A Failed Coup in Jordan

Richard Cavendish explains how plans for a coup against King Hussein ibn Talal of Jordan eventually melted away on April 13th, 1957.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was the successor to Transjordan, an artificial Arab territory consisting almost entirely of desert east of the River Jordan, which was created out of the old Turkish Empire in 1921, ruled by the formidable Bedouin Emir of Transjordan, Abdullah ibn Hussein, and administered by the British under mandate from the League of Nations until 1946. The name was changed to Jordan three years later. Abdullah ibn Hussein became King of Jordan, but was assassinated by an Arab fanatic in 1951.

He was succeeded by the eldest son he despised, the sweet-natured Talal, who had been educated in England at Harrow, which he hated, and suffered from schizophrenic mental problems of such severity that a secret session of the Jordanian parliament decreed his abdication the following year. He accepted the decision with good grace and went into exile. He was to be succeeded by his eldest son in turn, the sixteen-year old Hussein ibn Talal, who had also been educated at Harrow and now went to Sandhurst for a few months, where he was bawled at by sergeant-majors as ‘Mr King of Jordan, sir!’

Returning to Jordan, Hussein found that the country was heavily dependent on British money and support. This did not please Arab nationalists, there were serious problems with Israel, Egypt and other Arab countries, and Hussein fell out with his own government, a coalition of Jordanian political parties, which he dismissed on April 10th 1957. The cabinet isued angry condemnations, there were demonstrations in the capital Amman, and the leading figures in the outgoing administration refused to serve under three successive politicians asked by Hussein to form a new government. 

Reports of what followed vary considerably, but on April 13th the opposition to the king was apparently joined by General Ali Abu Nowar, recently appointed head of the Jordanian army, and other army leaders he had promoted to key posts. Loyal officers from the main Jordanian army base at Zerqa, eleven miles or so from Amman, got word to Hussein that a military coup was in preparation and that infantry and armoured units were about to be moved to Amman, to surround the royal palace and put the king under arrest.

Hussein told the loyal officers to pretend to go along with the conspiracy until the last possible moment. He then sent for Ali Abu Nowar. The situation at Zerqa became desperately confused, with predominantly Bedouin units loyal to Hussein and the Hashemite dynasty rampaging through the camp, firing shots in the air and threatening anyone they suspected of plotting against the king, while rumours were flying that Hussein was already dead. Meanwhile Ali Abu Nowar, who always denied having taken any part in the coup, arrived to see Hussein, soon after 7pm. There are rival accounts of exactly what happened between the two men, but Hussein, who was still only twenty-one, acted bravely and decisively. He set off for Zerqa himself in a Chevrolet car, with Ali Abu Nowar in the back seat. A few miles from Amman the car met a lorry-load of troops advancing on Amman. They recognised Hussein instantly, greeted him with joy and turned round to head back to Zerqa with him, while Ali Abu Nowar, who was now in fear of his life, was sent  back to Amman in disgrace. When Hussein arrived at Zerqa, he was mobbed  by excited supporters, hugged and embraced, and cheered to the echo. He told them to calm down and return to their normal duties.

All plans for a coup had now melted away, the king made sure that he was guarded in Amman by loyal troops and officers, and a Syrian force of some 3,000 men who had started to move south to Jordan, apparently in support of the conspiracy, thought better of it and turned round and went home again. Ali Abu Nowar was banished to Syria, but was forgiven after a few years and appointed Jordanian ambassador to France. Hussein had meanwhile put together a new government, but the attempted coup killed any hope for the growth of genuine democracy in Jordan. From then on the king ruled, with the support of the army.