This 1930 photograph courtesy of the Government Press Office shows Emir Abdullah of Transjordan inspecting an honor guard of Scottish soldiers at the Government House in Jerusalem.
During the First World War Abdullah became involved in discussions with British officials over the future of Hejaz and in 1915 encouraged his father to negotiate with Britain's high commissioner to Egypt, Henry McMahon, about Arab independence from Turkish rule. Abdullah subsequently became the political driving force behind the Arab revolt and was a vigorous advocate of the British connection. The reward came in 1916 when his father was granted the title king of Hejaz. Yet it was his brother Feisal who emerged from the revolt as Britain's main Arab mediator owing to his successful military campaigns with T. E. Lawrence. Feisal acquired control over Syria but French forces, upholding the Sykes–Picot agreement of 1916, expelled him in July 1920.
This ejection provided Abdullah with an opportunity to advance his own political ambitions in northern Arabia, after he had been thwarted in the south on the battlefield against Ibn Sa‘ud in May 1919. In early 1921 Abdullah entered Transjordan (then part of the Palestine mandate) with a view to marching on Damascus. At the insistence of Winston Churchill, Britain's colonial secretary, Abdullah was allowed to stay in Amman provided that he curbed anti-Zionist activities in the area and ceased his hostility to the French in Syria. Feisal, meanwhile, was offered the throne of Iraq, a lasting source of jealousy to his competitive brother. Abdullah's position in Transjordan became more secure in September 1922 when the League of Nations accepted Britain's decision to separate it from Palestine. The emirate of Transjordan formally came into being on 25 May 1923.
Abdullah's immediate task as emir was to consolidate his rule over the native sedentary and nomadic tribes. In this nation-building process he was dependent on the armed ‘reserve force’ formed in 1921 by Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Peake, seconded from the Palestine police. Renamed the Arab Legion in May 1923, it was led by Glubb Pasha (Sir John Glubb) between 1930 and 1956. As well as maintaining internal order, the Arab Legion—which was trained and paid for by the British—was responsible for protecting Transjordan's borders. The main threat came from Ibn Sa‘ud, who overthrew Abdullah's father as king of Hejaz in 1924, creating in due course Saudi Arabia. This military dependence on Britain was reinforced by the appointment of a succession of political advisers, notably St John Philby between 1921 and 1924 and Alec Kirkbride from 1927. A legislative council was created in 1928 but its relations with the emir were mainly advisory and he was essentially an autocrat.
By the end of the decade Abdullah was firmly established in Transjordan but, as a contemporary noted, this was akin to a falcon being trapped in a canary's cage. His great ambition was to rule the historic ‘fertile crescent’ which encompassed Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Transjordan. In pursuit of this goal he floated a variety of federation schemes with neighbouring states and keenly advocated Arab unity when it suited his purposes. Fellow Arab rulers, protective of their own positions, came to mistrust him, while Arab nationalists increasingly condemned him as a British puppet. His cultivation of contacts with Zionist leaders in Palestine, based on a pragmatic and realistic view of Jewish nationalism, also incurred their hostility. By the mid-1930s Abdullah recognized that Britain would always block his greater Syria plans and so he narrowed his immediate focus to Palestine.
During the Second World War Abdullah proved to be Britain's most faithful ally in the Middle East. He zealously maintained internal order in Transjordan and gave full support to Britain's suppression of pro-axis nationalists in Iraq in 1941. The only friction occurred in the negotiations leading to the creation of the Arab League, Abdullah favouring a version of his fertile-crescent ambitions rather than the Egyptian-led anti-Hashemite bloc that eventually emerged in March 1945. In recognition of Abdullah's wartime loyalty Britain granted formal independence to Transjordan in March 1946 (the ‘Trans’ prefix was dropped in 1947), while veiling the continuing defence relationship under a treaty of alliance. Abdullah's title changed from emir to king in May 1946. The impression remained, however, that he was a British stooge. Officials in the British Foreign Office referred to him as ‘Mr Bevin's little king’.
In 1947, as Palestine descended into civil war, Abdullah intensified his contacts with Jewish leaders. The upshot was a loose—and much debated—understanding based on Jordan's seizing the Arab-designated parts of Palestine under the United Nations partition plan, leaving the rest for the new state of Israel. Britain's foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, encouraged this as he preferred an enlarged Jordan to a Palestinian state led by the pro-Nazi ex-mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Huseini. A few days before the outbreak of the Arab–Israeli War on 15 May 1948, however, the Arab League appointed Abdullah the commander-in-chief of its armies. It would appear that the plan was either to lock him into the official Arab policy of opposing partition or, failing that, to make him the scapegoat for the expected military defeat.
Unhindered by his new collective responsibilities Abdullah ordered the Arab Legion to seize Palestinian territory west of the River Jordan. The armistice of 1949 left the West Bank under his control, much to the anger of other Arab governments who wanted the area to form the basis of a Palestinian state. To the Palestinian refugees Abdullah was the great betrayer of their cause. His formal annexation of the West Bank in May 1950—adding 900,000 Palestinians to the existing population of 450,000—prompted a crisis in the Arab League. A compromise agreed in June permitted Jordan to hold on to the territory until a final settlement of the Palestine question. Meanwhile Abdullah's attempts to reach a peace treaty with Israel earned him yet more vilification in the Arab world.
On 20 July 1951, while Abdullah was attending Friday prayer at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, a 21-year-old tailor's apprentice named Mustafa Ashu emerged from behind the entrance and shot him dead with a bullet in the head. The assassin, who was immediately killed by the royal bodyguard, allegedly had links with Hajj Amin al-Huseini. Abdullah's body was flown back to Amman that day for burial in the Royal Tombs at the Royal Court on 23 July.
A son of the Arabian peninsula, Abdullah was an Arab traditionalist and devout Muslim all his life. He was particularly attached to the simplicity of tribal values and loved the accompanying poetry and storytelling. But he was also a product of Constantinople's belle époque with its ethnic and religious diversity, and from this he acquired a deep understanding of nationality issues. At the time of his death (and indeed for a long time afterwards) his realism and moderation towards Zionism were unique among Arab leaders. To Britain, Abdullah was the loyal client whose small but stable country was considered a strategic asset and therefore worth its stipend. Although his British advisers thought him well schooled in ‘Ottoman intrigue’, they nevertheless warmed to his charm and impish personality. Kirkbride, who knew him best of all, described him as the ‘king with a twinkle in his eye’. While he enjoyed pomp and ceremony, his official expenses were in keeping with Jordan's size. He wrote two volumes of memoirs, Mudhakkarati in 1945 and Al Takimilah in 1951. From the First World War onwards his abiding concern was to create an Arab homeland based upon natural, historic frontiers rather than Anglo-French imperial constructs. The pursuit of this goal, however, brought him the enmity of neighbouring Arabs and, in the end, his death at the hands of a stateless Palestinian. Ironically his legacy was a stable and modern Hashemite dynasty over a country famously created by a stroke of Churchill's pen.
by Michael T. Thornhill
Palestine: Britain's Crown of Thorns | Transjordan