Lt. Gen. Sir John Bagot Glubb, 88, a British Army officer who in 17 years as commander of the Arab Legion became one of the most powerful and colorful figures in the Middle East, died yesterday at his home in Sussex in the south of England. The cause of death was not reported.
Gen. Glubb spent almost 40 years in the Middle East -- from shortly after World War I until 1956, when he was dismissed by King Hussein of Jordan. He went into the region when Britain and France were paramount powers in that part of the world and Zionism was still in its childhood. Like T.E. Lawrence, the fabled "Lawrence of Arabia," he made his reputation as a leader of Bedouin tribesman.
And like Lawrence, he spoke fluent Arabic and was at home in fastnesses of the desert. He dressed as an Arab and he rode camels. He was an expert on Middle Eastern culture. In the early 1930s, King Abdullah of Jordan, a principal colleague of Lawrence in the desert revolt against Ottoman rule during World War I, conferred on him the title of pasha, and he was known thereafter as Glubb Pasha.
Gen. Glubb joined the Arab Legion as second in command in 1930. He took over an unruly force of about 100 Bedouins and made it into an effective fighting force that was respected for its marksmanship, toughness and ability with the khanjar, a curved knife. He organized the unit's special "desert patrols" and helped bring order and power to the realm of King Abdullah. During World War II, he fought with Free French and British forces in Lebanon and Syria.
In the small expeditions against warring tribes that were characteristic during much of his career, Gen. Glubb was superb. But with World War II and the changes that followed -- the departure of France and Britain from the area and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 -- his accomplishments seemed to lose their importance. The lightly armed Arab Legion, however boldly led, could not compete against modern weaponry.
And as technology changed so did politics. Gen. Glubb became an anachronism in the face of increasingly militant Arab nationalism. Thus Hussein dismissed him as commander of the Arab Legion. It had become politically unacceptable to have a British officer commanding an Arab military unit.
Gen. Glubb left Jordan with a tank escort, and with him went much of what remained of British influence in the Middle East.
Born into an Army family in Preston, England, Gen. Glubb attended Cheltenham College and the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. He was wounded three times during World War I and won the Military Cross for bravery.
In 1920 he volunteered for Army service in Iraq, which came under British administration at the end of World War I, and he organized a local security force. During this period he lived much of the time with the Bedouins, learned a variety of Arabic dialects and familiarized himself with local customs.
He left the British Army in 1926 to work for the Iraqi government, and he helped settle border disputes and bring about peace between Iraq and its southern neighbor, Saudi Arabia. In 1930 he went to the British-mandated territory of Transjordan on the eastern bank of the Jordan River and became a major in the Arab Legion. He was named commander in 1939.
After World War II the Legion was used for a time to keep order in Palestine. With the end of the British mandate in 1948, the Israeli war of independence broke out. Gen. Glubb's troops were among the best mustered by the Arabs. They conquered the West Bank of the Jordan and parts of Jerusalem, earning for their leader the antipathy of many in Israel. The Irgun Zvai Leumi, which was regarded by many as an extremist group and which was headed by Menachem Begin, later prime minister of Israel, passed a "sentence of death" on him.
After his dismissal, Gen. Glubb lived quietly in England and wrote and lectured extensively on problems and issues in the Middle East.
He was married in 1938 to Muriel Forbes, and they had one son. They also adopted a Bedouin boy and two girls while living in Jordan.