A thoroughly modern sportsman-monarch, King Hussein of Jordan hopes to lead backward elements of his country into the present by the force of his example. The King's athletic range is unusually wide, and his skills are impressive
May 07, 1967

Shimmering in the noon sun, the road twisted downward in tight little arcs, disappearing behind a stand of frothy shrub, reappearing again along the rim of a rocky precipice and then vanishing from sight in the canyon far below. Beyond stretched the great green Rift Valley. A light breeze blew through the open-sided tent in which I sat high on a mountain in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The wind lifted swirls of sand from beneath thick Persian carpets and ruffled the flowing Arab headdresses of the guards who stood along the flag-lined road. In the intermission between the fifth and sixth events of the Royal Jordanian Automobile Club's second annual hill climb, an orchestra in scarlet-and-black uniforms played a Rodgers and Hart medley. A soldier kept rhythm with his fingers on the barrel of a machine gun tucked beneath his arm. Suddenly the voice of the race announcer interrupted the music.

"The next event," he said, "is for Grand Touring and sports cars from 1,601 to 2,000 cc. The first car in this event is No. 51. Car No. 51 will be driven by His Majesty, King Hussein."

I had traveled 10,000 miles to observe the legendary "boy king" who, since assuming the throne in 1953 at the age of 18, had survived five assassination attempts and countless other plots against his life, had confounded political skeptics by retaining his crown and, indeed, had made Jordan one of the most powerful and influential countries in the Middle East.

Hussein also had become the world's most visible royal sportsman, a lover of fast cars, fast planes, any fast action; not merely an accomplished athlete but a daredevil who sought out danger, who swam, scuba-dived, water-skied and raced Arabian stallions across the desert, jets across the skies and everything from Go Karts to motorcycles around the tracks. It was this aspect of the King that had brought me to Jordan for a firsthand look, and I was not disappointed in what I saw.

When I met Hussein earlier he was preparing his Porsche 911 sports car for the hill climb. He extricated himself from beneath the hood and wiped the grease from his hands. "Welcome to Jordan," he said, taking my hand in his. "I hope you will enjoy my country as much as I have enjoyed yours."

Hussein's build was powerful and muscular, his shoulders broad, his back straight. His black hair, cropped short, was flecked with gray. In the fashion of most Middle Eastern men, he wore a mustache.

Now from the tent on the mountain-top one could see a tiny silver bullet, Car No. 51, on the narrow road. The car slid around a curve, disappeared behind a stand of pine trees, rocketed out the other side and into another curve. It took the turn at maximum speed, clearing a guardrail by inches. The noise of the engine grew louder as the Porsche neared the end of the course. Hussein downshifted into the last tight hairpin. One car had already cracked up there, and several more had come close.

Car 51 took the hairpin wide, hugging the outside to midturn, then slamming across the corner with a screech of tires. It skidded sideways and picked up speed again as it came out of the turn onto the straightaway. With a last burst of power it roared across the finish line. Hussein had made the top speed of the morning.

The Porsche came to a stop at the grandstand. Suddenly the roadway was filled with people, until car and driver were surrounded by a cheering, clapping mob. People reached out to touch the white shirt, the brown arm.

"The customs of centuries change slowly," Hussein commented later. "One does not persuade a man to abandon his donkey by telling him that wheels are better. One shows him. Races such as these give prestige to driving and new heroes to the villages. The Automobile Club is now teaching thousands of youngsters to drive. They will work hard to have cars of their own someday. More cars mean more roads. More roads mean more tourists, cheaper trucking, better communications, closer unification of the country.

"Statesmen alone do not set the pattern of progress. In a young country such as ours the sportsman's role can be a major one."

Several years ago the Jordanian air force was having trouble interesting young men in flying. The King decided that if he learned to fly, others might, too. In the course of learning, he motivated many young Jordanians to fly with him. Today Jordan's air force has more applicants than it can handle, and this spring a royal flying club was formed to teach civilian aviation. At its first meeting 150 prospective pilots showed up, almost half of them women—an astonishing occurrence in the Moslem world.

Encouraged by the success of his flying programs, Hussein decided to try a similar approach with horses. In this he had the aid and encouragement of his British-born wife, who is known as Princess Muna.

"Although everyone associates Arabian horses with the Middle East, pure Arabians are very rare here," she said one day as we inspected the royal stables. "Many other strains have interbred with the Arabian, and records of bloodlines have been badly kept. Even an honest breeder cannot be entirely certain that his Arabians are pure. But His Majesty is changing this. His goal is to make Jordan the breeding center of the purest, finest, most beautiful Arabian horses in the world."

Sweeping her arm past streamlined stalls and neatly fenced paddocks to rolling, clover-filled meadows and thick groves of banana trees, Muna continued: "We started four years ago with 20 horses. Now we have more than 100, and we shall have twice that number next year. Already we have received inquiries from buyers in Europe and America, which pleases His Majesty very much."

What pleases His Majesty most is the enthusiasm with which Jordanians have accepted his advancement of water sports. As recently as five years ago women in Jordan rarely swam at all, and never in the presence of men. Today most of the country's young, educated women boast a beach bag of bikinis. In the capital city of Amman, the Jordan Intercontinental hotel opened its large outdoor pool to local residents two years ago on a membership basis. Nobody expected many swimmers, but the response was heavy and membership this season had to be cut off at 500 families. Pools are now turning up at private homes, schools and clubs.

Swimming has become such a status symbol these days that people are even taking dips in the Dead Sea, which most Arabs swore off centuries ago. Its water is 25% salt, as compared with 3.5% in the ocean, is not drinkable, supports no fish life and its remarkable buoyancy makes swimming impossible.

None of these things has changed, but Jordan's attitude toward the Dead Sea has. By the use of clever resort promotion, borrowed from some of Hussein's favorite Mediterranean haunts, the very characteristics that once turned away the Arabs are now pulling in the tourists—and tourists are what Jordan is most interested in today.

During my visit the new, air-conditioned Dead Sea Hotel on the north shore was jammed with German, Austrian, English, Italian and French tourists, not to mention quite a few Jordanians. The sea was as salty as ever, but that kept nobody out of it. I gave it a try, and after a few minutes in the water felt a strange prickling sensation on my arms. My skin seemed to be covered with an invisible residue that was both oily and gritty. I found it impossible to submerge. When I got my shoulders under, my legs popped up. When I got one arm under, the other arm popped up. Floating on my back gave me the eerie sensation of resting upon an invisible air mattress just beneath the surface. I cannot say that I swam in the Dead Sea, but it was some of the most interesting nonswimming I have ever done.

"To really swim," Hussein said, "you must come to Aqaba."

Modern Aqaba, the center of water sports in Jordan, is a 19-mile strip of palm-fringed coast on the northeastern arm of the Red Sea. It is almost entirely Hussein's brainchild. Until recently the trip down from Amman was brutal. The decrepit Hejaz railway faltered and died in the desert long before it reached the sea. The only other route was the old Kings Highway, a tortuous trail across desert and mountain that left the traveler too weary to do more than contemplate the horrors of the return trip.

First Hussein made Aqaba accessible by building a 220-mile superhighway between Amman and Aqaba, cutting the normal driving time from 16 hours to under five. The King himself makes it in three hours.

When I made the trip my driver used a somewhat lighter foot on the gas pedal. It was dark when we came down out of the mountains to the sea. In the distance hundreds of lights from the Israeli city of Eilat twinkled beyond the no man's land between the two countries.

At the water's edge we stopped at a long, low stucco-and-stone ranch house. The driver motioned me to wait as he disappeared into a small courtyard. In minutes he was back, followed by a boy who unloaded my bags and nodded me toward the first of several small buildings on the sandy beach.

The buildings were also of stone and stucco, with the sleek styling of Miami Beach hotel units, the kind that rent for $150 a day in season.

It was almost 9 o'clock and I had no idea whether dinner had been served, was yet to be served or even if I was expected for it. I walked across the sand to the main house, which was one of Hussein's royal palaces. There was no moon. The other cottages were dark and empty. Most of the main house was in shadow, but from the far end a triangle of light cast a golden wedge upon the sand. As I walked nearer I could hear voices and laughter. I rounded a wall into the midst of a swinging party.

A good-looking blonde was Indian-wrestling a sloe-eyed Egyptian in one corner. Nearby, a brunette who could barely see through a fringe of artificial eyelashes was playing matador to a muscular Ferdinand. Several people were throwing darts at a board on one of the side walls. A Nancy Sinatra record was playing.

Princess Muna disengaged herself from the dart game. She was wearing dungarees and sipping beer from a mug that was decorated with the picture of a scuba diver.

"His Majesty has not arrived yet," she said after greeting me. "We are expecting him any moment. Wouldn't you like to change into something more comfortable before dinner?"

The women, including Muna's mother, were in slacks. Except for Princess Basma, King Hussein's 15-year-old sister, who was home on vacation from Benenden in England, they were all non-Jordanian. Patty Chamoun, the pretty blonde daughter-in-law of the former president of Lebanon, was Australian. Eyelashes was American. The wife of Prince Radd, the King's cousin and first chamberlain, was Swedish. Princess Muna's lady-in-waiting, another cousin of Hussein's, was an Iraqi princess, exiled from her country since the 1958 revolution. Muna and her mother were solidly English.

It was 11 when Hussein arrived, looking very much like a work-weary commuter after a late train ride. His rumpled shirt was open at the collar and his tie was askew. He tossed his jacket on the back of a chair and kissed Muna lightly on both cheeks.

"There is time for one game before dinner," he said, rolling up his shirt sleeves and selecting a set of darts. A servant brought him a beer. "That's what I need," he said. "Now let's toss to see who shoots first." He lost the toss but won the game easily.

Dinner was as informal as the preliminaries. The fare at this and all meals was predominantly Continental. It was served family style from overflowing platters set on the long dining room table. His Majesty ate very little, picking at a small piece of chicken and a scant spoonful of rice, but he drank endless cups of tea served in small glasses and sweetened to the consistency of syrup. Twice he left the table briefly to add records to the stereo. The tunes were all the latest hits.

"The top 10 songs reach Jordan faster than any country outside England," former U.S. Ambassador Robert Barnes told me. "The best collection in the Middle East is in the royal palace in Amman." The second best collection evidently is in the royal palace at Aqaba.

"Everything at Aqaba is informal," Hussein said as we sat under a thatched sunshade on the beach the next afternoon. It was a perfect day. The sun was hot but the wind blowing across the blue water was cool and refreshing. We had been water skiing all morning, taking turns behind the boat as His Majesty raced it back and forth along the shore. When it was my turn, I hesitated. I had been on skis only twice, 10 years before.

"Come on," the King said, turning the wheel over to Prince Radd. "I shall be your teacher." He adjusted the foot harness on one of the several pairs of skis in the bottom of the boat, tossed them and another pair over the side and jumped in after them. I followed. We bobbed side by side in the water while His Majesty separated the skis and showed me how to put my feet in them.

"Now let the tips come out of the water and sit back on the skis," he said, giving me one of the two ropes that had been thrown from the boat. "Keep your arms straight and let the boat pull you up. Do not try to get up yourself." I was rolling from side to side almost as badly as in the Dead Sea.

"You are doing fine," Hussein said. "Just relax and lean back. It is really very easy. Ready?" He called to Radd and the boat started up. I felt the rope tighten. The pressure pulled me forward for an instant.

"Back, back," Hussein said. "Let the rope do the work. Do not pull on it." I recovered position, and the boat picked up speed. My skis came up on the water, sending a fishtail of spray behind me.

"Arms straight, that's right." the King shouted over the engine noise. "Very good." He was already up on his skis. I was still crouched on mine. He moved in so that our skis were almost touching, then put his hand under my elbow.

"Now, without bending your arms or leaning forward," he said, "straighten your legs so that you are standing up."

Surprisingly, I did it. I had forgotten how much fun it was, how invigorating had been the sensation of skimming over the surface in a spray of wake and foam. "Nothing to it," His Majesty grinned. "Soon you will be an expert."

There was no question that he was—nor that he was thoroughly enjoying the sport. He was also an excellent teacher. He showed me how to control direction and speed, how to make turns and how to cross in and out over the wake. We made half a dozen runs, paralleling the shore for several miles on each. We skied past sheltered coves where tiny, lateen-rigged fishing boats rocked on the water, past tankers loading and unloading at the docks, past long stretches of sparkling sand beaches and stands of dark green date palms. Each time we passed the new resort hotel two miles south of the palace, sunbathers waved in greeting. The King called to Radd. The boat headed toward shore, turning finally in a wide circle.

"Let the rope go," Hussein shouted. He discarded his and I did the same. We skimmed toward shore, propelled only by our own momentum, until we lost speed and out" skis sank slowly beneath the surface. We came to a stop in the middle of a group of bathers and the King shook hands with all of them. He obviously enjoyed the encounter and seemed completely unmindful of the security risks involved.

"Four years ago there was nothing here but a few fishing huts," Hussein said. "Everything you see—the docks, the resort, the city itself, is new. This is only the beginning. Soon there will be several more hotels, restaurants, factories, perhaps a casino. We have a unique climate. Surprisingly dry. Always cool because of the wind. In winter, when the Mediterranean is too cold for swimming, the water at Aqaba is still warm and pleasant.

"Water skiing has become so popular that the Cypress Gardens ski team has come here from Florida twice to put on exhibitions that attracted attention throughout the Middle East. We have also had considerable attention recently from scuba divers, who say Aqaba's reefs and corals are some of the most interesting in the world. Our average underwater visibility year round is 60 feet—often much more. Few waters can claim anything like that."

"What about fish?" I asked.

"I am sure there are many," Hussein said, "but we know little about them." He was clearly fascinated by the subject and asked countless questions about waters I had fished, about bait, tackle, techniques. At cocktails on the patio before dinner that evening he brought out reference books on game fish to identify various catches he had made at Aqaba. His biggest was a wahoo, but it was not by any means the largest fish taken at Aqaba.

Just a month before, several Jordanians were hand-lining offshore when they were "charged," as they tell it, by a monster many times the size of their small boat. Terrified, they emptied a machine gun into it.

I never did find out why they were fishing with a machine gun and thought it impolite to ask. The monster proved to be a whale shark 30 feet long and weighing more than 21,000 pounds. Whale sharks are nonaggressive creatures that feed on plankton, not people, and it is unlikely that this one intended any harm. But after seeing the King's photographs of it I can understand the natives' alarm.

More intriguing than whale sharks, however, was the possibility of billfish in the Gulf of Aqaba. Several natives reported seeing fish that might have been marlin. One even identified a marlin in a fish book as the same fish he had watched finning on the surface.

"Look at these," the King said, producing three artificial baitfish for my scrutiny. They were about 12 inches long, made of a pliable plastic that was lifelike in feel and appearance. Two hooks were embedded in their bodies. They looked exactly like the mackerel I had baited marlin with in the Bahamas.

All three had been hit by fish. One was severed smoothly in the center. Its rear half was gone. The other two had sharp, clean breaks as if they had been sliced with a razor. There were no jagged edges or ridges such as would be made by the teeth of a wahoo or barracuda. There was a strong possibility they had been made by billfish. With new baits and proper rigs, we might have a chance of hooking one.

Eager to try, Hussein started gathering gear in a shed on the palace grounds. Surfboards and water skis lined one wall. Outboard motors and a boat engine took up another. Rods and reels were stacked in one corner alongside oars, paddles, gaffs and various other poles. There were cardboard boxes of wires, leaders, lines, hooks and sinkers. The place looked like the stockroom of L. L. Bean.

We poked through boxes and bags of equipment, selecting what we thought we might need. Then we returned to the dining room and spread the materials on the table. With a needle, nylon thread and a pair of pliers, I began sewing up the rents in two of the three artificial fish. If they worked once, they might work again.

Surprisingly, the makeshift repair held up under several strikes on subsequent days but did not, alas, put a billfish in our boat. Nevertheless, I am sure that there are big fish at Aqaba, fish that will be caught when someone goes after them scientifically and systematically.

In the matter of hunting, Hussein's goal is different; it is not to exploit a new sport but to protect an ancient one. Unfortunately, in Jordan and in most of the Middle East, the Arab has for generations considered any creature that moved fair game—be it songbird or baby antelope. Occasionally he killed for food. More often he killed simply to kill. In the early days of his reign, Hussein added his own royal refinement to the "sport". He used a helicopter, firing from the craft as it hovered low over a herd of gazelles.

Several years ago there was a picture in these pages of a smiling, triumphant Hussein returning from the chase with several carcasses dangling beneath his helicopter.

"His Majesty's attitude toward game and hunting has matured considerably since then," one of his intimates said. "It is hard to believe that he could actually have taken part in such activity."

Hussein is now wary of any publicity about his hunting, but he still enjoys the more conventional modes of shooting. One of my most pleasant days as his guest was spent hunting quail in the wheat fields of the upper Jordan Valley. The quail were legally in season, and the shooting was strictly regulated by law.

Such laws were established only last year, when Hussein organized a royal hunting club specifically to formulate and enforce them. Indiscriminate shooting of birds and animals is now outlawed. All hunters are required to have licenses, with the fees set aside for replenishing wildlife and habitat. All game is protected, either entirely or where populations warrant, as in the case of the quail we hunted, by sensible season and bag limits.

While this program cannot undo the damage of generations, it has provided the impetus for a broad-scale conservation project that is unique in the Middle East. As part of the program the King recently set aside three vast areas as national parks, and they are well worth visiting. With Hussein as tour guide they were fascinating.

Azraq, 70 miles east of the capital, is a wet, green, palm-filled oasis in the center of 1,500 square miles of barren rock desert, where thousands of mallards, pintails and teals winter and where more than 200 species of birds make their home. Petra is an incredible city of stone, where one can prowl through caves and castles cut into the rock or sift through eroded mounds of sandstone for the bits and pieces of ancient pottery that are everywhere. Wadi Rumm is a starkly beautiful, surrealistic sandscape where the Bedouin tribes still pitch their long, black tents and race their camels on the desert floor.

"It is important to Jordan that we preserve these deserts and what remains of our wildlife," Hussein said, "but it is important also that we preserve the traditions of the desert people. This, too, comes within the meaning of conservation.

"The ways of the desert will vanish as swiftly as the gazelles if we do not take measures to protect them as we now protect our game."

SIX PHOTOSTHE MANY ROLES OF JORDAN'S ATHLETIC KING: Hussein's enthusiasms include motorcycling, sky diving, riding (and improving the Arab breed), surfing, fishing in the Red Sea (thereby attracting tourist anglers) and piloting jet planes.