distraught.

He implored me to inform Washington that it must do everything to stop the fighting, since, as he put it, if the Arab Legion should be mauled and defeated by the Israelis, his position in Jordan and the Arab world would be destroyed. I promised that I would transmit his views, although at that moment I had neither codes nor any form of communication with Washington. As I recall, a U.S. plane, either Air Force or Navy, came to Amman the next day, and I was able to get them to take my message to Cairo to be repeated.

Incidentally, the next morning after my arrival, I went to see Sir Alec Kirkbride, the British Minister, whom I had got to know well, along with his family, during my many previous trips to Jordan. I told him that I would be living permanently in Amman and mentioned my title. Yes, said Kirkbride, he had seen the King a few hours earlier who had told him of my visit the previous evening and that, yes, I had mentioned some sort of title. The King said he could not possibly remember what it was, but that he was glad that I, as the American representative, had come to Amman for good. My position there used to irritate some of the accredited diplomatic representatives, particularly when I would show up for official functions. Some of them complained, but were sharply told that the King would have whomever he wanted at Palace functions and that I was welcome.

And so began a thirteen-month tour in Amman…It was a most interesting period for me, since, in effect, I was, at a fairly young age, a Chief of Mission. I saw a great deal of Abdullah and his government, and formed a close friendship with the Crown Prince, Emir Talal. I also met Talal’s son, the present King Hussein, who was then about eleven.

FRITZLAN: [Abdullah] relied very heavily on the British, Sir Alec Kirkbride was Minister and he was really the mainstay of the throne and the government. At the beginning the British didn’t like us being there. Kirkbride, of course, I called on him; he returned the call in a normal way, but he wasn’t about to tell me anything. However, I did have access to the various government ministers. The Prime Minister at the time was Tawfig Abul Huda. He and I met occasionally formally and only on business.

STABLER: Abdullah was interested, of course, in the political views of the United States. I don’t think he ever quite understood why he wasn’t regarded more favorably by the States. The fact there was no recognition obviously galled him. He assumed, in a way — as he regarded the American President as an important figure that the American President by like token regarded him Abdullah as an important figure, which of course obviously wasn’t the case. (Abdullah with Churchill in photo at right)

He had that sort of a vision of the world where he saw himself in a larger role than he really had. This also was somewhat likened to what he regarded as his role vis-a-vis the British Queen. The British did look upon Jordan in their way as an important element and he looked at the Queen as a fellow monarch.

He never really took me to task about the general Arab view that our policy in the Middle East was dictated by domestic considerations. I don’t ever remember him talking a great deal about that. He was apt to talk about the larger picture of how he viewed and looked towards the future and some peaceful arrangement where Jordan would be a bigger state and Israel would be there, etc. He obviously very much wanted to have a formal relationship with the United States.

During that period I saw a lot of the King. He gave me a horse that I used to ride. I used to play polo in Amman with Arab Legion officers which was fun but dangerous. One had really an interesting time with not only the Jordanians and Palestinians but with the foreign community. It was a very small town. Everybody knew what everybody else was doing. There was a lot of intrigue and things of that sort. But it was a wonderful experience. King Abdullah was really a very nice person and I was very fond of him.

“This was a golden opportunity for us to take a lead and push the Israelis forward”

HOLMES: We were trying to assist Israel by bringing peace with Jordan, and we were dealing with Abdullah, the king of Jordan. Through secret negotiations, we did manage to have negotiations take place, secretly, across the border in Israel and in Jordan, by emissaries of Ben-Gurion and the King. I don’t think they ever met, themselves, but their emissaries did. We were knee-deep in this, and this was a major desire of U.S. foreign policy, to bring peace with one of the countries. The feeling was that if they could get it with one country, then maybe you would start the process with other Arab countries, to bring peace.

FRITZLAN: I thought this was a golden opportunity for the Department to take some sort of a lead and push the Israelis forward. I had every reason to believe that the British and Kirkbride were doing much the same in respect to Abdullah. And I got a reply back saying in effect that “the Department doesn’t wish to get involved in this matter. It is one to be settled strictly between the two parties.” Can you imagine anything more negative? And so, nothing came of it.

I don’t know if Abdullah could have signed any kind of comprehensive settlement of Ben Gurion that would have stood the test of time but there was a possibility. The net result of these talks was that a year or so later Abdullah was assassinated by a Palestinian acting under Egyptian influence. He might have signed something and still been assassinated, but it might have held up just as the treaty between Egypt and Israel held up despite Sadat’s assassination.

It was terrible, it upset everything because even though these peace negotiations–or let’s call them that –these negotiations failed. But Abdullah made it clear that he hadn’t given up, that he was going to return to the charge, and the assassination occurred about a year after the negotiations were broken off.

He was, of course, handicapped, I will say this, in having some Palestinian ministers who didn’t like it. They would have said, “We accept nothing short of return to our homes in areas occupied by the Jews.” So this was a handicap. I don’t know in the long run whether they could have prevailed. Supposing they’d resigned? Okay, he could have got in some other Palestinians who would have done his bidding, I think.

However, everything was spoiled by the assassination. Abdullah was succeeded by Talal, the Crown Prince, who was useless, a schizophrenic. The assassination, of course, did mean that any successor of Abdullah’s was vulnerable. He would have to be very careful about exposing himself in the way the old King did.

There had been attempts on Abdullah long before this over the years. Talal was deposed as incompetent in 1952 and his son Hussein came to the throne. Over the years there were attempts to assassinate him. They may have been instigated by Nasser, but still…

After he was assassinated, Talal, who was in Switzerland undergoing treatment for schizophrenia came back eventually. But briefly there was regency, and then he came back and showed himself to be totally unbalanced. And this went on for about a year; a totally unstable situation. And then they declared that he was unfit to rule.

The constitution provided for this, so he was deposed. His son, Hussein…came back in September of ’52 and, although only 17, they declared that he was 18 under the terms of the lunar calendar which made him eligible to assume the throne, which he did. I left about two months later…