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A Hashemite Renaissance?

The formerly exiled Iraqi opposition groups are an important contributor to any future Iraqi government. One of the major players in the Iraqi opposition congress is not an Iraqi at all: His Royal Highness Prince Al-Hassan bin Talal, the uncle of King Abdullah II of Jordan.

Proposed by the monarchists, Prince Hassan is a potential head of state for Iraq because his cousin, King Faisal II, ruled over Iraq until 1958 when he and his grand vizier Nuri as-Said were killed by revolutionaries headed by General Abdul Karim al-Kassem.

King Faisal was a grandson of Sharif Hussein bin Ali Pasha of Mecca, a descendant of the prophet Muhammad, whose family had ruled over Mecca since the 13th century. As the ruler of the western Arabian province of Hijaz, Sharif Hussein Pasha had been a valuable ally of the British in their World War I battle — immortalized by Lawrence of Arabia — against the Ottoman empire.

Hussein's sons Abdullah and Faisal had bravely fought the Turks, and Faisal himself had stormed Damascus. After the war, the British wanted to reward him with a suitable kingdom, and after some squabbles with the French, Faisal was finally made king of a new country, Iraq, formed out of the former Ottoman provices of Mossul, Baghdad and Basra. Abdullah was given another new kingdom, Transjordania, now Jordan.

Abdullah's grandson Hussein became king of Jordan in 1953. Until shortly before his death in 1999 he had groomed his younger brother Hassan as crown prince. Hassan became increasingly responsible for running the daily affairs of the small but difficult country. He met many global leaders and VIPs. When the king was hospitalized in the U.S. with terminal illness, Prince Hassan took over. Too much so for the liking of the ailing monarch. In a surprise move, King Hussein determined his son Abdullah as his successor to the throne.

This rebuff had, at least temporarily, damaged Prince Hassan's international reputation, However, with clouds gathering over Iraq, he came again into the focus of attention; this time as an aspirant to the Hashemite throne of Iraq. A few old Iraqis, however, still remember the days when Nuri as-Said ruled the country with an iron fist, and they also remember how happy they were when Faisal II was shot and Nuri hanged from a lamp post.

Despite the less than glamorous history of the monarchy and although he does not command any substantive force except a few scattered monarchists, Prince Hassan might become a compromise candidate for head of state acceptable to most of the major players in the Iraq game, with the exception of the leftists and possibly the Saudi neighbors.

Arabs have long memories, and Arab monarchists have even longer ones. Although the Hashemites of Jordan and the Saudis of Saudi Arabia have long made peace they have not forgotten that it was Emir Abdul Aziz al-Saud of Arabia's eastern Najd province who defeated his rival Sharif Hussein, and in 1926 ousted Ali, Hussein's successor. Abdul Aziz called the united Arabia proudly "Saudi Arabia" and elevated himself to king.

The Al-Sauds adhere to Wahhabism, a particularly strict Islamic sect founded in the 18th century by one of the numerous mahdis or self-appointed renewers of Islam, Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab. The Al-Sauds consider themselves the protectors of the holy places of Mecca and Medina, and expect to be respected as such by all muslims.

However, in this role they are faced with two major shortcomings: they are not descendants of the prophet, and their Wahhabi faith is not popular with mainstream muslims of the Sunni or Shia branches.

The current weakness of the Al-Saud dynasty has prompted widespread speculations about the possible future of their kingdom. If the Al-Sauds are removed from Saudi Arabia, what will happen? One current hypothesis is that the Sunni-dominated western Arabia and the eastern part of Arabia with its Shia minority might divorce.

Eastern Arabia would be rich with the world's largest known oil reserves; Western Arabia, including Hijaz with the capital Jeddah, would probably economically decline to average Arab standards.

While no potential successor to the Al-Sauds is known in eastern Arabia, the Hashemites are back in the game in Hijaz. All of a sudden, Prince Hassan finds himself in the strange role of being a potential candidate for a monarchic or head of state position in both Iraq and Hijaz.

Being a Sunni, a grand-grandson of Sharif Hussein and as such a direct descendant of the prophet, he looks like a more legitimate protector of the holy places than the Al-Sauds.

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—— Ihsan Al-Tawil
"A couple of days later, I happened to come upon a brief and moving text that Borges wrote during a trip to Egypt towards the end of his life; `When I was three or four hundred meters away from the Pyramid, I bent down, took a handful of sand and let it fall down silently a little further away, saying quietly to myself: I am modifying the Sahara... and I thought it has taken a whole lifetime for me to be able to say those words.'"

From "The Old Man and the City — Chronicle of a change of heart: Borges's late love affair with the people." by Victoria Slavuski, Times Literary Supplement 20 Aug. 1999 (selected by TMP)