JWR / Middle East Geopolitics

Jason Maoz: The Day Israel Saved The World

Amos Perlmutter: Saddam's Predictable Defiance

A classic editorial: The West's Unfinished Business

Jon B. Alterman: The Sunset of Arab Leadership

Douglas M. Bloomfield: Time for Israel to Leave Lebanon?

Reader Response

Small World
January 1, 1998 / 3 Tevet, 5758

The Sunset of Arab Leadership

By Jon B. Alterman

IF BILL CLINTON'S PRAYERS are answered, Saddam Hussein will die in his sleep tomorrow. Saddam's demise would bring an end to some 27 years of control for the 60-year-old Iraqi leader. While Saddam is unique in his mastery of terror as a political strategy, his tenure is unexceptional in the Arab world.

In fact, taken as a group, Arab leaders have been in power far longer than leaders from any other region. In addition, a far higher percentage of Arab leaders are older than those from other areas of the world. The combination could presage regional instability as Arab leaders who have been on the world stage for decades hand off power to their successors.

The median term that Arab leaders -- the presidents, prime ministers and kings who lead the members of the Arab League -- have been in power is 20 years. The median for African leaders, by contrast, is only nine years, while Western European and Latin American leaders have been in office a brief four and three years, respectively.

The Arab leaders' longevity in office combines with the fact that they are significantly older than leaders from other regions. Forty percent of Arab leaders are 65 or older, compared to 25 percent in Latin America, 18 percent in Afrcia, and 13 percent in Western Europe. Sixty percent of them have reached the regionally prevailing retirement age of 60.

Simple actuarial tables suggest that the Arab world may be in for significant upheaval in the coming years. Leaders will die or become incapacitated, and some will certainly begin to lose the facilities that have accounted for their remarkable endurance.

These demographic realities are not evenly felt throughout the Middle East. Among Israel's neighbors, for instance, 67-year-old Hafez Assad of Syria is known to suffer from diabetes and heart trouble, and 62-year-old King Hussein of Jordan has been battling cancer. Yasser Arafat, the 69-year-old who has led the PLO for some 30 years, has seen his apparent health problems gain prominent news coverage in recent weeks. The vigorous 68-year-old Hosni Mubarak of Egypt -- still a relative newcomer on the scene after a mere 16 years in power -- appears to have the longest future ahead of him.

The recent democratizing trend in the Arab world appears too weak and too late in coming to manage the inevitable generational shift. In no country has a parliamentary leader yet emerged who seems able to effect a smooth transition of power. The moribund nature of parliamentary life that prevailed until recently in most Arab countries ensured that politics were not a career choice for ambitious and talented individuals.

It can be of little solace as well that in the two countries in the region where the leadership torch has recently been transferred to the next generation -- Qatar and Israel -- the change was precipitated in the first instance by a coup and in the second by an assasssination. In some instances, successors to the current Arab leadership are likely to emerge from the armed forces or internal security apparatus. Such a leader can be expected to be nationalistic, somewhat xenophobic and cautious.

TRANSITION SCENARIOS in the region are not entirely gloomy, however. In the past decade, the Arab world has also witnessed the birth of a new class of entrepreneurial businessmen. These individuals -- many in their early 40s --often have close connections to their governments (by virtue of their family and friends) while not being intimately part of those governments. Many are highly educated, have studied in the West, and are committed to free-market principles.

Most of the new businessmen eschew ideology of any stripe. They came of age in the period after the 1967 war -- "the catastrophe," as it is uniformly referred to in Arabic -- and they are distrustful of broad promises and pronouncements reminiscent of the heydey of Nasser's Arab nationalism. They are attuned to Western media, they are tired of propaganda, and they are technologically savvy. Their weakness is that to date they have lacked what President Bush called "the vision thing." Unaccustomed to national service and the creation of public agendas, they have largely been followers rather than leaders in their countries.

How the coming transitions will play out in the Arab world remains unclear. As followers of Israeli politics know, generational changes in leadership can be associated with differences in style and substance that can be destabilizing in the short term. It is still unclear how businessmen will assert themselves in Arab politics. Some will surely seek personal gain through corruption and sweetheart deals, whle others will seek to improve the business environment through deregulation and investment incentives. The outcome of their efforts is uncertain, although it is unlikely that there will be an identical outcome in every Arab state.

What remains uncertain, too, is who will lead these countries politically. Will a business leader step forward and take on political leadership, as has already happened with Rafik al-Hariri in Lebanon, or will the businessmen rally behind a military government, as is the case in Egypt? A third option, akin to what happens in many of the Persian Gulf states, would be for the leading business families to coalesce around a political leadership that largely agrees to forgo its own business activities in return for political and economic support.

The greatest danger to American interests would occur if businessmen became marginalized in post-transition governments. Mass movemnts oriented around economic disenfranchisement would almost certainly have a heavily anti-Western ideological component, mostly likely cloaked as a rejection of Western cultural values.

While attention today is focused closely on a hoped-for succession in Iraq, we would do well to remember that other successions in the region are just as likely -- perhaps even more so. How they happen and who comes out on top will shape the region for decades to come.


Jon B. Alterman is a Soref research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

©1998, Jon B. Alterman. This article appeared previously in the Washington Times.