Instant Expert Kit - The Hashemites

As the Hashemite King Hussein of Jordan returned to the US this week for cancer treatment, the country that he has ruled for 46 years is preparing for succession.

That bad is it?
Well, he wasn't wasting time last week.He stripped his brother Hassan of the title of Crown Prince (heir to the throne) in favour of Hussein's half-British son, Abdullah.

Just more royal gossip, isn't it?
Don't underestimate the importance of the Hashemites: exiled Palestinians make up half of the king of Jordan's subjects, the country lies at the strategic heart of the region and the monarch wields near-absolute power. Not to mention the importance of the Hashemite line to Islam.

Can we begin at the beginning?
The Hashemites are a branch of the Qureish tribe of Arabia, to which the Prophet Mohammad himself belonged. While the leadership of Islam, the caliphate, passed out of the line of Mohammad's descendants, the Alids (named after the prophet's son-in-law), they continued to command great respect as the Ahl-al-Bayt, or Dynasty of the House. Part of this dynasty remained in Hijaz, the region of Mecca and Medina in western Arabia, and after damaging raids by heretical tribes in the tenth century (the Black Stone was stolen from the Kabba) the Hijazi Alids were made emirs of the holy city in 964.

Despite centuries of challenge to this position, including the arrival of the Ottomans, savage attacks from the puritan Wahhabi sect (who later created Saudi Arabia) and bitter in-fighting among themselves, these Hashemites maintained control of the holy city until the beginning of the 20th century.

But how did they get to Jordan?
Hang on. The emir of Mecca in 1916, Sharif Hussein, knew that, as one of the few high-ranking Arabs in the Ottoman empire and a descendant of the prophet, he was well placed to lead the Arab revolt against the Turks and stake his claim to liberated Arabia. With British backing, his youngest son Feisal and T E Lawrence charged north to capture Syria - rather to the regret of his brother Abdullah who had been far more of an influence in developing the plan. When Feisal was forced out of Syria by France in 1921, where he had been crowned (he later became king of Iraq), Abdullah determined to resolve this by confronting the French with his own force from Hijaz. He didn't get very far.

What do you mean?
By a peculiar turn of events, the British persuaded Abdullah that he could not hope to take Damascus but that he was the rightful heir to the unwanted piece of land in which he and his army now found themselves - Transjordania. Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary, later boasted that the state was "created by a stroke of his pen on a Sunday afternoon". With extraordinary energy, Abdullah set about establishing an entire country and its institutions. This, despite the stranglehold the British still held over him: they controlled the army and much of the government.

So when does King Hussein come in?
As a 17 year old. Hussein accompanied his grandfather to the Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. A Palestinian assassin killed King Abdullah with one shot, then turned on Hussein, who was spared by a medal on his military uniform. Thrust from Harrow to the leadership of a beleaguered Arab state, Hussein managed to steer his country through the disaster of the 1967 six-day war (in which half of Jordan's population found themselves under Israeli occupation), bloody confrontation with Palestinian exiles (20,000 died during fighting in 1970 - an event in which Prince Hassan played a major part), unwise warmth with the Iraqis in 1990 and numerous coup and assassination attempts (Hussein once had to take control of a plane when the pilot was killed). That the monarchy remains in power and with the respect of his people is astonishing, particularly as no Middle Eastern state has had more fickle allies; but no one has yet out-manoeuvred the Hashemites.

Duncan Parrish