AMMAN -- In the shadow of the Persian Gulf's main tent, a sideshow is playing out that threatens incalculable injury to Jordan's King Hussein, the erstwhile trusted American friend now widely regarded in Washington as an Arab renegade.

That bitter but erroneous epithet ignores the facts of Jordan's inexorable slide toward a disaster that may plunge it and the Palestinian West Bank into new convulsions highly detrimental to the United States.

The king is trying to make President Bush understand. The imminent loss of $1.5 billion in foreign exchange caused by U.N. sanctions against Iraq and the loss of 200,000 Jordanian jobs in Kuwait guarantee economic upheaval here. It will be compounded by rising political rebellion on the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

What is most assuredly coming is economic depression, with no way out. That explains King Hussein's reluctance to enforce U.N. sanctions against Iraq. He has said he accepts the sanctions resolution. But if he puts it into effect before he can arrange to soften its impact, Jordan will be destabilized, possibly forever.

A quick look at oil substantiates this bleak forecast. Almost 90 percent of Jordan's oil is trucked from Iraqi oil wells to the refinery at Zerqa, near here. Its value, or cost, is $375 million a year. But Jordan pays no cash for it. Instead, its use finances Iraq's debt to Jordan, now standing at $600 million -- a product of the Iran-Iraq war.

Putting U.N. sanctions into effect would force Jordan to pay cash for Saudi oil, which could be pumped to Zerqa via the old Trans Arabian Pipeline from Saudi Arabia to the Syrian coast. The cash squeeze caused by the sudden loss of the Iraqi market, $280 million a year (mainly for agricultural products), leaves no assets. The Saudis, angry at Hussein's reluctance to break his economic lifeline to Iraq, are in no hurry to fill the spur from the main TAP pipeline to Zerqa.

Add to this the Israeli zeal in clamping down on West Bank farm produce sold to Iraq plus the sudden dearth of payroll remittances from Palestinian oil workers in Kuwait to their West Bank families. As a result of this economic unrest, the intifada may get a boost that will fuel political turmoil here in Jordan. On the West Bank, the source of this unrest is both political and economic; here in Jordan it is economic. Together these two currents of discontent make a swollen river King Hussein may not be able to control.

In far-off Eastern Europe, the crumbled Soviet empire is causing a violent economic shake-up that also weakens Jordan. One of this country's few non-agricultural exports is phosphate, worth $150 million a year. The king's chief economists told us the switch from centralized or command economy to the market is shriveling that vital source of cash.

Damned by U.S. policy-makers whose anti-Hussein sentiments predate Aug. 2, the king is distraught. He is running like a mad hatter from Arab capital to capital in search of new ideas to end the world's gang-up on Iraq for its pernicious invasion of Kuwait. He is pleading with the United Nations, directly and through his once-good friend George Bush, for help to compensate for the losses here caused by U.N.-imposed sanctions.

Article 50 of the U.N. Charter is designed to meet "special economic problems" for a country commanded by the Security Council to impose sanctions against an aggressor. Hussein's agents are now appealing for relief in New York.

Considering the potential damage to the United States of new West Bank-Jordan explosions, already glimpsed here in massive and angry demonstrations and daily diatribes in the free press, quick action by Washington is so essential that it would seem to be a routine decision.

Instead, the king seems well on his way to catastrophe. Washington's political establishment, viewing him as always through the focus of the Arab- Israeli dispute, remains displeased with him as Iraq's oil continues to rumble into Jordan.

Bush and his Middle East advisers have never properly understood the value to the United States of a strong, healthy Jordan. Now preoccupied -- or perhaps obsessed -- with punishing Iraq for tearing up the U.N. Charter, a refusal to understand the king's lament would portend a future crisis Bush does not need and can avoid.