I recently went to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan for a Fulbright conference. It's a country often forgotten as we read the news of the last year from the Arab world.
Throughout this trip, however, I was fascinated by the pictures, hung in nearly every public space, of a teenager who will one day rule the country.
Crown Prince Hussein Bin Al Abdullah, I learned, is 17 years old and the heir to the Jordanian throne. He was 15 when his father proclaimed him next in line. In most photos, he looks about 13. In Jordan, pictures of his father, King Abdullah II and his predecessor King Hussein are everywhere, looking down at people in restaurants, hotels, cafes and every place they might like to gather, and police stations, where they might not. In the hotel where I stayed, the two kings are in every conference room smiling confidently, and wearing trendy mustaches. The young prince only has one picture, in the lobby. An American Jewish friend commented that it looked like his Bar Mitzvah picture. I expected that anyone who overheard might not get the reference, but maybe I'm being presumptuous.
I asked a Palestinian man waiting in line to pay for our meals of hummus and falafel about the prince's name. He had to pause and think, and then he said "Hussein."
The cult of personality has become a tried and true method of monarchs and presidents of the Arab world for the last sixty years. The effect is triple, reminding those gathered under the leader's picture of their power to be everywhere at once, making them feel a little bit watched all of the time, and generally serving the purpose of making the people feel like their leader cares about them. Prince Hussein has a long way to go, by the only available metrics: the various Facebook pages under his name claim a little over 2,500 "likes" (though the number of repeats is impossible to figure out). The Facebook group called "I Love Crown Prince Hussein bin Al Abdullah of Jordan" only has 254 members.
In Jordan, it is illegal to criticize the royal family, the press is state-owned, and much of the population works as government informants. Recently a blogger critical of the government was stabbed by a masked man who eerily decreed, before driving in the knife, "In the name of His Royal Majesty and the prince." As I walked the streets of downtown, I chatted with a Palestinian university student. We noticed that in addition to streetlights, downtown is dotted with poles, which feature little bright blue lights about fifteen feet in the air. Once you notice one of these, you suddenly see hundreds.
"In the U.S.," my friend told him, "that kind of thing would indicate that there is a telephone, where you can call the police if you are in trouble."
The student laughed uneasily, and replied "I doubt that is what they are for here. I bet they're secret cameras."
Prince Hussein's mother, Queen Rania, is a very fashionable woman of Palestinian origin. She has campaigned widely and famously for education rights for children, cross-cultural dialogue, "community empowerment," and other Important Causes that steer clear of the obvious contradictions of a tribal monarchy which preaches, as does the Queen's slick website, that "we are all born equal."
At dinner one night, an American diplomat explained to several Fulbright students that in Jordan the King really is beloved by the people, and that perhaps, for the time being, is preferable to democracy. One of the students was amazed that someone officially representing the U.S. would say such a thing (though, as the Wikileaks cables make clear, that skims the surface of what they say) and recounting the conversation later he steamed: "The King isn't beloved if his picture is everywhere and it is illegal to say he is not beloved. That is the opposite of beloved!"
The Jordanian government has had a far easier time than other Arab countries with protests and calls for the overthrow of their regime. The King is still in his prime and there will be a long time before his young son inherits the leadership. I wonder if, by that time, many years after the beginning of the Arab revolts, he will have wrestled with whether the inheritance is really his to take.
Follow Maurice Chammah on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MauriceChammah