"He was one of the most remarkable political figures of our time," says TIME Middle East bureau chief Scott MacLeod. "He remained in power for five decades in the face of more hazards than most politicians ever encounter."
The scion of a noble Arab family that traced its roots back to the prophet Muhammad, Hussein ascended to the Hashemite throne in 1952 at the tender age of 16 -- having already survived one assassin's bullet, which deflected off a medal he'd been wearing on his chest.
His power was always a balancing act, straddling the contending claims of the Palestinian majority in his own country with those of the Bedouin and the military's officer corps while managing variously antagonistic relationships with Israel, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
"Hussein had a historic role to play," says MacLeod, "and he played it with courage and honor." Of necessity, though, he had to grow into the role. The young aristocrat with a love of fast cars and beautiful women became the warrior king who took control of his country's army from its British mentors and personally commanded his forces in a bloody battle against Palestinian insurrectionists in the "Black September" of 1970.
Inevitably, perhaps, the warrior king made mistakes. Joining Egypt in a disastrous 1967 war against Israel cost him control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where his family had tended the Islamic holy sites since the days of the prophet.
Jordan was rebuked throughout the Arab world for the excesses of his harsh campaign against the PLO in 1970. As a result, Yasser Arafat's organization became recognized as the "sole legitimate representative" of the Palestinians -- challenging Jordan's stewardship over the West Bank.
Such setbacks spurred Hussein's transition from warrior-king to philosopher-king. To his friends he was loyal but never afraid to speak frankly. To adversaries he was a voice of reason who could be trusted to keep his word -- a rare quality in the politics of the Middle East. Hussein's moderation, and the respect he enjoyed among friend and foe, made him the pivotal figure in the most recent turn of the peace process, when he rose from his sickbed at the Mayo clinic to coax Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu to conclude a deal at the Wye River talks.
No individual comes close to matching the affection and respect enjoyed by Hussein among both Israelis and Palestinians, but Hussein's life had always been about straddling different worlds. He was at once the beloved monarch of the nomadic Bedouin tribesmen and the cosmopolitan statesman trained in British military academies who loved flying his own plane and was married to an American -- Queen Noor, formerly Lisa Halaby. (She was his fourth wife: A youthful marriage to a Palestinian woman ended in divorce, as did his union with Toni Gardiner, daughter of a British Army officer and mother of his heir, Crown Prince Abdullah; a third bride, the Palestinian Queen Alia, was tragically killed in a helicopter accident.)
The last political act of the five-foot-three giant known affectionately by Westerners as the "PLK" ("Plucky Little King") was to intervene in Jordan's Shakespearean palace intrigue to ensure that he would be succeeded by his son, Abdullah, rather than his brother, Hassan. Despite being immersed in the modern concerns of diplomacy and statesmanship, the importance of the royal bloodline never diminished for Hussein.
Peace may be more than simply the absence of war, but the absence of war was the best the Middle East could hope for during Hussein's lifetime. He will be remembered as a powerful voice of reason that made itself heard above a cacophony of extremism. The fact that for five decades the Middle East has averted the all-out conflagration that always bubbles just below the surface is a debt owed, in no small part, to the Plucky Little King.