The Middle East is often described as an unstable region, but this is certainly not the case in terms of overall regime survival. An Arab summit meeting 25 years ago would have included several of the same faces who would attend one today. The long tenure of many leaders in the Arab world and the durability of their regimes (uncharacteristic of earlier history), combined with their natural mortality and the dramatic demographic shifts in the region, almost guarantee that the next 10 to 20 years will be a period of dramatic change throughout the Arab world.
Intelligence analysts and assessors of political risk often speculate about individual succession problems in a given country. But, with only a handful of exceptions, there is bound to be leadership change in almost every Arab country within the next two decades, regardless of its constitutional structure or political evolution, simply because the present ruling elites are aging. A sort of generational revolution is inevitable, even if its timing and characteristics are impossible to discern precisely. It will have an impact on almost every Arab country and on all other issues, from economic development to political liberalization to Islamist politics, in ways that will differ from country to country but which cannot be ignored.
The Arab world is not led by very old men, at least by East Asian standards; these are not Chinese-style gerontocracies. But a significant number of leaders are now in their mid- to late-60s, some in questionable health. The real issue is not merely age, but the durability of their rule. In a great many instances, the majority of young Arabs cannot remember a time when their country had a different leadership than the one it enjoys today. King Hussein of Jordan has been on the throne since 1953, King Hassan II of Morocco since 1961. There are long-surviving republican leaders as well: Hafiz al-Asad has been president of Syria since 1971 (and effectively in charge since 1970). Muammar Qadhafi of Libya, once the region's enfant terrible, has been in place since 1969. Husni Mubarak of Egypt, once dismissed by some as a transitional figure, has been president for 16 years, five years longer than Anwar Sadat's rule, and soon to surpass Gamal Abdel Nasser's.
There is nothing inherently wrong with long tenure, of course, and for most outside observers (friendly governments, potential investors, etc.) stability and continuity of leadership are major assets. Certainly no U.S. policy maker or international businessman would look forward to the day when King Hussein or King Hassan leaves the scene. But eventually they will.
At the moment, great age is not itself a major issue in any specific country, not since the removal in 1987 of Habib Bourguiba as president of Tunisia, at a time when he was officially about 84 but probably a few years older. There are no Arab leaders currently so old as to be incapacitated, although King Fahd's stroke has limited the Saudi monarch's activities and set in motion the beginnings of a succession process. The oldest Arab leader at the moment is Sheikh Zayed, ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the United Arab Emirates, who will be 80 next year. A number of leaders will reach 70 in the next two or three years: Asad, Hassan, Mubarak and Yasser Arafat.
There are several reasons (and they vary by country) for the longevity of Arab regimes at the moment. In the monarchies, of course, one expects a ruler to serve for all or most of his life. In many of the Arab republics, this has also been the practice for presidents, because there is neither a clear line of succession nor guaranteed security in retirement. This has combined with the fact that many of the present leadership generation came to power relatively young. Qadhafi came to power in Libya at age 27 and recently celebrated the twenty-eighth anniversary of his revolution: only in his mid-50s, he has led his country for more than half his life. King Hussein, approaching 45 years in power, is still only 62.
Added to this has been the absence, series of successful coups during the 1950s and 1960s that led to rotating juntas in many Arab countries. Except for the 1989 coup in the Sudan, and "palace coups" within the system such as the deposition of Bourguiba in Tunisia or of the ruler of Qatar by his son in 1995, this means of leadership adjustment has not been a feature of the Arab political landscape in the 1980s and 1990s.
Between 1945 and 1971, a period of 26 years, Syria had more than 20 changes of government. From 1971 to the present, another period of 26 years, it has had only one government, that of Hafiz al-Asad. From 1962 until 1978, Yemen had several coups and two presidents assassinated. Since Ali Abdullah Salih took over in 1978, Yemen has survived unification with former South Yemen and a brief civil war, but Salih remains in power. Iraq's series of coups from 1958 to 1968 has been followed by an unbroken, if hardly placid, rule by the Baath, and dominance by Saddam Hussein since 1979, though he was a powerful figure in the regime much earlier. Mauritania, torn by coups during the 1970s, has had the same leader since 1984.
Does this mean that the coup as a political instrument is a thing of the past in the Arab world, except perhaps for Sudan? That would certainly be a premature judgment, for only in a few cases (perhaps Yemen for example) has there been a genuine structural change. It is not some new political system that ended coups in Syria, but the strong personal leadership of Asad. And there have been no end of attempts against Saddam Hussein.
THE DEMOGRAPHIC FACTOR
Another element to be considered in over most of the past quarter century, of the anticipation of the leadership changes that will occur over the next decade or two is the gap between the present leadership and the masses of their people.
It is a mistake to assume that Arab regimes are oblivious to public opinion, despite the fact that, rhetoric aside, no Arab country is currently a Western-style democracy. Even those with competitive parliamentary elections, opposition parties and a critical opposition press still have enormously powerful presidents and dominant ruling parties. But, with one or two exceptions, no Arab regime is immune to pressure from the street either. Public outrage, demonstrations and strikes can force even strict authoritarian governments to change policies. (The most obvious exception is Iraq, a garrison state where the regime has defiantly circled the wagons. But even Saddam Hussein takes pains to deflect the anger of his own people by blaming the United States for the privations Iraqis have had to endure since 1991).
If most regimes are vulnerable to pressures from the street, however, it is striking how different that street looks from the salons of the presidential or royal palaces. The leaders are men born in the 1920s, 1930s or 1940s. (Sheikh Hamad of Qatar, who overthrew his father in 1995, was born in 1950 and appears to be the only Arab leader born in the Fifties.) But in many Arab countries, half or more of the population is under 25 years of age, and in several, 40 percent is under 15. Men born in the 1930s and 1940s lead countries half of whose people were born in the 1970s and 1980s.
This can lead to some obvious differences of perspective. Egypt's aging leadership cadres may remember the 1952 revolution; the masses in the street are barely old enough to remember Anwar Sadat. Regimes celebrating great "revolutions" of the 1960s have trouble capturing the imaginations of people who do not remember the anticolonial struggle.
The dangers of this divergence between the aging leaderships and the young street may usefully be illustrated with two examples where a leadership crisis has already occurred and passed. Habib Bourguiba was the father of modem Tunisia, though some of the compatriots with whom he later fell out deserve credit as well. But Bourguiba, in effect, never outgrew the role of founding father. He ruled in an autocratic and, with age, increasingly capricious manner, a man of the colonial era who preferred French to Arabic and was an extreme secularist in an age of Islamic revivalism. By the time he was deposed in 1987, the hero of the 1950s was out of touch with his own country. While there are grounds for criticizing the successor regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, it has imparted a stability that was clearly lacking in the last years of Bourguiba.
Senility can strike not only leaders but institutions as well. The second illuminating example is the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria. Having led the longest and most visible war of independence against a colonial power, transforming France in the process, the FLN soon became the sole ruling party in independent Algeria. There are few surprises in that. But Algeria became independent in 1962, 35 years ago. U.N. and other demographic figures generally agree that about 40 percent of Algeria's population today is under 15 years of age. For them, 1962 is a remote concept. Only about 4 percent of Algeria today is over 65 years of age, old enough to remember the whole eight-year struggle for independence as a major feature of their adult life. This goes far towards explaining why, by the time of the October 1988 riots, which began the processes that have led to the Algerian tragedy, there was so little real support left for the FLN. The party was still trading in the symbols and memories of the struggle with France. Its support was based mostly on patronage and power, not on any set of ideas; these had either be come historical relics or had failed entirely.
This is not to say that the Algerian failure (or for that matter the Tunisian success) will be repeated elsewhere. But it is a reminder of how out of touch old leaders, or old systems, can become.
Another source of uncertainty is the question of who the successor will be. The monarchies, at least, have the advantage of an heir apparent, though sometimes his character and qualities are not well known. The republics are another matter, for presidents tend to mistrust any aide or vice president who becomes too prominent or too popular; therefore, heirs apparent are few. Possible succession scenarios for both the republics and the monarchies may be instructive.
There is, first of all, the curious emergence of what might be called republican primogeniture, in which the long-ruling leader seeks to promote his own son to succeed him. Saddam Hussein's indulgence of his son Udayy, and Hafiz al-Asad's fostering of the cult of first, his son Basil, and after Basil's 1994 death, of his son Bashar, are the obvious cases. (Bourguiba had toyed with the idea but fell out with his son long before he was willing to leave office.) These may prove ephemeral. Few people would expect Saddam Hussein to leave office normally, even if he were able to pass his mantle to a chosen successor. Since his serious wounding in an assassination attempt, Udayy's power might also be in question.
In the Syrian case, Bashar al-Asad's eagerness for power is not clear (he was trained as an ophthalmologist), and there are plenty of challengers waiting in the wings, some of them from his own family. Certainly the key Alawite generals and intelligence chiefs and the Asad family as a whole will play a role in any succession. When Asad was seriously ill in late 1983 and early 1984, his brother and other potential successors at the time took to the streets with their own private armies; the danger of some internal power struggle is still present (see Robinson in this issue).
Another case that prompts considerable speculation is Egypt. The most populous Arab country and vital for its strategic location, there is no obvious heir to Husni Mubarak. Though he seems healthy enough, the assassination attempt against him in Addis Ababa in 1995 reminded the world that unforeseen events can occur, and of course Mubarak himself came to power when Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981. The Egyptian constitution calls for the speaker of the National Assembly (parliament) to take over on an interim basis until that body chooses a new president. When Nasser died in 1970 and Sadat in 1981, the vice president was chosen to move up, though he does not automatically succeed under the constitution. Mubarak has never named a vice president. When Field Marshal Muhammad Abdel Halim Abu Ghazala was his defense minister, he was generally seen as a strong figure waiting in the wings. But Abu Ghazala was ousted from the Defense Ministry in 1989 and in later years suffered disgrace over a personal scandal.
Egyptians like to dismiss Western anxiety about succession by saying it concerns others a lot more than it does Egyptians. In part they are right, for most Egyptians assume that the establishment will take care of itself, and a military man or someone fronting for the military will take power. (All four of Egypt's presidents - Naguib, Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak - came from military backgrounds.) That much is true enough, though Egyptians themselves were certainly shaken by the 1995 assassination attempt, and outside analysts or potential investors may be forgiven for preferring a bit more certain about who the successor might be. The dramatic shifts in policy that followed Sadat's assumption of power, and the less dramatic but real shifts that followed Mubarak's, are reminders that the personality of the leader does matter.
Another quasi-republic in the Arab world where there is no clear successor in sight is the Palestinian Authority. Yasser Arafat took over the PLO in 1968; he is now 68 and showing his years. When he reportedly fainted at a meeting in Cairo on September 19, 1997, Arab and Israeli press reports suggested that he is suffering from some serious ailment, perhaps Parkinson's disease. This has been denied by the Palestinian Authority, but it is a reminder that Arafat too is not immortal. He has plenty of critics and potential rivals but no clear successor.
Libya is another curious case. Since Muammar Qadhafi claims to hold no official office, in theory at least no successor is needed, but of course Qadhafi is in fact the leader of the country. Though only 55, his face looks somewhat haggard, and he has survived several assassination attempts, including a number of close calls. Analysts usually assume that one of the surviving original Free Officers who joined Qadhafi in the 1969 Revolution would succeed him, but they are dwindling in number and are often in eclipse or disfavor. The ups and downs of longtime second-in-command, Abdel Salam Jalloud, are notorious. There are also potent opposition forces within the country. Disarray, internal conflict or a coup by some now-unknown officer would certainly be possibilities if Qadhafi were removed from the scene.
Of the Arab republics, Yemen is particularly interesting because it is evolving a genuine multiparty system and has a vigorous press. It still has a powerful presidency, however, and President Ali Abdullah Salih is firmly in control. Should he be removed from the scene, the army, as in Egypt, would play a key, but perhaps not a visible, role in the selection of a successor.
Tunisia has, in a sense, already undergone its leadership crisis with the removal of Bourguiba in 1987. But Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, ten years in power as of November 7, 1997, is now a familiar figure in his own right. After Bourguiba, the constitution was amended to put an upper age limit of 70 on the president (at the time of his election), and Ben Ali still has nearly a decade to go before hitting it. The constitution as amended after Bourguiba also said that the president may only be "re-elected twice," apparently meaning a three-term limit. That would have Ben Ali leaving office in the first decade of the new century, but it may be worth noting that he has also recently moved to make it possible to amend the constitution through popular referendum.
The Lebanese political system was altered to allow President Elias Hrawi to continue in office, but in a real sense the key leaders (the Maronite president, Sunni prime minister and Shiite speaker of Parliament) are all kept in balance by the country's Syrian protectors (or overseers, depending on one's perspective). The question of whether Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri will remain in his post (he frequently threatens to quit) is probably more important to investors than the future of Hrawi. And of course the future of Syria will play a major role in the future of Lebanon.
Of the other Arab republics, it is rather difficult to prognosticate about Algeria. How (if?) the war there ends will determine the future of Algerian politics far more than any chosen successor to Liamine Zeroual. Sudan's leadership is in the midst of a civil war of a different sort, and subject to periodic coup attempts; it is likely that any change of government will be a violent one. Mauritania is experimenting with multiparty elections and even held a competitive presidential election, but the incumbent won easily; few Arabs, let alone Westerners, think very often about Mauritania.
The monarchies generally do not lend themselves to debate about who might succeed: all but one have heirs apparent.
Before turning to the other issues that need to be considered, let's have a look at the exception, Oman. Historically the Al Bu Said dynasty has tended to sort out succession issues through power struggles or deference to the strongest candidate. Sultan Qaboos, in power since 1970, has no children and is unlikely to have any. He is apparently healthy and may be around for a long time, but, after he was injured in a 1995 car crash that killed two key advisers, questions were naturally raised about succession. In 1996 the sultan introduced a new constitutional framework under which the sultan will leave a letter to the royal family recommending a successor. The royal family will then make a choice, or, if they cannot, the Defense Council will. In either case the sultan's recommendation will obviously play a role. Qaboos has not indicated who his choice would be, and there are several possibilities among the royal cousins.
The other monarchical cases are more clear cut. The earliest likely succession would seem to be in Saudi Arabia, where King Fahd briefly relinquished power to Crown Prince Abdullah in early 1996, then resumed it. Fahd is somewhat disabled since his stroke in late 1995. However, his remaining in power may have helped the other senior princes sort out the boundaries of authority for when Fahd does leave the throne. Crown Prince Abdullah's period as regent seems to have raised the hackles of Defense Minister Prince Sultan (one of Fahd's powerful full brothers) and others.
The real issue in the long term in Saudi Arabia is when and how the succession might pass to a younger generation. Abdullah is about the same age as Fahd, both men being in their late 70s. Sultan, considered next in line after Abdullah, is only a bit younger. Every king of Saudi Arabia since the 1950s has been a brother of the others. The next generation is already graying; the generation after that is already mature. Because old King Abdul Aziz "lbn Saud" had so many sons (most estimates are about 48), the present line of succession by younger brothers could still go on for some time. The younger princes will certainly press for more authority in the new century.
The smaller monarchies around the Gulf show less uncertainty about the future, which may be surprising, given a long history of troubled successions, of brothers fighting brothers and sons deposing fathers. In 1995 the crown prince in Qatar, Sheikh Hamad, overthrew his father, but peaceably; Hamad had been running the country anyway, and despite early attempts to get back his throne, the deposed ruler has now made his peace, more or less, with his son. Hamad, born in 1950, is young enough to rule for a long time, and he has designated one of his younger sons (not his eldest) as heir, Sheikh Jasim, only 19.
In the United Arab Emirates, the long illness of Sheikh Rashid of Dubai, prior to his death in 1991, gave his sons time to parcel out duties among themselves without having to engage in a rivalry after his death. Though Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi, the oldest Arab leader at the moment, is still in charge, his sons, too, seem to have a stable relationship, and the succession should be smooth.
In both Bahrain and Kuwait, there seems little doubt that the existing crown princes will succeed. In Kuwait the heir is not the most popular member of the royal family, and there has been talk that he might give up the prime ministership while remaining crown prince. The various branches of the Sabah family maintain a delicate balance among themselves.
The two Arab monarchies outside the Arabian peninsula, Jordan and Morocco, are well known for the strong personal leadership of their kings. Both have also sought to strengthen their parliaments in recent years, perhaps as an additional legitimization measure for their thrones. In the Jordanian case, Crown Prince Hassan is a highly visible and well-known figure in the West, one with whom foreign leaders are used to dealing. But is he as strong a leader as his brother, King Hussein? There is also a lingering possibility that the king might name one of his sons as his heir in place of his brother, though he has not moved to do this (and the eldest son has an English mother, a possible complication). King Hussein's cancer, despite his apparent recovery, has kept the succession question alive. Hassan would clearly succeed if Hussein were to die soon. The questions have more to do with the longer term, given the fact that the Hashemite throne is a recent, British-colonial-era creation and that Hussein's success stems from his own talent rather than from any deep sense of the legitimacy of the throne.
Morocco, on the other hand, is ruled by a dynasty with deep roots. Still, Hassan II had to survive various coup attempts and assassination plots to reach the security he enjoys today, and given various social, demographic and labor problems, there is a sense among many Morocco analysts that the country may see considerable change in the next few years. When Hassan II came down with pneumonia two years ago during the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations, his heir, Sidi Muhammad, substituted for his father, and he has also been making high-profile visits to Western countries. Sidi Muhammad has had something of a playboy reputation, but so did Hassan II before his accession, and, for that matter, so do several reigning monarchs elsewhere. Morocco has had two very strong kings since independence, in Muhammad V and Hassan II, and theirs will be difficult shoes to fill. Hassan has moved to create a bicameral legislature and to encourage opposition representation in Parliament, apparently hoping to strengthen the institutional legitimacy of the throne before he leaves the scene.
I do not guarantee my crystal ball in any of these scenarios, but over the next 10 to 20 years (in some cases perhaps much sooner) the familiar Arab heads of state, with whom the United States has been dealing for eight presidential terms, will pass from the scene. Their populations have already greatly changed. Every issue facing the region generally - peace with Israel, political Islam, and the politics of water, economic development and democratization - will be intertwined with that inevitable generational change. While many analysts have rightly rejected the tendency to predict imminent change in, for example, Egypt or Saudi Arabia, even in those countries younger men will be in place by the second decade of the new century. Events such as Iran's revolution and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait have been embarrassing reminders of the inability of outsiders to predict the future; but leaders are not immortal, no matter how durable their regimes.
Middle East Policy is fully accessible through the Wiley Online Library
Click below to subscribe to the online or print edition of Middle East Policy and gain access to all journal content.